The future of the Catholic Church in America looks rather bleak, and its decline in influence and status seems to be inevitable. Dr. Stephen Bullivant’s latest course for the Word on Fire Institute, Understanding the “Nones” and How to Reach Them, confirms this all too convincingly. Religious affiliation trends were bad before COVID, but they’re expected to only get worse. In concurrence with Ross Douthat, I do not see how the Church can reverse this trend among Catholics unless the Holy Spirit somehow conjure up a religious revival among the masses and the meritocratic elites. 

What is most alarming to me, though, is that few Catholic leaders seem to be taking this to heart and preparing for the future. In order to be better prepared to face what is before us, all Catholics need to heed the call of the New Evangelization and actively form intentional disciples. 

But first, some basic questions: Right now, where are the frontlines of the New Evangelization? In which Catholic institution can intentional disciples best be formed? Echoing Dr. Daniel Burns, I would argue that, in both cases, the answer is “K-12 Catholic schools.” Catholic schools are the institutions most concretely shaping people (in this case, students and their parents) into would-be Catholics and continuing the formation of the faithful. Accordingly, Catholics should direct their attention, efforts, and money toward founding or (where needed) reforming Catholic schools. This will serve the Church well in the coming years. But Catholic schools are suffering, especially the urban Catholic schools in economically poor areas. Recently, The Wall Street Journal published an article about Catholic schools closing around the nation and why they are closing at an even faster rate than expected. 

Some may justly question whether ordinary K-12 Catholic schools still represent the Church well or form intentional disciples. The answer is, some do this well—but those are usually the smaller and newer schools. Older institutional Catholic schools, particularly if they have not renewed their curriculums, tend to form lukewarm Catholics who are putting more energy into getting into “good” schools and pursuing successful careers than in developing a committed relationship to Christ. Many of the Catholic “nones” that Bishop Barron has spent a lot of time talking with went to such schools. I went to such schools, and I know that many of my former classmates are now religiously unaffiliated. 

Most bishops recognize this ever-encroaching crisis but do not know what to do about it. The reasons for this are legion. Theologically, the “Catholic” identity in such schools, particularly if they have a large percentage of non-Catholics in their student body, tends to be very weak, almost secular. Philosophically, despite the mission statements, the purpose of Catholic education is never clearly defined, so the utilitarian understanding of education (high SAT/ACT scores, good colleges, successful careers) becomes operative. Let’s focus on these two dimensions. 

It is often the case that school leadership and the faculty are not themselves as well-formed in the Faith as they should be; therefore, they have no notion of education beyond the utilitarian understanding. There is no single reason for this, but it has to be acknowledged by leadership that better—and ongoing—faith formation among the faculty is necessary if such an institution will continue to exist and be authentically Catholic. Also, faculty need to be deeply committed to the Church. It is difficult to communicate what one does not know and love as anything more than an abstract. The culture is such that without a strong commitment to and understanding of the Catholic identity of the school, the institution will probably not survive. 

Those Catholic leaders who already see this are unsure of how and when to implement change. Perhaps they have a school that already has many faculty members who are indifferent or even hostile to the Church; letting them go might cause a great deal of tension within the school community. Or perhaps, the principal would like to hire young, newly graduated Catholics who are keen on the Faith, but finds they are lacking teaching experience and/or teaching certification. The deepening of the Catholic identity of a school cannot happen without enthusiastic, faithful religion teachers. But to reinvigorate a bored or dispassionate school atmosphere, the whole faculty needs to be on board. Leaders that I have talked to realize that the barque of Peter is heading toward an impending doom. Catholic education and formation could provide the necessary ballast, but they do not know how to turn the ship around without capsizing—or running into the deeply rooted iceberg of social animosity. 

The more I think and pray about these concerns, the more firmly I believe that the first step any leader should take in correcting our trajectory is to clearly articulate the nature and purpose of a Catholic school. They must see the what and the why of such an institution as the first step to its renewal. 

A couple of weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation about Catholic education while at a French café in Dallas. My companion that day was someone who is highly involved in Catholic education and has a prominent diocesan position. During our visit, he told me that student enrollment has gone up in their local Catholic schools, largely due to COVID, as some parents seek out alternatives to still-Zooming public and charter schools. Interestingly, most of the families are not Catholic or even Christian. The reasons why they are turning to Catholic schools—beyond the opportunity for in-class learning—is yet to be fully grasped, but in light of these demographics, the schools would be mistaken to downplay their Catholic identity, which is their greatest asset. It’s what distinguishes them from the good public schools and classical charter schools that cannot bring Catholicism into relief or model what a life of faith looks like. 

Catholic schools have an evangelization opportunity. My friend noted the high likelihood that the only place these students and their parents are hearing the Gospel is through the Catholic school. If we are concerned about the future—not just of the Church, but of the world—then this is well worth considering. He listed what he took to be the major challenges facing Catholic schools: 

Formation, formation, formation

First, school administrators and teachers are often not well formed in the Faith, so the full potential of this evangelistic opportunity is immediately hobbled and not being realized. Simply put, the formators need ongoing formation in the Faith. Prudence may require a gradual approach to advancing the idea into a requirement, but at some point, faculty will need to make up their minds as to whether or not they will get on board. A Catholic school is not simply a secular school with a religion class tacked on. No, the Faith informs the school from within and cannot be an afterthought. There is no neutral education ground upon which to build. Leadership needs to articulate this and, ultimately, hire teachers who are on board with the Catholic mission. 

“Nothing is so thrilling as orthodoxy” 

Second, school leadership needs to have a clear, orthodox Catholic vision for the school (“Nothing is so thrilling as orthodoxy,” wrote Chesterton). The diverse demographics of the school community should not be used as an excuse for watering down the Catholic identity of the school. Dumbed-down Catholicism, as Bishop Barron often says, has no future, and it should not be the operative aim of any Catholic school. Equating the Catholic identity of the school with a secularized version of Catholic social teaching will not work either, since most of the presuppositions about the human being and society held by Catholics are already presupposed by the secular culture. Almost everyone (except, perhaps behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner), will tell you that each human being has absolute dignity. Most non-Christians believe that. If a school is going to present the Faith through the lens of the Church’s social teachings, it would be best to have teachers help the students see how much of a novelty such an anthropological claim is and why it has its roots in Christianity. The bold, affirmative orthodoxy that Bishop Barron advocates needs to inform the educational vision of our Catholic schools. 

Many Baby Boomer Catholics have been the primary donors to Catholic schools. Some may have been content with a bland Catholic identity in the schools they support because, even though the schools may not truly practice the Faith, they still feel a loyalty to the school. But they should not expect their children to do the same. In an insightful lecture at the University of Dallas, Douthat brought this up while discussing the future of Catholic institutions. The future Catholics of America will be ardent and not content with bland Catholicism. If they give money to Church-run schools, they will likely opt for those schools with a vibrant, unabashed Catholic identity. The era of Catholic institutions relying on Boomer money is quickly coming to a close, especially in the more historically Catholic areas of the nation, such as my very own hometown, Chicago (schools and parishes are closing up and consolidating each year). 

While the future for Catholic education looks bleak, there are still many signs for hope. My hunch is those schools lukewarm in the Faith will not weather the storm, no matter how clever their survival strategy. Established Catholic schools with large endowments, especially the elite high schools, may survive, but it’s not guaranteed. 

Catholic schools in middle or upper-middle class suburbs are, in many ways, unable to compete with public schools offering advanced STEM programs. These public schools are winning state competitions in math and science with students going on to the Ivy Leagues. Most Catholic schools with more limited budgets cannot compete with that sort of curriculum. Also, as public schools pay better, the best STEM teachers are likely to teach there. 

So, if Catholic schools cannot compete with public schools and charter schools in this domain, where do they have an advantage? I believe the answer lies in a clear Catholic identity, which is a smart tradition. 

Catholic schools should focus on having the best humanistic education available. They already have a good track record in this area, and it’s always smart to stick to what we’re good at and not try to compete with educational programs that will always have a monetary advantage. Education should not conform to the latest economic or cultural fads. It is less a drawing-in as a leading-out to encounter reality in its perennial expression, training students to take delight in the transcendentals shining forth in creation. Such an educational approach opens the soul to receive the higher light of faith, encouraging students to embrace a form of life in conformity with the Gospel, as communicated in the Church. 

If leadership could articulate such a vision to the school community, I believe many parents would be eager to send their children to such a school, perhaps even ending up wanting to learn more about Catholicism themselves. 

This is the beauty that can be communicated in Catholic schools. This is the beauty that drives Catholic educators to continue teaching despite the challenges. This is the beauty that attracts people to the Gospel. And this is why Catholic schools must be at the frontlines of the New Evangelization. Making our schools ready to be all they can be is the task we must set to ourselves, and it begins with vision and well-trained teachers. 

Bishop Barron has sounded the alarm about the failures of beige Catholicism, calling us to take up the mission of the New Evangelization with the Church’s “affirmative orthodoxy.” As my friend observed during our coffee break, the best place to make that happen and realize the New Evangelization is in the Catholic school. He may be right. My hope is that Word on Fire can contribute to the transformation of Catholic schools, forming an army of evangelists/leaders/teachers to bring the faith more fully into the classroom. 

I think it is appropriate to end with a quote from Dr. Daniel Burns’ article linked above. He finishes by answering his initial question about what we Catholics are to do for the next four years. His recommendation should be taken to heart and prayer: 

We should be strengthening our existing schools and building new ones. We should staff them with leaders who will permit no weakening of their formative mission. We should fight to defend them against whatever forces may threaten them. We should pour ourselves into them because we know how difficult it will be to live well in today’s world without them. And we should do all this without tweeting about it.