The first Catholic schools were founded in the early seventeenth century in what are now the states of Florida and Louisiana, predating the schools of Puritan Massachusetts. Beset by conflicts with public officials and anti-immigrant nativist forces, to say nothing of internal disputes, Catholic education nevertheless prevailed. While the Catholic school population peaked in the 1960s, the schools have enjoyed a considerable revival at the turn of the twenty-first century, often serving non-Catholic students with lay teachers. This entry discusses that history and record of achievement.
Catholics constituted a minuscule portion of the country’s population when the nation’s first Catholic bishop, John Carroll, called for the instruction of Catholic youth in 1792 with the goal of insuring their religious commitment. Catholics had often been victims of religious persecution in the early years of nationhood, and the Church’s U.S. leaders looked to the often gender-specific schools—someday schools, and others for boarders—to preserve the faith of young Catholics.
Common schools, the forerunners of today’s public schools, were begun in the 1830s in Massachusetts under the leadership of Horace Mann and existed in most of the Northern states by the time of the Civil War. Established at the elementary level and supported by public taxation, the schools were nominally nonsectarian but broadly Protestant, their moral foundations resting on the King James version of the Bible and what Mann termed “common core Christianity.”
Insistence on the use of Protestant practices in these schools, however, created difficulties for Catholics who attended them. At the Fourth Provincial Council of Baltimore in 1840, the Catholic bishops first took note of these problems, which included devotional reading of the King James version of the Bible, anti-Catholic curricular materials, and Protestant personnel in charge of the schools. Tensions between Catholics and their fellow Americans grew as immigration swelled the Catholic ranks. Between 1821 and 1850, nearly 2.5 million Europeans entered the country, many of whom were Catholic. The punishment of Catholic children who refused to follow Protestant practices in the schools was one expression of this hostility.
The establishment of a separate system of Catholic parish (parochial) schools, founded to educate Catholic children in faith and morals as well as letters, was one result of this conflict. Not all Catholics concurred with this policy, as some felt that the Church’s efforts should focus on social problems. German American Catholic bishops were especially committed to providing Catholic schools to preserve the faith and customs of their people. They admonished parents of the dangers to their children inherent in the public school system, which could lead to religious indifference and a consequent abandonment of their faith.
After The Civil War
The growth of the secular “American” public school was seen as the major threat to the faith and morals of Catholic children after the Civil War. No longer was the main menace the pan-Protestant, allegedly nonsectarian public school.
In 1875, the Catholic population in the United States, fed by immigration, exceeded 5.7 million, served by 1,444 parishes. With mounting costs and a largely poor membership, Catholic bishops sought public funds for their schools, arguing that the state had the duty to assist parents to meet their God-given responsibility to educate their young. Many Americans resisted these efforts. President Ulysses S. Grant publicly insisted that free public schools should be the sole recipient of public funds. Shortly thereafter, Congressman James G. Blaine introduced an amendment that would have prohibited any state funds being used for religious purposes, including schools. His amendment passed in the House but failed in the Senate. Between 1877 and 1917, however, the “Blaine Amendment” was enacted by 29 states.
Meanwhile, dissent arose within the Catholic hierarchy over the need for Catholic schools. In 1875 the Vatican’s Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith, which was in charge of the U.S. church at the time, called on Catholic leaders to build Catholic schools and on the laity to support, maintain, and have their children educated in them. Local bishops were left to decide if it would be permissible for Catholic children to attend local public schools.
This position was underscored by leaders of the American church meeting at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884. The bishops passed two decrees that set official Catholic policy regarding education for decades: (1) each parish was to have a school within two years, unless the local bishop allowed otherwise; and (2) Catholic parents were to send their children to those schools unless exempted by the local bishop. The driving force behind these decrees was the belief that the future of the Church in the United States rested on the success of these schools. The impact of the decrees was limited; the percentage of parishes with schools increased from 40 percent to 44 percent in the decade after the Baltimore council. Thus, the goal of “every Catholic child in a Catholic school” was never close to being met in the nineteenth century.
A New Century’s “School Question”
“Americanism,” or citizenship education, based on the English language, became the watchword in public education as the nineteenth century neared its end. Moral education had become divorced from religious education; the former was the province of the public school, the latter the terrain of home and church in this framework. Public schooling had become more centralized, bureaucratized, and systematized. At the same time, immigration increased the American Catholic population from 6,143,222 to 17,735,553 between 1880 and 1920. American nativists saw this as a threat, and the public school was increasingly seen as the means of assimilating Catholic children.
On the Catholic side, Pope Leo XIII declared that the state should respect the rights of the Church in those areas that it considered its field, which included education. Catholics were instructed to follow the teachings of the Church, which led to the charge by some Americans that Catholicism and Catholic schools were “foreign” entities. Although they faced religious penalties, including being refused the sacraments, some Catholics, lay and clerical, opposed the Church’s official position on Catholic schooling. This was true even within the Catholic hierarchy. Liberals, like Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minnesota, attempted to work out viable compromises with government, whereas conservatives, such as Archbishops Michael Corrigan of New York and Frederick Katzer of Milwaukee, urged total commitment to Catholic schools and denounced the public schools in rather harsh terms. The struggle, which was featured in the public press, became heated.
Dedication to Catholic schools was to some degree rooted in the wish to preserve their ethnic heritage among certain groups of Catholics, for example, Germans and Poles. Some American government officials, public educators, and religious leaders saw the ethnic Catholic commitment to parochial schools as “un-American” and called for means, including legislation, to control or perhaps destroy them. Nonetheless, enrollment in Catholic schools, which like public schools of the period was mostly at the elementary level, continued to grow, from 405,334 in 1880 to 1,701,219 in 1920.
The World Wars
World War I released passions hostile to anything “foreign” in the country, especially anything German.
As a result, the American hierarchy and prominent Catholic educators worked to eliminate old world customs, including teaching in a foreign language, in Catholic parochial schools. Catholic schools were becoming assimilated.
Nonetheless, there were attempts to curtail or even eliminate them, the most threatening of them an Oregon law that would have required attendance at public schools by all children between the ages of eight and sixteen on the grounds that attendance was necessary for citizenship. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional, stating that “the child is not the mere creature of the state”; parents retained the right to send their children to private schools as long as those schools offered secular as well as religious education (Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 1925).
During this period, two men improved the quality of Catholic schools. Thomas Edward Shields of the Catholic University of America (CUA) endeavored to apply the ideas of progressive education to Catholic schools, writing several textbooks, but he was not able to obtain the support of conservative Catholic clerics and educators. One of Shields’s students, George Johnson, earned the title of “bridge-builder” (for building bridges among Catholic groups and between Catholic and governmental agencies) and spearheaded Catholic participation in professional educational activities at the national level.
Issues related to school accreditation and teacher certification confronted Catholic schools. Who was going to have the basic responsibility for preparing the teaching staffs of Catholic schools, made up overwhelmingly of religious women? After some discussion, the preparation of teachers was left to the respective religious orders.
With a world awash in a sea of totalitarianism from the left and right, Pope Pius XI issued his encyclical “The Christian Education of Youth” in 1929. Recognizing that three societies have rights in education—the family, the Church, and the state—the Pope reiterated Catholic teaching that parents, not governments, are the primary educators of children. Education, he averred, must be God centered and directed to humans’ last end. Attendance at a Catholic school was the ideal for all Catholic children.
In the 1920s, American secondary school education experienced a huge spurt in enrollment, and Catholic schools were not unaffected. Interparish high schools and parish high schools joined the private Catholic schools that usually were owned, operated, and staffed by a religious order; these were often segregated by gender. In 1936, 1,945 Catholic secondary schools had an enrollment of 284,736, and 7,929 elementary schools had 2,102,889 students.
After World War II
Between 1940 and 1959, non–public school enrollment increased by 118 percent compared with a 36 percent gain in the public sector. Catholic schools were crowded, and suburban parishes were hard-pressed to meet the demands of parishioners for Catholic schools. This growth led to renewed interest in governmental financial aid to Catholic schools, either indirectly through the parents or directly to the school itself. In 1947, the Supreme Court upheld, by the narrowest of margins (5–4), the constitutionality of providing transportation at public expense to children who attended a faith-based school (Everson v. Board of Education, 1947).
Parishes continued to face severe financial pressures, however, made worse by the small number of nun teachers whose limited financial compensation made the schools possible. Citizens for Educational Freedom, composed mainly of Catholic laity under the leadership of Virgil C. Blum, S.J., a political scientist, was founded to obtain public support for Catholic schools. Arguing that children (and their parents) should not be penalized for their choice of school, the group aggressively sought funds as a constitutional right for those who chose religiously affiliated schools under the Fourteenth Amendment.
The second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XXIII on October 6, 1962, shook the foundations of the Catholic Church worldwide and Catholic schools in the United States in particular. In Are Parochial Schools the Answer: Catholic Education in the Light of the Council, a lay Catholic, Mary Perkins Ryan, argued that the clerical-dominated parochial schools had worked well for an immigrant, poor Catholic minority in the nineteenth century, but they had served their purpose and were now anachronistic. Catholic education should focus on adults, not roughly half of Catholic children, and on the liturgy, she argued, and parents should assume their rightful role in the religious education of their children.
Reaction to Ryan’s book was swift, with some Catholic educators attacking her orthodoxy. In the 1965–1966 school year, Catholic K–12 enrollment reached an all-time high of 5.6 million pupils, about 87 percent of non–public school enrollment and 12 percent of all K–12 students in the nation. Then, enrollment plummeted; by 1971–1972, it had reached little more than 4 million, a drop of over 1.5 million students in six years. Accompanying this decline was the growing question about the effectiveness of Catholic schools. The source of these questions included several of the religious orders that had heavy investments of personnel and money in the schools, along with leading prelates, such as Cardinal Joseph Ritter of St. Louis.
As Catholics moved from central cities to the suburbs, a sizable number of Catholic schools in the inner cities were closed. This led some, including Monsignor James C. Donohue, an executive of the United States Catholic Conference, the official arm of the U.S. Catholic bishops, to wonder if the closings meant the Church was abandoning the poor. Meanwhile, Monsignor O’Neill C. D’Amour, an official of the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), was calling for Catholic school boards at the diocesan and local levels, with real, not simply advisory power. The Church needed to emphasize the professional over the pastoral and religious aspects of Catholic schools, he believed.
Attempts to obtain government financial aid to bolster the monetarily strapped schools received a setback in 1971, when the Supreme Court ruled that the purchase of secular services, which had been approved by the states of Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, amounted to “excessive entanglement” and thus were unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971).
At this critical juncture, the nation’s Catholic bishops issued a declaration emphasizing the religious mission of the Catholic schools to teach doctrine, build community, and serve all humankind. The Catholic school was a “faith community,” the bishops said. This goal was made more difficult because the percentage of nun teachers, steeped in religious traditions, dropped constantly during the 1970s, decreasing from 56.7 percent in 1968–1969 to 24.6 percent in 1981–1982. New means had to be found to develop spirituality in the largely lay staff, if the schools were to be “faith communities.”
The presence of lay teachers gave rise to a new phenomenon for Catholic schools—collective bargaining. Catholic social teaching had long upheld the right of workers to join unions and to strike as the final means for their rights. The 1970s saw the institutional Church pitted against some of its own members in strikes like the one that took place in Chicago’s Catholic schools.
In 1976, a group of authors concluded in Catholic Schools in a Declining Church that Catholic schools still enjoyed the support of the Catholic laity, but in the controversial afterword, Father Andrew Greeley recommended that the hierarchy get out of the school business and turn the running of the schools over to the laity. The bishops did not heed Greeley’s unsolicited advice.
A Comeback In The 1980s
In 1981–1982, Catholic school enrollment had declined to 3,094,000, down approximately 1 million from ten years earlier. Catholic educators were issued a threefold challenge by Alfred McBride, a former NCEA official: to keep Catholic schools Catholic in all aspects, to maintain academic excellence, and to achieve financial stability. The American bishops praised the schools for what they had done for the Church and called on them to provide a high quality education in a setting infused with Gospel values. The support of Catholic schools by bishops and priests, however, was not overwhelming.
The Catholic presence remained in the inner cities. The Milwaukee-based Catholic League for Civil Rights in 1982 reported sixty-four schools in eight central cities with a student population that included 54 percent Title I recipients, a third of them nonCatholic and nearly 79 percent minority. Catholic schools provided these pupils a safe environment, emphasized basic learning skills, and fostered moral values, the report said. The cause of Catholic schools was furthered in the 1980s by the work of James Coleman and associates, who attested to the academic achievement of Catholic schools and underscored their community support, what Coleman called the “social capital” that gave them a distinct advantage over public schools. Another endorsement from an “outside” source came in 1993, with the publication of Anthony Bryk, Valerie Lee, and Peter Holland’s Catholic Schools and the Common Good. Decentralization, a shared set of moral beliefs, a shared code of conduct, small size, and emphasis on academics were the traits said to distinguish Catholic secondary schools.
In 1989–1990 there were 8,719 Catholic schools operating in the country, 7,395 at the elementary level and 1,324 secondary; 23 percent of the total enrollment were minority youth, and 64 percent of African American students were not Catholic. The growing non-Catholic presence among students and staff led to questions about the Catholic identity of these schools that had never arisen previously. During the 1990s, new Catholic schools opened at the rate of 21 per year; since 1985, 230 Catholic schools had opened of which 204 were elementary and 26 were secondary. Catholic schools’ enrollment had also increased by a rate of 3.8 percent, but their market share had dropped from 6.3 percent to 5.6 percent during that decade.
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- Simon, K. A., & Grant, W. V. (Eds.). (1987). Digest of educational statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health, Education, & Welfare.
- Walch, T. (1996). Parish school: American Catholic parochial schools from colonial times to the present. New York: Crossroad Herder.
- Walch, T. (2004). The Education of Catholic Americans. In T. C. Hunt, E. A. Joseph, & R. J. Nuzzi (Eds.), Catholic schools in the United States: An encyclopedia (pp. 245–246). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
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