Earlier this week, just before our Catholic schools would open their doors for the new school year, about 2,000 principals, teachers and staff members gathered at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the Opening of Catholic Schools Mass celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl.
The annual Mass is an inspiring event. It offers Catholic school employees the chance to pray together and receive Cardinal Wuerl’s blessing, and it affords them also the personal opportunity to commit to the mission and special ministry of teaching our young people.
This year, about 27,000 young people will attend a Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Washington. And to help make a Catholic education more accessible to more families, over $6 million annually is provided through the Archdiocesan Tuition Assistance Program, with more help offered from other sources.
In his homily, the Cardinal noted that, in addition to providing an excellent academic education, Catholic school educators, like Mary, help bring the light of Christ to the world through the lessons they impart to their students. By their words and actions they help the next generation walk in Christ’s light. Then, with their hearts transformed by an encounter with Jesus, our students can change the world by sharing his love and truth with others.
But despite the bright future Catholic education promises, there are some dark clouds we cannot ignore which threaten our schools’ Catholic identity. Federal, state and local laws continue to erode the fundamental freedom of Catholic institutions to be authentically and fully Catholic.
Cardinal Wuerl in his 2015 pastoral letter, “Being Catholic Today: Catholic Identity in an Age of Challenge,” warned about this trend, writing, “One new effort to abridge religious freedom is the legislation that would require Catholic schools to retain teachers who by their words or actions publicly contradict the teachings of the Church.”
Proposals under the guise of “civil rights” and “anti-discrimination” threaten to take away the rights of Catholic schools and institutions to fully bear witness to Church teaching. Some measures, for example, would override Catholic schools’ personnel policies regarding who teaches our children, and even what can be taught in classrooms. Those who believe differently than the Church about things like the nature of marriage, sexuality, and the nature of the human person as made male or female, say that Catholic institutions should be forced to comply with their ideologies of marriage and the seemingly ever-evolving secular views on sexuality and gender.
In his pastoral letter, the Cardinal wrote, “As Catholics, who we are cannot be separated from how we live… We must remain true to who we are.” Our educational, charitable and health care ministries are as much a part of the Church as our parishes. Our faith cannot be confined to our worship within church walls – it must be carried out and shared in our efforts to teach students, to heal the sick and to bring help and hope to the poor.
Such threats to Catholic identity cannot be taken lightly, which is why the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a special Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, and why Cardinal Wuerl has written pastoral letters on “The Church our Spiritual Home,” and “Being Catholic Today: Catholic Identity in an Age of Challenge.”
In his blog “Seek First the Kingdom,” the Cardinal underscored the importance of Catholic identity in our schools. He wrote that these places of learning “are committed to seeing that the revealed truth given to us by Jesus Christ is lived out on a daily basis in classroom lessons, daily prayer, service programs, school expectations, extra-curricular activities and, just as importantly, by the personal witness of teachers, administrators and support staff.”
Catholic identity, like academic excellence, affordability and accessibility, are the foundational pillars of our Catholic schools, which are needed now more than ever. Our Church and our society benefit from the Catholic education that our students receive as they learn to love and serve others as Jesus did, and gain values that will sustain them in times of success and, more importantly, when times get tough.
One reason for great concern for the future of our schools and our other Catholic institutions and in fact our very freedom to carry out some of our teaching is found in two very disquieting realities. First, there is a strong current among one segment of our society to simply limit the freedom of the Catholic Church to operate her institutions free from outside interference. The interference now takes the form of denunciation for discrimination and failure to accept the newly imposed politically correct moral system. The second equally alarming reality is the silence of Catholics as this happens. Terrible things happen for two reasons, there are those who do them and there are those who remain silent in the face of them. Today, it appears that there are many Catholics who simply prefer to look the other way.
Come what may, we must remain steadfast in upholding the Catholic identity of our schools, with the understanding that our teachers must remain true to Christ the teacher, and by their words and actions uphold Church teaching. As the Cardinal emphasized in his pastoral letter, “We are all at the service of the mission of Christ, and no one can claim a right simultaneously to work for the Church and to work against her belief.”
We live in an increasingly secular society with a coarsening culture and many uncertainties. In such a world, our Catholic school students must not be given a mixed message. They deserve the fullness of truth – without which they cannot be authentically free – to help them be the best person they can be on earth, and to strive for the ultimate goal of reaching heaven someday. By instilling in them a strong faith, they will know God’s love is a constant throughout life’s challenges, and along with a solid education, that is the greatest gift we can give the next generation.