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Cover story

New independent schools strike a ‘less is more’ stance -- except on Catholic doctrine

NCR Staff
Steubenville, Ohio

They don’t look much like the vanguard of a revolution. The more than 100 Catholics who gathered here July 22-24 -- solidly middle class, mostly parents with lots of kids in tow -- would appear more at home driving a minivan than mounting a barricade.

Yet the people who came together at the “Independent Schools in Service to the Church” conference, held on the campus of Franciscan University of Steubenville, are convinced they’re leading an upheaval in American Catholic education.

All across the country, they’ve defected from schools -- both public and Catholic -- they perceive to be academically weak, too big and unresponsive, and, in the case of church schools, too often doctrinally corrupt. They’ve taken matters into their own hands and opened their own schools.

Though still a tiny percentage of the overall Catholic school population -- official church schools enroll almost 2.65 million students, compared with perhaps 5,000 to 10,000 in these new independent schools -- the movement is growing rapidly. The number of such schools registered with their national association has risen from under 30 to more than 100 in the past three years alone.

“We may start out with negative vibes, because it’s [seen as] you wacko right-wing types who are holier than the pope doing this,” said Michael J. Van Hecke, principal of Ville de Marie Academy in Scottsdale, Ariz. “But this is part of the restoration of the Catholic educational system. It was beautiful for 500 years, save for this century when it started to fall away,” Van Hecke told the Steubenville conference.

Eileen Cubanski, founder of St. Maria Goretti Academy in Sacramento, Calif., and president of the National Association of Private Catholic Independent Schools, made an even more sweeping claim. “We are the future of education and of the church,” she said.

Without much fanfare, more than 100 of these “private Catholic independent” schools have opened across the country, most within the last decade. Founded by lay people, they receive no funding or official recognition from the diocese in which they’re located. Most are not even “Catholic” in the sense of being approved by the church hierarchy under the terms of canon law, although they typically blend so-called “classical” course offerings (lots of Latin, math and grammar) with what they regard as a deeply orthodox -- some would say almost fundamentalist -- kind of Catholic religious formation.

“We hear a lot about all this reform in public schools or private schools as well, but usually it’s what’s the latest fad, what’s the latest gimmick we can use,” Cubanski said. “But we get down to the basics on which every school should be founded ... recognizing parents as the primary educators and the school then cooperating in that spirit. We really are the next big wave.”

Despite such bold projections, driving through most communities in America you’d never know these schools exist. They’re more likely to meet in (usually Protestant) church basements, vacant storefronts or in somebody’s living room than to be housed in a traditional school structure. The operating budget sometimes equals the limit on somebody’s Visa card. As one speaker at the conference said, there’s often “more money in the Pepsi machine than in the school’s bank account.”

The official tally of 106 represents only those schools that have registered with the national association -- a step many are unwilling to take for fear of attracting the wrong kind of attention, either from the civil authorities or from the bishop.

At the level of the individual school, the rate of expansion is phenomenal -- one of the chief issues discussed at Steubenville is how to accommodate enrollment that doubles or triples every year. All signs point to continued rapid growth.

The trend seems to be driven by two broad forces: the evolution in American education toward choice and the restorationist impulse in Catholicism. In the eyes of many conservatives, Vatican II has been distorted as a repudiation of the entire preconciliar church, and it is now time to “restore” key elements of that church, thus realizing the authentic promise of the council.

“We are responding to the call of Vatican II for greater involvement of the laity in the life of the church,” said Vincent Terreri, headmaster of Annunciation Academy in Vienna, Va. “But you have to be careful in saying that, because it’s been abused. What most people want out of that is women priests, an excessive number of eucharistic ministers and liturgical dance,” Terreri told the conference.

While many independent schools avoid using the term Catholic in their names or promotional materials, their deeply-felt Catholic ethos is clear. At Noonan Elementary Academy in Mokena, Ill., for example, students recite morning prayer, a decade of the rosary and the noon Angelus each day, in addition to participating in religion class. Those classes use the Baltimore Catechism (the standard pre-Vatican II catholic catechism) as a central text, though the school’s brochure underscores its loyalty to the church’s doctrine “as taught in the new catechism.”

Such curricula are crafted to produce students with a ferocious loyalty to the church. At the Seton School in Manassas, Va., for example, two students in 1996 launched the “We Are Catholics” petition in a reaction to the “We are Church” petition supporting church reform. Their purpose, the students said, was to “show our support for the pope.” They found a fan in Fr. Paul Marx, an antiabortion activist and head of Human Life International. Marx put the petition on his Web site, and later paid for six students from Seton to travel to Rome to present the petition to the Holy Father.

Most independent Catholic schools exercise tremendous vigilance over doctrine. “I have a great fear that one day I may be standing before God, and he will say that a student from St. Joseph’s High School thinks the homosexual lifestyle is OK because he was taught that in our religion class,” said Margaret Moon, founder of the Greenville, S.C., independent high school. “So we take that very seriously -- it’s on our souls what’s taught in religion classes.”

Beyond the notion that a Catholic school should “teach the faith in its fullness,” however, there isn’t much that unites the new wave of independent schools. Some accept only Catholics -- and in some cases, only Catholics from valid church marriages -- while others are more inclusive, seeing part of the school’s role as evangelizing lapsed Catholics and non-Catholics. Some are democratically governed, while others bear the imprint of a strong-willed founder.

In other instances, differences revolve around curriculum. “Some say, ‘We want the Great Books program,’ while others say, ‘Oh no, we don’t want that. We want the old Jesuit style,’ “ said Dominic Aquila, chair of the History, Political Science and Catholic Culture department at Franciscan University, and perhaps the leading authority on the independent schools movement. “Yet all will insist on their loyalty to the magisterial church.”

The impulse to create an independent school has a strong affinity with Catholic home schooling. Many Catholic independent schools start as ad hoc cooperative arrangements among home-schooling families -- so-called “cottage” or “umbrella” schools. The preponderance of secondary schools among the Catholic independent movement reflects the link with home schooling as well, since many parents feel competent to handle instruction for the primary grades but want help as their children get older. Some independent schools, such as the Seton School, have special arrangements for home schoolers -- they can take a math or science class at the school, for example, and the rest of their courses at home.

What motivates these Catholic parents to create their own schools? One factor is clearly size. For many families, both the public and Catholic schools -- “established schools,” as they were dubbed at Steubenville -- are too bureaucratic, too complex and impersonal.

“Many people don’t like the bigness,” James Stenson, keynote speaker at the conference and cofounder of the Opus Dei schools in Washington and Chicago, told NCR (see accompanying story). “They see so many forces influencing their kids and they count on the school as being compatible with what they’re trying to do, at least not subverting what they’re trying to do. They find it very difficult to get the kind of personal cooperation they need.”

Another factor is a perception that established schools -- again, both public and Catholic -- are academically and intellectually compromised. Parents attracted to independent schools “want their kids to learn history and good quality literature that teaches us about the nobility of the human spirit. They want their kids to learn to approach problems and solve them with a reasonable amount of confidence and reasonable wits, especially in mathematics and science, and they want their kids to work,” Stenson said.

The movement is also in part a rejection, a voting with one’s feet, against established Catholic schools. “Parents who think about it, and who have themselves come to see that there’s a kind of authentic, clear teaching element in the church called the magisterium, when they do simple comparisons to what goes on in the [established Catholic] school -- even if it comes close, if it’s not on the mark, that’s a good impetus to go to an independent school,” said Aquila.

“Some would say there’s not enough of a criticism of MTV, of music, television, what goes on in the movies -- there’s not a subtle enough criticism there. All of that is brought in without any sort of filter,” Aquila said. “The clothes the kids wear to school, this sort of thing.”

But the real “flash point,” Aquila said, is sex education. “Catholic schools have almost uncritically embraced everything that goes on, and even more so, of what’s in public schools. There’s still the belief among many parents that this is something for the home,” he said.

Cases in point include AIDS awareness programs, which seem to some parents biased in favor of “safe sex” as opposed to abstinence, and curricula that introduce children to the “facts of life” before the parents feel they’re ready.

Cubanski agreed that sex education is a strong motivator for parents to opt out of established schools. “I would say that for most of the parents I have talked to that have started schools ... the introduction of sex education in diocesan schools in particular was the last straw,” she said. “At first they had no intention of leaving. They tried their very, very best to work within the system. When either nobody listened or they were ostracized -- and many, many were -- they had no alternative,” she said.

That’s a criticism that doesn’t sit well with many Catholic school officials. “In this day and age, children need to be presented with correct information about sex. We have to teach it,” said Dr. Robert Kealey, executive director of the elementary schools department at the National Catholic Educational Association. Kealey was contacted by NCR for comment on this story.

“But at the same time we have to teach them the morality of sex. The basis for all of our teaching is the sacredness of marriage and that sexual relations can only take place in the marriage situation.

“When people say the doctrine being taught [in Catholic schools] is not Catholic, well obviously what is being taught is what the bishop believes should be taught, so there’s a contradiction here,” Kealey said. “What is being taught is what has been approved by the superintendent of schools as the representative of the bishop.”

Jerome Porath, superintendent of schools for the sprawling Los Angeles archdiocese, put that point even more strongly. “It’s contrary to the magisterium of the church to be loyal to the Holy Father but disloyal to the local bishop,” Porath told NCR in a telephone interview. “So people making these charges against the bishop are themselves departing from the magisterium.”

People at the Steubenville conference were cautioned to soft-pedal criticism of established Catholic schools in presenting themselves to the bishop. “We don’t say all the teachers in the Catholic school are heretics,” said Terreri, a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif. The college is a destination of choice for many independent school graduates, as well as a source of sought-after teachers for independent schools.

“Don’t make it known that the religion texts are useless or that the pastor is going to hell for allowing DARE (a drug and alcohol education program) into the parochial school. That may be the truth, but it is not always prudent to say the truth,” Terreri said. “That won’t help you, so don’t say it.”

Relations with the bishop, and with the local Catholic school system, were much discussed in Steubenville. “Some actively seek and hope to have diocesan approval, either as a way to sell it to parents or just to be good Catholics. ... Nobody wants to be in opposition to the bishop,” Aquila said. “Others say as soon as you do that, you’ve compromised yourself. It’s like making a deal with the state, in a way, and you do lose some flexibility.”

“I think that’s a minority,” Aquila said. “Most people want that relationship.”

Nevertheless, a general distrust of church bureaucrats seemed pervasive. Asked if the independent schools would like to negotiate guidelines for relationships with dioceses, as home schoolers in Pittsburgh and Chicago have done (NCR, Aug. 29, 1997), Cubanski said flatly, “No. That takes the control away from the family and the schools. The fear, the danger that I hear expressed about attempting to do that is the same fear that we heard when they were setting the guidelines for the introduction of sex education in the schools. First it’s these guidelines and then it’s mandated.

“It’s like what we hear Clinton talking about, establishing national testing and setting standards,” Cubanski said. “No -- don’t centralize the power like that. Keep it where it belongs, in the family and these small schools.”

Msgr. Thomas McDade, secretary for education for the United States Catholic Conference, told NCR in a telephone interview that any school styling itself “Catholic” must be on good terms with the local bishop. “Part of being Catholic is that link to the institutional church,” McDade said. “To miss that is to miss the richness of being Catholic.

“We don’t have any copyright on the use of the word Catholic,” McDade said, “but from the church’s point of view, only the bishop can grant that recognition.”

Marge Crotty of Kolbe Academy near Napa, Calif., argued that ties to the diocese are necessary for practical reasons if nothing else. “We need relations with the diocese because we need the sacraments,” she said.

In the end, what should the church at large make of the independent schools movement? Some would suggest that it’s yet another indicator of the polarization that besets Catholicism today. Even as many feel the church’s center is being pulled to the right, it’s not far or fast enough for these parents, who look at church schools and see only doctrinal compromise and moral flabbiness.

But for independent school advocates, the moral of the story is not primarily a negative one. They point to the incredible personal sacrifices underlying most of these new schools -- the willingness of parents and teachers to put their time, money and reputation on the line to do what they believe is right for their children. How can such devotion, they ask, be anything but a gift to the church?

Aquila sees independent schools as a logical outgrowth of Vatican II. “This is a lay initiative and can have great implications for teaching Catholics the real, central meaning of Vatican II, that is, to sanctify the world. Not to find their place on the altar, but to bring Christ to the workplace and into the lay social structures,” he said.

Porath agrees, to an extent. “I think this is great, this is absolutely encouraging,” he said. “There is nothing that will build a stronger church and a stronger society than parents who work together to fashion a values-based education for their children.”

“I wish they would do it with us,” he says of the independent schools movement. “I wish there wasn’t this tone of dissension, but I think the phenomenon is extremely encouraging.”

Below are links to other Web sites. We link to these them here because they may illustrate parts of this article; the NCR does not necessarily endorse them and we are not affiliated with them.

  • We Are Catholics (The website that we had linked to is no longer operational.)
  • We Are Catholics' petition (The website that we had linked to is no longer operational.)
  • We are Church website: www.we-are-church.org/
  • Human Life International website: www.hli.org/

National Catholic Reporter, September 11, 1998