Baking the Cake of Catholic Education

So much folds up within the contemporary meaning of Catholic schools, education, and social mission that it is hard to pull back and remember the bigger picture. Working now with Prince of Peace and John Carroll Catholic High School and having worked with Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School for nearly six years, I spend a lot of effort thinking about the meaning of Catholic education from theological, philosophic, and pragmatic perspectives.

For many, the hallmarks of Catholic education are found in the external values of the school community. We say our prayers, we celebrate the sacraments, and we have crucifixes on the wall. We value spirituality, we have campus ministry programs, and we understand theology as important a subject as English and math. We talk about professional development as formation for our faculty and staff. Many will remember the presence of teams of religious sisters in the classrooms or when priests were formed to be long-term teachers of our youth.

Others will think of the internal values of the school community. We might think of the school’s essential mission orientation and the administration of the school according to Catholic social teaching. We celebrate the charism, the particular spirituality, that got us to this time and place. We think of students and their families attracted to the mission of the school and feeling called to participate in it.

Perhaps the more experienced will think of the financial and operational challenges of running a Catholic school these days. The most experienced will return to the challenges of forming a whole person: mind, body, and spirit in the context of the Truth of Jesus Christ.

As one who has labored in a number of different Catholic educational institutions, I frequently have many questions about what we are doing and why we are doing it. Sometimes, I think of our vocation and wonder what God had in mind for me and the school communities I serve. Other times, I think about the essential value proposition that we are presenting to the broader community. There are now lots of different ways to do school, to do education. What is so special about Catholic education? What is so special about Catholic identity in education?

A few weeks ago, I was talking with Father Bob Sullivan, the president of John Carroll Catholic, about these particular questions and ways to formulate answers that had integrity for myself and promise for the schools I serve.

Father Bob said, “People want to make Catholic identity be the icing on the cake. We need them to understand that Catholic identity is the flour in the batter.”

I have never found a more succinct analogy to describe the importance of Catholic identity to the essential project of Catholic education. Catholic identity is not the “icing on the cake.” Rather, it is the core element upon which all else is added. We may consider any number of the external or internal attributes to be “icing on the cake,” but the core Catholic allegiances to the dignity of the person, the inherent reasonableness of faith and knowledge, and the commitment to the common good urge us onward as all are expressions of the love of Christ. These are the essential elements of our project, our essential value proposition, and the flour in the recipe.

Father Bob’s quote now takes its place alongside another quote that I found while doing my first graduate degree in education at Harvard, now more than two decades ago. The Cistercian monk and author Thomas Merton once said that the danger of education is that it “so easily confuses means with ends.” To put it another way using terms made famous by the current business author Simon Sinek, education too often focuses on the what and the how while forgetting that the best and most important question is why.

Even in my career that has spanned small rural public schools, urban schools, and now both parish and regional diocesan schools, there has been a pernicious temptation to focus on grades and test scores, enrollment and graduation rates, revenue and expenses, forgetting that all these are means to an end — all these are ways we answer what and how without touching on the why. Sometimes we think that the Catholic identity is wrapped up in our theological emphases or the number of crucifixes on the wall, and we forget, at least for a moment, the core reason we do what we do. We forget that there is tremendous value in the practical work of Catholic education and there is value that even transcends the practical — that uses the ordinary to draw forth the extraordinary.

In our schools, we remember in a special way what it means to be human and what it means to be educated. One of the many gifts of Catholic education is that we remember, mostly, what we are about, who we are, and who we serve. We remember why we do what we do and we remember what (and Who) is important.

Father Jon Chalmers is associate pastor of Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Hoover and assistant to the president of John Carroll Catholic High School in Birmingham. He was president of Holy Family Cristo Rey from 2015 to 2021. He holds a Master of Education from Harvard and a Master of Divinity from Yale.