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XIII. Catholic Schools in America

Archbishop John Carroll
Archbishop John Carroll (1735-1815)

The history of Catholic schools in America is only understood when we consider the schools in light of the history and experiences of the Church in America. What is most important to focus on is how recent these events are–pay attention to the dates.

Early Settlements

The earliest events in America’s history are surprisingly Catholic. Columbus and other settlers were Catholics and there was a Catholic presence in America from the beginning. Florida was settled by the Spanish Catholics in the early 1600s. Maryland was settled in the 1630s by the English Catholics and named after Queen Mary. In the early 1700s, the French Catholics established sites throughout Louisiana (New Orleans), the northern U.S. (Detroit) and Canada (Quebec). Catholicism was present in early America. However, the majority of immigrants were English Protestants, who filled the eastern colonies.

John Carroll (1735-1815)

John Carroll was born in Maryland in 1735. He received an excellent classical liberal arts education with several soon-to-be famous relatives and joined the Society of Jesus in 1753–at age 18. Carroll studied classical Philosophy and Theology at the College of St. Omer in Liege and was ordained to the priesthood in 1769. He returned to Maryland (USA) around 1773. Father Carroll established Maryland’s first Catholic Church shortly thereafter, and after a decade of pastoral work, organized–with a handful of other priests–the Catholic Church in America.

We must remember that in Carroll’s day America was not Catholic–it was a mission field. Carroll himself was appointed by the Vatican as superior of that mission and was given some of the powers of a bishop. However, in 1788, he was officially ordained the first bishop of the Catholic Church in America and though officially named Bishop of the Diocese of Baltimore–America was his diocese.

To establish a Catholic foundation for learning in America, Carroll worked to establish the young nation’s first Catholic University. In 1791, Georgetown University was founded as a Jesuit school. In 1808 Bishop Carroll was named America’s first Archbishop, but died shortly thereafter in 1815. We must therefore remember the life of Archbishop Carroll, who played a central role in the establishment and development of the Catholic Church in America. Again, when we consider that the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1789 there was but a single Catholic bishop in America, which was a mission field.

Expansion & Immigration

The Catholic population of America skyrocketed in the 19th century through two separate movements. First, in the early 1800s, the three major land purchases of Florida, Louisiana and the Southwest enclosed Catholic populations within American borders. Second, in the latter half of the 1800s, Catholic immigrants poured in from Europe–Irish, Italian, Polish, Hungarian, etc. By the end of the 1800s, just 50 years after the founding of the Catholic Church in America, Catholicism was the most populous denomination.

Plenary Councils of Baltimore (1852-1884)

baltimore catechism
Click to enlarge.

We are all familiar with the “Baltimore Catechism”, but often unfamiliar with its historical significance in America. As we learned above, Bishop Carroll became the first Archbishop in the United States and the Archdiocese of Baltimore was thus the first. By 1850, the number of archdioceses and dioceses in America had multiplied and request was made that a national (plenary) council be called to help establish the rules and regulations for the Catholic Church in America.

In 1852, the first council was called and was attended by 6 archbishops and over 35 bishops. Of the decrees of this first council, two are to be noted as we focus on the history of Catholic education in America. First, it was decreed that pastors of Catholic churches directly catechize the young and ignorant. Second, it was decreed that a Catholic school be established in every parish and that teachers be paid from parish funds.

In 1866, the second council was called and was attended by 7 archbishops and almost 40 bishops. In this council important matters of doctrine were hammered out including a rejection of the seeds of religious pluralism (which was already developing). As for parish schools, it was decreed that religious be employed for teaching whenever possible and again that schools be established in every parish. Schools were ordered to teach students the basics of Gregorian chant for their participation in the divine worship. The modern notion of “faith formation” programs were established for children attending public schools–which we must remember were at the time intended for the poor and unschooled. Parents were required to guard their children from bad books and schools required to purge textbooks of anything that contradicted the faith.

In 1884, the third council was called and was attended by 14 archbishops and over 60 bishops. In this final council, the establishment of parochial schools was demanded and Catholic parents forbidden to send their children to non-Catholic schools without the approval of the bishop. The heat from the growing public school system is evident as concern is shown in the council for the relative cost and efficiency of the parish schools. Most importantly, a commission was established for the production of an official catechism for American Catholics.

In 1885, the Baltimore Catechism was published. As said above, it was to maintain the teaching of the previous Roman Catechism of St. Robert Bellarmine, which was drawn from the Councils of Trent, and published in 1597. What must be noted about the Baltimore Catechism, is that although its name appears to be regional, Baltimore was in fact the center of the Catholic Church at the time. Second, what should be noted is that the Baltimore Catechism is a continuation of the Church’s pre-American catechesis, bringing the Catholic faith into American life.

The Development of the Parochial Schools

Before the great increase in American Catholic population, Catholic education was provided privately by those who had and by individual groups like the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph and the Friends of Mary to those who had not. However, as the Catholic population exploded, the need for organized Catholic schools increased. With the Catholic immigrants came Catholic religious orders devoted to education. However, the Protestant public schools grew increasingly hostile to the growing Catholic presence and pushed them out. As we learned earlier in the course, the Protestants used a cunning strategy to promote what appeared to be a “non-sectarian” public school policy, only to define “non-sectarian” as non-Catholic! Though supported by president Ulysses S. Grant, this effort failed on the federal level, but was adopted into more than 30 state constitutions and remains in effect to this day.

When we consider that, in 1884, the archbishops demanded that parishes establish their own Catholic schools (with mandatory attendance!) and that an American catechism be published, we can see that the Church felt the anti-Catholic pressure increasing around them. Realizing that the hope of state support for Catholic students was all but lost, the Church established schools of its own. In addition to the parochial schools, the Catholic University of America was established in 1882 as a national Catholic university to advance the Catholic cause in America.

Despite its rough beginnings, the growth of Catholic education in America borders on miraculous. Within 15 years of the Baltimore council, over 3,500 privately-funded Catholic schools were in operation. Growth continued to skyrocket through the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. By the 1960s there were well over 5 million students in Catholic schools. In order to make sense of the height the Catholic schools had reached, we can compare that figure to the number of Catholic school students today, which is less than half of that.

The Decline of American Catholic Schools

Since the 1960s, there has been a steady decline in Catholic school attendance and a more troubling trend of closing Catholic schools. As said above, the number of Catholic school students is a fraction of what it once was and the number of schools has also been halved. The causes of this decline are manifold, but what they all point to is a sudden decline in the fervency and zeal within the Catholic community in the middle of the 20th century.

The most glaring causes of the decline of Catholic schooling are vocational, pedagogical and economic. First, the number of religious men and women (mainly women) has all but vanished. The decrease in religious vocations is sudden and mysterious. Was it the feminist movement? The cultural revolution of the ‘60’s? Perhaps. However, we cannot imagine that a Catholic population that overcame the religious oppression of early Protestant America could not resist the pressure of these movements. Second, the abandonment of traditional teaching methods led to larger and more expensive schools. When it came to pedagogy, the Catholic schools tended to follow the public schools and this led into a dangerous trap. Traditional methods of catechesis and curricular content were abandoned and the modern program of study and methods of instruction proved too costly. While the state schools enjoyed public funding and simply increased taxes to meet rising costs, the Catholic schools quickly worked themselves into financial ruin. Increased expenses led to increases in tuition that many families simply could not–or would not–pay. (Remember, the Baltimore council wanted the Catholic schools to be free.) Third, changes in the economic organization of the United States population led to troubles as Catholic families moved from the cities to the suburbs–and the Catholic schools remained behind. This led both to the increase in public school attendance among Catholic children and the financial failure of many city schools–a trend that continues today.

Today, the situation remains dark for Catholic schools. Tuition is too high for most Catholic families–especially large ones–to afford. Academic standards are comparable to those of the public schools which almost endlessly fall. Despite the constant closing of old schools, parishes continue to develop new schools based on the same models. Without religious teachers, the Church is forced to hire lay faculty members who demand far greater pay than the sisters ever would have. As the Catholic schools cannot compete with public schools for teacher pay, many Catholics teach in the public schools and inferior non-Catholics are employed by the parish schools as last options. The Catholic schools today are a sad ruin of what they were through the wisdom of the Baltimore councils and the zeal of the early American Catholics.