Catholic Identity

About this article

What makes our schools Catholic? This article summarizes thoughts and ideas from high school theology teachers across the United States who have reflected upon this timely question.

For a couple of years, Saint Mary's Press sponsored a listserv discussion group online. Discussions on a variety of topics were pursued via e-mail. In this article I hope to summarize some of the highlights from postings on the timely question of Catholic identity. Many people responded to this question, but because many identified themselves only by an e-mail address, I cannot give specific credit to individuals for the ideas listed below. Because this site wishes to promote a spirit of professional sharing, I believe it is appropriate and fitting that these ideas be passed along.

What makes our classes and schools distinctly and deliberately Catholic? Some may liken this to the $64,000 question! One teacher who had the opportunity to be on a couple of school review teams said that this question often became "a minefield of opinions, conjectures, and prejudices!" Yet it remains a critical question for our schools to address. What you find listed below are the thoughts of teachers just like you and me. If you have more thoughts on this topic, go to the discussion forum of this site and share!

  • Catholicity must be thought of as both tangible and intangible. Liturgies, religious images, social justice activities, etc., are the tangible elements. The intangibles have to do with how the faith is lived in all the interactions within the school.
  • Richard McBrien, CSC, writes about how Catholic identity has to do with our "mix." How do we mix our traditions involving sacraments, prayer, communal celebrations, Marian devotions, and hierarchical structures? Catholicism offers a sense of tradition. The past is important and continues to affect us today.
  • Catholic identity can not be reduced simply to Marian dogma, papal obedience, social justice, or Vatican Council II. Reducing the truth of our tradition to any single source or idea is fundamentalism. The reality is that our heritage is a rich amalgam of people struggling to live out the Christian mission in their own time.
  • Our church's biggest strength has been our flexibility, our openness to encompassing many different expressions of belief in one church without fracturing it. This is what it means to be "catholic"–universal!
  • Catholicism is sacramental. There is a belief that God is often found and communicated with through symbols and signs that are encountered from birth to death! How do we bring this out in our schools?
  • We are not a Catholic school because we have a theology department. We have a theology department because we are a Catholic school.
  • The idea of Catholic imagination is a "glue" that can hold together the unique ways we present subject matter and school activities. How does the study of art illumine our understanding of God? How does a young person's involvement in sports or drama teach her or him about community and relationships? How vital are school liturgies? How is history presented?
  • It is more than evaluating the externals, that is, a certain number of masses per year or the percentage of student or faculty that is Roman Catholic.
  • Our approach to biblical studies differs from that of many nondenominational Christian schools in that it reflects modern Catholic scholarship.
  • Catholicism attempts to be rational. In the Catholic church (and the high school!), reason and faith are not enemies but partners!
  • Our use of Catholic social teaching in conjunction with service projects roots us in the Catholic Tradition.
  • Thomas Groome's book Educating for Life is an excellent resource for this question.
  • Many times this question is posed defensively. It may help to reframe the discussion and discuss how we are a Christian school whose tradition is Catholic. Catholic identity is so nuanced, especially when comparing it to other Christian traditions as opposed to the public school system at large.
  • When people pass your Catholic school, they should be reminded of Christ. If they are not, then you are wasting your time.
  • The place to focus efforts in building a Catholic identity is on evangelizing and educating the faculty.
  • People need to feel comfortable using religious language and a Catholic vocabulary.


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Published December 28, 1999.