Defining Characteristics of Catholic Schools

The Defining Characteristics flow directly from the Holy See’s teaching on Catholic schools as compiled by Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB (The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools, 2006), and from statements by Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI, the Congregation for Catholic Education, and the American bishops. The characteristics define the deep Catholic identity of Catholic schools and serve as the platform on which the standards and benchmarks rest. The defining characteristics authenticate the standards and benchmarks, justifying their existence and providing their meaning.

Centered in the Person of Jesus Christ

Catholic education is rooted in the conviction that Jesus Christ provides the most comprehensive and compelling example of the realization of full human potential (The Catholic School, 34, 35). In every aspect of programs, life, and activities, Catholic schools should foster a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and communal witness to the gospel message of love of God and neighbor and service to the world, especially the poor and marginalized (Miller, 2006, pp. 25–26).

Contributing to the Evangelizing Mission of the Church

By reason of its educational activity, Catholic schools participate directly and in a privileged way in the evangelizing mission of the Church (The Catholic School, 9; The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, 5, 11; The Religious Dimensions of Education in a Catholic School, 33). As an ecclesial entity where faith, culture, and life are brought into harmony, the Catholic school should be a place of real and specified pastoral ministry in communion with the local bishop (The Catholic School, 44; The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, 14; The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School, 34). The environment in Catholic schools should express the signs of Catholic culture, physically, and visibly (The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School; Miller, 2006, p. 40).

Distinguished by Excellence

Church documents, history, and practices, supported by Canon Law, establish that first and foremost a Catholic school is characterized by excellence. Consistent with the defining characteristics, Catholic schools should implement ongoing processes and structures and gather evidence to ensure excellence in every aspect of its programs, life, and activities (Gravissimum educationis 8 and 9; Code of Canon Law, Canon 806 #2). Catholic schools provide a gospel-based education of the highest quality (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005).

Committed to Educate the Whole Child

Catholic school education is rooted in the conviction that human beings have a transcendent destiny and that education for the whole person must form the spiritual, intellectual, physical, psychological, social, moral, aesthetic, and religious capacities of each child. Catholic schools should develop and implement academic, co-curricular, faith-formation, and service/ministry programs to educate the whole child in all these dimensions (The Catholic School, 29). Catholic education must be capable of imparting not only technical knowledge, but also spiritual wisdom and virtuous behavior that is put into practice in daily life (Francis, 2019).

Steeped in a Catholic Worldview

Catholic education aims at the integral formation of the human person, which includes “preparation for professional life, formation of ethical and social awareness, developing awareness of the transcendental, and religious education” (The Catholic School, 31). All curriculum and instruction in a Catholic school should foster the desire to seek wisdom and truth, the preference for social justice, the discipline to become self-learners, the capacity to recognize ethical and moral grounding for behavior, and the responsibility to transform and enrich the world with gospel values. The Catholic school should avoid the error that its distinctiveness rests solely on its religious education program (Miller, 2006, pp. 43–45, 52). “Evangelisation and integral human development are intertwined in the Church’s educational work” (Congregation for Catholic Education, par 13).

Sustained by Gospel Witness

Catholic schools pay attention to the vocation of teachers and their participation in the Church’s evangelizing mission (The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, 19; Lay Catholics in Schools, 37). A Catholic school educator is a role model for students and gives testimony by his or her life and commitment to mission (Benedict XVI, June 2005; Miller, 2006, p. 53). As much as possible, Catholic schools should recruit teachers who are practicing Catholics, who can understand and accept the teachings of the Catholic Church and the moral demands of the gospel, and who can contribute to the achievement of the school’s Catholic identity and apostolic goals, including participation in the school’s commitment to social justice and evangelization (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Directory for Catechesis, 231). The continued formation of lay and consecrated educators is essential to the integral formation of students in Catholic schools. “In the Catholic school’s educational project there is no separation between time for learning and time for formation, between acquiring notions and growing in wisdom. The various school subjects do not present only knowledge to be attained, but also values to be acquired and truths to be discovered” (Congregation for Catholic Education, par 23).

Shaped by Communion and Community

Catholic school education places an emphasis on the school as community—an educational community of persons and a genuine community of faith (Lay Catholics in Schools, 22, 41). Catholic schools should do everything they can to promote genuine trust and collaboration among teachers, with parents/guardians as the primary educators of their children, and with governing body members to foster appreciation of different gifts that build up a learning and faith community and strengthen academic excellence (Lay Catholics in Schools, 78). The Catholic school should pay especially close attention to the quality of interpersonal relations between teachers and students, ensuring that the student is seen as a person whose intellectual growth is harmonized with spiritual, religious, emotional, and social growth (The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, 18). Catholic schools must consider themselves more than just an institution, but rather as a community (Second Vatican Council, 1964). “The school must be the first social setting, after the family, in which the individual has a positive experience of social and fraternal relationships as a precondition for becoming a person capable of building a society based on justice and solidarity, which are prerequisites for a peaceful life among individuals and peoples” (Congregation for Catholic Education, par 19).

Accessible to All Students

By reason of their evangelizing mission, Catholic schools should be available to all people who desire a Catholic school education for their children (Gravissimum educationis, 6; Code of Canon Law, Canons 793 #2; Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium, Introduction). Catholic schools in concert with the Catholic community should do everything in their power to manage available resources and seek innovative options to ensure that Catholic school education is geographically, programmatically, physically, culturally, and financially accessible. The Vatican Congregation for Catholic Schools (2022) states this goal explicitly, “A distinctive feature of its ecclesial nature is that it is a school for all, especially the weakest” (par 22). At the very heart of Catholic school identity is a culture of dialogue with three constituent elements: “the duty to respect one’s own identity and that of others, the courage to accept differences, and sincerity of intentions” (Pope Francis, 2017). “In the face of contemporary challenges, echoing the Second Vatican Council, Pope Francis recognises the central value of education. It is part of the wide-ranging pastoral project for a ‘Church that goes forth, standing by people at every step of the way,’ making her presence felt in an education ‘which teaches critical thinking and encourages the development of mature moral values’” (Pope Francis, 2013; Congregation for Catholic Education, par 31).

Established by the Express Authority of the Bishop

Canon Law states, “Pastors of souls have the duty of making all possible arrangements so that all the faithful may avail themselves of a Catholic education” (Code of Canon Law, Canon 794). Bishops need to put forward the mission of Catholic schools, support and enhance the work of Catholic schools and see that the education in the schools is based on principles of Catholic doctrine (John Paul II, Pastores Gregis, 52). Catholic schools have a formal and defined relationship with the bishop guided by a spirituality of ecclesial communion and should work to establish a relationship marked by mutual trust, close cooperation, continuing dialogue, and respect for the bishop’s legitimate authority (Code of Canon Law, Canon 803 #1 and #3; Miller, 2006, p. 33).