Why ‘classical’ charter schools can’t replace Catholic education

Catholic education, if faithful to its mission, is in a unique and powerful position to serve our youth and lead them to fulfilling lives of joy and meaning. Secular schools will always fall short.

May 22, 2019 Dr. Daniel Guernsey, May 22, 2019  

As principal of a “classical” Catholic school and a lifelong advocate for the liberal arts, I am excited by the growing classical school movement—which now has reached even many public charter schools. Catholic families are understandably attracted to charter schools’ free tuition and classical schools’ commitment to established curricula, teaching methods and virtue development. But a secular school can never be a worthy substitute for authentic Catholic education and some parents seem to be either unaware or unconvinced of the Church’s reasons for requiring them to choose Catholic education if it is available.

To be sure, anything that increases educational options—especially for low-income families who may be trapped in the public system—is good for society. And a classical education that teaches students to reason, integrates knowledge, and immerses them in good literature, history and other liberal studies is a marked improvement in public schools.

But for families who have access to a Catholic school that takes the Faith seriously or for whom homeschooling is an option a faithful and flourishing Catholic education is an unmatched opportunity. Even a secular classical education just doesn’t compare.

Fullness of truth

Catholic schools teach more than public schools, including classical charter schools, and more than any secular private school. It’s not that Catholic schools necessarily teach more math and more reading—it’s often but not always the case—but more importantly, they teach about the human person and the beauty and meaning of everything around us. The horizons are set higher and the insights run deeper, because seriously Catholic schools both ascend and delve into transcendent truths about humanity, meaning, and the universe—just as God made them. De facto, all schools form students, and students only come in one way: with minds, bodies and souls intimately united. But even the best public schools are not able to get to matters of the heart and soul with the love and guidance of the God who made those bodies, hearts and souls. Catholic schools can teach more and do more because they can properly situate not only human inquiry, but also the human formation within their full and glorious potentialities.

Catholic education is uniquely able to explore and transmit truths about humanity and the nature and meaning of reality. Since these truths come from God, the source of all reality and truth, leaving Him out necessarily diminishes any such inquiry and leaves meaning-making deficient. If it is true that “in Christ we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), then we cannot adequately teach our students to apprehend reality and to live and move and be in this world without reference to Him as the source of all reality and truth. Because Catholic schools have an intimate relationship with Christ—who is the Logos, who is Truth—they are uniquely equipped to lead students to the fullness of truth. If truths are cut off from their divine source, they are no more than shadows, according to Pope Pius XII.

This is why all public schools, and even public classical schools which explicitly seek to expose students to the true, good and beautiful, are insufficient. Leaving kids in the shadow of truth risks leaving them exposed to error, pride or skepticism.

We were not made to stand in the vestibule of truth; we were made to embrace truth and proclaim it once found. Additionally, a natural human response to the wonder of truth, beauty and goodness when it is discovered is awe and praise, contemplation and worship, humility and thanksgiving. Because Catholic school teachers and students can engage in these natural responses as a group, openly and honestly, the likelihood of their occurrence is increased, and the power of their impact is magnified. To overcome the ennui and jadedness of the modern age, we need in all ways possible to activate the power and glory of authentic discovery, which is vivified and amplified by the divine.

Faith across the curriculum

There is additional value in training our students how to include things beyond the material when training them in the process of inquiry. Not all truths are easily subjected to standardized tests. Not everything that can be known can be physically measured and weighed. Indeed the most weighty things are without weight: justice, freedom, meaning, human dignity and reason are but a few immeasurable realities that benefit from divine perspective and guidance.

The habit of leaving God out of inquiry can become ingrained if practiced year in and out throughout a child’s academic development. Pope Leo XIII counsels that science, literature, history and other disciplines must be permeated with religion because, “If it is otherwise, if this sacred inspiration does not penetrate the spirits of the teachers and of the students, the instruction will produce only little fruit and will often even have seriously harmful consequences.” We cannot leave God out of the bulk of our children’s intellectual formation without consequence. St. John Paul II puts it more poetically and positively when he says:

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.

If leaving Christ out of secular academic instruction is problematic, it is even more dangerous to leave Him out of character formation and morality. A laudable but limited practice at some public and private schools is to offer a secular version of Catholic faith-based character formation programs. By design, these schools are limited to using human will and man-made standards to attempt to inspire students. Typically, a self-selected list of virtues is introduced and then highlighted in literature, lived example and morning character development sessions. Such communal gatherings and focus may be helpful, but they lack the power and potentiality of instilling human excellences modeled on the most excellent human, Christ, and calling on the direct, real and real-time assistance of His grace through prayer and sacrament. Perfect men cannot be raised without the model and grace of THE perfect man.

Pope Leo XIII minces no words in stating that “to be desirous that minds should be imbued with good and at the same time to leave them without religion is as senseless as to invite people to virtue after having taken away the foundations on which it rests.” He warns that civic morality cannot guide man to the supreme end destined for him, and sounds this warning:

No one should be ready to believe that instruction and piety can be separated with impunity. In effect, if it is true that We cannot exempt ourselves from the duty of religion at any period of life, in private or public affairs, so much the less should this duty be omitted at any age which is thoughtless, in which the spirit is ardent and exposed to so many inducements to evil. To organize teaching in such a way as to remove it from all contact with religion is therefore to corrupt the very seeds of beauty and honor in the soul. It is to prepare, not defenders of the nation, but a plague and a scourge for the human race. Once God is suppressed, what can keep young people dutiful or recall them when they have strayed from the path of virtue and fall into the abyss of vice?

These are not questions to ignore, and they lead Pope Leo to teach: “it is necessary to avoid at all costs, as most dangerous, those schools in which all beliefs are welcomed and treated as equal, as if, in what regards God and divine things, it makes no difference whether one believes rightly or wrongly, and takes up with truth or error.” The lack of the supernatural does not simply leave a hole in education that can presumably be filled later, like a missing homework assignment. The hole which keeps man from being whole can only filled by the God who made him. Our children need to encounter the all-fulfilling God in all things.

Spiritual witness

The surest way to develop human excellence is when it is modeled at the point of delivery in the school and explicitly lived out by adult witnesses free to draw upon a wealth of unfiltered resources and direct personal and communal faith. The most effective teachers are those who demonstrate a passion for what they are teaching and effectively model the skills and dispositions they seek to instill in their students. The teacher must present the material or concepts to the students, modeling and at times proposing value and meaning relevant to the subject at hand from a Catholic worldview. Teachers are not neutral in this process, in that their role is to model and invite. However, they must still respect their students’ freedom and will. They assist students to explore and ultimately to determine for themselves the truthfulness and “workability” of the claims and worldview presented in the Catholic school.

By contrast, public school and secular private school teachers are not allowed to provide this level of spiritual witness. It is not that Catholics who are public school educators are inauthentic; it’s that they are prevented from revealing the full depth of human and spiritual insight they have discovered as committed people of faith. They cannot bring to consummation the fullness of their insights about the beauty and meaning of the world around them before their students. These are not small losses in the teacher-student relationship. These are real losses in maximizing the power of the educational experience and complete formation in a time of incredible danger from a culture of crassness and despair.

The strategy of simply reading great books to combat this crisis is also insufficient. There have been plenty of people, good and evil, who have read the same great texts through the years with differing results. Reading them does not of itself confer virtue or wisdom. Under the guidance of a master Catholic educator, they can indeed be instruments to raise questions and concerns about ultimate nature and meaning of things. The issue is: What answers will be given to these questions? Who will provide those answers convincingly? In a government-run charters where teachers are unable to share their faith-based convictions, input devolves to the random gathering of students present in the class and their grasp of a text they may or may not have read. Crowd sourcing religious truths to students is not an efficient or sure means to the truth of things.

A related concern is that children often tend to follow the culture of their peers and the common culture more than the culture of their parents. A Catholic culture modeled only at home is especially subject to these powerful forces. A deliberate and thoughtful series of relationships must also be encouraged and guided by other caring Catholic adults who complement the home values. This can provide and model a complete approach to Christian human flourishing in a broader, more forceful context. A strong and unified community is necessary to sufficiently arm and prepare the current generation to meet the potentially overwhelming challenges facing it.

Superior formation

The good news that is that Catholic education, if faithful to its mission, is in a unique and powerful position to serve our youth and lead them to fulfilling lives of joy and meaning. Secular schools will always fall short.

The Church understands the challenges facing modern man better than any other entity, and it has both the keys and access to the necessary graces to meet those challenges head-on. Its homes and schools can provide for the integration of culture, faith and life and best equip students to attain and practice heroic virtue in a troubled world.

Catholic education which faithfully fulfills this function is a cause worthy of the Church. It is a choice worthy of Catholic parents. And if the choice is a real option, it is a duty we owe our children.


Dr. Daniel Guernsey is the Director of K-12 Programs for The Cardinal Newman Society and a principal of a Classical Catholic school in Ave Maria, Florida.