Annual conference focuses on values and ways to renew Catholic education
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Can a focus on values and on what is called a “liberal” traditional Catholic education — that is, the liberal arts — can rebuild the parochial education system that s been shrinking for a long time?
Elisabeth Sullivan, executive director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, thinks it is possible, and that the effort begins with the recognition that America’s political and social culture is broken.
“He is. It absolutely is,” she told Catholic News Service. “Renewal is about ordering our conscience, for the truth is one in it.”
Noting that Catholic instruction was once “the gold standard of education,” she added, “it is the pinnacle of what education should be. unity, not division We live in a post-Christian culture.
Nationally, enrollment in Catholic schools has increased over the past year.
According to statistics compiled by the National Catholic Educational Association, enrollment rose 3.8 percent to a total of nearly 1.7 million primary and secondary school enrollees.
This is the largest increase recorded by the NCEA in two decades and marks a significant improvement from the 6.4% decline in 2019-2021 attributed in part to the COVID-19 pandemic. The peak enrollment in the early 1960s was over 5 million.
About 350 people attended the institute’s annual conference July 11-14 at the Catholic University of America in Washington. Participants represented 88 schools and organizations and 45 dioceses. Sullivan called the mood “incredibly hopeful and joyful.”
The conference drew superintendents, school leaders, teachers, bishops and other clergy and was themed, “For the Life of the World,” reflecting the three-year national Eucharistic revival of the U.S. bishops who was launched on June 19, the feast of Corpus Christi.
The institute, founded in 1999, helps Catholic schools “rediscover and restore the intellectual tradition of liberal education that is our heritage,” said Mary Pat Donoghue, executive director of the Catholic Education Secretariat of the USCCB.
“Once discovered, teachers and students enjoy the freedom that comes with the joyous pursuit of faith, wisdom and virtue,” she said in a statement.
Organizers said the conference was sold out and live streaming of the sessions drew even more attendees. An evening keynote address by Bishop Thomas A. Daly of Spokane, Wash., opened the conference July 11.
The bishop, chair of the Committee on Catholic Education of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged participants to ensure that their work was always rooted in the importance of the Eucharist.
In a July 14 address, Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln, Neb., criticized secular education and culture.
“A big part of today’s educational orthodoxy is about getting more technique,” he said. But “true education is about meaning. In other words, words matter.
“To the extent that a word accurately reflects reality – unborn child, man, woman, man, woman – it speaks the truth,” he said. “On the other hand, dishonest and misleading words do the opposite. They confuse and belittle. And then do enormous damage.
Noting that “verbal engineering always precedes social engineering,” Bishop Conley added, “Deceit and confusion do not remain at the level of our politics. They… inevitably reverberate in our public classrooms in the form of critical race theory, revisionist civics, and disordered sexuality.
“The ferocity of the verbal and physical abuse and irrational hatred unleashed by otherwise progressive people with the downfall of Roe is instructive for us, I think,” the Bishop said.
Roe v. Wade – the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationwide which the current court overturned on June 24 – “has always been a judicial coup – a poorly reasoned decision that invented a right to trumped up abortion, unrelated to the Constitution or democratic processes,” he said.
Bishop Conley also deplored the changing meaning of certain words, without being more specific. “There were words we used – beautiful words – that we can’t use anymore…because they mean something else.”
He concluded, “A liberal education reminds children why they are human – and what that means.”
On July 13, David Dean, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Tulsa, Okla., reminded the conference, “You bring beauty to these young souls who live in an essentially filthy culture. And they desperately need what you have to offer.
Also on July 13, Michael Ortner, who is the founder of Capterra, an online marketplace for enterprise software, and a member of the Catholic University Visitors’ Committee, reminded teachers to cultivate “a sense of wonder” in their students.
“I don’t think that sense of wonder can be underestimated,” he said. “That led me to the next big thing: knowledge for itself.”
“What we’re doing in these Catholic schools is very countercultural,” Ortner said. “It’s great to have a support network.”
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