A CNS article discusses a new effort of the Western Catholic Educational Association to include Catholic identity standards in the accreditation process for Catholic schools.  The Association accredits Catholic schools in 26 dioceses in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Hawaii, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and Guam, encompassing about 308,000 students in 1,000 grade schools and high schools. Bishops of these dioceses developed the standards in 2008 in response to a concern that some Catholic schools might be failing to embody their Catholic mission and identity.

The new norms for accreditation include a “Catholic Identity Factor” stating that the school is Catholic and approved by the local bishop. The school also must provide authentic Catholic teaching, opportunities for community worship and participation in the sacraments, and promote evangelization and service to the community. Teachers’ own formation for catechetical and instructional competence must be ongoing.

I think this is is a great step in the right direction.  Clearly articulated standards are a helpful tool and serve to raise the bar and at least set the minimum.  They help identify core areas of focus, providing a framework within which to work.  Standards do not equate to a robust Catholic identity, and I would suspect that even some schools that “pass” the standards might have a weak-ish Catholic identity.   I say this because though it is important to provide religious education classes and regular masses, it is difficult to assess the quality of these things and their real life and vitality.  At the end of the day, Catholic identity in Catholic schools is much more about who you are than what you do.  In other words, you can check of all the standards, but it depends upon the people in the community and what is in their hearts and souls as they seek to be disciples and live the Gospel as Catholic educators.  If you have a vibrant community of Catholics serving as educators in the school, you will almost certainly have a vibrant Catholic identity.  Finding the right people to serve as teachers, staff and school leaders, and offering them an effective formation as Catholic educators, is the key.  Then creating a vibrant and Catholic school culture, which is a leadership question in large part, is the second major factor.  This, of course, is likely to include hitting all of the standards, but a lot depends on HOW you meet the standards, not just that you are meeting them.

Take Liturgy, for example.  Are the liturgies vibrant and full of life?  Do the students participate and feel a part of the liturgies?  How often do they occur, monthly or once a week?  Do the students understand what is happening during the liturgies?  Are they well prepared to participate as readers etc.?  Are the priests that celebrate the Eucharist part of the life of the school community?  Do the teachers sit with their students?  Are they engaged and providing a compelling witness?

Standards likely cannot get as deep as the types of questions mentioned above, but they can serve as indicators and basic benchmarks, and most importantly, they provide accountability.

When Catholic schools were at their zenith in the 1950s, they were staffed by 95% vowed religious men and women.  At that time, there was little question of their Catholic identity.  It was visible in the habits of the sisters that ran the schools, and informed by the years of religious formation that the priests, brothers and sisters brought with them into the classrooms.  Today Catholic schools are staffed by 97% lay men and women.  This is an unbelievable transformation and a miracle that Catholic schools have survived the incredible transition.  But as a result, Catholic identity cannot and should not be taken for granted.  Lay staff tend to lack anything that approximates the theological and spiritual formation of vowed religious.  As a result, the current lay leadership of our Catholic schools have needed to step-up in a big way.  I think this is a wonderful thing, a wonderful opportunity for lay ministry in the Church through Catholic education!  However, it is not always easy and it is something that many lay leaders and teachers need to grow into and be given support and appropriate formative experiences that can help facilitate their ministerial role as Catholic educators.  At the end of the day, careful selection of staff and formation and guidance in areas related to the Catholicity of the school and education program are some of the major solutions to the Catholic identity question.  But clear standards and accountability through accreditation is a critical and helpful step.

I would welcome your thoughts.