This is the first post in a series about Catholic identity in America’s Catholic schools.

Catholic schools are the most effective means of faith formation that the Church has at its disposal.  This is supported by sociological data from Andrew Greeley and others that note the impact of Catholic schools on adult religious behavior and beliefs. This is not surprising, on the one hand, given what is possible with 35 hours a week of immersion in a Catholic school community with daily religious instruction, regular participation in the Sacraments, a comprehensive Christian witness of the life of faith integrated with all subjects of human learning, and the strong social and religions bonds of a Catholic school community.

And yet, how effective are our Catholic schools when it comes to faith formation?  Other research has suggested that Catholic faith formation in America, both in Catholic schools and CCD programs, is largely failing (Christian Smith, Soul Searching).  Recent research (Campbell and Putnam, American Grace) suggests that nearly 40% of Caucasian Catholics that are raised in the faith leave the Church or become non-practicing (attend mass less than once a month).  This rate makes Catholicism – together with main line Protestantism – the worst at retaining the faithful among all religious traditions in America.  We are in the midst of a crisis of faith in the American Catholic Church.  The aggregate number of Catholics remains high, however, because of the growing Latino Catholic population, which threatens to obscure the depth of the crisis.

What does this mean?  As the Italian theologian and founder of the movement Communion and Liberation, Luigi Giussani wrote in The Risk of Education, “A radical either/or seems inevitable: Either Christian Religion has lost all strength of persuasion and is no longer a guiding force in the life of young students, or one has to acknowledge that Christianity is not suitably presented or offered to students.”  In the light of compelling contemporary Christian witnesses, Giussani reasons, one must conclude the latter.

Surely there are many problems that affect the participation of Church membership, from the abuse scandals to a general milieu of secularization. Yet the core point remains, if the Church effectively teaches, effectively witnesses and communicates the compelling reality of the Christian experience, if parents and schools effectively form young people, then we should not be seeing this hemorrhaging within the Catholic community.

In order to improve and reach towards the ideal of what Catholic education could and should be, we must face the fact that Catholic schools can and must be greatly improved in fulfilling their responsibility of effective faith formation.  Catholic schools are, and will remain, the most efficacious means of faith formation in the American Catholic Church.  Yet they must overcome profound challenges to more effectively serve contemporary youth in this, their most vital mission and purpose.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series, Catholic Identity in our Catholic schools: The Need for Quality Standards