What Makes the Catholic School Catholic?

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Learning in the Catholic school is a means to bring students to Christ.

by Deacon Tony ABTS and the Faith Integration Committee of the Diocese of Green Bay

Many mission, vision and philosophy statements for Catholic schools speak of the integration of faith into every subject area. Yet surprisingly few schools document how this process occurs. Furthermore, little is done to show teachers how to accomplish this goal, which is foundational to the Catholic identity of the school. To address this need, this article proposes the principles of faith integration.

Faith integration does not mean repeating the religion curriculum in each academic class. The goal is not to have the science teacher or the physical education teacher teach religion in their curriculum. The goal of faith integration is to seamlessly weave Catholic identity into how the school teaches all students and all subjects. The principles of faith integration are developed to answer the following question: How is what you do in the Catholic classroom fundamentally different from what happens in the public school?

The mission of the Catholic school is to evangelize, catechize, and educate, in that order. Catholic education is a continuous process of conversion. Learning in the Catholic school is a means to bring students to Christ and empower them to bring Christ to others. It is not an end in itself. This is the fundamental difference between Catholic schools and public schools.

Faith integration is at the center — the heart and core of the teaching and learning process in the Catholic school. Imagine each discipline as a “slice of the pie.” The tip of that slice rests in the center-faith integration—while most of the content, skills, and attitudes are identified in the standards, benchmarks, and expectations of the curriculum. Some of the learning deals with skills for success in the 21st century. Each discipline must touch the core of Catholic teaching: faith integration.

The heart of catechesis is Christ. To integrate the teachings of Christ and his Church in the classroom effectively, the minister of Catholic education must know, love, and serve Christ. Then what he or she teaches reflects the words of Jesus:

“My teaching is not my own, but is from the one who sent me.” (John 7:16)

Effective catechesis of the minister of Catholic education is the core of faith integration. Those who minister in the Catholic school cannot give what they do not possess. The minister of Catholic education must strive to know the teachings of the Church, especially in the areas that directly affect the curriculum taught in the classroom. Fluency with the Catechism of the Catholic Church is essential for everyone working in a Catholic school, but especially for the faculty. School staff members must have opportunities to grow in their faith each year.


The environment of the Catholic school reflects the love of God.

This may seem like a very simple statement, but the depth of its content is powerful. How does the environment of a Catholic school differ from the environment of a public school? Would an observer sense a difference in the school when students and staff are not present? If so, what would those differences be?

Physical Environment

While the physical environment is the easiest place to begin, it is only a beginning. Is the environment welcoming? Does it nurture a sense of pride in students? Does it reflect the changing liturgical seasons and colors? What attitudes do posters or signs convey? Are there classroom rules? Are there religious symbols, Bibles, crucifixes, copies of the Catechism of the Catholic Church?

Emotional Environment

Without a doubt, the teacher is responsible for the emotional environment of the classroom. One of the most important jobs as a teacher is to ensure that the classroom is an emotionally safe place for every student. What values do classroom rules convey? How is discipline handled? How does love for students come through even in difficult situations?

While the individual teacher does not have total control of the school, he or she does have the ability to promote a faith-filled classroom environment. A positive step in this direction is to foster an attitude of mutual respect and an expectation that everyone works together in the classroom. Everyone is respected and valued. To enhance mutual respect, the teacher must guide the creation of student work groups. Letting students choose the members of their own work groups empowers the unjust social structures of the informal school community.

Intellectual Environment

Is learning illumined by faith? Are students engaged in the active pursuit of truth? Is there an underlying understanding that, as Catholics, there is a different way of knowing? Are students taught that learning to think does not mean leaving one’s faith behind?

Spiritual Environment

Since an entire principle is devoted to spirituality later in this article, a statement of that principle here will suffice. Spirituality in the Catholic school is a search for God.


Community in the Catholic school expresses the love of the Trinity.

By accident or by design, when a group of people comes together for a common purpose, connections are made and community forms. For the minister in any aspect of Catholic education, the question becomes, “How is the community that forms in my classroom, library kitchen, gym, or club different from that which forms in the same type of setting in a public school?”

One of the outcomes of Catholic education is that the classroom or other ministerial setting develops into a community of faith. Faith is an embodiment of the love of the Trinity. Our God is a triune God. God’s very nature is a relationship of love. The Trinity is often represented by a triangle. Each side of the triangle speaks of a special relationship of love to be lived in the classroom. The first is between God and the individual. Teaching helps connect each individual to God. Through content, service, and the search for truth, beauty, and perfection, each individual is brought closer to God. The base of the triangle represents the strong relationships between each individual and the group as a whole. Team-building, spirit-building, and cooperative activities work to strengthen the bonds of community. Once these first two sides of the triangle are in place, God will send his Spirit to infuse the group with his love. The group becomes a community of faith.

In a Catholic community of faith, members can use the richness of the Catholic faith to bring the community ever closer to God and one another. Members can become a “Eucharistic community that comes together to pray, hear God’s word and reflect on it, receive Jesus in the Eucharist, and go forth to serve.” This is the basis for celebrating liturgy.

The community of the Catholic school is deliberately built and distinctively Catholic. The community that forms in the Catholic school is infused with the Gospel values of reverence, respect, responsibility and welcome. Anyone approaching the community should be drawn in by these values.


Prayer in the Catholic school is communication will God and each other.

There is a great difference between saying prayers and praying. Heartfelt prayer improves the quality of the ministry of any group because it brings members closer to God and to each other.

In deciding how to lead prayer on any given day, the teacher might want to consider the following questions: Which type of prayer is best suited to the content that I am teaching today? Which is best suited for the personality of this group today? Which have we not used for a while? Which is best suited for the concerns of our school community today?

Ideally prayer can be seen to occur where the prayer life of the teacher or leader, the needs of the students, and the course content or activity come together. In this way the prayer is real, authentic, and meaningful.


Spirituality in the Catholic school is a search for God.

The thirst for knowledge leads students to a deeper discovery of God, the ultimate source of knowledge, wisdom, truth, beauty, and perfection. When students are guided to approach perfection, they are brought closer to God. This can take place in the classroom, on the athletic field, or in the art studio. The topic might be music or math, but when the class touches on profound truths and strives for perfection, they begin to see God.

Ministers of Catholic education have a different understanding of reality. How one knows reality goes beyond the scientific and empirical. Data are important goes beyond data. Faith helps to bring perspective knowledge and sheds light on its meaning for one’s life.

The Catholic school is characterized by personal attention to the whole child. The spirituality of the student is perceived, appreciated, respected, nurtured, and strengthened.


Scripture in the Catholic school illumines learning

For two reasons, Scripture is a vital part of the teaching that takes place in the Catholic school. First, teaching in the Catholic school is a means to an end, and that end is salvation. Second, Scripture is a legitimate historical source and should be referenced where it illumines the content being explored.

Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. All of the academic disciplines help us explore the “what” about the world and the fellow human beings on the journey Scripture provides the “why” it matters. Spending time in Scripture, like spending time in prayer, helps teachers to know Jesus. It orients perception to salvation.

Scripture is a primary source, parts of which date back to over 3,000 years ago. When literary forms in the Bible-genealogies, legal instructions, prophetic oracles, historical narratives, devotional lyrics, poetry, proverbs, letters, parables, short stories, essays, and mystical visions of the future-are studied in a critical manner, much can be learned. Treating Scripture as a text that is of cultural, social, historical, and literary significance enhances its relevance in the lives of students.

Social Justice

Social justice in the Catholic school teaches respect for human dignity and challenges all to work for the greater good.

The rich tradition of Catholic social teaching sh be integrated into the whole school rather than relegated to religion or theology classes. All staff members must be familiar with the key principles of Catholic social thought and have ready access to educational materials.


Morality in the Catholic school teaches students anchor their choices in the mind and heart of Jesus Christ.

Catholic schools help students to develop a formed conscience reflecting deliberate sensitivity to the ethical dimensions of life. The formation of conscience is a lifelong process. While the conscience formulates its judgments according to reason, it does so in conformity with Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church. In examining our conscience, “we are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church. (CCC, 1785)

For Catholic morality to be lived in a school, it must be reflected in the interactions of the faculty and staff with each other, students, parents, and the larger community. As school personnel model high moral standards, particularly at times of conflict, they have the opportunity to teach students by example about Christian conflict resolution (See Matthew 18:15-20).


The mission of the Catholic school is to evangelize, catechize, and educate students in Christ, nurturing loving service to God and neighbor.

Evangelization happens when individuals experience the love of Jesus Christ. The effective Catholic school facilitates that experience by bringing students to Christ and Christ to students. Next, the students understand the experience, which is the heart of catechesis, Finally, the Catholic school in its unique ministry develops the knowledge, skills, understandings, and attitudes to transform human culture in light of the Gospel, thus educating for life.

The Catholic school is the fulfillment of the four fold vision of education promulgated by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in To Teach as Jesus Did and affirmed in Sharing the Light of Faith — community, message, service, and worship. The students come to know, love, and serve Jesus Christ in others. The love of Christ is experienced in community. The message of Christ is proclaimed in the Gospel. The service of Christ puts Word into action and culminates in the worship of Christ. Thus, the Catholic school is an authentic expression of the Church’s mission.


Catholic school staff members are a constant testimony that Jesus lives.

Speaking to Catholic-school teachers, Pope Benedict XVI had the following words of encouragement:

To all of you I say: Bear witness to hope. Nourish your witness with prayer. Account for the hope that characterizes your lives by living the truth which you propose to your students. Help them to know and love the one you have encountered, whose truth and goodness you have experienced with joy.

In Lumen Gentium, the Church was reminded universal call to holiness. “Therefore all in the Church, whether they belong to the hierarchy or are care it, are called to holiness …” (LG, 39). Holiness is no domain of the clergy and professed religious, but is the destination of all Christians. “It is quite clear the all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love and by this holiness a more human manner of life is fostered also in earthly society.” (LG, 40)

The teacher in Catholic education is an example of personal sanctification and Christian living. Students encounter living examples of the love of Jesus through daily contact with the teacher or minister.

The Catholic-school teacher promotes social reform by living the truths of the Catholic faith. He or she lives a life that is a synthesis of faith and culture — exemplifying what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the 21st century. Without a doubt, ministering in a Catholic school is a vocation rather than an occupation.

The principles of faith integration and their application in the Catholic-school environment are the very heart of Catholic education. Putting these principles into action requires leadership, dedication, and continual growth in the practice of Catholic teaching and one’s personal faith journey. As the spiritual leaders, administrators must understand, model, and implement these principles. As facilitators of learning, teachers must help their students embody these principles through engagement, integrated curriculum, and differentiated instruction. As faith community members, support staff must live out these principles as part of their ministry. Faith integration requires not only prayer and and action by the individual, but the full participation of the Body of Christ.

Deacon Tony Abts is president of ACES Xavier Educational System, Appleton, WI. He cowrote this article with the Faith Integration Committee of the Diocese of Green Bay.

This article was originally published in the August/September 2010 issue of Today’s Catholic Teacher.

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