Education culture wars come for ‘woke’ Catholic schools

The culture wars over
critical race theory
gender theory
, and
coronavirus protocols
that ignited a nationwide movement of parent activism have spread beyond public education.

Once seen as a refuge from activist public school teachings and pandemic closures,
schools are in the midst of their own internal struggles of whether to wade into cultural touchstone debates or hold firm to religious teachings.

“The reality is these are very troubling times, within and outside the church,” Bishop Thomas Daly of the Diocese of Spokane said in an interview with the Washington Examiner. “[It’s a] challenge when we have Catholic schools, Catholic bishops, religious orders, and institutions within the church who have, quite frankly, gone ‘woke.'”

“When the church goes down the path of ‘wokeism’ … we are unfaithful to Christ’s mission that he’s entrusted the church … [and] we cause [great] harm.”

The Catholic cultural tension hit a tipping point last month, when Bishop Robert McManus, the prelate of the
Roman Catholic
Diocese of Worcester, Massachusetts,
the Nativity School in his diocese from identifying as a Catholic school. The offense: flying gay pride and Black Lives Matter flags on school grounds.


The rebuke was unusual, Patrick Reilly, the president and founder of Catholic education watchdog group the Cardinal Newman Society, told the Washington Examiner.

“It is rare for a Catholic bishop to publicly criticize a Catholic school, and it usually arises because the school first made the conflict public, not the bishop,” Reilly said. “No school can call itself Catholic without the approval of the local bishop.”

The incident at the Nativity School, he said, is another example of how “anything in the surrounding culture finds its way into Catholic schools, through the students or through the teachers.”

“To some extent, this is unavoidable,” Reilly said, “but it is a greater problem today, when fewer Catholics are well-formed in the faith and an increasing portion of students and teachers are non-Catholic. The Cardinal Newman Society has been very concerned about the infiltration of critical race theory, gender identity, and cancel culture in Catholic schools.”

The presence of “harmful agendas” is something that Mary Miller, a Catholic parent, says should remind parents to “do their due diligence” when switching to a Catholic school.

Miller, a private school advocacy associate at parent activist organization Parents Defending Education, noted that during the summer of 2020, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, “many Catholic schools reacted similarly to public schools” by apologizing for systemic racism and promising to “fully embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

“What we’ve seen over the last two years is that has tended to affect hiring and admissions policies,” Miller said. “We’re hearing changing policies from boards of trustees, the curriculum is a lot more focused on identity, which pulls in critical theories, and more support for after-school clubs like the Gender Sexuality Alliance, GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network)-type clubs that can come in under the guise of a community celebration.”

One of those community celebrations occurred in January at Carondelet High School in Concord, California, an all-girls Catholic school located in the Diocese of Oakland. Students at the school were
afforded the opportunity
to make pronoun buttons at a craft table and listen to a presentation on the various pride flags denoting different gender identities.

“Parents put their kids into these Catholic schools because they want to avoid a lot of this, and they don’t want politics in the classroom,” Miller said. “When anti-Christian ideologies like BLM, embracing queerness … when those ideologies are falsely packaged under the veil of euphemisms, such as social justice and equity as Catholic social teaching, parents and kids are told this is just all part of inclusion. That’s deeply worrying for parents because they see their Catholic faith principles being hijacked for a very anti-Christian, anti-Catholic ideology.”

The state of Catholic education has troubled Daly, who is the chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’s Committee on Education.

In a wide-ranging interview, Daly said what is being taught in Catholic schools is hardly distinguishable from the coursework of a public school and has created a sort of “parellel church” within the Catholic education system.

“Catholic schools are one of the ministries of the church for the salvation of souls,” Daly said. “But you see these schools that have morphed into a kind of nice private school with some Christian trappings … and they need to be called out because they’re no longer really Catholic schools.”

“It’s essential for those who lead the church to do so with courage, perseverance, fidelity to Christ, and what the Church teaches,” the bishop continued. “[We] must do so always with patience and charity but never … stray from the truth. There are certain religious orders and universities in this country that have caused great harm because they have confused students through what is being taught.”

While the divide in Catholic education may be under the radar, a much more public rift in the Catholic church has embroiled U.S. bishops over whether Catholic politicians such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and President Joe Biden should be permitted to receive communion while pushing for the expanded legality of abortion, which the church deems an intrinsic evil and its enabling a mortal sin. Catholics who are in the state of mortal sin are expected to refrain from receiving communion until they have sought forgiveness through confession.

For Catholics in public life, the church teaches that support for intrinsic evils such as abortion must also be renounced publicly so as to avoid scandal — an action that can lead others to sin.

Daly was one of
several U.S. bishops
to support San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s recent public decision to bar Pelosi from
receiving communion
over her support for legal abortion. But he also noted that “certain members of the hierarchy” like to maintain “cozy relationships with politicians who are pro-abortion and who claim to be good Catholics.”

“We can’t do that,” he said. “The problem isn’t the church in the world, it’s the world in the church.”

Offering a more diplomatic assessment of the cultural state of Catholic schools was Sister Dale McDonald, the vice president of public policy at the National Catholic Educational Association, who said that the nation’s Catholic schools have more effectively weathered the cultural controversies engulfing their public counterparts by “trying to be true to our mission [and] by promoting harmony among all in the school.”

“We’ve had a couple of schools where there’s been some controversy about [critical race theory],” McDonald said. “I think what most of our schools are trying to do is to avoid the political jargon that polarizes people.”

McDonald noted that Catholic schools experienced a bump in enrollment last year due to their push to offer in-person instruction while many public schools remained closed and were experiencing budding controversies over curriculum.

“Parents who never knew what we were about, they came, they saw it, and they liked it,” she said, “and I think that’s how we have weathered some of those controversies, is that we have a commitment to our mission.”


Bishop Daly urged schools to hold true to the faith.

“We live in this disposable throwaway culture,” he said. “Catholic schools, when they focus on Jesus Christ and what he taught, [provide] hope. And hope is … grounded in faith that redemption is always possible and that there is truth.”

“Catholic schools, now more than ever, are especially needed because there’s so much confusion and so much dishonesty lies in the culture,” Daly added. “We need our Catholic schools, but they have to be Catholic schools that are faithful.”

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