In our time, most Catholic Schools in the United States, from the lowest to the highest levels of education, seek accreditation from secular, regional accrediting agencies. These agencies require schools to undertake extensive self-studies in which they examine virtually everything they do. Basically, they have to think about and be ready to explain, everything they possess, everything they spend, every course they teach, and every major and minor in which students can study. In virtually every college, even the smallest ones you can probably think of, you can find a whole department, usually with its own dean or vice president, devoted to what’s called “institutional research,” and the cost associated with this exercise is one of the reasons tuition keeps rising at rate that outpaces inflation.
But for all the questions these institutions ask about themselves to satisfy the secular accreditors, there remains one question I’m not aware that any institution has ever asked itself explicitly.
How many of their alumni obtain gainful employment within a year of graduation? They can all tell you that. How many go on to earn advanced degrees and in what disciplines? They can tell you that, too. But how many of their alumni are still Catholic by the time they graduate? I don’t think anyone really knows. What’s worse, I think a lot of Catholic schools don’t want to know.
The secular accreditors don’t care about faith, so they don’t notice this glaring lacuna in the data collected by these schools after thousands of hours spent in introspection and self-analysis. I can excuse the secular accreditors for not asking this question. They’re secular, after all. But that fact doesn’t excuse the schools for not putting this question at the top of their list of concerns.
In my view, the single most important question a Catholic school can ask itself is, “Do we graduate more conscientious, faithful Catholics than we admit?” If a Catholic school isn’t asking that question, it should. And parents have every right to pose that question to administrators when they’re considering whether to send their children there; prospective students should ask it of the admissions representatives at college fairs.
There’s no question that numerous alumni of Catholic high schools, colleges, and universities, abandon their faith by the time they leave the hallowed halls of their almae matres. I think we all know that, overwhelmingly, both at the high school level and at the college and university level, Catholic schools tend to graduate fewer conscientious, faithful Catholics than they admit. What’s more, while rates of attrition may be lower in Catholic schools overall than at most secular institutions, it’s still the case that the longer a person remains in Catholic education, generally speaking, the less likely that person is to remain a faithful Catholic.
The actual results are dismal. From the perspective of the Church’s primary mission, most Catholic institutions are failing. In fact, they are failing so abysmally that, if they actually asked themselves the question I propose they ask, they would find themselves unable to justify their continued existence. They would have to decide whether they wanted to be Catholic or not, because no enterprise should ever be undertaken in the name of the Church that doesn’t, in some way, advance the Church’s primary mission of winning souls for heaven.
The reason so many schools fail in this primary mission is that they don’t make it their primary mission. Mission statements for most Catholic schools today, at every level, prioritize goals such as, increasing “diversity” as if it were a positive good in itself, meeting secular measures of success, and increasing social and environmental awareness, advocacy, and activism. These goals reflect contemporary secular values, but they don’t get us very far on the path to heaven. In fact, all these goals can be met while students and faculty rise up in opposition to the actual goals of the Church according to Christ’s original mandate for it: to conquer the World in its falleness and dispel the darkness of sin by which humanity is held in moral and spiritual bondage.
Some Catholic schools, though, do prioritize their sacred mandate to advance the kingdom of heaven. In those schools, one can observe a pattern. They graduate more Catholics than they admit, and they graduate more Christians in general than they admit. In these places, the time students spend at these institutions tends to draw them into an awareness of the importance of the things of God. For that reason, the longer they spend there, the more likely they are to increase in holiness and virtue, to become more spiritually attuned, to deepen their relationship with God, to receive the Gospel, and to enter into communion with the Church.
This isn’t the place to name names, whether for good or ill. My only point is this: that the renewal of Catholic education begins with asking a simple question and orienting our priorities around it. When parents are considering a Catholic school for their children or when young men and women are considering a college or a university for higher studies, they should consider the school’s true priorities. Those priorities are measurable: more people are Catholic on the way out the door than on the way in.