Acton Commentary

Choosing Excellence--What Makes a Great Catholic High School?


“Parents, who have the primary andinalienable right and duty to educate their children, must enjoy true libertyin their choice of schools.” This lucid and unambiguous statement comes fromthe Second Vatican Council's Declarationon Christian Education . For Catholics, it has been the authoritativedocument concerning education for more than forty years.

Many of the principles outlined inthe Declaration should appeal to both non-Catholic Christians and others.Upholding the rights, duties, and freedom of parents with respect to theirchildren's upbringing and education is a responsibility shared by all who wantto promote a society that is free and good.

As parents, political activists,and others continue to fight for educational choice, it might be appropriate toask a related question: What kind of educational choices should we make?

Since the founding of thiscountry, Catholic schools have provided an attractive option for parentsconcerned with the sound moral and intellectual formation of their children.The first parochial school in the United States was St. Mary's, established inPhiladelphia in 1782. At the ThirdPlenary Council of Baltimore in 1884, the bishops gave new impetus to Catholiceducation by mandating the formation of Catholic elementary schools in everyparish. In the Council's aftermath, American Catholics embarked on one of themost ambitious campaigns of educational institution building in history.

These efforts were motivated by ananthropological vision inspired by theology. “A true education,” the Declarationreminds us, “aims at the formation of the human person in the pursuit of hisultimate end and of the good of the societies of which, as man, he is a member,and in whose obligations, as an adult, he will share.”

Guided by this vision, Catholicschools have always recognized the multiple ends of the person: the good ofearthly society in the short-term, the good of eternal life with God in thelong-term. The combination of moral formation and preparation for life in thisworld has made Catholic schools appealing both to those who share thetheological vision specifically and to many who do not.

To honor this heritage of Catholicschooling and to strengthen its future, the Acton Institute has initiated a Catholic High School Honor Roll . Throughits work with seminarians, academics, and religious and business leaders, theInstitute is keenly aware of the importance of secondary schools in thepromotion of a free and virtuous society.

The Catholic High School HonorRoll draws attention to those schools that have striven for the goals of theDeclaration with particular zeal. “No less than other schools does the Catholicschool pursue cultural goals and the human formation of youth,” the Declarationasserts. The Honor Roll takes into account schools' commitment to civic andeconomic education that will prepare students to engage the worlds of politics,civil society, and business.

These commitments do not exhaustthe responsibilities of the Catholic school, however. It is specially tasked,the Declaration continues, with creating an “atmosphere animated by the Gospelspirit of freedom and charity, to help youth grow according to the newcreatures they were made through baptism as they develop their own personalities,and finally to order the whole of human culture to the news of salvation sothat the knowledge the students gradually acquire of the world, life and man isillumined by faith.”

The Honor Roll thus also takesinto account schools' embrace of their identity as Catholic, informed by aparticular theological outlook. This outlook is a Catholic school's reason forbeing and when it flags, the school's ability to elicit academic excellence andto instill virtue tends to weaken as well.

Examples of schools' fulfillingthe Declaration's mandates abound. At BishopMcGuinness High School in Oklahoma City, a senior-level required courseintegrates Catholic social teaching with economics. At All Hallows High School in the Bronx,students gain an “integrated understanding of the forces guiding theentrepreneurial spirit that motivates private business in the United Statestoday.” And at St. Cecilia Academy inNashville, the faculty's aim mirrors that articulated in the Declaration: “to develop [students'] spiritual and physical potential inview of their final end and the good of society.”

Please visit www.chshonor.org and take a look at more ofthe schools that deserve recognition for continuing a tradition of excellence.Without the capacity to choose the good, freedom itself lacks meaning. As longas schools such as those on the Honor Roll exist, freedom in education willremain a meaningful goal.