The enrollment drop in American Catholic schools—from 5.2 million students in the 1960s to 2.5 million in 1990 to today’s 1.8 million—is a plunge of Syrian magnitude. In the last ten years, 1,336 Catholic schools have been either closed or consolidated. Meanwhile, bishops have been scrambling to ensure that their patient will survive—hoping for a recovery. In 2015, the archbishop of Cincinnati, wanting his schools to be more fully Catholic, called up Matthew Kelly and his team at Dynamic Catholic and asked them to develop a program to help. He shouldn’t have done that.
Most Catholic-school teachers are not academic philosophers. Yet the questions they ask are obviously philosophical. What makes a school “Catholic”? What if the faculty aren’t Catholic? What is the place of the sacraments in a “learning environment”? Why should a school application ask for “Mother” and “Father” instead of “Parent 1” and “Parent 2”? How do I increase “Catholic identity” in my math or science classroom?
Bear in mind that these questions arise in a building that is filled with kids and teenagers. So other sorts of questions arise as well. In my first year of teaching, my department chair’s twenty-seven-year-old daughter was killed by her (the daughter’s) husband in an act of domestic violence. How do you talk to kids about that? I’ve taught two students conceived via IVF. How do I even begin to tell them what the Church teaches? A colleague once had a girl suffer a miscarriage in the middle of class, right there on the floor. Imagine the questions the kids had the next day.
I cannot speak for all of my colleagues, but my conclusion after only a few years of teaching is that our questions are not taken very seriously. The program from Dynamic Catholic proves it. Teach, Lead, Serve: The Ministry of Teaching is a resource conceived, developed, printed, and shipped by its founder, Matthew Kelly. The full “Program Pack” comes with the book and three DVDs, a spoken version on which the contributors read their respective chapters. Think audiobook with pictures. Kelly, if you’ve never heard of him, is a particularly postmodern sort of man: an entrepreneur selling “passion” and “purpose,” whose raison d’être is “to help people and organizations become the-best-version-of-themselves.” (The hyphenated phrase he has trademarked.) Mr. Kelly made his big splash in the Catholic world back in 2010 with the publication of Rediscover Catholicism—a book that argues, more or less, that Catholicism will help people become the B.V.O.T. The imprimatur for Rediscover was given by the archdiocese of Cincinnati, the same diocese that commissioned Teach, Lead, Serve.
TLS is being used in all fifty states. At least fourteen dioceses (including the dioceses of New Ulm, Minnesota; Lake Charles, Louisiana; Richmond, Virginia; Saginaw, Michigan; Grand Rapids, Michigan; South Bend, Indiana; and Norwich, Connecticut) have distributed the book to all of their diocesan schools. The archdiocese of Denver actually gathered 1,150 diocesan teachers together on September 30, 2016, for a retreat based on the book. Dynamic Catholic notes that resources for Catholic teachers are far too few and promises that Teach, Lead, Serve—a “world-class resource”—meets this need. As far as I know, it is the first and only book to be written specifically for Catholic-school teachers.
And it is a comically bad book. Designed to “train Catholic school teachers as ministers, deepen their understanding of Catholic Church teaching, and inspire them in their calling to Catholic education,” TLS is 7¼ inches tall, 5½ inches wide, and nine-sixteenths of an inch deep. It is “printed in the United States of America.” The binding is an unusually rubbery cardboard. Of the 207 official pages, only eighty-nine contain actual writing. Seventeen pages are entirely blank; dozens more are set aside for “Notes.” In Part 1, Matthew Kelly—not himself a teacher—reflects on the “Ministry of Teaching.” In Part 2, Ryan Mahle—a high school theology teacher from Ohio—talks about morality, sex, and abortion. Part 3 is a hodgepodge of previously published essays on everything from “When Passing Notes is a Good Thing” to “The Prayer Process.”
The advice is banal, the language clunky: “The people you surround yourself with, and how you let their positivity or negativity influence you, impacts the kind of teacher you are.”
At times it is saccharine: “There is no national monument for teachers. I have never seen a statue of a teacher. But we all build monuments for teachers in our hearts.”
It can be pedantic: “Education is a wildfire. And a single educator is but a flickering of this timeless flare, hoping to shed some light where there is darkness.”
Or condescending: “Let me throw a little theology at you.”
Some of it reads like motivational business-speak: “We respect forever the leaders in our lives who were tough but fair.”
And every so often it calls on a weird source to make a point: “As Friedrich Nietzsche observed, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’”
You get the idea. Matthew Kelly manages to evade the hard questions mostly by ignoring them. How should I include “Jesus in [my] lesson plans?” Keep “an empty chair” for him, to “remind students that Jesus is always at their side.” What is evil and how should I respond to it? Make “holy moments”! How do I deal with the exhaustion, fatigue, frustration, and pain of teaching? “There is no limit to the number of holy moments you can create.” The prose is as limp as the cloying optimism it promotes. It often circles back to his usual refrain: Be the “best-version-of-yourself.” That was more or less what Eve was told in the garden.
If Kelly is evasive, his primary coauthor, Ryan Mahle, is misleading. Mahle was tasked with writing a major section about “Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.” But he offers no theology and no philosophy of education; no Colossians 1:17 or 1 Corinthians 14:6. No Newman. Instead, he writes exclusively about sexuality and reproduction—in a way that would make traditionalists wonder why they even bother.
The entirety of “Truth, Goodness, and Beauty” follows an objection-and-response format, a form used to great effect by Aquinas. But Mahle uses objections that range from the silly to the histrionic. “Catholic morality just makes people feel guilty”; “Women have a right to their bodies and the right to choose what to do with their bodies”; “The moral commands of the Church may be true for you, but they’re not true for me. So don’t judge me!” These objections, in fact, come not from teachers but from students. The responses are not much better. At one point, Mahle describes original sin.
“Does God make imperfect things?” Well, He made me, so I think the answer is a resounding “Yes!” In fact, in large part, this is what we mean by original sin—that simply by virtue of our natural birth we are already not perfect (or complete) and are therefore in need of God’s grace.
If you remember your Aquinas seminar, you’ll recognize that Mr. Mahle isn’t describing original sin at all; he’s describing an equivocal cause. Aquinas’s preferred example of it was the sun. The sun creates the light and heat that emanate from it. The light and heat resemble the sun from which they come, but they constitute something less than their origin. Aquinas, now: “So, too, God gave all things their perfections and thereby is both like and unlike all of them.” This is not original sin at all. To say that God is an equivocal cause of humans is not to say that humans have fallen from grace. Sin is not our created state, but rather the result of a choice of a creature given a will of its own.
Some errors are easier to spot. Remember those student objections? Turns out that Mr. Mahle’s responses were first used in his Cincinnati classroom before being printed in TLS. This poses a whole new set of problems. For example, Mahle thinks this response—“Medically speaking, anal sex is unquestionably harmful—ask any pathologist”—is a reasonable way to explain church teaching regarding homosexuality to teenagers. Sure.
The primary problem facing Catholic schools today is an intellectual problem: It is the severance of the intellectual from the spiritual, and of the intellectual disciplines from one another; the severance of head from heart, blowing reality into shards. Plunging enrollment is a symptom; poor faculty formation is the cause. Readers of this journal know well the deep intellectual incoherence that plagues the modern university. Will people educated in such a system be at all able to sustain Catholic education? Can graduates of American universities be expected to teach faith and reason when their formation in the former is superficial and their formation in the latter is almost certainly flawed? There is now a general consensus that Catholic laity are not properly formed by Catholic universities or by their respective parishes. Yet no one has pointed out the obvious corollary: If the laity aren’t properly formed, those institutions which rely on the laity will not properly function. And Catholic schools are the most obvious example.
Steve is a colleague of mine, a veteran of the math department and a faithful Catholic. He was organizing an ethics debate for statistics class. He knew my students were studying Aquinas’s definition of the soul and came to ask me how I could claim that a baby had a soul from conception when there was still the possibility of monozygotic twinning. Unable to give a compelling argument in the three minutes I had before class started, I gave him my copy of Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen’s Embryo. They cover the old soul-splitting twin problem in chapter 6. Steve read the whole book that day.
As it turned out, Steve was actually asking because his oldest son was trying to acquire a child through IVF, and Steve had never been given any reasons for the Church’s prohibition of such things. Given that his son was no longer Catholic, Steve couldn’t rely on assertion (“The Church says no”); he needed arguments.
John Haldane has summarized the virtues of the philosopher as follows: “One . . . needs to have good sense and good judgment, an eye for the weeds, and an ability to distinguish between the significant and the trivial.” In endorsing and circulating Matthew Kelly’s works, Catholic leaders have abandoned those virtues. While Kelly churns out books at an amphetaminic rate (twenty-seven in the past twenty-three years), his real career is motivational speaking—a superficial enterprise packed with glib slogans (“We gotta go home with a game-changer”)—while selling books with titles such as “The Dream Manager” and “The Rhythm of Life.” It occasionally gets worse. A recent Dynamic Catholic event in Virginia Beach included torch- and knife-juggling—to prove that Catholicism is cool. Kelly’s consulting company is called “Floyd Consulting,” with “Floyd” being an acronym for “Finally Living Out Your Dreams.” Why Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis Schnurr called on him is a mystery to me.
There are better alternatives. Understanding the Scriptures is a high school textbook written by Scott Hahn at the behest of Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia. It offers a complete walk through the Bible. Hahn occasionally shows his scholarly side (a section on “Understanding Time as a Part of Creation” is my favorite), yet throughout the book’s 541 pages, you don’t feel schooled so much as led—led about with no condescension or dumbing down. Catholic teachers need more books like this one.
There are 152,289 of us nationally, 97 percent laity, teachers educated after Land O’ Lakes and the ’60s. We’re educated in “education” and theory, with Sunday’s homily our only regular religious instruction. We come from all over and end up here—at your child’s Catholic school. Only a handful have been formed by FOCUS, Catholic Studies, or a Newman Guide university. In spite of all that, the Augustinian insight holds true: We are looking for something.
Like my colleagues, I fussed and grumbled my way through Teach, Lead, Serve; unlike my colleagues, I knew things didn’t have to be this way. Understanding the Scriptures didn’t come out of nowhere. It was written because a bishop saw what students needed, and he asked a qualified theologian to supply that need. Archbishop Schnurr saw that teachers needed something. Yet he didn’t look to a qualified theologian. There are dozens of sensible, theologically literate, and philosophically serious Catholics spreading the gospel and serving the Church. And yet there has been no serious attempt by a faithful Catholic intellectual (lay or religious) to evangelize Catholic-school teachers specifically the way Bishop Robert Barron has evangelized the Catholic laity more generally.
If we’re to educate the next generation in the faith, that’s exactly what we need. Less Rediscover Catholicism. More Catholicism.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this essay did not cite Archbishops Schnurr and Chaput by name.
John Thomas Goerke teaches high school theology.