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Catholic schools and an ‘integrated life of faith’

The Catholic Church is the largest private educator of students in the United States.

Last year, there were over half a million students attending Catholic high schools in the U.S., according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

But with more than 1,100 Catholic high schools in the country, Catholic education is not a monolithic experience.

Catholic school classroom. Credit: Alamy.


Eileen Reuter, who holds a PhD in philosophy and education, is interested in the qualities of Catholic schools which form their students to live integrated lives - a term which she describes as a fulfilling life with a Catholic understanding of what it means to be fully human.

Reuter has studied both gender studies and Catholic feminism. For her dissertation, Reuter researched the impact of Catholic high schools on their graduates.

Specifically, she talked to 35 women who had attended Catholic high schools across the country, who say their Catholic education helped them to have an integrated life of faith after graduation.

Reuter spoke with The Pillar about her research and its implications for Catholic schools striving to educate students in a secular culture.

That conversation is below. It has been edited for length and clarity.

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How did you determine which schools to include in your research?

I used what we call snowball sampling. I started with some schools that I knew. I went to one of these schools. Then I basically reached out to other people I trusted, who I knew were faithfully Catholic and wanted to form their kids well. I asked them "What are the schools you would send your kids to?"

I ended up with four schools. I tried particularly to get a diverse sampling. One was a small, private, independent classical school. Another was a large diocesan school, run by laypeople. Then I had another diocesan school that was run by the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia out of Nashville. And then my fourth school was an independent all-girls school run by Opus Dei – they would say they’re “in the Catholic tradition.” They’re not under the diocese.

So I tried to get a sampling of different types of schools, but all schools that I knew people who I trusted were sending their kids to or wanted to send their kids to them.

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It looks like you considered schools with different setups, educators, and educational models. Did you find that there were certain qualities that these schools all shared, that were important in forming their students?

Yes. I was looking at how Catholic schools help graduates live what I call an “integrated life.” I pulled out qualities from all the interviews that I saw as kind of an overarching umbrella.

The first one I looked at was a personal faith based on reason.

So, first, the idea of a personal faith - these schools were helping the students in their own particular growth in the faith. The former students I interviewed frequently talked about the chaplain of the school and his influence, and confession being accessible, adoration.

And then based on reason: All of the schools in different ways through their curriculum really emphasize that the understanding of the human person that is espoused by the Church is based in reason. We can access it by understanding the natural law and the way the world is made. All the schools do that, in different ways. That was really important, I think.

Then also having models of the faith. So seeing teachers who really practice their faith and seeing people go into the chapel and pray. Everyone talked about different role models that they had, different teachers or other people – sometimes the mom of a friend – who they kind of identified with and said, "I want my life to look like this person's."

Community is huge. I think that's hands down one of the biggest things that every school has to work really hard on, forming a community where they hire teachers who are exemplars of the faith. And also having events in a community feel where students and faculty and families are all sharing in the same experience. Because I think that aspect, without a doubt, was one of the most foundational pieces for the students.

I also looked at growth in virtue, and I did also look at the intellectual formation, which is what I sort of mentioned with this faith and reason.

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Your study had some limitations in its scope. You talked to 35 former students – all women – from four schools. You only talked to students who were still connected to their schools. Do you know of any data to compare these experiences with that of students who attend Catholic schools more broadly? Or Catholics who attend public schools?

I wasn't looking at that in particular, but I did do a literature review on all the data that's out there for Catholic schools.

I would say the data on Catholic schools right now is not particularly helpful because the word “Catholic” in terms of schools is so broad.

You have Catholic schools that are basically secular with Mass maybe once a month. Maybe they have theology classes that could be taught by somebody who's not even teaching the Church's teachings. Then on the other side of the spectrum, you have schools that are almost so afraid of the world that they've closed the gates and they're this kind of closed bubble community.

So I guess my perception after I read all the data that's out there on Catholic schools is that it’s not particularly helpful. And to be honest, there's not a lot of new data. People aren't doing a lot of research on Catholic schools, partly for this reason that it's such a broad category right now.

But my sense is that there's a small subset of schools that are really working at this renewal of Catholic education, and as of yet, no stories have been told of these graduates. So that was kind of my goal - to say, what's the story of these graduates?

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It’s interesting that you looked at different models of Catholic schools. Sometimes there can be competition among different Catholic educational models.

But you found that, at least in terms of helping students pursue an integrated Catholic life, the particular educational model is less important than having these elements of community, virtuous role models, encouraging personal faith based in reason etc.?  

I am very much aware of the in-fighting among Catholics about which is the best model of school. It kind of drives me crazy, because no school is perfect, first of all, and what we really need is to come to a consensus about what across the board is working. I did try to step away from that in-fighting.

I would say one of my schools looks like a much more secular school from the outset, the way they taught their classes. They had a strong theology department, which was really good, but their actual coursework was very similar to what you would take at a public school down the road. And I will say that they recognized and they were working themselves on trying to change even their way of teaching social studies and history because they realized themselves that the students were missing out on part of their faith because they didn't have a special way of looking at western civ and literature through the lens of Catholicism.

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Do you think your research could be a model for a Catholic school that’s seeking to create faithful graduates?

A lot of the aspects I look at are outside of the classroom - things like dress code and uniforms and dances.

If you were a teacher or administrator, you could step back and look at some of my research on how these different exemplary schools handle dances, for example, which I think is a huge kind of hot-button issue in terms of how you answer the culture and how the culture treats the human person.

So you could look through all this and say, ‘Hey, that's a good idea. We could do this or we could do that’.

I don't think that you would look at my data and say, ‘We're going to start a school that looks exactly like this school.’ It's more that you could get ideas about certain aspects of the school's culture through seeing models of what different schools are doing, and then thinking about ways that you could tweak your curriculum or tweak different aspects of your school life policies.

Right now, my research is on ProQuest. You have to have an academic affiliation to access it. But I’m working on a book as well.

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Your research looked specifically at the impact of Catholic schools on women, and their vocational discernment in balancing professional life and motherhood. Do you think your findings would also apply to men?

I absolutely think so. The backbone of what I'm doing is looking at how schools are teaching and understanding of the human person within this culture. So absolutely, I think that would apply to everyone.

Personally, I felt that it was much easier for me as a woman to interview other women. I feel like it would be easier for guys to talk about their formation as men at schools to another man. That's something I'm sort of still toying with - how I can do that. But I just felt like for the small scope of my dissertation, it makes sense to do that.

But the backbone of it is formation as a human person, which is absolutely relevant to everyone.

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