An instruction published Tuesday by the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education says that Catholic schools must be committed to a sincerely Catholic educational approach, which bears witness to Christ and forms students to know and understand the world through the light of faith.
But the text is more than platitudinous — it emphasizes that school and Church leaders have an obligation to protect and promote the Catholic ecclesial identity of their schools, and to ensure that teachers and students meet the Church’s criteria for participation in education apostolates.
The text encourages collaborative dialogue between bishops and school leaders, while affirming that bishops exercise canonical governance over personnel and doctrinal matters.
The Vatican especially affirms the canonical right of the local diocesan bishop to appoint or remove religion teachers, and to remove other teachers in diocesan schools, or require that a teacher be removed in other cases.
But it also underscores the importance of affording a teacher due process - some form of an investigation, opportunity for a canonical advocate, and some effort to find another solution before a teacher is terminated for some issue of faith or public morality.
The congregation’s text seems to draw from a seemingly unresolved conflict in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which has been awaiting judgment from the Congregation for Catholic Education for more than two years.
The archdiocese and Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School have been mired in a dispute since 2019, when Archbishop Charles Thompson instructed the school not to renew the contract of a teacher in a same-sex civil marriage. The school refused, arguing that the decision was an overreach of Thompson’s authority, since Brebeuf is a Jesuit, not archdiocesan, high school.
Eventually the archbishop said the school could no longer call itself Catholic. The school, administered by the midwestern province of the Society of Jesus, appealed that decision.
The instruction published this week seems to outline the criteria by which the case in Indianapolis will be judged, suggesting the case could soon come to a close.
But the text does not indicate that the Vatican will side definitively with Thompson.
On the one hand, it explicitly affirms the kind of action he undertook in Indianapolis. On the other hand, it seems to call for a process of deliberation, and it is not clear whether that resembles how things unfolded in his archdiocese.
But if the congregation does uphold Thompson’s decisions in short order, it won’t be only bishops who take notice.
In addition to affirming the rights of bishops to exercise governance over personnel matters, the text also affirms that parents have the right and obligation to be “involved in decision-making processes concerning the school community and their children.”
Of course, Catholic doctrine has always held that parents are primary educators and schools are helpers in that mission. But canonically affirming a right of parents to participate in school decision-making processes could, in some places, signify a sea change. And it could very well open the prospect for an increased number of appeals from parents unhappy with the administration of their Catholic schools, or with the process of decision-making.
While the congregation has affirmed that right, it is actually local diocesan offices which would become the first stop for such appeals.
And while chancery school offices are very accustomed to hearing from unhappy parents, the prospect of formal canonical recourse about school decision-making might require those offices to better streamline their systems for responding to parental complaints.
In principle, of course, that could lead to greater accountability for school administration, more transparency, and even a more fruitful collaboration between parents, school leaders, and diocesan officials.
But it could also lead to increased workloads for thinly-stretched offices, and unrealistic expectations about the limits of parental “involvement” in decision-making. Involvement in a process does not always mean acquiescence to the final decision, and that might not always be clear.
In either case, “The identity of a Catholic school for a culture of dialogue” sets forth a vision for the leadership of Catholic schools that extends both prerogatives and obligations to parents, teachers, school and Church leaders.
How that text is implemented in U.S. dioceses could depend on what happens next in Indianapolis, where an active test of the Vatican’s commitment to Catholic school identity and episcopal prerogative is waiting for a long-expected resolution.