"Everyone who belongs to the Truth hears my voice…" (John 18:37)

Catholic Education Under Attack

The first time I walked into a Catholic school, I felt a little weird. I’d converted to Catholicism some years before, but I still felt like a bit of an imposter. Having been brought up in the Protestant faith and educated in B.C.’s public-school system, I had no idea what to expect. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was that distinguished public from separate-school education – except, of course, that Catholic kids usually went to Catholic schools. But I suspected there wouldn’t be any big surprises in store for me. “After all,” I thought, “schools are about academics, not religion, right?”

Wrong. The instant I walked through the doors of St. Gregory School, I realized that Catholic schools aren’t just about ‘reading, writing, and arithmetic’. There was no mistaking the unique identity of this school, from the crucifix and Catholic banner that were prominently displayed in the front foyer to the warm and friendly welcome I received in the office. Even though it was a fair size school (today it has 435 students), I was struck by how personal everything felt. Everyone seemed to know my nephew (who I was picking up), and they spoke of him so warmly. The atmosphere was completely at odds with the image I had formed of what typical schools are like, and it made me want to better understand what Catholic schools are all about.

Photo courtesy of the Calgary Catholic School Board

History of Catholic Education in Alberta

Catholic education in Canada has a long tradition that goes back to the earliest days of our country’s history. The first school – in what was then known as New France – was founded in 1620 (in Québec City) by missionaries from the Récollet order. Our nation was still largely unexplored, however, and it would be more than another 200 years before the first school would be established in Alberta.

Fr. Jean-Baptiste Thibault (1810-1879), founder of Lac Ste.-Anne*

In 1842, Fr. Jean-Baptiste Thibault left St. Boniface, Manitoba and travelled more than 1300 kilometers to Fort Edmonton on horseback. At the invitation of the Métis and Cree families living near Manito Sahkahigan (‘Spirit Lake’ – about 75 kilometers west of Edmonton), he established a mission and named it Lac Ste. Anne. During his time there, Fr. Thibault not only shared the Gospel with the people, but taught them important farming skills to help them become self-sufficient.1

By 1852, Fr. Thibault’s health was failing due to the arduous work and difficult living conditions. He was forced to return to St. Boniface in 1852, and Fr. Albert Lacombe took over the care of the mission. The community at Lac Ste. Anne continued to grow and flourish, and in September 1859, three Gray Nuns (Sisters of Charity) arrived from Montréal to open a school, the first to be built in Alberta.2


The first schools were all Catholic, and this created tension after a huge influx of English Protestants settled in Alberta. Protestants and Catholics were deeply divided over how education should be delivered, so the colonial government began to establish publicly funded education systems. Mindful of the need to protect the rights of the French and Métis families, Alberta passed the Northwest Territories Act in 1885, which provided for the establishment of both Protestant and Catholic school systems. In Alberta today, there are 180,000 students attending Catholic schools and 485,000 students registered in public schools.3

How can you tell if a school is Catholic?

Just because a school is named after a saint and has crucifixes on its walls doesn’t mean it automatically qualifies as a Catholic school according to the mind of the Church. The Holy See has consistently taught that there are five essential and defining principles – also called ‘marks’ – that must form part of a school’s identity for it to be considered authentically Catholic. “They are measurable benchmarks,” writes Archbishop J. Michael Miller, “forming the backbone and inspiring the mission of every Catholic school.”4 Let’s take a closer look at those five marks.

Five Essential Marks of Catholic Schools

1. Inspired by a Supernatural Vision

“A good Catholic school … should help all its students to become saints.” – Pope Benedict XVI

The purpose of education, in the Catholic view, is not simply about learning the ABC’s or memorizing periodic tables in the hope of getting a more lucrative job after graduation. Pope Benedict XVI said, “The task of a teacher is not simply to impart information or to provide training in skills intended to deliver some economic benefit to society; education is not and must never be considered as purely utilitarian. It is about forming the human person, equipping him or her to live life to the full – in short it is about imparting wisdom. And true wisdom is inseparable from knowledge of the Creator.”5

Catholic education places an emphasis on “the inalienable dignity of the human person – above all on his or her spiritual dimension.”6 Students acquire the academic, emotional, social, and physical skills that they need to fulfill God’s plan for them as unique individuals. Our goal is to form the whole child so that they will be good citizens of this world as well as good citizens of the world to come; in short, it tries to “help all its students to become saints.”7 Consider these words of Pope Benedict XVI taken from his 2010 address to students in London, England:

“When I invite you to become saints, I am asking you not to be content with second best. I am asking you not to pursue one limited goal and ignore all the others. Having money makes it possible to be generous and to do good in the world, but on its own, it is not enough to make us happy. Being highly skilled in some activity or profession is good, but it will not satisfy us unless we aim for something greater still. It might make us famous, but it will not make us happy. …

“In your Catholic schools, there is always a bigger picture over and above the individual subjects you study, the different skills you learn. All the work you do is placed in the context of growing in friendship with God, and all that flows from that friendship. So you learn not just to be good students, but good citizens, good people. … But always remember that every subject you study is part of a bigger picture. Never allow yourselves to become narrow. The world needs good scientists, but a scientific outlook becomes dangerously narrow if it ignores the religious or ethical dimension of life, just as religion becomes narrow if it rejects the legitimate contribution of science to our understanding of the world. We need good historians and philosophers and economists, but if the account they give of human life within their particular field is too narrowly focused, they can lead us seriously astray. A good school provides a rounded education for the whole person.”8

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (1942-2018) didn’t believe in God, but he “was still an esteemed member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and fostered a fruitful dialogue between science and faith.”***

I used to think that Catholic schools were exclusive places, and I was surprised to find that they welcome students from all faiths and all walks of life. Non-Catholic students play an important role in our Catholic learning communities, enriching our faith journeys and helping us to better understand the world around us. Pope Benedict addressed these words to non-Catholic students, saying, “I know that there are many non-Catholics studying in the Catholic schools in Great Britain, and I wish to include all of you in my words today. I pray that you too will feel encouraged to practise virtue and to grow in knowledge and friendship with God alongside your Catholic classmates. You are a reminder to them of the bigger picture that exists outside the school, and indeed, it is only right that respect and friendship for members of other religious traditions should be among the virtues learned in a Catholic school. I hope too that you will want to share with everyone you meet the values and insights you have learned through the Christian education you have received.”9

Christ at 33 by Heinrich Hoffman (1824-1911)

2. Founded on a Christian Anthropology

“Christ is not an afterthought or an add-on to Catholic educational philosophy; he is the center and fulcrum of the entire enterprise, the light enlightening every boy and girl who comes into a Catholic school (cf. John 1:9).” – Archbishop J. Michael Miller

A Catholic education isn’t a factory for students to learn various skills to use in the world of business and industry, notes Archbishop J. Michael Miller. “[It] is not a commodity, even if Catholic schools equip their graduates with enviable skills.”10 The emphasis of Catholic education is the supernatural destiny of students; we believe that the purpose of our lives is to be with God in heaven in eternity. There is a complementarity that exists between the natural and the supernatural, and we have a profound appreciation of the need to form our children as images of God.11 But in order to do this, we need God’s grace – a grace which, as St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out, “does not destroy nature, but perfects it.”12

Our confidence in the transforming power of the Person of Christ is at the heart of Catholic education. Jesus is our model and our example, and we strive to imitate Him in all that we do. Archbishop Miller writes, “The gospel of Jesus Christ and his very person are to inspire and guide the Catholic school in every dimension of its life and activity – its philosophy of education, its curriculum, its community life, its selection of teachers, and even its physical environment. Christ is the Teacher in Catholic schools. … Authentic Catholic educators recognize Christ and his understanding of the human person as the measure of a school’s catholicity.”13 Jesus Christ is not only our model but our means, “the perfect Man in whom all human values find their fullest perfection.”14

3. Animated by Communion and Community

“Without confidence and love, there can be no true education. If you want to be loved…you must love yourselves, and make your children feel that you love them.” – St. John Bosco

A third mark of catholicity is our understanding of the school as a community of persons (as opposed to an institution), a view that contrasts with the prevailing attitude of today’s individualistic society.15 This emphasis on community is evident in four areas: teamwork among all those involved, cooperation between educators and bishops, the interaction of students with teachers, and the school’s physical environment.16


Catholic education, especially in elementary schools, strives to create “a community school climate that reproduces, as far as possible, the warm and intimate atmosphere of family life.’”17 Teachers work together as a team with parents and school board members for the common good.18

Catholic teaching acknowledges that parents have a primal right and duty to educate their children; other members of the larger community work together to support them in fulfilling these rights and duties. “Since parents have given their children their life,” wrote Pope St. Paul VI, “they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators.”19 For this reason, Catholic schools nurture close cooperation with the family, a cooperation that is “especially important when treating sensitive issues such as religious, moral, or sexual education, orientation toward a profession, or a choice of one’s vocation in life. It is not a question of convenience, but a partnership based on faith.”20

Cooperation between Educators and Bishops

Bishop William McGrattan visiting with students at St. Francis of Assisi School in Toronto (April, 2012)****

Bishops and Catholic educators also work together to foster catholicity in our schools. Their personal relationships are marked by “mutual trust, close cooperation, and continuing dialogue … [that has its foundation in the] shared adherence to the Person of Christ. Trust is fostered by listening to one another, by respecting the different gifts of each, and by recognizing one another’s specific responsibilities.”21

Bishops are responsible for integrating schools into their diocese’s pastoral program, as well as overseeing the teaching within them; they must “[ensure] that teachers are sound in their doctrine and outstanding in their integrity of life.”22 Open, sincere, and regular dialogue between educators and bishops ensures that our schools are based on the principles of Catholic doctrine.

Interaction of Students and Teachers

The quality of interpersonal relations in the school has always been particularly important in the Catholic philosophy of education, especially the relationships that exist between teachers and students. “Direct and personal contact between teachers and students is a hallmark of the Catholic school.”23 Catholic educators recognize that students need a companion and guide during their period of growth, the personalized accompanying of a teacher to help them overcome doubts and disorientation. However, in order to safeguard the priority of the person – both student and teacher – “rapport with the students ought to be a prudent combination of familiarity and distance; and this must be adapted to the need of each individual student.”24

Physical Environment

Because the Catholic school is an extension of the home, “it ought to have ‘some of the amenities which can create a pleasant and family atmosphere’,”25 including adequate infrastructure and equipment. From the moment one steps into a Catholic school, we should recognize that this is a new environment, one that is illumined by the light of faith and that has its own unique characteristics. We should see visible expressions of the external signs of our faith, such as images, symbols, icons, and other objects of devotion. Dedicated chapels, classroom crucifixes and statues, as well as liturgical celebrations are reminders of our Catholic sacramental life; good art that is not explicitly religious in its subject matter also witnesses to the spirit of our Catholic culture.26

“Prayer should be a normal part of the school day, so that students learn to pray in times of sorrow and joy, of disappointment and celebration, of difficulty and success.”27 Mass should be celebrated regularly and traditional Catholic devotions, such as praying the Rosary, reading from the Bible, and learning about the lives of the saints – also have their place.

4. Imbued with a Catholic worldview

“Catholicism is a ‘comprehensive way of life’ that should animate every aspect of its activities and its curriculum.” – Archbishop J. Michael Miller

I used to think that the main difference between public and Catholic schools was religion classes and the presence of nuns. I didn’t understand that Catholic education is an integral approach directed to the growth of the whole person, one that encompasses the “intellectual, physical, psychological, moral, and religious capabilities of every student.”28 Archbishop Miller writes, “[A school] is Catholic because it undertakes to educate the whole child, addressing the requirements of his or her natural and supernatural perfection. It is Catholic because it provides an education in the intellectual and moral virtues. It is Catholic because it prepares for a fully human life at the service of others and for the life of the world to come. All instruction, therefore, must be authentically Catholic in content and methodology across the entire program of studies.”29

5. Sustained by Gospel witness.

“Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” – Pope St. Paul VI

Whether a Catholic school fulfills its purpose or not depends on the witness of its teachers and administrators. Children learn more from example – by observing the actions and attitudes of their teachers – than they benefit from the latest pedagogical techniques. You can’t fool today’s students; they know whether their teachers are authentic, whether they practice what they preach. “If teachers fail to model fidelity to the truth and virtuous behavior,” observes Archbishop Miller, “then even the best of curricula cannot successfully embody a Catholic school’s distinctive ethos.”30 For this reason, schools do their best to “recruit teachers who are practicing Catholics, who can understand and accept the teachings of the Catholic Church and the moral demands of the gospel, and who can contribute to the achievement of the school’s Catholic identity and apostolic goals.”31

Catholic education is under attack. This is not a drill!

“There’s a targeted campaign out there trying to take [Catholic education] away from our children. Everybody needs to get engaged quickly and let our government know that choice in education is critical for our families.” – Lisa Turchansky, Edmonton Catholic School Board Trustee

The Alberta Catholic education system continues to make immeasurably positive contributions to society and culture. Its success has inspired increasing numbers of parents – both Catholic and non-Catholic – to enroll their children in separate schools. Alberta’s Education Minister, David Eggen, has acknowledged that “the results the Catholic school boards in this province produce are second to none.”32 However, today, Alberta’s Catholic education is facing threats on multiple fronts: “the threat against freedom of religion and anti-Catholicism; lobbying on the issues of finances; attacks on Catholic teachings on sexuality; and the apathy of Catholics to do anything about it.”33

On October 25th, “the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta launched its “Together for Students” campaign to advocate for a single education system, arguing it would lead to cost savings, more resources in the classroom and greater choice. However, it would also mean the dissolution of the Catholic school system.”34

Catholics have a constitutional right to publicly funded denominational education, and it’s tempting to think that we don’t need to worry about all of this – that everything will work out okay. But that would be a tragic mistake. Anna Loparco, partner with Dentons Canada LLP and legal counsel to the Alberta Catholic Schools Trustees Associations (ACSTA), warned that, “Constitutional rights, although they are entrenched and are very important and difficult to remove, doesn’t mean that they can’t be removed, and that was done in Newfoundland and Quebec.”35 Loparco noted that “the Theodore case, in which the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench ruled that non-Catholic students could not be funded to attend Catholic schools in the province, is also a threat to Catholic education in Alberta. That decision, which is now under appeal, would “decimate Catholic education in Saskatchewan,” she said, because some 40 per cent of attendees are not Catholic. If they had to pay privately to fund their children’s education, Loparco estimates it would cost about $12,000 per child, per year.”36

 At the November 5th panel discussion, ‘Catholic Education: Why Should I Care?’, Dean Sarnecki, executive director of the ACSTA, challenged Catholics to shake off their apathy and get involved. He said, “We as a community must be strong in what we do and how we defend our rights to Catholic education by doing the best we can in defending it to everyone we meet.”37 Archbishop Richard Smith agreed, saying, “We must care about our Catholic schools – all Catholics need to, not just the hierarchy of the Church. … Looking for every opportunity to speak to the beauty of Catholic education is the proper way to address Catholic apathy.”38

 “To that end, an alliance of educators and stakeholders with representatives of all 16 school districts that offer Catholic education in Alberta was formed in October. Grateful Advocates for Catholic Education (GrACE) was established to advocate vocally and publicly for publicly funded Catholic education, which currently serves an estimated 170,000 students in the province.”39

More information will be forthcoming. I hope and pray that GrACE will have your support.

Sharon van der Sloot


1 The first school in Canada – a boarding school – was established in Québec City in 1620 by the Catholic Récollet Order. The missionaries, along with the French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, arrived in New France in May 1615.

The Grey Nuns were the third, fourth, and fifth women to travel to Alberta.

3 These constitutional rights were confirmed in the 1905 Alberta Act, by which the province of Alberta was created. Separate school education also exists in Canada in the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario. For more information, see the informative video by Robson Fletcher, “Why does Alberta still have a Catholic school system? Here’s a 2-minute explanation,” CBC (April 21, 2018); available from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/why-alberta-saskatchewan-ontario-have-separate-catholic-schools-1.4614462; Internet; accessed 6 November 2018. Other school authorities in Alberta include francophone, private, charter, provincial, and federal schools. See https://education.alberta.ca/alberta-education/student-population/everyone/student-population-overview/.

4 Archbishop J. Michael Miller, C.S.B., “Five Essential Marks of Catholic Schools,” CERC (Catholic Education Resource Centre). Excerpt reprinted from Archbishop J. Michael Miller, C.S.B., The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools (Atlanta: Sophia Institute Press, 2006), chapter 3, 17-63; available from https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/education/catholic-contributions/five-essential-marks-of-catholic-schools.html; Internet; accessed 6 November 2018.

5 Pope Benedict XVI, Celebration of Catholic Education (September 17, 2010), “Address of the Holy Father to Teachers and Religious”; available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2010/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20100917_mondo-educ.html; Internet; accessed 6 November 2018. Italics added by author.

6 Miller, “Five Essential Marks of Catholic Schools.”

7 Pope Benedict XVI, Celebration of Catholic Education (September 17, 2010), “Address of the Holy Father to Pupils”; available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2010/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20100917_mondo-educ.html; Internet; accessed 6 November 2018.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Cf. Miller, “Five Essential Marks of Catholic Schools.”

11 Ibid.

12 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part 1, Question 1 – The nature and extent of sacred doctrine, Article 8 – “Whether sacred doctrine is a matter of argument?”, Reply to Objection 2. Available from http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1001.htm; Internet; accessed 7 November 2018.

13 Miller, “Five Essential Marks of Catholic Schools.”

14 Ibid. Quote taken from St. John Paul II, 1979 Message to the National Catholic Educational Association.

15 Cf. Ibid.

16 Cf. Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Cf. Ibid.

19 Pope St. Paul VI, Gravissimum Educationis (Declaration on Christian Education, Oct. 28, 1965), #3. Available from http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_gravissimum-educationis_en.html; Internet; accessed 9 November 2018.

20 Miller, “Five Essential Marks of Catholic Schools.”

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 Cf. Ibid.

27 Ibid.

28 Cf. Ibid.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid. Quoted from National Directory of Catechesis (2005).

32 James Wood, “Alberta bishops warn Catholic school system in danger,” Calgary Herald (November 6, 2017); available from https://calgaryherald.com/news/politics/alberta-bishops-warn-catholic-school-system-in-danger; Internet; accessed 10 November 2018.

33 Thandiwe Konguavi, “Apathy biggest threat to separate school system, experts say,” Grandin Media (November 7, 2018); available from https://grandinmedia.ca/apathy-biggest-threat-separate-catholic-school-system-experts-say/; Internet; accessed 9 November 2018.

34 Ibid. For more information on the Together for Students campaign, see https://www.togetherforstudents.ca/.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid.

39 Ibid.




*** CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano handout. Caption: Cf Carol Glatz, “Stephen Hawking was a longtime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences” (14 March 2018); Catholic Herald; available from  http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2018/03/14/stephen-hawking-was-a-longtime-member-of-the-pontifical-academy-of-sciences/; Internet; accessed 10 November 2018.

****Photo courtesy of Toronto Catholic School Board; St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School; available from https://www.tcdsb.org/schools/stfrancisofassisi/News/Archive/20112012/Pages/Bishop-McGrattan-Visit.aspx.



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