When Catholic Schools Were Catholic

Faith & Freedom Readers contained beautiful illustrations of Catholic parish life in an America long gone by.

And the servants of the good man of the house coming said to him: Sir, didst thou not sow good seed in thy field? whence then hath it cockle? And he said to them: an enemy hath done this. (Matt. 13:27,28)

It was what many of us consider the “Golden Age” of Catholicism in America – the post-war period stretching from, roughly, 1945 to 1968. Those two decades saw an incredible number of converts to the True Faith in the United States, with a concomitant growth in a school system that was the envy of the world.  Franciscan, Dominican, Ursuline, and Notre Dame religious – and those of many other teaching orders as well – formed tender souls using profoundly Catholic textbooks.

In 1945, men of that “greatest generation” returned from having survived the fight against Nazism and Fascism, married their sweethearts, and worked hard to provide their children with a Catholic school education, raising their youth among grateful Americans. Jobs were plentiful, for example, at Fisher Body or Bethlehem Steel. Parishes were flourishing, gaining so many new faithful that new churches had to be built so that the burgeoning numbers of Catholics seeking the sacraments for themselves and their families, and a Catholic school for their children, could be accommodated. Those parochial schools were bursting at the seams, and out of those schools, vocations were unbelievably numerous.  Minor seminaries prospered as well, attracting young Catholic boys upon their graduation from grade school.

It was a great time to be a young Catholic.  Those two and a half decades were, all things considered, a healthy and wholesome time in the history of the Catholic Church in America. We collected small change for the missions in Africa, even retrieving discarded soda bottles at construction sites and delivering them to the corner grocery store for their nickel deposits. We went door-to-door selling subscriptions to the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s weekly Catholic Review newspaper, motivated by a campaign flyer that showed such prizes as beautiful Marian statues and extra-large wooden-beaded rosaries, should we convince enough neighbors (most of whom were Catholic) to subscribe for another year. Our Franciscan sisters in full habits taught us a Faith that permeated every aspect of our grade-school curriculum. Saint Clement grade school’s annual May Procession and Crowning of the prominently displayed statue of the Blessed Mother was one of the major events of the year, attended not just by the more than five hundred parochial school students, but by parents, relatives, friends, and residents of Rosedale, a small suburb of Baltimore.  We considered ourselves blessed to have been born into a Catholic family, to be raised Catholic, and to be attending a Catholic school.  And we wondered why we, among all the children of the world, were so fortunate.  We were grateful for Almighty God’s manifold blessings.

Beautiful illustrations in the Faith & Freedom readers direct the child’s mind to more lofty ideals.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a tendency today, even among Catholics who describe themselves as “traditional”, to refuse to give credit where credit was due. Bitter over the implosion of the Church in general – including the liturgical disorientation, the destruction of the Catholic school system and the drastic drop in vocations – those critical of post-war Catholicism point to the fundamental changes which the Church has experienced over the last several decades as simply the outward manifestation of a Catholicism that had long become devoid of a real sensus fidei. It is a patently unfair criticism; but because the changes of the post-Vatican II period were gradually introduced, starting in 1965 or so, the “rotten-for-decades” narrative has gained traction among those young (or recently converted) traditional Catholics who have no better explanation for how surprisingly quick the disintegration of the Church seemed to have happened.

Still, many of us can remember with clarity the richness and beauty of Catholicism – and particularly the nobler features of Catholic education – in the post-war period of the late 40s, 50s, and most of the 60s which can, with some qualifications, really and truly be labeled a golden age for Catholic America. When we compare and contrast the lamentable state of Catholic education in our nation today with the incredibly vibrant health and doctrinal soundness of Catholic schools in those years, we are often accused by our fellow traditional Catholics of nostalgically looking back through rose-colored lenses.  It couldn’t have possibly been that sound, they say, as they hold up the errors of Vatican II and point out – correctly in many cases – the significant flaws from that Council that were introduced by the American progressives and eventually foisted upon obedient Catholics in the pews.

Catholic family life in the post-war years shown in the Faith & Freedom readers.

“Trads” will assert that the whole edifice could not have crumbled so quickly unless it had been rotten to the core for many years before the sweeping changes of the late 60s. They make sloppy allegations of “Americanism,” sharing arguments with the current destructive barbarians like “Black Lives Matter” and “Antifa” that men like George Washington (look at that picture of him in his Freemasonic apron!) and many of our other Founding Fathers are not to be revered. For goodness’ sake, they argue, so many of them were Deists, and a number of them owned slaves, you know!  And one of their favorite arguments is: “the Holy Name of Our Lord doesn’t appear anywhere in the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, or the Constitution, OK?” Those people have been reading too much Charles Coulombe.

As we have pointed out in these pages before, the flames of hatred of our country are fanned even by ignorant clergy and “trad” school teachers, who publicly preach and teach that the Bill of Rights, specifically the First Amendment of our Constitution, is odious to Almighty God because, in their reading of that basic list of unalienable rights, all religions have the same status in our land.  These misguided priests and teachers have bought into the ludicrous contention, so popular in “traditionalist” circles for the last quarter century or so, that any constitution that is not explicitly based on the Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ is fundamentally flawed and hence unworthy of our loyalty.  In their minds, the Colonial Catholics (like “Americanist” Bishop John Carroll) were perfidious because they didn’t rise up and make America a Catholic nation – notwithstanding the fact that they only made up one-half of one percent of the population of the nascent United States in 1787.

This is the kind of ignorant and unreasonable mindset that prevents “trads” from appreciating and praising the post-war Catholic school system, so much of which was indeed laudable.  Genuinely tradition-minded Catholics have gone to great lengths to seek out the text books used in Catholic schools in that relatively golden time frame. Two home-school programs – Our Lady of Victory and Seton – have gone so far as to re-print Catholic grammar books and readers, respectively.  These texts are thoroughly Catholic, and only a died-in-the-wool curmudgeon would be able to find any significant problems with, inter alia, Loyola University’s Voyages in English grammar books, Faith and Freedom readers published by Ginn & Company, and Cathedral Readers printed by Scott Forsman & Company.  Impeccably sound and chocked full of Catholic values in a pleasantly didactic way, these pedagogic gems have, for a few decades now, been gaining new devotees.  There is no pretension in the pages of these textbooks, and anyone even casually perusing them would be forced to admit that they consistently depict that American Catholicism that had been so often lauded by popes from Pius IX to Pius XII, portraying a slice of Catholic Culture that we would do well to re-discover.

Faith & Freedom Readers: thoroughly Catholic for Catholic schools.

Despite the bashing these wonderful textbooks receive at the hands of curmudgeonly “trads,” when we speak of “restoring all things in Christ,” it must start with re-establishing Catholic education and Catholic home life around such cultural bedrock as depicted in these school books.  The nay-sayers would have you believe that these books show a fragile egg-shell Catholicism that may have looked good, but was not strong enough to withstand the religious and social upheavals of the late 60s. The truth is not as simplistic, however, and almost certainly has more to do with the preternatural forces let loose in 1884 after Pope Leo XIII’s prophetic vision of Almighty God giving leave to Satan, who would use the century permitted to him to try to destroy the Church.  By the 1960s, the diabolical plan had not progressed quickly enough, so the beacon of Catholicism in the New World had to be snuffed out. As we survey the historic wheatfield of Catholic Culture in America, we certainly can see the cockle that has almost choked out the wheat, and we can lament along with the landowner who sowed good seed, “An enemy has done this!”   

3 thoughts on “When Catholic Schools Were Catholic

  1. Brilliant! A wonderful article. So much so that I’m planning to post this as a new thread on the Catholic Truth Scotland blog. I hope that’s acceptable. It’s a beautiful article – touching and thought-provoking.

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