Catholic Education in America: Struggle and success


For more than a century and a half, Catholic schools have been the largest educational system in the United States that is not owned and run by the government. Today Catholic elementary and secondary schools enroll more than 1.6 million students; in undergraduate and postgraduate programs offered by 226 Catholic colleges and universities there are another 850,000 students earning degrees and gaining vocational expertise.

Catholic schools and teachers and administrators – and the donors who support them – have created an invaluable resource for millions of families, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, of all classes, stations and races. Catholic educators seek to engage the whole person – both mind and soul – and they recognize an enduring responsibility to provide schooling for the nonwealthy, the underserved and the immigrant.

American Catholic education is undeniably a great achievement, and like any great undertaking it has required faithfulness, ingenuity and sacrifice. But its history has also had elements of a battle, with powerful enemies. And that battle seems never to be quite over.

Catholics in the new United States

The English colonial implantation had a two-century-long habit of near zero tolerance for Catholics. Catholicism had been generally illegal, and Catholics were persona non grata. In 1790, when the 13 colonies became the 13 states, Catholics numbered only 35,000 in a population of 4 million; and by 1820 the number of American Catholics was still no more than 200,000.

A revered pioneer from the early 1800s is St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774–1821), a native of New York who worked in Maryland with the support of Bishop John Carroll (the nation’s first and only bishop 1790-1800) to found a teaching order of sisters and establish schools in several Eastern cities. Seton is a heroine of Catholic education, but she labored in the vineyard during a simpler era of anti-Catholic discrimination, when Catholics were few on the ground. Two decades after her death came the dawn of a new era, in which our Protestant brethren would have to count their papist neighbors in millions rather than thousands.

A deluge of Catholics

Upheaval and turmoil in Europe – political, economic and cultural – with violent revolutions in 1830, 1848 and onward, displaced many ordinary people, many of them Catholic peasants and workers (Irish, German, Italian, Polish). In 1845, Ireland was struck by what has been called “the 19th century’s greatest natural disaster,” the Potato Famine, which did not end until 1852. In these few years, Ireland lost a million dead and saw another million flee the Emerald Isle, seeking new homes.

The Irish Catholics who entered the U.S. between 1845 and 1850 numbered about 500,000, and they and their co-religionists from other Catholic countries swelled the Catholic population to 1.6 million. The Catholic Church had suddenly become the nation’s largest single Christian denomination.

A Protestant hegemony

At this very moment, beginning in the 1830s, the civic-minded elites of the U.S. were inventing something new: public schools. These were schools owned and run by the government, funded by taxes, free from tuition, available to all children. They were called “common schools” because they would instill in pupils the common culture of the nation. Today we think of a “public school” as a secular and areligious institution. Its inventors did not. Horace Mann, a Massachusetts state official and a leader of the movement, wrote, “Our system earnestly inculcates all Christian morals. It welcomes the religion of the Bible; and in receiving the Bible, it allows it to do what is allowed by no other system – to speak for itself.”

The late great Catholic journalist Robert P. Lockwood called this educational project a “Protestant hegemony,” in which “it was accepted as a matter of fundamental pedagogy that a general Protestant understanding of Scripture and devotional life within the schools was central to the curriculum.” Lockwood adds some detail: “The schools were subtle – and not very subtle – tools for evangelizing the growing Irish Catholic immigrant population to Protestantism. … Daily scripture readings from the King James Bible were required. Prayers, songs and general religious instruction at odds with Catholic belief were the norm. Anti-Catholic sentiments extended throughout the curriculum with references to deceitful Catholics, murderous inquisitions, vile popery, church corruption, conniving Jesuits and the pope as the Antichrist of Revelation.”

New York: debate and denial

In New York, state funds for education had been controlled since 1805 by “a benevolent association” called the Public School Society. By 1840, the emerging Catholic community had built eight schools serving 5,000 children – but at least 12,000 more Catholics “either attended no school or were enrolled in the common schools where their faith was insulted daily,” Lockwood wrote.

In 1840 the new governor of New York recommended to the legislature that schools should be established where immigrants “may be instructed by teachers speaking the same language with themselves and professing the same faith.” The governor’s overture prompted New York Bishop John Hughes, himself an Irish immigrant, to request such funding for the Catholic schools. The request was denied. A public debate ensued, and the request was denied again, and with finality: No New York tax funds would be assigned to any Catholic educational project. Lockwood says of the New York failure: “The parameters of the debate were set and would be adhered to virtually to our own day.”

The efforts of the bishops in New York and Philadelphia to secure equitable treatment inspired violent protests; in 1844 five Catholic churches were burned down and 13 people were killed in the City of Brotherly Love. The U.S. bishops could see that the Catholic community would have to create schools of their own, and the bishops urged, and eventually decreed, that the first order of business for parishes was to establish a school. Catholics thus began a long tradition of devotedly and at sacrificial cost creating their own institutions of social service (schools, colleges, orphanages, hospitals, charities, clubs and more). The story is well told in the 1998 book, “American Catholic,” by Charles R. Morris.

America’s Blaine legacy

In 1870, the census counted 4.2 million Catholics in a national population of 38 million, making Catholics a group with significant political weight. One way to avoid defeat on a contentious political matter – such as denying Catholic schools any access to public funds – is to remove it from the realm of retail politics and embed the categorical denial in our foundational document, the Constitution.

Sen. James G. Blaine of Maine in 1874 proposed to amend the U.S. Constitution to have it decree that “no money raised by taxation in any state for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor, … shall ever be under the control of any religious sect.”

His amendment narrowly failed, but its popularity was evident, as individual states both old and new hastened to add the Blaine language to their own state constitutions. By 1890, 29 (including California) of the 42 states in the Union (that’s 69 percent) had Blained themselves. But have we put behind us now what Lockwood calls “these antiquated and historically bigoted amendments”? No. In 2021, there are Blaine amendments in the constitutions of 37 of our 50 states (74 percent). Clearly, our United States have not de-Blained themselves. And we parse repeatedly and relitigate tirelessly endless variations on the basic question: Can a family take some public dollars to a religious school to pay for their child’s education? These contentions frequently go all the way to the Supreme Court.

Here are two SCOTUS cases that deserve attention:

  • Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. In June 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state of Montana cannot prohibit scholarship recipients in its program for low-income students from spending their scholarships at religious schools.
  • Carson v. Makin, Commissioner of Maine Department of Education. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in December 2021 and will issue its ruling by June 2022 on whether recipients of vouchers in Maine’s state-run “town-tuitioning” program can spend their vouchers at a religious school.

To close with a curious historical factoid: Blaine’s home state of Maine does not have a “Blaine amendment” in its constitution, and it is likely that the belated attempt at Blaineism being litigated in Carson v. Makin will be found by the Supreme Court to violate the U.S. Constitution.

J. A. Gray is a writer and editor, and most recently served as communication manager for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.