Catholic High Schools: Facing the New Realities

By Sisto, Walter N. | Theological Studies, March 2014 | Go to article overview

Catholic High Schools: Facing the New Realities


Sisto, Walter N., Theological Studies


Catholic High Schools: Facing the New Realities. By James L. Heft, S.M. New York: Oxford University, 2011. Pp. ix + 254. $24.95.

Heft's insightful and informative study is not limited to a historical and contemporary study of the challenges that Catholic high school educators, students, parents, and administrators face today, but rather situates itself within a broader study of American culture. To this end, he believes that how Catholic educators respond to these challenges will determine the future of Catholic primary and secondary education in this country. For H., if Catholic high schools are to survive, they must remain relevant in a secular society that stresses individualism, religious pluralism, and "therapeutic deism" (47). Beyond confronting American culture in a thoughtful manner, H. maintains that Catholic schools must demonstrate that they have a distinctive mission and purpose, address religious illiteracy of some of its Catholic leaders, administrators, and educators, demonstrate financial viability, and witness to the gospel by their good character.

Although this may seem a daunting task, H. offers honest appraisals of the situation and pragmatic solutions. For example, after diagnosing the financial dilemma of many schools, he suggests that Catholic schools adopt the Catholic university model of creating lay boards to raise funds for their schools. Drawing on his own experiences as a Catholic educator/administrator and recent research, he stresses that members of a board should be carefully chosen, so that the board will reflect and understand the nature and mission of the school (128-29). He rightly admonishes his readers to avoid selecting board members solely on the basis of their business acumen, because "to focus on margin apart from the mission spells the end of any distinctive identity for the school" (128). In his epilogue H. notes that weak leadership, that is, the loss of mission and confidence in that mission, is one main reason for the decline in Catholic schools (228).

In the context of Catholic high schools that are associated with a religious order, H. offers important insights into the active role religious communities must have in forming the leaders of their schools, which include setting up an endowment with the sole purpose of forming lay leaders in the Catholic tradition.

In chapter 7, which all who work with teenagers should read, H. draws from sociological and neurological studies on adolescents to reach his conclusion that many adolescents suffer from a form of "moral therapeutic deism," and offers suggestions on how Catholic educators can effectively redress this bland religiosity (155). …

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