San Domenico School in San Anselmo, Calif., has voluntarily chosen to remove or relocate most of its Christian statues and artwork to appease non-Catholic students. Many Catholics are horrified, but sometimes it’s entirely appropriate for a Catholic school to remove all Catholic imagery—like when it’s being decommissioned as Catholic, which is precisely what ought to happen in this case.
When the Catholic Church decommissions a church building, the adornments are properly disposed of and, hopefully, sent on to other Catholic parishes that are still able to fulfill their mission. It would be scandalous for someone to walk into a fully adorned Catholic church, only to find it changed into a skate park (as happened to a 100-year-old Spanish church).
And when a formerly Catholic school converts to a government-funded charter school, both the church and the state must ensure that all Catholic imagery and references to Jesus Christ are removed from the building and website before the new school opens.
For Catholics, it was appalling to learn that a 150-year-old elite, Dominican school in the San Francisco Bay Area had nearly erased its Catholic imagery to score points with non-Catholic students. While it may have seemed that the school was overreacting to the recent angst about certain historical monuments, the school had apparently been planning this action for some time. An administrator publicly lamented that the move unhappily coincided with larger events.
Clearly San Domenico’s Catholic identity has been in decline for some time. Its mission statement could belong to any secular school: “preparing the next generation of global leaders… [and] to uphold the values of study, reflection, service and community.” If San Domenico finds that not enough Catholics are willing to spend $42,825 for a year of high school, it can keep most of its current mission and curriculum and transition to a public charter school without a hitch.
The philosophy animating the school does not seem to reflect Christian anthropology or metaphysics. The school’s director of philosophy, ethics and world religions told the Marin Independent Journal, “The Dominican teaching philosophy is not to teach there is only one truth.” Surely the great Dominican theologian, Saint Thomas Aquinas, would disagree!
Even before the recent news of San Domenico’s purge of Christian imagery, the school had removed Christian references from its very extensive website. The words “Jesus” or “Christ” or “Church” are noticeably absent. The word “Catholic” appears a couple times in talking about the school’s origin and in referring to its membership in the National Catholic Educational Association, but that’s about it.
Contrast this approach and the school’s effort to whitewash Christ from its halls and its curriculum with the Catholic Church’s deep understanding and confidence that “man’s vital relationship with Christ reminds us that it is in His person that the fullness of the truth concerning man is to be found. For this reason, the Catholic school, in committing itself to the development of the whole man, does so in obedience to the solicitude of the Church, in the awareness that all human values find their fulfillment and unity in Christ” (Vatican Congregation on Catholic Education, The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, 1997).
In order to appreciate how far San Domenico has strayed from its mission, it is important to understand the nature and goals of Catholic education. The Catholic Church does not establish schools to compete with government schools or to get kids into college and a job—at least not primarily. Catholic schools exist to help people get to heaven. This involves teaching knowledge and skills and orienting young people toward service of the common good here below, but these are means to a greater end.
Pope Pius XI in 1939 put it this way: The purpose of Catholic education is “securing the Supreme Good, that is, God, for the souls of those who are being educated, and the maximum of well-being possible here below for human society.”
More recently, the Catholic Church’s canon law put it this way:
Since true education must strive for complete formation of the human person that looks to his or her final end, as well as to the common good of societies, children and youth are to be nurtured in such a way that they are able to develop their physical, moral, and intellectual talents harmoniously, acquire a more perfect sense of responsibility and right use of freedom, and are formed to participate actively in social life.
None of this is a well-kept secret; Catholic bishops have not hidden their expectations or directives for Catholic schools. The Church has issued Vatican II documents, papal encyclicals and exhortations, statements from national bishops’ conferences and dozens of documents from the Vatican’s Congregation of Catholic Education on this topic. If anything, the amount of guidance can be overwhelming.
Recently, I was part of team of scholars who sought to distill this guidance and expectations from the Church into key principles of Catholic identity. We organized the Church’s guidance on education into five distinct elements which all Catholic schools must have to fulfill the broad mission the Church has entrusted to them.
First, they must be inspired by a divine mission. All their educational efforts are to be part of the Church’s mission of salvation and evangelization for the good of each student and the good of society.
Second, Catholic schools must model Christian communion. In Catholic schools, students are to be formed for relationship with God and with others in love and in service. All instruction is in fidelity with Catholic teaching. Teachers and leaders are to be in full communion with the Church and serve as joyful and faithful witnesses who accept, understand and model in their professional and private lives the teachings of the Catholic Church and the moral demands of the Gospel.
Third, Catholic schools are places where students encounter Christ in prayer, scripture and sacrament. Catholic faith traditions, especially frequent prayer and Eucharist, are to be a priority and valued by the students and faculty. Solid and clear instruction in the faith finds sincere and natural expression throughout the school’s traditions, celebrations, art and culture.
Fourth, Catholic schools integrally form the human person by seeking to develop harmoniously the students’ intellectual, spiritual and physical dimensions. Motivated by wonder and in pursuit of wisdom, Catholic school students develop their intellectual, creative and aesthetic faculties in the pursuit of truth, beauty and goodness.
Finally, Catholic schools seek to impart a Christian view of the world and humanity. The educational program should instill a Christian vision of the world, of life, of culture and of history, ordering the whole of human culture to the news of salvation and the unity of all knowledge.
It is not up to Catholic schools to come up with their own mission; they must fulfill this mission given them by the Catholic Church. Any Catholic school intent on doing something other than faithfully executing its commission from the Church should have the honesty to be decommissioned as Catholic.
The removal of the Christian statues and other artwork at San Domenico is but one of several signs that decommissioning is natural at this point. Now that the school has been largely sanitized of Jesus’ image and name, it is safe to remove the designation of “Catholic” from the school. Thus, the decommissioning can be complete.
Dr. Dan Guernsey is director of the Cardinal Newman Society’s K-12 programs and principal of Rhodora J. Donahue Academy of Ave Maria. He earned a Bachelor’s degree at USF and Masters’ degrees from UC Berkeley and CSU Fresno. He completed his Doctorate in Education at Eastern Michigan University.