Published: 10-10-2011, 14:50

Roman Catholic Church - American Education

The largest, single, organized Christian church, made up of nearly 1 billion communicants who acknowledge the supreme authority of the bishop of Rome—the pope (or father)—in matters spiritual and, for many, temporal. Derived from the Greek word katholikos, meaning “universal,” the “Catholic” Church of Rome was, with few exceptions, the only Christian religion recognized by Western believers until the 12th century, when the first Protestants challenged papal authority. At the time, Catholic leaders were the temporal as well as spiritual rulers of western Europe. The Waldensians in France, under the leadership of Peter Waldo (1140– 1217), were first to criticize the Catholic leadership publicly. Waldo declared that the excessive temporal practices of the Catholic Church had no basis in the Scriptures and was simply the product of greed and arrogance. Although fiercely persecuted, the Waldensians survived in parts of France and Switzerland. Similarly minded Lollards, followers of John Wycliffe in France and England in the 1380s, and Hussites in 15th-century Bohemia followed the Waldensians in the spreading Protestant movement. The protests grew until 1517, when Martin Luther’s grievances against the church triggered a massive rebellion; within a century, dozens of Protestant sects had severed connections with Rome and challenged the need for priestly intermediaries in the relationship between God and humanity.

Wounded and somewhat weakened, the Catholic Church held on to whatever temporal powers it could, but gradually it recognized that its future growth lay not in sending military armies to conquer the world but in sending spiritual armies to convert the world. Education slowly replaced force as the church’s primary weapon. As early as 1493, when military conquest was still very much in favor, 12 priests accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage and established the first see in the New World at Santo Domingo (in what is now the Dominican Republic), the first European settlement in the New World. The second American see was established at Santiago de Cuba in 1522 and the third in Mexico in 1532. Between the middle of the 16th century and the end of the 18th century, Spanish Franciscan, Dominican and Jesuit missionaries emanating from those three sees established communities in what later became Florida, Texas, New Mexico and California. At the same time, French missionaries were establishing settlements in present-day Maine, in northern New York and around the Great Lakes and upper Mississippi. The Catholic population reached about 30,000 by the time of the Revolutionary War, increased to 250,000 by 1820 and 1 million by 1840.

Like other Americans after the Revolutionary War, most Catholic families were content to send their children for secular education in Protestant-dominated common schools and for spiritual training to their local priest on weekends. Like other minority groups of the day, Roman Catholics were largely scattered across the rural United States and far from any central diocesan control.

The wave of Catholic immigrants from Europe that settled in major cities following the Civil War provoked a change in the thinking of the Catholic hierarchy. Fearful that Protestantdominated common schools would, in the process of “Americanizing” immigrant children, also “Protestantize” them, the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 ordered the construction of a national Catholic school system. The church decreed that within two years a parochial school was to be built near each Catholic church. It decreed that all parents would be obliged to remove their children from secular schools and send them to parochial schools. The decree called for the construction of Catholic high schools, academies and colleges and the establishment of diocesan boards of education. It also crowned this system with the construction of Catholic University, in Washington, D.C., and from that point until the middle 1960s, the official goal of the Catholic Church in the United States was to send every Catholic child to Catholic schools and colleges and thus preserve Catholicism in America. In addition to founding Catholic University of America, by 1960 the Catholic Church had been responsible for establishing 13,000 elementary and secondary schools and nearly 400 colleges in the United States, although the number subsequently diminished to just over 8,000 elementary and secondary schools and fewer than 240 colleges and universities. (See also Catholic schools.)