New San Francisco office will assess Catholicity of Catholic high schools

An office charged with assessing and stimulating the Catholicity of the 14 Catholic high schools in the San Francisco archdiocese will officially open in January, according to a front-page story in the Dec. 12 archdiocesan newspaper.

Independent of the archdiocese's Department of Catholic Schools, the Office of Catholic Identity Assessment will seek to help the high schools "move forward dynamically in terms of their Catholic identity," Melanie Morey, who will direct the new entity, told NCR.

Genesis of the initiative, Morey wrote in a Dec. 12 email, came largely from exchanges between her and San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone over the past three years, during which Morey has been provost at the archdiocese's St. Patrick's Seminary and University in Menlo Park.

Noting Cordileone's "long-term interest in Catholic identity, particularly in terms of high schools," Morey said "seeds for this office probably were sown" in conversations "between two people who had cared deeply about the issue for a long time."

"It is impossible to know the landscape of Catholic education today and not be concerned about how to encourage and support and invigorate Catholic identity in our schools," Morey wrote.

Visit NCR's Online Classifieds to learn about job opportunities, conferences, retreats and more.

"Catholic identity is the differentiating factor for Catholic schools. In a confidently brash secular society, Catholic identity has to be robust, pervasive and assessable. Without a vibrant Catholic character, culture and mission, Catholic high schools have no compelling reason why parents should consider enrolling their sons and daughters and making the financial sacrifices necessary to support tuition."

Little was known in the archdiocese about the office, which might be the first of its kind in the country, until the Catholic San Francisco report, said several people interviewed.

One member of the archdiocesan Board of Education, who asked not to be named, said there had been rumors of such an office being formed. The person had not yet read the newspaper article reporting its establishment before NCR contacted them.

The board member expressed "concern not about an assessment in itself but the criteria that might be used to make those assessments."

According to the Catholic San Francisco story by Valerie Schmalz, "Morey will work with a board of still-to-be-appointed Catholic academics and education experts to develop more particularized criteria related to the Western Catholic Education Association standards and principles of Catholic identity." The Western Catholic Education Association is a private educational accrediting agency established under the auspices of the Catholic bishops of California.

"These more specific expectations will guide teams of Catholic school teachers and administrators fielded by the Office of Catholic Identity Assessment who will visit each school every three years," Morey told the archdiocesan paper.

Morey told NCR, "I will be picking the consultors and will consult with knowledgeable individuals when doing so. Visit teams probably will not include consultors. That is not the plan right now. Consultors will be educators and individuals knowledgeable about the Catholic intellectual tradition and institutional Catholic culture."

The Catholic San Francisco story reported that "the first official activity of the new office will be a meeting with all of the high school presidents and principals ... in January or February."

However, a Dec. 18 reception for the high school administrators was held at Cordileone's cathedral residence to introduce Morey and allow her to provide background on her office and field questions.

Four high schools come under the direct jurisdiction of the archdiocese. The other 10 are independent and/or sponsored by religious communities.

According to Morey, 13 of the 14 "were represented, most with president and principal" at the Dec. 18 gathering. Morey and archdiocesan Superintendent of Catholic Schools Maureen Huntington also met there for the first time.

The superintendent said Morey "was very well received by all" at the meeting.

"It was a good meeting and people had excellent questions to which I hope I offered helpful responses," Morey told NCR on Dec. 20.

Some present appeared to "think they are deficient in their Catholic identity," Morey said. "Some people seem more anxious than others. Some seem excited by the possibilities. Schools do not want to be perceived as deficient."

Asked if Cordileone had expressed concerns about Catholic identity and culture in local Catholic high schools, Huntington wrote in a Dec. 11 email: "As the archbishop has stated ... the archdiocesan high schools have the strongest and most authentic Catholic identity of all of the high schools. Some of the private high schools are more challenged in their ability to maintain the elements of their Catholic Identity."

Huntington said it is unclear how her department and the new office might collaborate. "Dr. Morey has agreed to give the High School Religion Department Chairs and the high school campus ministers a retreat in February. ... We will learn more about her job responsibilities at that time."

Morey said, "Maureen and I have to spend some time together working out the details of this practically speaking. What I can say is that the work of this new office will complement and support the efforts of the superintendent. Assessment will be cleaner if it operates independently of her office."

Morey said she will retain her position as senior research director at the Catholic Education Institute, a nonprofit corporation. Jesuit Fr. John Piderit helped found EDI in 2001 and is its president. Piderit and Morey are co-authors of Catholic Higher Education: A Culture in Crisis, which focuses on Catholic identity at Catholic colleges and universities, and Renewing Parish Culture: Building for a Catholic Future.

In a shake-up of St. Patrick's Seminary leadership in the fall of 2013, Cordileone named Piderit the school's vicar for administration and vicar for finance. In May, Cordileone moved Piderit to the chancery and appointed the Jesuit both moderator of the curia and vicar for administration.

Piderit and Morey have teamed to direct summer conferences for Catholic educators at Marin Catholic High School in Kentfield, Calif., one of the 14 Catholic high schools in the archdiocese. Titled "Substantially Catholic," the three-day events offer presentations on incorporating Catholic identity in school curricula and climate.

Marin Catholic President Tim Navone told NCR he is "really excited about the new office of Catholic identity and most especially it being led by Dr. Melanie Morey. Having had a long-standing relationship with Dr. Morey, we know what a significant contribution she can make on our schools."

"Partnering with Dr. Morey on the Substantially Catholic seminars really opened the eyes of our full staff to know that Catholicity is not something that resides solely in the campus ministry programs, retreats, and the theology classroom," Navone wrote in a Dec. 19 email. "Rather, a great Catholic school breathes Catholicity in all areas, from the math classrooms to the admissions team to the main office attendant. At a good Catholic school, everyone is on board."

"Finally," Navone wrote, "perhaps the biggest gift for our community is understanding that everything begins with hiring. And hiring mission-minded Catholics who can afford to live in the Bay Area and teach is no small feat, but we at Marin Catholic are committed to it."

Asked if her office's assessments might delve into the personal lives of administrators, staff or faculty, Morey said it is important for Catholic school personnel to try "to live out faithfully and fully the teaching of the Church in their own lives."

"Catholic educators in Catholic schools are expected to witness to the faith publicly," she continued. "It is a problem if they are public witnesses against what the Church teaches and it makes no sense in educational terms if they do so. If you are asking whether my office is going to investigate the private and personal lives of faculty and staff and administrators, the answer is absolutely no.

"What this office will do is to cooperate and support the Superintendent in assuring that people who sign on to work in Catholic schools know what exactly it is that the Church teaches. They cannot publicly support that which they do not know or understand. If people cannot give positive witness to Church teaching in their own lives -- and do not want to do that -- they will choose not to work in the institution."

A vibrant Catholic campus culture will be exhibited in many ways, Morey said. In the Catholic San Francisco report, she described "an essential and intricate network of small acts or behaviors that remind students again and again of the Catholic faith."

Asked to expand on that, Morey told NCR: "Let me give you a bit of ancient history from my own days in a Catholic high school that shed light on what used to be common practice. At school each day the saint of the day was identified and a bit of their story was shared and we asked the saint to pray for us that day. We put 'Jesus, Mary, Joseph' on the top of our papers, we had benediction on a regular basis. We had opportunities for chapel visits, we prayed for 'good games' on the days of sports events and for the opposing team, we had meatless Fridays, collected gifts and food for families in need in Lent and Advent, etc. Lots of little things like that just became part of the warp and woof of daily life.

"Some of these things are being done in schools now, others could be adopted. Schools could have schools hymns, not just fight songs, lots of little things are possible. It is how you build culture in any school or organization. Lots of faculty and staff will and do find such kinds of small rituals that make sense in their school that are not generically spiritual, but which are specifically Catholic."

The new office, Catholic San Francisco reported, "will sponsor in-service days during the academic school year and summer immersion seminars for faculty."

Morey, who holds a doctorate in education from Harvard University, said "there are lots of pressures" that can distract Catholic schools.

"It is important to keep the Catholic mission on the radar screen," she said. "Of course there are hot-button issues that draw people's attention to Catholic schools and lots of news stories that focus on those. ... Living in our present times those issues can be thorny and Catholic schools need to understand more deeply and fully what it means to be Catholic and how to explain Catholic teaching to many people -- including their students and sometimes faculty or staff who do not fully understand it."

Asked to define "thorny issues," Morey responded, "The same issues bishops wrestled with at the Synod [on the family] in the fall." The Vatican synod generated headlines as it dealt with contentious topics including divorced Catholics, same-sex marriage, and birth control.

Emails and phone calls asking comment were made to leaders at all of the 14 schools on or before Dec. 19. As of early Dec. 22, four responses were received. Two declined comment. One spoke off the record. Navone emailed.

[Dan Morris Young is NCR West Coast correspondent. His email address is dmyoung@ncronline.org.]


Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here

Advertisement