Catholic schools foster liberty in the world

By Jim Rigg
Sunday, March 6, 2016

This article was adapted from an address given at the Celebrating Catholic Education Breakfast, Jan. 26.

Catholic schools foster liberty. There is a liberty of Catholic education. Our schools epitomize the American values of freedom, self-actualization and the common good. This liberty applies not only to the students we serve, but to families, communities and ultimately our nation. Catholic schools are America.

This sense of liberty is perhaps most profoundly noticeable for the children we serve. By conveying knowledge and skills we prepare children to confidently face the challenges that lie ahead.

Catholic schools have a tremendous record of imparting knowledge. Our schools consistently outpace public and charter-school counterparts by any academic measure.

While our academic accomplishments are obvious, the secret to our success emerges not from how we teach math, science, reading and social studies. Our success emerges from our commitment to forming the whole child, particularly how we shape our children spiritually. So we do have children who learn about the arts. We do have children who learn about the humanities. We do shape them emotionally, physically and socially, but, most important, we shape them spiritually.

Christ is at the center of every Catholic school. The formation of our children in Gospel values is our most important task. It is the reason we exist. The true liberty of a Catholic education resides in how we lead each child to recognize, know and accept their unique call from God. We are here for a particular purpose, to transform the world around us, to spread the hope of Jesus Christ.

Our children embody this hope. They emerge from our schools ready to positively change a world that desperately needs them. To free the world from despair. Our children spread the liberty of Christ even as they themselves are liberated.

The liberty of a Catholic school does not just affect students, but families too. We know that true, liberating education cannot come from a school alone. Education only works when parents and schools are in alliance, partnering on behalf of children.

When I ask families why they choose Catholic education, I hear about the academics, I hear about Catholic values, I hear about arts, athletics and activities — but one response that keeps coming back to me is the notion of community. Children are welcomed, valued and validated in our schools, and their families are welcomed as well.

Parents and guardians are their children’s primary educators. As a father of four, I know how hard parenting can be. All parents, regardless of the background, need help. Our schools are ready to provide that help. We support parents in their role as primary educators. We embrace parents, just as we embrace their children.

One of the wonderful hallmarks of Catholic education is that we are present for all populations. In the Archdiocese of Chicago, our 230 Catholic schools serve all types of families, no matter their race, creed or economic background. We serve not because our students are necessarily Catholic, but because we are. This diversity is an enormous strength. We reflect the people of Chicago.

As we serve our diverse populations, we know we have a special commitment to serving the underprivileged. These are families who are coping with the daily grinding realities of poverty, violence, racism and malnutrition.

Education is the liberating avenue for these families, the best way to break the cycle of poverty and rise up economically. Yet this poverty is perpetuated by underperforming local schools and a lack of quality educational opportunities.

Our schools represent hope. Our success is most obvious when it comes to the urban poor. While high-school graduation rates in most city public-school districts struggle to reach 60 percent, our urban Catholic high schools graduate over 98 percent of students. Nineteen out of 20 graduates in the Archdiocese of Chicago enter college. Our graduating class last year, the class of 2015, won almost $200 million in college scholarships, most of which went to students from lower- and middle- income tax brackets.

Our commitment to serving the poor is unswerving. Yet the economics of serving the poor in Catholic schools is difficult. It takes money to provide a quality Catholic education, and we know that struggling families cannot easily afford our tuition.

So we rely heavily on the generosity of those who support our Catholic schools, who give of their own resources to help their neighbors. This generosity is best exemplified by the Big Shoulders Fund, which alone dedicates over $18 million annually to our urban Catholic schools, funding scholarships and academic and leadership programs.

Every school is blessed with an array of donors who support local families through tuition-assistance funds. We are building a robust scholarship fund, founded a few years ago and growing through the proceeds of To Teach Who Christ Is.

Here is one of Catholic education’s best-kept secrets: Our schools not only change the lives of students and their families, but also those who support them. Donors give so generously because they have witnessed the transformative power of our schools. They know their gifts have a lasting impact on the lives of our children.

This generosity never ceases to amaze me, yet it is not enough. Many of our schools continue to face intense financial and demographic pressures. I am heartened by the movement toward a taxcredit program in Illinois. I urge you to learn more and support the Illinois Kids’ Campaign. If passed, this effort would make it easier for families from lower and middle-income brackets to attend our schools.

A few months ago, I moved here from Ohio, which supported several wonderful state-funded programs for students in private schools. These programs made Ohio a stronger and more prosperous state. Not only did our schools benefit, but our public schools improved as well. Ohio was able to balance its budget and attract new business partners in part through the economic and educational advantages generated through school choice.

Tax credits in Illinois would be a game-changer for Catholic schools. This effort currently enjoys bipartisan support, as legislators appreciate the justice of genuine school choice. These credits would serve as an important mechanism for liberty.

Finally, Catholic schools represent a force of liberty for entire communities. Schools bring vibrancy to parishes, drawing young families and children. Schools also build up the common good of their neighborhoods and communities.

Last year, the University of Notre Dame issued a report detailing how neighborhood poverty and crime rates increase when a Catholic school closes. Many of the report’s case studies were drawn from Chicago.

Earlier in my career, I had the opportunity to reopen a previously closed Catholic elementary school in the urban core of Memphis, Tennessee. It was deeply gratifying to see how that school became an anchor for that inner-city neighborhood, not just a place where children were educated but where families were welcomed and where the entire community was served by the resources of our school. Our schools are a liberating force for neighborhoods and communities.

On a national scale, studies detail how Catholicschool alumni enrich society. Our graduates are more likely to vote, to participate in community service, to attend church and to support charitable causes.

Catholic-school graduates can be found in leadership positions in business, government and non-profit fields. Our current vice president is Catholic, our former and current Speakers of the House are Catholic, four of nine Supreme Court justices are Catholic, and the Catholic faith is represented more than any other religious denomination in the U.S. Congress. Most of these important public figures attended Catholic schools.

Catholic schools have been a constant and dynamic force for liberty in this country since before its founding. Let us be reminded of the indelible impact our schools have had on millions of students, parents, graduates and communities big and small across this country.

No one educates more people than we do, and no one does it better. May this vital institution of Catholic schools, through our own prayers and support, continue to prosper.


  • catholic schools
  • jim rigg
  • to teach who christ is

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