Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Initiative explores religious liberty challenges facing Catholic schools at symposium hosted with Kellogg Institute, the Australian Catholic University

Author: Anna Bradley

Catholic Schools

From December 11 to 14, the Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Initiative and the Kellogg Institute for International Studies joined the Australian Catholic University in convening a group of legal experts and educators from around the world to explore the religious liberty challenges facing K-12 Catholic schools globally.

“Catholic Schools and Religious Liberty: A Global Perspective” was held at the University of Notre Dame’s Rome Global Gateway and engaged issues of critical importance in the broader context of the Church as an educator. The Catholic Church is the largest non-state provider of education in the world. Catholic schools educate 65 million children globally, and enrollments are increasing dramatically, especially in the Global South. For some children in the most impoverished parts of the world, Catholic schools represent the only opportunity for formal education. G. Marcus Cole, the Joseph A. Matson Dean and Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School, reminded participants in his opening remarks, “Without religious liberty, these schools cannot fulfill their vital mission.”

On regionally focused panels, experts from the United States and Canada, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa identified the most significant challenges facing Catholic schools. Catholic educators identified a number of common challenges, for example, access to government funding, freedom to operate without undue government interference, and curricular requirements that can interfere with religious instruction.

But the precise nature — and severity — of the challenges that Catholic schools face varies dramatically. For example, Nicole Stelle Garnett, the John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School and lead organizer of the symposium, and Kathleen Porter-Magee, the superintendent of Partnership Schools, a nonprofit organization that operates 11 Catholic schools serving low-income children in New York City and Cleveland, explained that, historically, Catholic schools have enjoyed broad operational autonomy but received little to no funding.

“This is changing,” Garnett noted, “with the expansion of private-school choice, which is now available in 31 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico.” Indeed, almost all of the students in the Partnership Schools in Ohio participate in the state’s voucher program. “The question,” Garnett suggested, “is whether the increasing access to public funds will come at the expense of a loss of autonomy.”

The experience in Australia, where all Catholic schools receive government funds, suggests that public funding does not necessarily lead to a loss of control. The reality on the ground in contexts, however, offers a more cautionary tale.

In Kenya, for example, Augusta Muthigani, national executive secretary for the Kenyan Conference of Catholic Bishops, explained that most Catholic schools in Kenya were nationalized in the post-colonial period. They are now operated as public schools, which receive government funding but have virtually no control over curriculum or hiring, even of school principals.

Her concerns were echoed by Sr. Draru Mary Cecilia, the executive director of the African Sisters Education Collaborative, which is currently forming over 2,500 religious sisters to teach in 11 African countries. Sr. Draru expressed concern about the difficulties Catholic schools have finding (and convincing regulators to appoint) teachers and school leaders who are committed to their religious mission and identity.

The same is true in India, according to Fr. Emmanuel Kallarackal, the vicar general of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Fr. Kallarackal explained that, despite the important role that they have played in the Indian education system for hundreds of years, Catholic schools that receive public funds have no operational freedom. Moreover, the current Hindu national government is seeking to homogenize even those receiving no funding, including by requiring them to teach from historically inaccurate textbooks.

Not all of the challenges facing Catholic schools, however, are legal ones. Perhaps the most compelling moments of the conference came when the four panelists from Africa warned of the growing threat of Islamic extremism in the region.

Sr. Mary Amanda Evangeline Ukamaka, the education secretary for the Religious Institute of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Nigeria, spoke of educating children in Catholic schools under the constant threat of kidnapping and murder. Fr. Lindbergh Mondésir, CSV, told a rapt audience about the internal displacement of millions of people and the closure of thousands of schools in Burkina Faso. In Kenya, Muthigani said, many Christian churches have metal detectors and all religious signage must be removed from vehicles to prevent terrorist attacks. In response, Fr. Kallarackal remarked to some participants, “I cried and cried because I had no shoes. Then I met a man with no feet.”

Despite the challenges, participants found reason to hope. The late Cardinal George Pell expressed optimism that, despite the many challenges that they face, Catholic schools remain critical in our modern culture. Drawing upon Isiah Berlin’s 1953 essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” he argued that the mission of Catholic schools ought to be to “form Christian hedgehogs with considerable armor.”

Toward the end of the conference, Fr. Friedrich Bechina, former Vatican undersecretary for Catholic education, reminded the group that, when Jesus appeared to the Apostles at the Sea of Galilee following his resurrection, “they were fixing the nets.” Catholic schools, he observed, are like the Apostles’ nets. Imperfect, and fraying at times, but having seen throughout the conference so many people dedicated to the important work of repairing them, he was left optimistic about their future.

About the Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Initiative

Established in 2020, the Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Initiative promotes and defends religious freedom for all people through advocacy, formation, and thought leadership. The initiative protects the freedom of individuals to hold religious beliefs as well as their right to exercise and express those beliefs and to live according to them.

The Religious Liberty Initiative has represented individuals and organizations from an array of faith traditions to defend the right to religious worship, to preserve sacred lands from destruction, to promote the freedom to select religious ministers, and to prevent discrimination against religious schools and families.

Learn more about the Religious Liberty Initiative at