The U.S. bishops' new chairman-elect for Catholic education says he hopes to bring his experience as a Catholic school teacher and president, as well as pastor of two parishes, into his new position.

In an increasingly secular society, when people's lives seem more and more to lack meaning, "our schools remind us of Christ's love...a dignity of the human person that is beyond the mindset of the present moment, or the latest educational trend," Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington told CNA Nov. 17.

Daly's fellow bishops on Nov. 16 elected him to serve as chairman of the Committee on Catholic Education for the U.S. bishops' conference, which provides guidance for the educational mission of the Church to Catholic elementary and secondary schools, Catholic colleges and universities, and college campus ministry.

The bishops' conference has 18 standing committees; each addresses a specific topic related to the bishops' mission. Each committee is made up of both bishops and lay consultants, with one bishop serving as chairman.

Daly worked in Catholic schools for 19 years before his appointment as a bishop, including serving for a time as a teacher and later as president at Marin Catholic High School near San Francisco. He succeeds Bishop Michael Barber, SJ of Oakland as chairman.

The "first mission" of any Catholic school should be the salvation of souls, he noted, but too often Catholic schools focus almost exclusively on academics, to the detriment of their Catholic mission.

A Catholic school ought to be academically excellent, while always keeping in mind why Catholic schools exist- to strengthen the faith foundation, he said.

Instead of operating as merely a private prep school with "a little bit of religious flavoring," a Catholic school should encourage and guide its students to "seek the Lord with a sincere heart," Daly said.

"We don't need more 'private schools.' We need schools that are Catholic, that teach and proclaim the Gospel with the realization of academic rigor," he said.

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The USCCB's Catholic education committee exists to support Catholic schools in their mission, Daly said, and one of the ways this is done is by supporting the priest who serves the school. This may involve training or inspiration for the priest to help him better shepherd the school, he said, and to motivate the parish community to support the school.

One of the most important factors in a school's character is the academic leadership, which for elementary schools is most often the principal, he said.

Daly said he saw the school he previously worked for turn from a more secular attitude to a direction of faithfulness thanks in large part to its principal, who "never forgot the example of his education growing up as a Catholic."

The principal was at once a very good administrator, and also a humble man of faith, Daly noted. Thanks to his strong leadership, that school is now producing religious vocations, which Daly said is a strong indicator of a Catholic school fulfilling its mission.

One of the biggest current challenges to Catholic schools, to no one's surprise, is the fallout from COVID-19 and ongoing lockdowns, Daly said.

At least 140 Catholic schools- mostly elementary schools- have closed in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic, he said, and elementary schools remain the most vulnerable to closure.

"I think we have to re-examine why we have our schools, and why they're so important to families," he said.

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Making Catholic schools accessible for students with disabilities is also a priority, he said, and he hopes his committee will be able to assist and encourage schools to expand their special education programs.

Daly said historically, Catholic schools arose in the United States during a time when many public schools were de facto Protestant, and often presented a somewhat hostile environment to Catholic families.

"The need for Catholic education today is as important as it has been since the 1800s, when the Church and our mission were [often] attacked," he said.

Part of the reason for this, Daly said, is that laws in many states make public school curricula nonconducive to an education in Catholic values.

For example, during the Nov. 2020 election, voters in Washington state approved a ballot measure that will require "comprehensive sex education" in public schools, which Daly noted "undermines core beliefs of our faith" by failing to address complex moral issues tied to human sexuality, and failing to discuss sex in the context of marriage.

He said serving as a priest and educator in San Francisco- today a very secular and liberal city overall- allowed him to observe indifference and later hostility to the Church's message firsthand.

Daly said within Catholic education, there ought not be a dichotomy between "social justice" and "piety." He pointed to the life of St. Teresa of Calcutta as an example of strong faith and morals manifesting in a life of service.

Catholic schools ought to be places of learning, he said, which involves allowing students to encounter differing viewpoints and ideas. Catholic schools should respect students' freedom, not forcing them to accept the faith, but also not compromising on the Church's beliefs.

While realizing that not every student who enters a school or university is or will be Catholic, there ought to be at least an exposure to Catholic theology, morals, and intellectual tradition at the university, he said.

Today, many students graduate from Catholic universities having never taken a Catholic theology class. Some Catholic universities may do this because they fear that students of other faiths will be less likely to attend, or because a more Catholic curriculum may be viewed as "narrow-minded."

"Too many institutions of higher learning and Catholic education have compromised their mission, and that to me is not going to be effective," Daly commented.

"Education with humility leads to wisdom; without humility, it leads to arrogance."

During February 2020, Gonzaga University, a Jesuit school located in the Spokane diocese, announced the creation of a law clinic focused primarily on LGBT advocacy.

"While the Catholic tradition does uphold the dignity of every human being, the LGBT Rights law clinic's scope of practice could bring the GU Law School into conflict with the religious freedom of Christian individuals and organizations," Daly told CNA at the time.

"There is also a concern that Gonzaga Law School will be actively promoting, in the legal arena and on campus, values that are contrary to the Catholic faith and natural law."

Daly said he wrote to the university president in February, requesting that the president speak to him about the clinic, but never received a reply- likely because the situation unfolded right before the start of the coronavirus pandemic.