[Editor’s Note: Bill Mattison is a Senior Advisor for Theological Formation at the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program, and has a joint appointment in Notre Dame’s Department of Theology. His scholarship has focused on Catholic moral theology, especially virtue ethics. His most recent book is Sermon on the Mount and Moral Theology: A Virtue Perspective. He is currently completing a book tentatively titled Habit and Grace: A Thomistic Perspective. He spoke to Charles Camosy.]

Camosy: I’ve come to know you as one of the most significant Catholic moral theologians of our generation, but one of your relatively new roles is as Senior Director for Theological Formation with Notre Dame’s “ACE” program, the Alliance for Catholic Education. I’ll ask you more about the specifics of the program in a moment, but let me begin by asking you this: What kind of challenges was ACE designed to address?

Mattison: The Alliance for Catholic Education was formed 25 years ago to support and reinvigorate Catholic K-12 schools in the United States. Our Catholic school system was born and developed on the shoulders of giants such as St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. John Neumann, and St. Katherine Drexel. These schools are a 19th and early 20th century product of what has been described by Robert Putnam as the most intensive period of social entrepreneurship in the history of the United States. By their enrollment apex in 1965, some 5,000,000 students attended 12,000 schools in the United States.

Yet due to a variety of reasons including the decline in (especially women) religious, increased financial pressures, secularization, and shifting urban populations, those numbers have fallen to 1,750,000 students in 6,300 schools today. Therefore the late 20th and early 21st century have presented an opportunity to sustain the traditional successes of Catholic schools – including academic excellence, faith and character formation, and the fostering of strong community both within the school and in the civic arena – while at the same time adapting the Catholic school model to a new crop of teachers, different societal settings, and new policy and regulatory settings.

When ACE began in 1994, its focus was on supplying well-formed teachers to Catholic schools especially in the Southeast. That program has seen tremendous success and explosive growth in numbers and geographic reach. ACE soon expanded its focus to include not only teacher formation but also leadership formation, policy advocacy, and targeted interventions to new challenges in Catholic schools, including STEM training, teaching English as a new language, training inclusive educators for special needs students, and improving access to Catholic schools for Latino students.

The joys and challenges of Catholic schools are many. In running into the breach to address them, ACE teachers and leaders have joined not just a program but an apostolic movement, animated by the Holy Spirit as we are joyfully committed to serving students in Catholic schools.

ACE has been around for over a quarter-century trying to address these significant problems. What progress has been made over that time?

ACE began in 1994 with what is still its flagship program, now called ACE Teaching Fellows, through which recent college graduates serve as full-time teachers for two years in under-resourced Catholic schools, all the while pursuing a Master’s degree in education, living in intentional communities, and growing spiritually in discipleship to Jesus. What began with 40 pioneer (largely Notre Dame) college graduates that first year has blossomed into a program that accepts 90 new men and women each year and has already formed over 2,000 Catholic school teachers. We have grown from serving schools in 8 communities in 1994 to now serving more than 120 schools in 35 communities, from New York to Los Angeles and from Brownsville, Texas, to Minneapolis.

That growth is not an end in itself, but a sign of the extraordinary impact that ACE teachers have had on their schools and the 13,500 students they serve every year. ACE teachers comprise a new face of Catholic school teachers, a well-formed and joyfully faithful diverse group of lay men and women who serve students in a culturally responsive manner that is a hospitable and personal invitation to encounter Jesus Christ in the context of excellent education. Two-thirds of ACE graduates remain in education in some way, and more than a dozen colleges and universities have joined with ACE to form the University Consortium for Catholic Education, a collaboration to design and implement graduate-level teaching programs for Catholic schools. All this points to the impact ACE is having on Catholic schools in the United States.

As noted, ACE Teaching Fellows is now complemented by a host of other formation programs in service to Catholic schools, including the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program for Catholic school leaders, the Notre Dame Center for STEM Education, the English as a New Language Program, and the Program for Inclusive Education. ACE is also active in expanding publicly funded school choice and research that supports our work. The revolution in Catholic education goes on!

What is typically expected of ACE students? And why do you think it is important that they get a strong grounding in Catholic theology?

ACE Teaching Fellows are recent college graduates who come to Notre Dame in the summer to begin their teacher formation program. Over two summers and the school years following, Teaching Fellows teach full time as they take courses toward completing an M.Ed. degree, usually with state certification. Yet their formation is not simply professional; through retreats, weeknight summer liturgies, and integrative seminars they are nourished in their faith lives. They also live in intentional community in groups of 4-6. Three pillars characterize life in ACE – becoming excellent teachers, building community, and growing spiritually – and they are deeply intertwined with one another.

As to faith formation, I’d actually say ACE is committed to helping ACE teachers grow in their faith lives as disciples, more so than developing a strong grounding in Catholic theology. These are related of course, and ACE teachers do take a course (which Holy Cross Father Lou Delfra and I teach) on being teachers in Catholic schools, a course that guides students through the Catechism. But more than theological formation, we endeavor to help ACE teachers grow as faithful disciples to Christ through liturgy, retreats, regular communal prayer, as well as embarking on teaching and community in a manner animated by faith and mission.

You’ve had some fantastic speakers and guests. This summer, for instance, I noticed that Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame addressed your students. These kinds of speakers have to make a big impact.

Great speakers indeed – and do not forget Jesuit Father Greg Boyle last summer and Sister Norma Pimentel who spoke to us the same week as Sister Helen. Each of these speakers, and others, was truly inspirational to our teachers and leaders. They share an important commonality. They all work at the margins to mercifully accompany people who are marginalized in society. Our Christian faith is in a God who reaches to humanity despite our (self-) alienation from God, who loves us first, and who sends His only Son to reconcile us with God and bring us fullness of life. Jesus modelled this mercy to His disciples as he literally touched the sick, the dead, sinners – people for all sorts of reasons at the margins of society – in bringing them life. In ACE we believe God calls us to exactly this same merciful accompaniment to those in need – in our schools, our communities, and our families – and so we proudly invite contemporary witnesses of such lives of discipleship to share their stories with the ACE teachers and inspire all of us on that path of discipleship.

Latinos are the fastest-growing part of the U.S. Catholic Church–but they are generally not served well by Catholic education. Is ACE doing anything to address this structural problem?

You are right that Latinos historically in the U.S. have been under-served by Catholic schools. One-third of Catholics in the U.S. identify as Latino, but only 17 percent of children in Catholic schools are Latino. Notre Dame and ACE recognized that we must do more to attract Latino families, so we started the Catholic School Advantage and English as New Language programs to help schools recruit Latino families and serve them in ways that meet their educational and cultural needs.

This is especially important when Latinos who attend Catholic schools are 42 percent more likely to graduate from high school and 2.5 times more likely to graduate from college than their public school peers. Programs such as the Latino Enrollment Institute and School Pastors’ Institute and professional development offered by our English as a New Language team work with teachers, principals, and pastors to create a welcoming school environment that honors these families’ culture and gives students – who often don’t speak English as their native language – the skills to succeed.

ACE’s work is not only important work for the Church. Catholic parish-school communities have been among the most important mediating institutions of civil society in the United States–the increasingly rare kinds of communities which take people outside of their own ego and offer a genuine feeling of belonging and interdependence. In my opinion, ACE is doing the best work out there trying to save and support these communities. How can those who would like to learn more about ACE do so? 

I am so glad you mentioned the crucial impact of Catholic schools not only on the Church and people’s faith lives, but also on our civic communities and people’s lives as thriving members of their communities. My colleague Nicole Garnett has written, with Margaret Brinig, Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America (University of Chicago Press, 2014). This book documents the positive impact of urban Catholic schools on social capital and cohesiveness in their neighborhoods, and the corresponding negative impacts of the closures of Catholic schools on the local communities.

As Catholics we believe this is true because of the relationship between nature and grace. The graced life of discipleship neither negates nor leaves untouched the honorable natural goals of strong community, effective learning, and civic participation. It fuels how people do these activities that are not unique to faith, but nonetheless supported by the Catholic faith and the Catholic mission of our schools. On a related note this is why Catholic schools can be focused on the Catholic mission of passing on the Gospel, and welcome teachers and students who do not share the Catholic faith. We believe that we Catholics share with other Christians and non-Christians a commitment to human flourishing in matters such as learning and community. While we understand these as intimately related to our faith, there is much we share in common on these matters and can pursue together.

Anyone who wishes to know more about ACE – or even apply – should check our website. We welcome all to join the ongoing revolution in Catholic education.