Who is teaching them about their ultimate goal?

“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” St. Mark’s rather pointed question is hard to ignore. It’s a three-o’clock-in-the-morning question, one of those essential or ultimate questions that just won’t go away.

Someone once told us that each person has two responsibilities: to get to heaven and to drag as many others as we possibly can to the same place. If we are parents, that surely means we should start with our kids. They have to know where they are supposed to be going. They have to learn the purpose of their lives.

Increasingly, however, we are giving our children up earlier and earlier to schools, schools that are failing to engage our children with these ultimate questions. The school’s job, of course, is to educate. That is, to prepare children for adulthood and forging a meaningful life. In particular, the school’s responsibility is to come up with an answer to the question, “What, among all the possible things to know, is most worth knowing?” In a world of burgeoning knowledge and information sources, this is an increasingly vexing question for educators. But, they always tackle it and end up with something called “the curriculum” -- what a student has to know to get through the grades and finally out into the world.

The irony is that while we, as a nation, have agreed to leave these ultimate questions to the home and the Church and keep the state’s schools from wrestling with these ultimate questions, nevertheless, in the minds of our children they are being answered. For instance, the crucial question of what to do with one’s sexuality is answered without reference to morality or religious teachings. Relying on “only scientifically verified answers,” students are taught how to avoid “risk” and warned to protect themselves.

However, the most powerful impact on a child’s understanding of these “purpose of life” questions is the public schools’ silence. If a topic is not taught or read about or discussed, it shrinks. Other topics, from the causes of World War II to the creation of artificial life, dominate classroom time. And, students take these topics seriously because, after all, “there will be a test on that.”

While our public schools ought not provide and determine answers to ultimate questions, they can and should point out their importance to students and urge them to seek answers. Yet somehow, they don’t. Instead, they provide their safe and neutral answers. “You should be working hard to become a good citizen and a good worker.” Certainly not a bad message, but hardly what St. Mark and our Church would call a full answer.

This is not to criticize the good people who are devoting their lives to teaching our children in state schools. The problem is that we have bought into a very bad idea: letting the state become the dominant educator.

American Catholics of the 19th and early 20th centuries discovered that the real purpose of our public schools was to Americanize their immigrant children. While a sensible goal, it actually was an attempt to wean them from Rome and mold the children into a more congenial Protestantism.

In response, with great vigor and much sacrifice, the Catholic newcomers built a parallel system of schooling, a kindergarten through university system of education. While few of our colleges and universities reached levels of distinction, many of our elementary and secondary schools were among the nation’s finest. They engaged students in ultimate questions and prepared them as citizens and workers.

For the last three or four decades, American Catholics have been systematically dismantling what their grandparents and great grandparents built. Since 1990 alone, we have closed more than 1,300 Catholic schools. Three hundred thousand students have been sent off to the public schools at an annual cost to the American people of $20 billion.

Catholic schools, which once served the gamut of incomes and social classes in the Church, are increasingly catering to two groups. One group is the urban poor, desperate to find a safe alternative to the dangerous and dispirited public schools. Many of the schools serving Protestant African Americans focus on basic educational, nutritional and social needs of poor students. The distinctive marks of Catholic theology and ethics have faded. Still, this is a worthy and noble mission.

The second group of Catholic schools, seen more clearly at the secondary level, is the elite academic schools, which increasingly have become institutions for affluent Americans. The percentage of wealthy students in Catholics schools doubled from the 1970s to the late 1990s, so that now nearly half of all Catholic secondary school students come from the wealthiest quarter of American households. These schools are college preparatory academies, sought after by parents with ambitions to get their children into the “finest colleges available.” In response to “market demands,” many of these schools, too, eschew Catholic theology and ethics, but here the motivation is so as not to take students’ attention off a college’s admission standards and requirements. Pondering ultimate questions are replaced by anxiety over the annual April 1 college acceptance letters.

Our Church has many problems, but is there a more serious one than our current failure to pass on these ultimate questions and the faith’s essential answers to our children? A 2005 study of the religious formation of U.S. teenagers, entitled the National Study of Youth and Religion, asserts clearly that institutionally the American Catholic Church, once noted for his energetic efforts at faith transmission, has faltered. Their data show that only 19 percent of U.S. Catholic teenagers attend Mass on a weekly basis and that 40 percent never attend. The picture emerges from this study is of a Church that has lost focus on, if not interest in, evangelizing the youth.

Christ promised that “I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” It would appear, however, that he needs a little more help than we are currently willing to give him.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.