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Monday, March 24, 2008

Catholic Schools: Essential Yesterday, Today And Tomorrow



By Daniel J. Cassidy

The Catholic school system in the United States is unique in the world in that its founders intended that every Catholic child should be formed by it. Massive Catholic immigration to a nation with an alien culture and Protestant ethos persuaded bishops that formation in Catholic schools was essential to preserve the faith of millions of Catholics for whom they had responsibility.

When the first Council of Baltimore met in 1829, it is estimated that in a nation of 12 million, there were 500,000 Catholics. By the time of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884, the number of Catholics had grown to more than 8 million. Despite enormous obstacles, the bishops of the United States, in three successive Councils of Baltimore, not only affirmed the importance of formation in Catholic schools, they committed themselves to building a massive parallel school system. The bishops agreed that every parish should have a tuition-free Catholic school, supported by the whole parish, and instructed parents that they “must send their children to such schools unless the bishop should judge the reason for sending them elsewhere to be sufficient.”

The foremost historian of Catholic schooling in the United States, Father Harold A. Buetow, explains that public schools in nineteenth century America were influenced by Nativism that sought to “Americanize” the children of Catholic immigrants.
Thus, parents and the hierarchy “could not in conscience permit their children to attend schools conducted mainly by Protestant teachers, with a Protestant viewpoint, and with religious instruction and religious exercises of a decidedly Protestant (even if nondenominational) character.” The bishops were concerned primarily with what all bishops ought to be concerned, the saving of souls and the building of the Kingdom of God.


Today, many Catholic parents would be grateful for a Christian culture, Protestant or otherwise, in public schools. Instead, their tax dollars provide, and (unless they can afford private alternatives) law compels them to send their children to schools imbued with secular relativism, where immoral lifestyles are upheld, premarital sex is accepted as long as it is practiced “safely,” and where Christian history and culture, if it is taught at all, is often mocked and condemned.

Heroically dedicated parents often provide antidotes to a culture in the government schools that is deadly to both the body and the soul. Unfortunately, most of today’s parents are themselves victims of government schools and have little or no formation in the faith.

Numerous studies have affirmed the academic superiority of Catholic schools.
In America’s inner-cities they are havens, affording the poorest of the poor a safe, ordered environment, where their children are made to feel a loved part of an affirming community. But they are also the seed-beds for the future Church. Sociologist Andrew Greeley has conducted research indicating that those formed in Catholic schools are far more likely to be practicing their faith in their thirties and forties, than are the products of public schools and the parish CCD program. Distinctively Catholic schools should be forming knowledgeable, dedicated Catholic laymen, they should be the source of many religious vocations, and given the large numbers of non-Catholics they serve, particularly in the inner-cities, they should be the source of many conversions to the faith.

However, in the face of virulent secularism and moral breakdown in America and throughout the West, today’s bishops seem more concerned with managing a profitable corporate enterprise than with the saving of souls. According to the Hoover Institution the Catholic population has grown from 45 million in 1965, to almost 77 million today. But the Hoover Institution also points out:

Catholic school enrollment has plummeted, from 5.2 million students in nearly 13,000 schools in 1960 to 2.5 million in 9,000 schools in 1990. After a promising increase in the late 1990s, enrollment had by 2006 dropped to 2.3 million students in 7,500 schools. And the steep decline would have been even steeper if these sectarian schools had to rely on their own flock for enrollment: almost 14 percent of Catholic school enrollment is now non-Catholic, up from less than 3 percent in 1970. When Catholic schools educated 12 percent of all schoolchildren in the country in 1965, the proportion of Catholics in the general population was 24 percent. Catholics still make up about one-quarter of the American population, but their schools enroll less than 5 percent of all students.
A system that at one time educated 1 out of every 8 American children is being closed at the very time it is needed most.

Is the Church in America less prosperous than it was in 1829 when it committed to providing every Catholic family a quality Catholic education? Are the threats to one’s soul and eternal salvation any less? Certainly not! What is markedly different is the commitment of America’s bishops to faith formation and the saving of souls. Archbishop Fulton Sheen said “the danger today may be the primacy of administration over love.” Today’s bishops with their expensively tailored suits and gold cuff links too often resemble corporate CEO’s preoccupied with managing real estate empires. And they are far more focused on material resources than on the divine. John J. Myers, the Archbishop of Newark, is a good example; instead of committing to evangelization and building up the Kingdom of God, he has paid millions to outside consultants to manage the difficult public relations problem of closing scores of churches and schools. Using the consultants’ state of the art psychological and public relations techniques, and employing slogans like “new energies” to imply some great work is underway, the Archdiocese of Newark speaks of mergers, collaboration and consolidations, but the net effect is that far fewer children receive a Catholic education today than when he was appointed seven years ago. Many of the schools closed served those who need them most, but are least able to pay. In the eyes of the Archbishop and his corporate management team, the schools were simply a financial drain, not the means to save souls. As such, they must be eliminated. But like so many of today’s CEO’s who are paid huge bonuses even when profits are down and employees are being terminated, the Archbishop of Newark has complained to his seminarians in Rome about having to pay $300 for each of the custom made shirts he purchases there, and he has also purchased a comfortable estate in New Jersey’s horse country and installed a new swimming pool for his personal enjoyment.

In contrast to what is happening in most American dioceses, two Kentucky priests have written a powerful letter to Catholic parents about the necessity of providing their children with a Catholic education. They even assure parents that if finances are preventing them from enrolling their children in the local parochial school, they will find whatever financial assistance is needed. (See their letter here) Their extraordinary letter is a throwback to the great bishops of the nineteenth century who actually believed that they had the awesome responsibility to shepherd souls to heaven, not manage the collapse of Catholic life and the closing of Catholic institutions with an “apr├Ęs moi le deluge” attitude. Let us hope the Papal Nuncio has fast-tracked them both to the Episcopacy.

In the week following Easter, the National Catholic Educational Association holds its annual meeting. Attendees are, for the most part, the principals and teachers that work for bishops. Their meetings are usually characterized by “happy talk” slogans that suggest, despite their decimated numbers, they are completely oblivious to the collapse of their once great school system. Let us hope and pray that in this late hour they recognize the urgent need for orthodox and distinctively Catholic schools. May they read the Kentucky priests’ letter and realize the awesome, divine role and responsibility they have in the salvific mission of the Church, and may they, by resolving to restore Catholic education in the United States, even provide the Christian witness that might save the souls of a few lost shepherds.


1 comment:

WM MCINTOSH said...

I have 2 daughters,both good students.both turned down by the Catholic high school of their choice.The high school wanted a student body that was 50% non-Catholic.They told us this in their rejection letters. I couldn't believe it. I appealled to the diocese to have this policy changed and they said there was nothing they could do about it. The bishop wouldn't get involved. Both girls have since left the church.