February 3, 2005
Catholic schools began with a dream. “Every Catholic child in a Catholic school.” That was the vision of the bishops of this country when they committed the Church in the United States to the indispensable goal of providing Catholic education for Catholic children. In the 1960’s, fifty percent of Catholic children were attending Catholic schools. Today the number stands at about fifteen percent. No one will argue with the irreplaceable gift that Catholic schools have made to society. No one will argue the amount of taxpayers’ dollars that Catholic schools have saved the state. No one will argue the boon Catholic schools have been in forming the young to be responsible and productive citizens. Anyone can recognize that Catholic schools continue to make a difference, especially in inner city neighborhoods where they provide a healthy alternative for the poor. However, some do question the value of Catholic schools in light of our changing economic and cultural situation.
A great debt is owed to the many dedicated religious who from the beginning have sacrificed so much in order to educate the young in the Catholic tradition. Catholic schools thrived on the generosity of women and men religious who gave themselves to the apostolate of education and received hardly any financial recompense for their noble work. With the exodus of many from religious communities after the close of the Second Vatican Council, we became even more aware of how much our schools had depended on the religious. Today, close to ninety-four percent of those who staff our schools are competent and committed laypeople who have a right to a just compensation. The increase in the cost of living, the need to attract good educators, and fewer students are facts that challenge us as we look for new ways to continue Catholic schools.
The channeling of parents’ tax dollars to schools of the parents’ choice will be no small benefit toward the financial stability of Catholic schools. And so the debate continues over the important school choice issue. But this debate cannot overshadow the ever urgent discussion of the very existence of Catholic schools today.
From the time the Council of Baltimore called on every parish to set up a Catholic school until about forty years ago, Catholics lived in ghettos. When immigrants came from Europe, they were de facto segregated. There were advantages. They settled in neighborhoods where others spoke their language, enjoyed their foods, sang their songs and worshipped in their Church. Irish went to Irish parishes; German to German; Polish to Polish parishes and Italians to Italian parishes. Life was easier and adjustment to a new country less painful. The parish schools helped pass on the cultural heritage of each ethnic group. They taught the languages of the parents to the children, and they celebrated the customs of their country of origin. There was a real sense of identity.
Today, many Catholics no longer live in ethnic neighborhoods. The children and grandchildren of the earlier immigrants have moved into the suburbs and are mainstreamed into the American way of life. Even more recent immigrants find themselves not only living close to others from their home countries, but also rubbing shoulders with others from so many different countries. Most parishes today, perhaps with the exception of some inner city parishes, are not ethnically homogenous.
From the very first Catholic school opened in 1727 to the most recent, the schools passed on the faith and provided a sound formation in the Catholic tradition. Catholic schools educated the children of so many immigrant groups and prepared them to take their rightful place in society in spite of the prejudice that existed. And there was a Catholic identity. Catholic identity is the battlefield where Catholic schools will win or lose the struggle for existence.
No Catholic can grow and mature into a faithful disciple of Jesus within the Catholic Church without the proper formation. For the many who attend public schools, our religious education programs, our sacramental preparation programs, the weekly attendance at Mass, and the practice of the family are all necessary to provide an environment for the young to mature as good Catholics. We need to invest our time and our treasure in those who by choice or by circumstance do not or cannot attend a Catholic school. Catholic education is for every Catholic. But at the same time, the particular contribution a Catholic school does make, the unique blessing a Catholic school is, cannot simply be ignored.
At this particular moment of history, Catholic schools are as important and as necessary as they were when they were first begun. The very banning of references to religion from the public sector only serves to remind us that there is no simple neutrality to the most fundamental questions of life and the destiny of the human person. There is a tendency to view education solely in terms of passing on academic knowledge and practical skills and to look upon the public school as a neutral environment for this work. But education always presupposes a definite concept of the human person and life. Public schools are state-run schools. Government and Church, state and religion are not always in agreement on major moral issues.
The principal end of Catholic education remains to form and develop well-educated and committed Catholics. And the Catholic school is a privileged place in which this integral formation takes place. The Catholic school is held to the same standard as any other school in providing quality education for the students. But there is something much more. Something whose value cannot be calculated in costs. The Catholic school is a total environment, a community born and nurtured by the spirit of the Gospel. “It tries to relate all of human culture to the good news of salvation so that the light of faith will illumine everything that the students will gradually come to learn about the world, about life, and about the human person"( Second Vatican Council,
Gravissimum educationis, 1).
In our pluralistic society where the most fundamental rights and dignity of the human person are no longer guaranteed by law, there is an urgent need for Catholics to be formed as Catholics. We have a rich heritage that contributes basic value to the common good of society. The Catholic school is irreplaceable. It is worth the investment all of us put into it, whether or not we have a parish school or children in a Catholic school. In our world today, to support Catholic schools is “a prophetic choice” (Congregation for Catholic Education,
The Catholic School of the Threshold of the Third Millennium, 21).