January 29, 2009
In the 19
th century, Catholics came face to face with prejudice and disdain for Catholicism. The Catholic school was a response. It was the privileged place where the great Catholic tradition could be passed on. To this day, students in Catholic schools are able to grow within the very tradition that produced the university and the hospital, two institutions that care for the mind and body of the human person. Students are trained in the moral and intellectual tradition that protects and cherishes the dignity of the person. They are formed in an environment of community that contributes to the health of society itself.
By the late 1960s, almost half of all Catholic children in America attended Catholic elementary schools. Each parish was proud to support a school. The classrooms were crowded. Parents were thrilled to have their children in the competent and loving care of so many dedicated religious. Tuition was at a minimum, if there was any at all.
On the eve of Pope Benedict XVI’s historic visit to the United States in April of last year, the news released a report detailing the situation of Catholic schools in this country. The statistics show that, ever since 1990, 1,300 Catholic schools have either been consolidated or closed. This change has affected 300,000 students in both elementary and high schools.
Again and again the news reports the painful story of another school unable to continue its mission. A weak economy. Declining enrollment. Rising costs of health benefits. Higher salaries. Higher tuition. The demand for more technology. These are a few of the realities that cause one school after another to close its doors. In the end, teachers and students, administrators and professionals no longer have the same opportunity to be part of the largest and best private school system in the world.
Times have changed. Only 15 percent of Catholic students attend a Catholic school. Latinos are the fastest-growing group within the Church and the United States. Yet, only 3 percent of Latinos go to Catholic schools. Fewer religious staff the schools. Dedicated and well-trained laypeople, instead, continue the noble work of Catholic education once done almost exclusively by very competent sisters, brothers and priests.
Because of changes in economics and sometimes in demography, parishes find it ever more difficult to maintain a school. Even where there is great commitment, the resources are often lacking. Certainly, there are new ways to continue Catholic schools. The consortium model helps to relieve the heavy burden placed on individual parishes that sponsor a school. The consortium model also allows all parishes to be involved in the effort to provide a solid Catholic education for our day.
In the 19
th century, even though Catholics were not fully accepted, values based on the Gospel were. Today, this is no longer true. A virulent secularist campaign is driving religious and moral values from the realm of science and technology, economics, and politics, medicine and education. Today, therefore, Catholic education is even more important and more necessary than in our grandparents’ day. And, within Catholic education, the Catholic school holds an essential and unique place.
At the heart of the Catholic school is Christ. The Catholic school is a privileged place for students, faculty and administration to meet Christ and to develop a deeper attachment to him both personally and ecclesially. Christ is not an extra to the order of creation itself. “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things exist” (Col 1:16-17).
In Catholic education, therefore, “reference to Jesus Christ teaches man to discern the values which ennoble from those which degrade him” (Pope Paul VI,
Allocution to the Ninth Congress of the Catholic International Education Office, in “L'Osservatore Romano”, June 9, 1974). Catholic schools not only teach truth but form students in the praxis of truth. In this way, Catholic schools make a valuable contribution not just to the individuals formed by Catholic education, but to society itself that is so in need of rediscovering moral values as essential for the common good in a pluralistic society.
Those who are upset each time a school consolidates or is closed actually give witness to the great value of Catholic schools. Their voice calling for their school to keep its doors open is a painful cry for all of us to do our part to keep the light of Catholic education burning bright. Reason requires a prudent use of our resources to provide the best Catholic education that we are able to offer. Buildings are secondary to students. New models, new forms of governance and marketing are all required means to enliven Catholic education. Holding on to past models could easily facilitate the demise of the Catholic School.
Today, sacrifice is necessary for the greater good. Only sacrifice and a generosity of all Catholics and those committed to Catholic education can ensure that we can offer our children and our society the treasured gift of the Catholic School.