Here is an important article on the value of Catholic education in the United States, written by two people who know what they’re talking about. Today's New York Times includes an op-ed entitled “Catholic Education: In Need of Salvation ,” written by, Patrick J. McCloskey, a project director at the Center for Catholic School Effectiveness at Loyola University Chicago, and the author of The Street Stops Here: A Year at a Catholic High School in Harlem. Joseph Claude Harris is a financial analyst and the author of The Cost of Catholic Parishes and Schools. Both are also frequent and valued contributors to America.
The authors make some some important points in their article about the declining numbers of Catholic schools in this country. First the sad facts:
Closings of elementary and middle schools have become a yearly ritual in the Northeast and Midwest, home to two-thirds of the nation’s Catholic schools. Last year, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia closed one-fifth of its elementary schools. Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York, is expected to decide soon whether to shut 26 elementary schools and one high school, less than three years after the latest closings. Catholic high schools have held on, but their long-term future is in question.”
Then the meat of their argument:
Since the early 19th century, parochial schools have given free or affordable educations to needy and affluent students alike. Inner-city Catholic schools, which began by serving poor European immigrants, severed the connection between poverty and low academic performance for generations of low-income (and often non-Catholic) minority kids.
Until the 1960s, religious orders were united in responding to Christ’s mandate to “go teach.” But religious vocations have become less attractive, and parochial schools have faced increasing competition from charter schools. Without a turnaround, many dioceses will soon have only scatterings of elite Catholic academies for middle-class and affluent families and a token number of inner-city schools, propped up by wealthy donors.
In other words, all the poor and lower income groups, Catholic and otherwise, will be hurt by this precipitous decline.
The authors also rightly pinpoint one of the main reasons for the deficits, which most secular commentators miss, overlook or just plain misunderstand: that is, those who taught for decades in the heyday of Catholic schools, mainly women religious, received low wages (and, as an aside, took vows of poverty and so did not keep the money for themselves but turned it into their religious communities). Today, with lay staff working (and running) Catholic schools, what dioceses and parishes must spend on salaries has increased (naturally--in order to pay a just wage.) The authors offer a number of possible solutions to the crisis, including encouraging greater, and more creative, fundraising techniques.
Most interestingly, they also suggest that deacons might be used in schools. "Many deacons," they write, "have valuable professional, managerial and entrepreneurial expertise that could revitalize parochial education.” An excellent idea. Many deacons are also ordained later in their lives, often after retirement, and bring a great many valuable skills from careers in the corporate world (and in education) that might help to provide needed administrative support for schools. They could also serve as teachers, counselors and, with the right training, in leadership roles. (Though we should avoid the idea too common in the church today--and this is not what the authors are suggesting--that ordination qualifies you for every job.)
But then there is a non-sequitur in the article. (Or perhaps an error in editing.) The authors write about deacons: “If they were given additional powers to perform sacraments and run parishes a married priesthood would become a fait accompli. Celibacy should be a sacrifice offered freely, not an excuse for institutional suicide.”
Huh? I’m not entirely sure how ordaining married deacons to the priesthood would help the schools. Perhaps I’m missing their point. Deploying deacons in the schools is a fascinating idea. But if these deacons were ordained as married priests (or if there were married priests in general) I’m not sure how that would help the schools directly, unless the authors are suggesting that a greater number of priests would mean more overall support for the schools administratively (i.e., the pastor who serves as the nominal head of the school).
But as for the daily workings of the schools, a married priest would, as I see it, have little time to teach, counsel or serve in a leadership role, say, as principal, since he would also be running a parish, a full-time job. Moreover, as for helping out with the main problem—the financial support of the parochial school system--married priests would need higher salaries than their celibate counterparts since they would be, presumably, helping to raise a family, or perhaps supporting a wife (if she is not working in a full-time job outside the home, that is). But perhaps I’ve just misunderstood their argument, and they are suggesting more priests as an administrative solution.
Also, I’m not sure that the authors will make many friends among the bishops, whom they are presumably trying to convince, by saying, “Bishops preach social justice but fail to practice it within the church.” That's harsh. McCloskey and Harris critique the episcopacy for not providing a more effective transfer of wealth between wealthy parishes and poorer ones, in light of the fiscal crisis in the schools. But while this may not happen directly (as in direct transfers from parish to parish) many dioceses use the annual bishop's appeal campaigns specifically to benefit poorer parishes.
One other cavil about this very important article. The artist selected by the Times turned in a drawing of a sister being handed a ruler by God, presumably so that she could rap some knuckles. Again with sisters and rulers? They built the school system. Give them some credit, even in the art.
Let me though give the last word to the authors, who give the last word to Archbishop Hughes.
“The school is more necessary than the church,” said John J. Hughes, the first archbishop of New York. Unless the Vatican and the American bishops heed those words, the decline in parochial education may forewarn the fate of the church itself.