During his April 17, 2008 “Address to Catholic Educators” in Washington, D.C., Pope Benedict XVI stated that “Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News.” He acknowledged the primary role that educational institutions play in the Church’s mission of evangelization.
His specially invited audience that day were Catholic principals and school superintendents, Catholic college and university presidents from every diocese in the United States and others with a strong interest in and commitment to Catholic education at all its levels. His message was clear: Catholic educational institutions in our nation are privileged places where students “encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming truth and love.” Catholic education is for everyone.
Our country has a long history of Catholic education that continues to unfold in the present day. Dedicated women and men religious as well as priests created, administered and taught in Catholic primary and secondary schools and Catholic institutions of higher learning from the earliest days of our national existence. In more recent decades, committed Catholic lay women and men assumed these same responsibilities as the numbers of available religious and clergy have declined.
While curricula included subjects available in their secular counterparts, the distinctive element in Catholic education was and is Catholic religious instruction and formation in the Catholic faith. It was and is the principal reason for their existence.
In the past, the Church enthusiastically promoted and supported its Catholic educational institutions as did Catholic parents and families. It was rare, although not unheard of, that Catholic schools confronted the possibility of closing their doors and even rarer that parish churches faced the same fate.
Unfortunately that is not the case today. Catholic schools once bursting at the seams in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s have shuttered their doors all over our country due to steadily escalating costs – especially instruction and staff salaries – rapidly declining enrollments with accompanying loss of tuition income and substantial financial burdens on parishes’ already strained fiscal resources.
In some cases, even the Catholicity that was once the pride and purpose of our Catholic schools has begun to wane. The result? Catholic education and the formation of the Catholic faith of the young have lost their home.
It is very difficult to imagine that anyone wanted this to happen. Sadly, in so many cases, closure was the only option, decisions that were especially hard for some Catholic parents to understand and accept.
Fortunately, on the other hand, many Catholic primary and secondary schools in American parishes and dioceses have remained vibrant and strong, beacons of faith and hope in neighborhoods and communities, in a nation with too many lights contrary to the Gospel.
Thank God wherever that is the case. Most of us who are products of Catholic schools take great pride in our Catholic education and all that it provided, especially the knowledge and understanding of our Catholic faith. At the very least, we learned a Catholic vocabulary as well as a strong sense of our Catholic prayers, heritage and traditions. Did it hurt us to memorize the catechism and our prayers? I hardly think so.
Catholic schools represent hope for the future of the Church because they are – as they always have been — an effective investment in the transmission of faith to future generations of Catholics, one that has and continues to bear fruit in the Church’s efforts to evangelize.
To the extent that they are: (1) passionately Catholic – the bottom-line reason for their existence; (2) academically excellent – the highest academic standards apply; (3) financially sustainable – parishes should not bear an undue financial burden, our Catholic schools yield the most positive results and should be supported.
The research has been done and the evidence is readily available: Catholic schools do an excellent job of teaching our young people and preparing them for further education and for life, especially in large urban centers with diverse populations. Parishes, however, cannot be unfairly expected to bear the burden of constantly escalating costs in maintaining schools indefinitely, especially when the many other responsibilities of parishes begin to suffer.
Last year, I established a “Sustainability Commission” in the Diocese of Trenton composed of parents, pastors, educators and other professionals. I asked this commission to advise me not what Catholic primary schools should close but, rather, what criteria should exist that enable us to sustain and strengthen these schools.
Of course, the Diocese of Trenton is no different than other dioceses where difficult and painful decisions have had to be made in recent years. Some of our Catholic primary schools have closed and others will close. Catholics need to accept that fact and to raise their voices and use their energy before, not after, the fact.
To that end, I say “enrollment, enrollment, enrollment.” That is the key.
I would like to provide some more time for our Catholic primary schools to evaluate their own sustainability based upon criteria recommended by the commission and to get their acts together on a positive trajectory. I will not approve the closing of another Catholic primary school before 2015, but our parishes, our Diocese and I cannot keep all our Catholic primary schools open indefinitely and at all costs.
Again, Catholics need to accept that fact and to do all in their power to promote and support Catholic schools now, not after the decision is made to close. I will be meeting with pastors and principals of “at risk” schools in early fall to discuss the commission’s findings and possible strategies for survival.
In my next essay I will consider a second avenue of Catholic education on the parish level: religious education programs.