August 19, 2005


The bishops’ commitment to Catholic schools

One of the actions taken by the U.S. bishops at their June meeting was to approve a “statement of commitment to Catholic schools.” At first, this might seem odd. Isn’t it obvious that the bishops support Catholic schools? Why is it necessary to issue a formal statement? And yet, the bishops’ action is a welcome and timely confirmation of the Church’s commitment to our schools.

The case for Catholic schools is unassailable. All appropriate indicators show that our schools achieve their religious and educational objectives better than the alternatives. Studies also show that a Catholic school education is the best way for students to break the cycle of poverty and become productive members of society. With all this overwhelming evidence of success, can there be any doubt that the communities they serve wholeheartedly support Catholic schools?

Unfortunately, yes. This is one of the great paradoxes of modern life. In spite of our schools’ clear success, since 1990 there has been a net decline of 850 Catholic schools in the United States—almost all in areas that arguably need them most—urban and rural communities. In the past five years, enrollment has declined by 170,000 students nationwide in spite of the fact that more than 2,500 Catholic schools throughout the country (most in suburban areas) have waiting lists.

What are the challenges facing Catholic schools today? The simple answer can be given in two words: enrollment and finance. Two-thirds of our schools do not have waiting lists. They need more students. The vast majority of our schools do not have the funding they need to match excellent teaching and catechesis with excellence in teachers’ salaries, facilities, tuition assistance and other endowment funds. A few Catholic elementary and secondary schools do an outstanding job of fund development. Most struggle to get by on tuition, fundraisers and subsidies from parishes, dioceses and religious communities.

The U.S. bishops’ statement of commitment calls attention to several additional “challenges of the future.” These include:

• The face of our Church—Catholic parishes and schools face the challenge of addressing the spiritual, educational, social and cultural needs of a new wave of immigrants as well as the needs of a growing number of Catholics who are financially successful and have moved to areas of the United States where in the past Catholic schools were a rarity. This means that we must maintain our schools in inner city, urban and rural areas (where immigrants trend to settle) while building new schools in suburban and exurban areas (where large numbers of Catholics are moving).

• Personnel—In marked contrast to previous eras, 95 percent of Catholic school administrators are lay professionals and not members of religious communities or clergy. Ongoing faith formation and professional development programs must be a priority so that administrators and teachers in Catholic schools can continue to grow in their ministry of education.

• Finances—The bishops call on the entire Catholic community (clergy, religious and laity) to assist in addressing the critical financial questions that continue to face our Catholic schools. “The future of Catholic school education,” the bishops say, “depends on the entire Catholic community embracing wholeheartedly the concept of stewardship of time, talent and treasure, and translating stewardship into concrete action.”

• Advocacy—The entire Catholic community is asked to advocate for parental choice and personal and corporate tax credits which will help parents to fulfill their responsibility in educating their children. Legislative actions which ban or severely limit assistance to private and/or religious schools are identified as part of “an anti-religious and, more specifically, anti-Catholic legacy in our nation’s history.” The bishops urge everyone “to advocate for the repeal of these relics of unfortunate bigotry.”

The Church in central and southern Indiana has wonderful Catholic schools in inner-city, urban, suburban and rural areas. We have worked hard over the past nearly four decades to strengthen and support our schools, and we have made significant progress in each of the challenge areas outlined by the bishops in their “Statement of Commitment to Catholic Schools.”

Like parish staffing, the work of sustaining and growing our Catholic schools is an ongoing challenge. May the Lord continue to bless our students, their parents and teachers, and all who sacrifice so much to strengthen and sustain this vital ministry!

— Daniel Conway

(Daniel Conway is a member of the editorial committee of the board of directors of Criterion Press Inc.)


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