For decades, Catholic schools shaped Catholic culture, enjoyed the wholehearted support of parents and priests, survived because of the sacrifices and dedication of women Religious and transformed an immigrant Church into the American mainstream.
In the last several decades, however, much has changed. Catholic schools have been pared back by declining enrollments and rising expenses. Women Religious are no longer the backbone of the Catholic school system, and their departure has impacted everything from salary structures to Catholic identity. Parishes strapped for money are forced to choose between keeping a school open and providing other services to their people.
And American families have changed. A Catholic education is not always perceived as a priority anymore. Public schools in many areas provide solid educational opportunities. Rising tuition costs make Catholic schools unaffordable for many, and the voucher movement, however just, has had little success. Some parents do not see why a Catholic education is important.
Today, Catholic schools educate no more than 15 percent of Catholic schoolchildren. In some areas, a sizeable number of the children attending a Catholic school do not come from Catholic families. Aware of the need to pay living wages to Catholic school teachers, and burdened with the rising costs of everything from building maintenance to insurance, most dioceses have had to raise tuition significantly in recent decades, pricing out many families.
At the same time, the Church is still challenged to provide an education for the 85 percent of children who will never darken a Catholic school hallway. These children come from a wide variety of families, and for a wide variety of reasons they are not attending -- or not able to attend -- a Catholic school. Yet they are every bit as deserving of a good education in the faith as their parochial school counterparts.
In many, we dare say most, parishes and chanceries there is a historic tension between schools and the parish-based education programs. Parish programs educate the majority of the children, yet receive a fraction of the funds. Catechists are usually volunteers, not paid staff, and funding is limited to hire and train parish directors of religious education programs. Too often parish programs and schools act like jealous siblings, viewing each other more as a threat than an ally, while a crisis in the education of our young people grows more acute every year.
Our prayer, for National Catholic Schools Week and for Catechetical Sunday later this year, is that parish and school staff, with the parents ("the principal and first educators of their children," the Catechism of the Catholic Church says), will work together more effectively to reach 100 percent of Catholic children with a compelling, informative and transformative education in the faith.
Religious education directors and school principals need to see their task as a common one: passing on the faith in a way that sticks. Pastors and bishops need to support this shared goal, not just with rhetoric, but with resources.
Handing on the faith to the next generation must be Job One for everyone, but no parish program or school can replace the critical role of the parent. To make our educational system work, it will take more than money or teachers. Educated, inspired and committed Catholic parents are key to the success of every parish and school program.