In this issue we celebrate Catholic Schools Week with an eloquent defense of the contribution Catholic schools have made in the life of our country and Church, by New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan. Thanks to generations of women religious as well as today’s mostly lay educators, Catholic schools have enjoyed success in academic achievement, spiritual growth and social justice for many decades.
Catholic schools face grave challenges, however. Schools are closing much more quickly than they are opening. Their costs are rising, even as attendance is falling as a percentage of the overall population. Archbishop Dolan warns that too many Catholics do not see their schools as something meriting the support of the entire Catholic community, not just those whose children are currently attending.
But the archbishop also mentioned that “we cannot succumb to the petty turf wars that pit Catholic schools against religious education programs and other parish ministries.” Here he has put his finger on a divide that currently plagues many dioceses and parishes.
Despite the importance of Catholic schools, the fact is that the majority of Catholic children do not attend them. Only 4 percent of Hispanic youth are enrolled in Catholic schools, and a similar fraction of our teenagers in Catholic high schools.
The burden for educating the majority of our young people falls primarily upon parish-based religious education programs, or nothing at all. Yet as Archbishop Dolan alludes, for several decades now there has existed a growing tension between Catholic schools and parish religious education programs. This tension grows out of a competition for resources, money, staff, even classroom space. It is a tension that is completely understandable, given the tight budgets of so many parishes and dioceses, and at the same time is a disaster for the future of our Church.
Archbishop Dolan, citing Pope Benedict XVI, says that when it comes to education and catechesis, it must be seen as a both/and, not an either/or. For our Church to thrive in the 21st century, the absolute No. 1 priority is for sound, thorough and effective faith formation for our children, our teens and our adults. Anything less, and we will be boosting the demographic category of “lapsed Catholic.”
Unfortunately, the tension and turf wars extend from the chancery to the parish office. Even while schools are being shut down, some dioceses are gutting religious education offices while parishes try to make do with undertrained volunteers and shortened hours. The schools cannot accommodate all of our youths, even as they deserve our support. At the same time, if we do not support the catechesis of those Catholics who do not go to Catholic schools, the future of both our parishes and our schools will be bleak.
Here are some ideas for a solution:
◗ Mobilize Catholics to support both religious education and Catholic schools so finances can be shared equitably.
◗ Encourage principals and directors of religious education to work together on common challenges so both can succeed.
◗ Invest in adult faith formation and catechist formation to generate new generations of religion teachers, DREs and catechists. Don’t forget that Catholic high school and college students also can get involved in religious education programs.
◗ Charitably share resources, including office staff, classroom space and materials.
All of us should have no patience with tired arguments that make the perfect the enemy of the good. The challenges are demanding, but one thing we know for sure: To hand on our faith, the choice isn’t either/or. It is both/and.