John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, sees a strong link between Catholic family life and the long-term vitality of Catholic education.
“The decline in families is not something we read enough about in the mainstream press. This is a serious problem in America today,” Garvey told Our Sunday Visitor during a recent interview.
Garvey said the cultural breakdown of the family, with higher rates of divorce and children being born into single-parent families, along with higher operating expenses and rising secularism with its related threats to religious liberty all pose serious issues that Catholic education officials will have to deal with in the coming decades.
“We are seeing a trend of children born outside families with no fathers. When children are born outside families, 9 out of 10 times it’s the mother who raises the children, and you see how that plays out in the later life of the children. There are reasons why girls are outperforming boys in higher education,” Garvey said.
Garvey discussed similar issues during a Nov. 7 address before a Catholic Press Association conference in Alexandria, Va. Garvey told the media professionals and OSV that Catholic educational institutions cannot be taken for granted even though they have a long history dating back several centuries.
“Catholic education is a gift we will have to work hard to preserve,” Garvey said.
Our Sunday Visitor: What are the challenges facing Catholic higher education today?
Garvey: I think there are two big ones. Both of them are challenges. We face issues of cost and value. The cost thing is obvious because Catholic schools are by definition not public schools, so they are not supported by tax dollars. We have to raise money in the form of tuition and grants to support our undertaking, but Catholic education still has to be an affordable proposition.
Five years since the recession of 2008, I think parents are reexamining their balance sheets and asking if (Catholic education) is worth it.
That leads to the second point: on the value of Catholic education. I think there is a distinctive value we have, a value that is in competition with public and other private schools. ... We need to be who we truly are called to be if we want to offer something that people can’t find elsewhere.
OSV: How are cultural trends relating to family life affecting Catholic education?
Garvey: I think one thing that is happening in the culture is girls in single-family homes often have role models with their moms who work and raise their families, while boys in families without fathers don’t have those same role models. Children who grow up in families with no fathers get into trouble at higher rates and go to church less. It’s become characteristic of American society today that we’re raising a very large number of children in this way, and that shows up in higher education, and also in later life outcomes. It’s a problem that we can’t give enough attention to.
We have also seen, since I was a boy, a really radical decline in the number of people attending Catholic elementary and secondary schools. That has gone along with not a decline in population but a decline in the commitment of parents in sending their children to Catholic schools. We have also seen a decline of religious-order vocations that used to teach in the Catholic schools. This is happening everywhere, and the bishops know the problems best of all. They’re the ones who have to close the schools and churches, and this has a lot of follow-up effects.
OSV: What effect does fewer students attending Catholic elementary and secondary schools have on Catholic higher ed?
Garvey: Catholic schools traditionally are the places where Catholic colleges and universities have drawn their students from. That is changing fast.
It means not just that we don’t have a group of people all in one place that we can go and pitch our message to. It also means that more young people are being educated in public or, sometimes, other private schools, but mostly public elementary and secondary schools, so they have not had 12 years of an education that will enable them to appreciate what makes Catholic education special.
OSV: How is the rising tide of secularism impacting Catholic higher education?
Garvey: It’s related both in cause and effect. On the cause side, people for whose faith is not that important to them won’t go through the trouble of paying for Catholic education for their sons and daughters when they can get a public education for free.
In another way, it’s an effect. The surest sign of whether a married adult will go to church and send their kids to parochial schools, or at least send them to church, is whether they themselves have attended parochial schools.
At The Catholic University of America (CUA), for example, among our students who attended Catholic schools before coming to CUA, they have a weekly Mass attendance of about 65 percent. Among the Catholic students who attended public schools, their rate of Mass attendance we hear often is about 20 percent. If you want your kid to go to Mass when they go off to college, I think the really important thing to do is to send students to parochial schools when they are kids.
OSV: How is religious liberty a pressing concern for Catholic education?
Garvey: I think religious liberty is becoming a really important question for Catholic institutions of all kinds, not just for universities, but also for all Americans. For example, the HHS mandate [on contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act] will compel us to do something we feel conscientious reservations about doing.
Further down the road, taking into account that there is a lot of federal money that flows to higher education and social services, we may come to a situation where federal money is tied to government-approved outcomes, or we may see tax exemptions being denied to institutions that engage in activities the government disapproves of. Over the very long term a serious problem could arise where the government is in a position to call the tune that the universities have to dance to because they are providing the money.
OSV: With more students attending Catholic colleges who are not as well-catechized as in the past, how will those institutions respond to challenges faced in campus life?
Garvey: This will draw more attention in the future than it has in the past. There are two important things to keep in mind. One is being clear and upfront about who we are so we attract, as students, people who understand what we are selling.
The second thing that is important to keep in mind is the world around us is changing. It doesn’t do good to just pound the table and shout out a discussion of what the culture approves of nowadays. Our role as educators is to understand where the students are coming from, understand and communicate well what the Catholic tradition is and how it is related to leading better lives. We’re going to see a lot of this. It’s important for us not to put our heads in the sand about it.
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.