Why keep the schools

2 mins read
Catholic schools

Msgr. Owen F. CampionIt was old, but it was fascinating! In a secondhand bookshop, I found a copy of the 1955 Official Catholic Directory.

(The Official Catholic Directory has been published yearly for well over a century. It has the names and addresses of all Catholic institutions in this country.)

To satisfy my curiosity, I went to two sites familiar to me, the Diocese of Nashville, my home diocese, that then included Memphis, and the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, where Our Sunday Visitor was, and is, located.

I recognized the names of many parishes, with satisfaction, but I noted that since 1955 new parishes have been formed in both locations. Happily, new parishes indicated that people still are connecting themselves with the Catholic Church and availing themselves of the sacraments.

Another obvious fact left me less than gratified. Clearly, many Catholic parochial schools that were open in 1955, enrolling thousands of youth at the time, have faded away.

Then, more recently, I read that in one stroke of the pen, the Diocese of Memphis will close a Catholic high school and no less than 10 elementary schools.

Memphis authorities said that they had no other choice, and I completely believe them. They could not find the needed funds.

Occasionally, shift in population has resulted in the closing of parochial schools. Neighborhoods change from residential to commercial or industrial. People move away. No youth are left to be educated. Parish schools consequently close.

No church leader in any way at any time has advocated to close the Catholic school system. Rather, again and again and again funding to operate the schools has been inadequate. For schools that are open, and doing well, money inevitably is an issue — a gigantic issue. So many pastors lie awake at night wondering how to pay for parish schools.

Times have changed. Historically only women religious taught in the schools. They received little payment, not something in which Catholics can take pride. The stinginess in what was paid to sisters is coming home to roost. Regulations and policies were less strict. One retired nun told me that when she began teaching, long ago, 82 children were in her first grade class! No school today would permit such a thing, and this is good.

It is no wonder that today money is the elephant in the middle of the room in every discussion about Catholic schools, elementary and secondary at least. Now this elephant in standing in the center of discussions about small Catholic colleges. Many are struggling. Many are ending operations — because they need money.

However, some Catholic schools are doing well because of inventive efforts in planning curricula and securing support. Look at the magnificent Cristo Rey schools.

Others are still in business because parents can afford to pay tuition. This means that many Catholic schools are becoming schools only or chiefly for people able to pay. I fear that as expenses climb even more, the clientele of Catholic schools increasingly will be the financially advantaged.

In this case, Catholic schools may no longer be the wonderful melting pots that once they were.

Catholic youth, myself very definitely included, so often found in a Catholic school acquaintances with, and genuine respect for, others whose backgrounds were different from the near and dear. It was a wonderful lesson.

The future of Catholic schools worries me. Maybe the silver lining is that we all, especially parents, are being forewarned. Catholic schools have been powerful instruments in the lives of millions enabling young people not only to meet new friends but also to acquire the skills and insights to live productively, and as bearers of the Gospel, in this American capitalist, pluralistic democracy.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.