Father Steve comments on a Archbishop Timothy Dolan's article in America magazine that addresses the steady decline of Catholic School enrollment over the past 40 years.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York presents a strong advocacy for Catholic schools in America Magazine. His piece is entitled “The Catholic Schools We Need,”
and the Archbishop’s insights are well worth reading. Early in his text Dolan presents the grim statistic that enrollment in Catholic schools in the United States has steadily declined since nearly 5.2 million in the mid 1960’s to a current stat of 2.2 million. He cites the usual suspects in all this- the failure of religious orders to sustain adequate numbers of vocations, shifts in demographics (the American family continues to shrink and the Catholic family in American is no exception), rise in the cost of living (which has meant that tuition for parochial schools is higher than what many can afford), the dissolution of a distinctive Catholic culture, and finally, what Dolan wants us to understand as the linchpin in the decline- what he describes as a “loss of nerve” on the part of Catholics. Catholics, Dolan, asserts, “have for some time disowned their school system.” The reason he gives for this is “because their own children are not enrolled there or their parish does not have a school.” In other words (my words) Catholics have opted out of Catholic education.
Archbishop Dolan laments the current “hospice mentality” that pervades the current approach to Catholic schools. We can do better than this. The positive work of Catholic schools is irrefutable, and the success of these schools has not only led to the betterment of the lives of the generations of Catholics and non-Catholics that matriculated through them, but the nation as a whole. That foundation of excellence still exists, and Catholics would do well to build upon this, rather than simply tear it down. In response to those who have essentially opted out, Dolan reminds them, “Catholic education is a communal, ecclesial duty, not just for parents of schoolchildren or for parishes blessed to have their own school. Surely American Catholics have sufficient wealth and imagination to accomplish this.” I agree with the Archbishop. Catholics in the United States certainly have the resources, and there is no lack of imagination, but I would add that what we do lack is the dynamic that gave rise to the vast network of Catholic institutions- a Catholic culture that is able to provide a coherent narrative which will impart purpose and meaning to the efforts of Catholic people to live out their Faith. Without this culture, all the money and imagination in the world are not going to rescue the patient from its sick bed. Our institutions are expressions of this culture and derive their existence from this matrix. If it is not present, Catholic education cannot survive for it will be cut off from the source of its life.
I think that Archbishop Dolan understands this. He warns that the virulent anti-Catholicism rooted in the nativism and Protestantism of former generations has mutated into the forces of secularization. Without our own system of education, Catholics will find themselves ever more defenseless and isolated before a culture that cannot envision any role for Catholicism in particular or religion in general other than that of private convictions divorced from public life. Catholics will only be able to endure the current challenges from the secular culture if they have a viable and vibrant culture of their own. This culture will necessitate institutional realities that will embody its system of conviction- thus the necessity of Catholic schools. There is a reciprocal relationship between the culture of the Church and its institutions, and the Church cannot be what it is meant to be if this relationship is mitigated or blocked. Secularists know this all too well as the confrontation of the Church with the secularist ideologies of the twentieth century has already demonstrated. It would be tragic if a lack of appreciation for the rapport between the Church’s culture and institutions by Catholics themselves ended up accomplishing what the secularists have been laboring to accomplish since the French Revolution.
The current decline seems to me to be part and parcel of the ethos that gave rise to the Catholic institutions in the first place. There is an “over against” attitude that brought Catholic schools into being, an attitude born of a legitimate appreciation that there was something important at stake in terms of the preservation of the unique identity of the Church in the face of an overwhelmingly Protestant culture. But along with this, Catholic leadership in the United States dedicated much of their energies to the strategy of assimilation and accommodation to the American experience. Ultimately this strategy overcame Catholic resistance. The evidence for the success of this strategy of assimilation and accommodation is visible in the current predicament that Catholic education faces. Prior to the decline of the schools was an intentional secularization of Catholic institutions, an uncritical accommodation to modernity that robbed them of their unique identity, and therefore their deepest purpose and meaning. If Catholics lost interest in Catholic education, they first lost a sense of what it meant to be Catholic, and why this identity was unique and necessary.
Therefore what must happen is more than just a preservation of those Catholic schools that have through either chance or circumstance managed to survive; Catholics will have to recover a sense of their own unique culture. If a previous generation learned in Catholic schools how to be an American, the next generation is going to have to learn from our schools what it means to be a good Catholic. There is much that will teach them the former, it is only from the Church that we learn the latter. The educational task at hand might perhaps be larger than what the Archbishop envisions- it is not just about Catholic schools, it is about building a viable and vigorous Catholic culture that can again give rise and sustain a new vision of Catholic education for all the baptized. Yes, Archbishop Dolan, you are right, we need Catholic schools, but Catholic schools need Catholic culture.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.