This week (January 27 through the 31) was Catholic schools week. It has been demonstrated time and time again that the Catholic Church can do a better job of educating children than the State and with less money. But in addition to celebrating the real value of Catholic education, it would seem appropriate that Catholics discuss why their schools continue to close. In the 1950’s, for instance, the Catholic Church educated 12 percent of children in America. That percentage has dwindled down to less than 5 percent.
The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) reported that between 2000 and 2006 nearly 600 Catholic elementary and secondary schools closed. This was a 7 percent decline. Nearly 290,000 students left. (Andy Smarick. "Can Catholic Schools Be Saved?")
I can go on about the statistics of decline but I think it would be more useful to discuss those underlying reasons why the Church has suffered this setback. For our purposes, there are two factors that deserve our attention.
1. First, the crisis of Catholic education can be traced to the decline of religious vocations. In 1917, Pope Benedict XV said, “[T]hings are preserved through the same causes by which they were brought into being.” She seldom gets the credit for it but universal education was brought into being by the Catholic Church. Indeed, the unprecedented revolution of Catholic education during the first millennium of Christianity sprung from the monasteries that multiplied throughout the Middle Eastern and European landscape. Prior to this, in ancient pagan civilization, education and literacy existed for the chosen few. Even the teachings of Greek philosophers were made available to those few men who could afford to study philosophy.
Yet, with the emergence of Christianity, things would change. Christ said let the children come to me. Under his mandate, bishops, priests, monks and nuns set out to make Christian education available to everyone- children as well as adults! From this inspired initiative came forth catechetical schools, parish schools, cathedral schools and universities. Indeed, it was these institutions which played a significant role in civilizing the once-barbaric continent of Europe. And that mission to bring the light of the Gospel to the people was sustained by the sacrifice of religious brothers and sisters until the mid 1960’s. Due to their call to celibacy, the cost of employing them would be minimal.
Fast-forward to 1920: Before the crisis of priestly and religious vocations rocked the Church, 92 percent of Catholic schools were staffed by the religious, that is, nuns, priests and brothers. However, in the post-1960’s era, the majority of teachers in Catholic schools would be occupied by lay people. With this development, tuition cost skyrocketed. After all, behind just about every lay person is a family to support financially.
Given the legacy of Christian education of the monasteries and religious orders- and the revolutionary effects it had on Western Civilization -and given the manifold benefits of having the religious at helm in Catholic schools, perhaps we can entertain the idea of having a more vigorous and visible campaign by parishes and dioceses around the world to promote religious vocations. No doubt, this is a long term goal. But it is one that needs to be pursued if Catholic education is to be preserved by the cause which brought it into being.
2. The second factor that deserves our attention is that in the late 19th century and the early part of the 20th century Catholics understood that they had competition in terms of educating children. That competitor was none other than the public school system. In fact, public education was more than just a competitor. It was believed that a secular education posed a mortal threat to the mission of the Catholic Church in saving souls for Christ.
For instance, the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia edition stated that public schools are an “imminent danger to faith and morals.” And just four years later in 1921, Cardinal James Gibbons made the same observation:
“The spirit of our people in general is adverse to State monopoly, and this for the obvious reason that such an absorption of control would mean the end of freedom and initiative. The same consequence is sure to follow when the State attempts to monopolize education; and the disaster will be much greater inasmuch as it will affect, not simply the worldly interests of the citizen, but also his spiritual growth and salvation.”
In 1882, Fr. Thomas J. Jenkins published a book called, Judges of Faith: Christian vs. Godless Schools. It was an extensive survey of bishops around the world as to their position on public schools. It is important to know that in America there was a consensus among bishops that a secular education is an infallible instrument of bringing about a secular society. And as for Christians, a religiously neutral school would naturally breed religiously neutral children. As Fr. Jenkins said, “No practical Christian ever becomes unfaithful. So creedless, neutral schools, breed creedless children; indifference to God and virtue is the surest precursor to infidelity in practice…”
These creedless schools, as Fr. Jenkins put it, was perceived to foster a secular worldview among youth, one that is narrow and one-sided. In 1884, the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore stated the following: “A one-sided education [i.e. secular] will develop a one-sided life, and such a life will surely topple over; and so will every social system built up of such lives...”
So here we are. In 2013 there is no shortage of talk about the sustainability of the American dream. Yet, Catholics in America have a distinct advantage they are not using. They could look back to the writings of their spiritual ancestors and compile volumes of warnings about the very thing that is troubling both the Church and the nation today. A century ago, popes, bishops and priests warned us about the perils of a State-run education system and what it would portend for the salvation of souls and the nation's welfare. But we Catholics have yet to give it the attention it deserves.
If Catholic education is to burrow its way to the light, Catholics will have to once again rediscover those causes which it into being and become ever vigilant with regard to those obstacles that stand in its way. A good place to start is to ask ourselves: "Is there something our spiritual ancestors saw that we are not seeing?"
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.