McCloskey and Harris on Saving Catholic Schools

Art by Karolin Schnoor, New York Times

Here is an important article on the value of Catholic education in the United States, written by two people who know what they’re talking about.  Today's New York Times includes an op-ed entitled “Catholic Education: In Need of Salvation,” written by, Patrick J. McCloskey, a project director at the Center for Catholic School Effectiveness at Loyola University Chicago, and the author of The Street Stops Here: A Year at a Catholic High School in Harlem. Joseph Claude Harris is a financial analyst and the author of The Cost of Catholic Parishes and Schools.  Both are also frequent and valued contributors to America.

The authors make some some important points in their article about the declining numbers of Catholic schools in this country.  First the sad facts:


Closings of elementary and middle schools have become a yearly ritual in the Northeast and Midwest, home to two-thirds of the nation’s Catholic schools. Last year, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia closed one-fifth of its elementary schools. Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York, is expected to decide soon whether to shut 26 elementary schools and one high school, less than three years after the latest closings. Catholic high schools have held on, but their long-term future is in question.”

Then the meat of their argument:

Since the early 19th century, parochial schools have given free or affordable educations to needy and affluent students alike. Inner-city Catholic schools, which began by serving poor European immigrants, severed the connection between poverty and low academic performance for generations of low-income (and often non-Catholic) minority kids.

Until the 1960s, religious orders were united in responding to Christ’s mandate to “go teach.” But religious vocations have become less attractive, and parochial schools have faced increasing competition from charter schools. Without a turnaround, many dioceses will soon have only scatterings of elite Catholic academies for middle-class and affluent families and a token number of inner-city schools, propped up by wealthy donors.

In other words, all the poor and lower income groups, Catholic and otherwise, will be hurt by this precipitous decline.

The authors also rightly pinpoint one of the main reasons for the deficits, which most secular commentators miss, overlook or just plain misunderstand: that is, those who taught for decades in the heyday of Catholic schools, mainly women religious, received low wages (and, as an aside, took vows of poverty and so did not keep the money for themselves but turned it into their religious communities).  Today, with lay staff working (and running) Catholic schools, what dioceses and parishes must spend on salaries has increased (naturally--in order to pay a just wage.)  The authors offer a number of possible solutions to the crisis, including encouraging greater, and more creative, fundraising techniques.

Most interestingly, they also suggest that deacons might be used in schools.  "Many deacons," they write, "have valuable professional, managerial and entrepreneurial expertise that could revitalize parochial education.”  An excellent idea.  Many deacons are also ordained later in their lives, often after retirement, and bring a great many valuable skills from careers in the corporate world (and in education) that might help to provide needed administrative support for schools.  They could also serve as teachers, counselors and, with the right training, in leadership roles.  (Though we should avoid the idea too common in the church today--and this is not what the authors are suggesting--that ordination qualifies you for every job.)

But then there is a non-sequitur in the article.  (Or perhaps an error in editing.)  The authors write about deacons: “If they were given additional powers to perform sacraments and run parishes a married priesthood would become a fait accompli.  Celibacy should be a sacrifice offered freely, not an excuse for institutional suicide.” 

Huh?  I’m not entirely sure how ordaining married deacons to the priesthood would help the schools.  Perhaps I’m missing their point.  Deploying deacons in the schools is a fascinating idea.  But if these deacons were ordained as married priests (or if there were married priests in general) I’m not sure how that would help the schools directly, unless the authors are suggesting that a greater number of priests would mean more overall support for the schools administratively (i.e., the pastor who serves as the nominal head of the school). 

But as for the daily workings of the schools, a married priest would, as I see it, have little time to teach, counsel or serve in a leadership role, say, as principal, since he would also be running a parish, a full-time job.  Moreover, as for helping out with the main problem—the financial support of the parochial school system--married priests would need higher salaries than their celibate counterparts since they would be, presumably, helping to raise a family, or perhaps supporting a wife (if she is not working in a full-time job outside the home, that is).  But perhaps I’ve just misunderstood their argument, and they are suggesting more priests as an administrative solution. 

Also, I’m not sure that the authors will make many friends among the bishops, whom they are presumably trying to convince, by saying, “Bishops preach social justice but fail to practice it within the church.”  That's harsh.  McCloskey and Harris critique the episcopacy for not providing a more effective transfer of wealth between wealthy parishes and poorer ones, in light of the fiscal crisis in the schools.  But while this may not happen directly (as in direct transfers from parish to parish) many dioceses use the annual bishop's appeal campaigns specifically to benefit poorer parishes.  

One other cavil about this very important article.  The artist selected by the Times turned in a drawing of a sister being handed a ruler by God, presumably so that she could rap some knuckles.  Again with sisters and rulers?  They built the school system.  Give them some credit, even in the art.

Let me though give the last word to the authors, who give the last word to Archbishop Hughes.  

“The school is more necessary than the church,” said John J. Hughes, the first archbishop of New York. Unless the Vatican and the American bishops heed those words, the decline in parochial education may forewarn the fate of the church itself.


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John Swanson
6 years ago
I am surprised by your comment, “Bishops preach social justice but fail to practice it within the church.” That's harsh.“ It is clearly true in regard to the way that many treat employees. There is a growing trend to punish lay employees for changes in their marital status or for voicing opinions at odds with the most conservative interpretations of church teachings and pastoral policies. I have seen some use the First Amendment as a shield against lawsuits. Many parishes refuse to enter into collective bargaining agreements with staff. Some refuse to pay into states’ unemployment programs so that when staff is terminated, they receive no unemployment compensation. I acknowledge that some of the above actions are taken at the parish and not the diocesan level. However, many of the actions are taken as a result of bishops' directions and others wouldn't happen if the bishop didn't want it to happen. Have you not seen these things? For years Fr. Rishard McBrien's Labor Day articles have dealt with issues of social justice within the Church.
Bob Baker
6 years ago
Every pope since Leo XIII has stated that it is the right of working people to organize and, yet, most of the bishops refuse to allow people who work for them to organize. The Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice has my article on its web page about this very subject.
James Murrray
6 years ago
Just got to join John. His comment is right on about the Bishops' and social justice. My Mom worked as a sacristan for 20 years, then received her first pay raise. You would think that the Diocese of Pittsburgh, a very pro-labor state, would have some awareness of wages and inflation. As for Catholic schools, I am a product of them and it was far from ideal. I have asked for a comment from the provincial of the Sisters of Mercy whether the Order ever contemplated understanding why so many nuns in Pittsburgh Catholic schools were abusive. My memory is in second grade reciting before the class "Sister, it's because I'm too dumb to know it." -- repeatedly and on several occasions. Sister Klemenza (sp?) would motivate us, and me often, to learn by pressing my head to the desk while beating a 7 year old on the back. I still recall being beaten to tears because I filled my hand-writing book fully on one page with practice "o" when we were told to fill half a page. I can go on. The Provincial or Superior of the Sisters of Mercy tellingly has never responded to my several letters. (One or two of which were rather kind.) The Sisters of Mercy used to staff Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh and have a glorious history of selfless service. My experience, however, is this Order should no longer exist. Tellingly too, it has lost that hospital. And the nuns at my grade school returned in diminishing numbers after my second grade year in 1963. The scars they created in those early years still disturb me and impeded my learning as it was marked with fear the rest of my life. I have paid a high price to attend Catholic schools. I note with great interest that the Irish government's report on abuses in orphanages in Ireland were dominantly led by members of the Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers. Yet, those Orders or congregations have never done a self-study of why their members were so cruel, uncaring and violent. Please understand if I refuse to donate for the retired religious fund at Mass -- I would prefer to submit a bill. BUT ... thank God so many religious served who served with compassion, I have known one or two, and they explain why I remain. Fortunately, for the World there were others.
Tim Reidy
6 years ago

This response to Father Martin's post was submitted by Patrick J. McCloskey and Joseph Claude Harris:

First, we would like to thank Fr. James Martin and America Magazine for responding our recent op-ed in the New York Times, entitled “Catholic Education: In Need of Salvation.”

Fr. Martin offers a positive assessment of much of the article, then writes:

But then there is a non-sequitur in the article.  (Or perhaps an error in editing.)  The authors write about deacons: “If they were given additional powers to perform sacraments and run parishes a married priesthood would become a fait accompli.  Celibacy should be a sacrifice offered freely, not an excuse for institutional suicide.” 

To begin, Fr. Martin graciously points out, “perhaps there an error in editing.” The article was edited to fit the required word length at the New York Times and perhaps lost some clarity. The Times editors are excellent and we take responsibility for any miscommunication.

The major point regarding deacons is that they could help more with parishes as the number of active diocesan priests declines in the coming decades. Without changing their sacramental capacities, more deacons could be deployed at parishes without pastors and at parishes with few or no deacons.

Better strategic use of deacons would help bishops keep parishes open, which in turn would help keep parish schools open. Ninety percent of school closings occur at the elementary level, and over 86 percent of these schools are sponsored by a parish or group of parishes.

Deacons also posses a wide range of talents, qualifications and experience, which can help with parish and/or school administration, instruction, fund-raising and so on. Typically deacons work as unpaid volunteers. Instead of hiring new staff for ministries or sometimes for schools, a deacon might be suitable at considerable savings. Of course, if a deacon is being engaged in a full-time position, a salary might be necessary.

What has sparked considerable controversy is our contention in the article that, according to experts we consulted, deacons could be given additional sacramental powers if needed. This wouldn’t mean that bishops would confer the capacity to preside over a wedding, hear confessions or say Mass without proper training. However, it does mean that a deacon wouldn’t be sent to a seminary for years, which isn’t practical. Also, if a deacon was given increased sacramental powers, the exercise of this capacity could be restricted to a particular parish or diocese.  

After the op-ed’s publication, orthodox experts responded that there is only one route by which a deacon could receive additional powers. A deacon can become a priest after his wife dies and then only if he attends a seminary. Let us be clear that it was never our intention to challenge Church teachings. We abide by the Magisterium and we are not qualified to partake in theological discussions.

However, a few words would help to clarify why we raised the possibility of deacons receiving additional powers up to becoming de facto priests. Consider the Archdiocese of Boston where instead of closing parishes, its 288 parishes are being organized into 133 clusters. Since 1990, the number of active diocesan priests has declined from 760 to 370 there. In 2011, 22 diocesan priests died and there were only six ordinations. Soon there will be fewer active diocesan priests than parishes.

Because of Boston College and other major universities in the archdiocese, there are 505 religious order priests in the archdiocese. These priests help at parishes and sometimes act as pastors, but most are involved in Catholic education or other ministries. Also the number of religious priests is declining and most other dioceses don’t have as many. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has about the same number of religious priests as Boston, but more than twice as many Catholics.

Nationally, there are about 17,000 parishes, of which 13,825 have a resident pastor. About 86 percent of parishes without pastors are administered by a priest, who might be the pastor at another parish. The number of parishes without resident priests will continue to grow substantially. Does this mean that most priests will have two or more parishes to shepherd? This scenario would accelerate the loss of diocesan priests and deter recruits. The alternative is to close parishes (and schools) and create bigger parishes, which is least popular among parishioners.

Clearly there is a personnel problem and it seems the Church has no coherent, long-term plan to deal with this crisis. Since 1990, the normal response has been to close parishes and over 1,500 have been shuttered. Most of these were small parishes but now larger ones would have to be targeted.

Tragically, the main historical source for vocations, Catholic schools, has been reduced substantially in recent decades and continues to decline. Many pastors criticize the religious quality of the schools, saying they no longer bring students to Christ nor nurture vocations. Catholic identity is a major issue and superintendents are working on improving it. That will take time and pastors could get more involved in religious instruction at the schools. But closing schools ensures permanent failure.

It should be noted that in considering the possibility of deacons being be given more powers, two things became apparent: (i) deacons are ordained clergy already, which means that married deacons constitute a married clergy, although not a married priesthood; and (ii) with fully expanded capacity, many deacons would become de facto married priests.

The latter point was not the goal of our argument but a consequence of solving the priest-shortage problem via deacons. This would, of course, seem to clear the way for married priests in general.

Fr. Martin iterates practical challenges, writing that “married priests would need highersalaries than their celibate counterparts since they would be, presumably, helping to raise a family, or perhaps supporting a wife (if she is not working in a full-time job outside the home, that is).”

These problems would arise for younger married men, but not for many middle-aged men, whose children have been raised. These men have the means and the time to serve on a full- or part-time basis as priests without needing a salary.

The practical objections to a married priesthood seem surmountable. However, it might simply be that this is not in the theological cards, which is not our intention to dispute.

What remains is that the Church is downsizing, by closing schools and parishes, as the Catholic population increases.  This amounts to institutional suicide, as the history of the Catholic Church in America clearly shows.

Fr. Martin also comments that it was harsh for us to write, “Bishops preach social justice but fail to practice it within the church.” It was not our attention to be harsh but to call attention to the fact that there is no systemic way for financial resources to be shared equitably within a diocese or among dioceses. It’s true that parishes are taxed by dioceses, and much of this goes towards struggling parishes and schools. But the entire church subsidy is a paltry 12.6 percent of school costs. Since 2000, this proportion could have been doubled by dedicating half the parish revenue above inflation, which was spent instead mostly on salaries for worthy ministries—but ministries serving adults for the most part.

The Catholic Church in America will enter steep decline if it abandons educating successive generations of children in the Faith, imbuing their lives with Catholic values, culture and observance. Aggressive secularism has become a predominant force in American society, infecting much of the media and academia with an anti-Christian and especially anti-Catholic bias. The words of John Lancaster Spalding, the first bishop of Peoria and a co-founder of The Catholic University of America, ring as true today as in the 19th century: “[W]ithout parish schools, there is no hope that the Church will be able to maintain itself in America.”

In order to attract more donations to Catholic schools, bishops and pastors need to guarantee that they will survive. Bishops and pastors also need to guarantee the academic quality and Catholic identity of the schools, which is uneven. The main point of our op-ed is that the financial and human resources to provide those guarantees exist within the Church. Once these guarantees are made, donors will be inspired to support the rejuvenation of Catholic education.


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