A Future Without Parish Schools: 'We ought to begin the search for alternative models of catechesis.'

Last time we met, I expressed some concerns about the future of Catholic schools in states and municipalities with high property taxes. I suggested that the next generation of closings and consolidations will be centered not in the inner cities, but in the older suburbs that support services such as paid fire departments, local police forces, extensive parks and recreation facilities, and, of course, public education. In such areas, five-figure property taxes are bound to have an important effect on families deciding between free public schools or tuition-charging Catholic schools. Based on the reaction I have received in recent weeks, Im not the only person with such concerns.

The question Catholics may face in the next quarter-century may be this: Can we imagine American Catholicism without Catholic schools, or certainly without the number of schools we have now? And if further closings and consolidations are inevitable, even in strong, affluent parishes, what models of religious education should we investigate today in preparation for tomorrow?


Even as I write, my two middle-school children are attending a meeting of their faith-based youth group, which is sponsored not by our parish but by a local Methodist church, and is supervised by an energetic minister named Brenda Elhers. The group, part of a broader Methodist network called Junior Youth Fellowship, coordinates service projects, encourages fellowship, andheres the hard partattempts to offer instruction in the tenets of Christianity. The program is designed to prepare Methodist eighth-graders for confirmation, but it is open to middle-schoolers of all faiths.

As an outsider, though hardly the only Catholic parent whose children attend J.Y.F., Ive been impressed with Rev. Elherss ability to connect service with spirituality. My kids are getting the best of both worlds: They are receiving a sound background in Catholic doctrine in their parish school, and through their membership in J.Y.F. they are receiving an education in the application of Christian principles.

Could programs like J.Y.F. offer a model for what Catholic education might become if schools grow increasingly hard to sustain? Frankly, that very thought occurred to me recently as I watched my kids emerge from a meeting with smiles and chatter that are quite unlike the expressions I associate with classroom learning. Granted, J.Y.F. is not school, and even a faith-oriented youth group isnt a religion class or C.C.D. But still, I wondered, could this well-organized, effective, andlets face itcost-effective program provide a model for how a future generation of Catholic children may be catechized?

I certainly thought so, but a conversation with Rev. Elhers offered a cautionary tale. We do service and fellowship well, she said, but the religious education piece is the hard part, especially at the high school level. She also coordinates a high school youth group that, among other things, carries out three service projects a year. In a few months, the group will journey to the Texas-Mexico border to assist Mexican children whose parents have crossed into the United States.

But service projects alone, no matter how worthy, cannot provide the sort of religious education young people need, Rev. Elhers said. A parent like myself might be impressed by earnest projects and good fellowship, but without proper religious instruction the picture is incomplete.

In doing youth groups, I see how little time I get with high school students, Rev. Elhers said. I get them for two hours once a week, and in general, we havent quite figured out how to get them involved in the life of the church.

That concern is hardly unique to any one church or denomination today. Catholics have had a relatively easier time of it over the last century or so, thanks to that great building-block of faith and practice, the parish school. But what happens if those schools continue to disappear? And here is another question that might well become part of the Catholic conversation over the next three decades: Could regional consolidations and well-planned closings actually help us to create more vibrant youth ministries by redirecting resources and energy?

I dont claim to have the answer, but I surely would argue that this is a conversation that ought to take place within the church, and that we ought to begin the search for alternative models of catechesis and values-centered instruction. That search would hardly be a lonely one, for other communities of faith will be similarly engaged.

If we are destined to have fewer (and, perhaps, stronger) Catholic schools in the future, if Catholic parents will find themselves hard-pressed to pay tuition when their property taxes hit five figures, it would seem imperative that clergy and laypeople think about what comes next. Vibrant youth organizations that combine religious education with service and fellowship require trained leaders, and even then, as Rev. Elhers points out, the task is not easy.

But the burdens are lighter when they are shared. Whatever our differences over doctrine, Christians in the 21st century surely share a concern about the spiritual well-being of their young people. Where schools are becoming untenable, Catholics ought to take a hard look at how other denominations transmit faith and values without the benefit of classrooms.

And, even better, we ought to join in on the fun.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
11 years 1 month ago
Terry Golway has recommended a way to "kill two birds with one stone," by pointing out the possible necessity of sharing catechetical programs among Christian churches as an "alternative model of catechesis." The Episcopal Church's Rite-13, Journey to Adulthood, and Young Adults of the Church programs, as well as the Montessori-based "Godly Play," are all well-developed catechetical programs which should be researched by religious education directors in our Roman Catholic churches. By the way, the other "bird killed" is that of fostering ecumenism.
11 years 1 month ago
You're possibly too good (not to mention all too vulnerable) a soul to tackle in AMERICA the key to this schools-church shutdown mess. But you're also a very bright analyst. So how about we stop compounding earlier cover-ups by calling the bishops to account for refusing to install the standard good-management protcols of 60-&-120-month projections and change their selfish ways NOW. On top of that, how about they do public penance as Jesuit Father Ray Schroth suggests for the $2,000,000,000 squandering unto bankruptcies their flawed "formation" programs have brought down on all our heads? And then announce how they plan, not by appointing endless in-house deadhead committees, but by bringing in other-than-Catholic experts to revise that counterproductive parallel mess and give our seminaries a New Life in Christ for the rest of us who don't have your medium for demanding such responsible performance by those same bishops? If you haven't seen Ray's O.T. prophetic appeal to prelatial conscience, send me your e-mail or mailing address. Come on, Terry, lay off letting these hierarchical rascals go on swanning around as if nothing bad had really happened. Oremus pro invicem, Terry. Blessings on you and yours.
Dennis McMahon
11 years 1 month ago
The cause of poverty is the lack of educational choice for parents. In our country, most parents have their tax dollars and their children taken from them. What do they get in return? Because parents are not allowed to invest in the education of their children, they are unable to motivate them. Vouchers are most of the answer. And these need to be complemented with nonreimburssable tuition tax credits for every taxpayer. The time is long past for the federal government and the state governments to be in the education business. Just look at the results. The current funding model is the obstacle and the problems.
11 years 1 month ago
I am very pleased to see that Terry is proposing a new direction for Catholic education. I'd like to suggest that the movement for change is already afoot. The Center for Ministry Development (Generations of Faith), FIRE by Kathy Chesto, LifelongFaith Associates founded by John Roberto, and Whole Community Catechesis by Bill Huebsch are just a few of the alternatives to Catholic schools and CCD programs. All of these alternatives focus on catechizing adults in order to build a healthy faith context for the children in the parish. I used both FIRE and Generations of Faith to raise my children in the faith. Two are now in college, and they are both active participants in their respective campus ministry programs. My children were not formed in a classroom with textbooks. They were formed in a loving and knowledgable community of Catholic adults, and the formation is sticking and continuing, and I suspect that it will continue for life. Isn't that an important goal: lifelong formation in the faith? Faith formation without Catholic schools is not the future; it is the present reality for most Catholics in America. We don't need to begin the renewal; we need to support it.
Donna Altepeter
11 years 1 month ago
Faith formation without Catholic schools is with us but for many reasons other than rising property taxes. Terry's suggestion (and others who have echoed it) that Catholic schools will not be with us for long and that we need to examine alternatives, is a statement that feels like we are caving too quickly to the demands of a culture where we are all too willing to make other things our priorities. Catholic schools create a mileu for thinking and acting as people of faith in all the areas of our lives and yes it will cost all of us and I for one think it is worth the price. We will have to think differently, we will have to give, save and invest and promote our faith in a way that will create a desire and a market to support this idea of parish schools. I don't think the idea is dying. I think it is morphing and we need to re-think this organizational, educational opportunity for the 21st century.
11 years 1 month ago
As the product of well over twelve years of Catholic education, I continue to be grateful for what I have received. Still, I cannot help feeling that Terry Golway's article displays the typical myopia of those involved in Catholic schools to the exclusion of all else. During their peak enrollment period, the Catholic schools never reached even 50% of the Catholic population. So the majority of Catholic parents have ALWAYS had to "consider alternative forms of religious education." In addition, a system in which, for many parish communities, only the school's Catholic education counted, led to unanticipated dysfunctions. First, a massive imbalance in funding took place in which a minority of the children were educated by most of the community's money. I have known parishes to spend 70% of the parish income on the school, while 70% of the parish's children were enrolled in the poorly funded religious education program. Second, the expectation developed that, since the school's religious education was somehow "real" while the other stuff was "imitation," therefore, the religious education program had to look as much like a school as possible, even though the school model is not necessarily the best model for religious formation. And, finally, there are still people who expect some kind of a public rescue of the Catholic schools through the voucher system or some other pie in the sky form of tax relief. Wake up, smell the coffee, and attend one of the national religious education congresses. One is held on the east coast, one on the west coast, and they always advertise in America! If I had the money, I would offer Mr. Golway a scholarship, so he could get a taste of the variety of visions alive and already functioning today.
Patrick Sprankle
11 years 1 month ago
Email Response to America Magazine’s “A Future Without Parish Schools” By Terry Golway As I write this response to Terry Golway’s “A Future Without Parish Schools,” I am surrounded by a season of surprises, of wonder and awe. Christmas is really a pleasant surprise, isn’t it? The same God who created universes and galaxies, because of a surprisingly personal love for each of us, chose to come to us (to me!) in the form of a child. It is the surprising sacrifice of our Savior which motivates, inspires, and instigates us to action. And yet, I was surprised in another way recently, a not so positive way, as I read the above mentioned article on Catholic schools, religious education and youth ministry. I was surprised and perplexed as I read about an experience in the Catholic Church that was so foreign to me as to make me want to write this email response. Having been a parish director of youth ministry for half of my life (23 yrs!), I was taken aback when Golway suggested a vision and mission in the Catholic Church that I believe has already existed for over 25 years! Although his perspective and world view is his own, I did want to offer a glimpse of my own insight into the blessings of working with young people in this Catholic Church. Catholic youth ministry has changed considerably since the Catholic youth boxing programs of the 1930’s and 40’s. In 1976, a landmark paper, “The Vision of Youth Ministry,” was written and widely accepted by US Bishops and the whole youth ministry community. It propelled and compelled our church to work towards a more comprehensive and holistic ministry to and with young people. Everything was (and continues to be) on the table…justice and service, catechesis, family, advocacy, youth and adult leadership, and more. With visionaries and missionaries of youth, a comprehensive or ‘total’ youth ministry ideal was established. Coming to the table in 1986 and most recently 1997 with Renewing the Vision (USCCB), goals and components of youth ministry were suggested, as well as concrete ways for adolescent catechesis, youth group models, families, cultures and more to come together and collaborate. Catholic schools are one way a young person’s spiritual growth is supported and guided (our 3 children are products of such schools), but processes and programs have been around for many years to supplement and offer alternatives to education in Catholic schools. Using the youth ministry papers and national model as a basis, youth ministry and religious education departments have proven themselves by contributing a cutting edge ministry and methodology, the benefits and successes of which are too numerous to mention. I think that Golway has missed something crucial in his article. Although we have a long way to go in reaching the goals set forth in Renewing the Vision RTV (Young people as disciples, as responsibly participating in life/mission/work of faith community, fostering total personal and spiritual growth), we have been and will continue to be about the work that he is proposing. He may be ‘surprised’ to find that many parishes (like my own) have vibrant youth ministries, geared towards sacramental life, prayer and worship, community building, and more. For instance, young people in our parish can attend a week long summer work camp retreat in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity OR a monthly lunches to the homeless outreach OR an adopt-a-family holiday program OR volunteering at a soup kitchen OR playing bingo with residents at a hospital for people with special needs OR attending workshops on AIDS in Africa and other social justice issues. Young people have the opportunity to participate in youth masses, prayer services, holy hours, and the new Deeper Waters program for junior and seniors. They can choose from an array of guest speakers on relevant topics and be enriched by national musicians and comedians at large group events. (to name a few!) And our i


The latest from america

Native American protestors hold hands with parishioner Nathanial Hall, right, during a group prayer outside the Catholic Diocese of Covington on Jan. 22, 2019, in Covington, Ky. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
The furor over a chance meeting between Catholic high school students and Native American protesters underscores the need to listen and learn from indigenous voices.
Marlene LangJanuary 23, 2019
The staggering parliamentary defeat for Prime Minister Theresa May, seen here leaving 10 Downing Street on Jan. 23, pushed the country even further from safe dry land. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
After the stunning defeat of Theresa May's exit deal, Scotland is looking anew at independence, and the U.K. government fears economic disaster.
David StewartJanuary 23, 2019
Michael Osborne, a film director, documents the damage from a mud slide next to his home in Los Angeles on Jan. 18, after three days of heavy rain. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
The conceit of California-as-disaster-movie is ridiculous. But maybe watching our fires and mudslides helps other states consider both their own fragility and their underlying strength.
Jim McDermottJanuary 23, 2019
A commitment to religious liberty demands that effort be devoted to resolving, rather than exacerbating, any real or apparent tension between religious obligation and civil duty.
The EditorsJanuary 23, 2019