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Our readersSeptember 15, 2016
(iStock photo)

An Open Invitation

Superintendents and the National Catholic Educational Association respond to “Reinventing Catholic Schools,” by Charles Zech (8/29).

Charles Zech fails to mention the incredible work being done in Catholic schools across the country today. As the superintendents of Catholic schools and the head of the National Catholic Educational Association, we work each and every day in schools that look nothing like what the author describes.

Professor Zech writes, “It is no longer good stewardship on the part of Catholic dioceses and parishes to continue supporting the old model of Catholic parochial schools.” This implies that those dedicated servants who sacrifice and work daily in these institutions, along with students and families, are wasting church resources. We see funds spent on Catholic schools as an investment in children and the future of the church. The idea of stewardship is to return with increase to the Lord, and research consistently demonstrates that graduates of Catholic schools are among the most academically prepared, generous and civically engaged.

Professor Zech writes that “over time the Catholic population has migrated to the suburbs and increasingly to the South and West…. But the parishes and parochial school buildings still tend to be located in urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest.” In fact, there are already many thriving Catholic schools and parishes in the South and West. Their growth is driven by young, mostly immigrant families who desire a Catholic school education. To give up on these vital institutions would be akin to eliminating Catholic schools in the Northeast 100 years ago, when they provided the foundation that allowed Irish, Italian, Polish and other immigrant populations to work their way up in American society. The same work, with the same goal, continues today.

The true story of Catholic schools in the United States is their continued success, despite difficulties, and their ability to overcome challenges. Catholic schools continue to outperform public and private schools and do a particularly effective job with low-income, minority students. Professor Zech writes that “many urban parochial schools find themselves serving a population that struggles to afford parochial school tuition. Many of these students are not Catholic.” This indicates a lack of understanding of Catholic schools, especially in the West, where the urban population is largely Catholic. Shuttering schools that serve low-income populations contradicts our vital mission to provide a “preferential option for the poor.” Affordability of our schools is a substantial challenge, even while our schools attempt to maintain a relatively low cost of tuition. The momentum of the school choice movement has greatly assisted our families; to date, 27 states and the District of Columbia have some form of parental choice program, and the trend is toward greater levels of public funding support.

To further provide assistance to those low-income families, there are tremendous philanthropic support and great partnerships, from the Catholic Education Foundation in Los Angeles to the Catholic School Foundation in Boston and so many more. The value of our schools is perhaps most evident in weekly giving from our Catholic parishioners, many of whom do not have school-age children of their own, who give selflessly to their local parishes knowing that they are supporting Catholic school education, which brings life and vitality to our parishes.

If, as Professor Zech states, the issue of a lack of Catholic giving is such a significant limitation, we should focus on thatcause rather than the effect of reduced funds for ministries. Catholic schools are a ministry and continue to be one of the church’s most effective instruments for passing on the faith from one generation to the next.

That might be the best argument against what Professor Zech proposes. Converting Catholic schools, which infuse the faith throughout the curriculum and the school day, to charter schools would change the essential character of the institutions. There is no such thing as a Catholic charter school. Surely, public charter schools try to mimic Catholic schools with character education and uniforms, but there is not a character education program or a values-based curriculum that compares to teaching the faith. If Catholic schools disappear in great numbers, parishes will not be far behind.

Every day the 150,000 Catholic school educators in the country, supported by pastors, superintendents, bishops and the National Catholic Educational Association, teach and form students because they believe in Catholic education. We welcome Professor Zech and his colleagues from the Villanova Church Leadership Roundtable to visit with us and any of our Catholic schools to see the great work being done.

Kevin Baxter, Ed.D.
Senior Director and Superintendent of Catholic Schools
Archdiocese of Los Angeles
Debra Brillante
Superintendent for Elementary Schools
Archdiocese of Philadelphia
Thomas W. Burnford, D.Min.
National Catholic Educational Association
Susan M. Gibbons
Director of Educational Services, Superintendent of Catholic Schools
Archdiocese of Cincinnati
Christopher Knight
Secretary for Catechetical Formation and Education/Superintendent of Schools
Diocese of Cleveland
Dr. Jan Daniel Lancaster
Superintendent of Catholic Schools
Archdiocese of New Orleans
Dr. Timothy J. McNiff
Superintendent of Schools
Archdiocese of New York
Christopher Mominey
Chief Operating Officer and Secretary for Education
Archdiocese of Philadelphia
Kurt Nelson, Ph.D.
Superintendent of Catholic Education
Archdiocese of St. Louis
Jim Rigg, Ph.D.
Superintendent of Catholic Schools
Archdiocese of Chicago

Faith and Action

Re: “Saint of Darkness” by James Martin, S.J. (8/29): Thank you for this great interview with with Brian Kolodiejchuk, the promoter of Mother Teresa’s cause. I was privileged to know Mother Teresa through her lay association, the Co-workers. My time with Mother Teresa, from my first visit to Calcutta in 1981 to my last encounter with her at a meeting in Antwerp in 1993, made such a huge impact on my life. At the age of 24, I learned from Mother Teresa how faith and action have to work together. Even in her darkness, she was a bright light to so many of us. I, too, am confident that in her death she will touch many more people—not just the hungry and homeless—but those who lack kindness in their lives. She will be the saint for all people who struggle with loneliness.

Victoria Schmidt
Online Comment

Informed Consciences

In “The Demands of Love” (8/15), Cardinal Christoph Schönborn expresses an important message and interpretation of “The Joy of Love.” That is, for the divorced and remarried, the rigidity of doctrine does not automatically trump the existential reality of concrete circumstances, mercy and discernment consistent with God’s love. Equally important is Pope Francis’ call for a greater integration of a properly informed conscience in the praxis of the church.

While we have seen some bishops publicly declare that Communion is forbidden for all divorced and remarried Catholics without an annulment, it is clear that this is not the message of a careful reading of the papal exhortation. Other bishops believe that under certain circumstances and through a properly informed conscience, under the guidance of a priest, the divorced and remarried may be able to receive Communion. For this reason, it is not surprising that Pope Francis chose Cardinal Schönborn as the church’s official interpreter of “The Joy of Love.”

Michael Barberi
Online Comment

Prioritize Love and Respect

In “Faith Remains a Motivating Factor For V.P. Picks Pence and Kaine” (8/15), Michael O’Loughlin asserts that Mike Pence supports various issues that are of importance to Catholics. The first example listed was his intention to shut down the federal government in 2011 over the much attempted, never achieved goal of shutting down Planned Parenthood. The second example refers to his push for a bill that allowed business owners to refuse service to L.G.B.T. people for religious reasons.

As an educated, female Catholic struggling to maintain my connection with the church, I balked at these characterizations of what Catholics view as important. I would prioritize the functioning of our federal government over a foot-stomping technique that stalls any compromise. I would also prioritize Jesus’ teachings to love and respect each other over passing laws looking to ostracize and demean our fellow humans in the name of “religious reasons.”

Caroline Tierney
Chevy Chase, Md.

The Good Fight

Re “A History of Violence” by Kevin Clarke and James Martin, S.J. (7/18): I appreciated the chronology of America’s efforts to inject some sanity into the gun issue over the past century. Please keep repeating the conclusion of the editorial board in 2013: Repeal of the Second Amendment is essential. The incremental changes proposed by legislators have only strengthened the rabid voices in opposition, and the death toll continues to rise. I long for courage on the part of legislators but despair of seeing it in my lifetime.

Catholic leaders must confront this head on and include it as a priority in their pronouncements. Editors, please do not let up.

Frances Gautieri Brown
Pelham, N.Y.
Correction: Sept. 21, 2016
A previous version of this article misstated Charles Zech's professional association. He is the faculty director for church management at the Villanova University Center for Church Management & Business Ethics, not the Villanova Church Leadership Roundtable.
Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Barry Fitzpatrick
5 years 2 months ago
I read with interest the letter of the Catholic educational leaders in response to Professor Charles Zech's cogent piece on "reinventing Catholic schools." Their response, however, suffers from a selective deafness to the reality proposed by Zech and from a most defensive posture that nearly negates their good points. Their closing line inviting Zech and his colleagues to come visit and see the good being done in their schools borders on insult. How about inviting him and his colleagues to be part of changing the conversation so we don't continue to put band aids on serious and gaping wounds where they exist in the name of nostalgia. No one, not Zech or anyone in his program at Villanova, suggests that Catholic schools are not doing wonderful things, but Zech does not fall prey to the hyperbole of some of the defenders in the response to his article. They write that "Catholic schools . . . continue to be one of the church's most effective instruments for passing on the faith from one generation to the next." I am not certain what research they are referring to here, but I would think the very definition and living out of the phrase "passing on the faith" is at the very core of the discussion here. If you use the checklist mentality for determining adherence to the faith which is the preferred method of some clerical leaders, you will be disappointed in the outcome for Catholic school graduates. How many at Mass on Sunday, how many not utilizing birth control, how many completely supporting the stance on gay marriage and on and on? If you use other metrics, you have to defend how these measures determine if the faith is being passed on. And whose faith? As a Catholic school teacher of 40 years, I found so much to be celebrated in what all of us do, but I also know that Zech is very right when he says the model is broken. The leaders response talks about "preferential option for the poor" as a reason to continue to serve low-income populations, and I couldn't agree more, but there is a disconnect when our more well off schools continue to allocate an inordinate amount of funds to athletics and other amenities that literally have nothing to do with our mission, doing so in order to attract the children of the well to do and their parents to the school. There are important initiatives pointed out by the leaders such as the foundations in Boston and Los Angeles, and I also know of the recent initiatives in Philadelphia to further Catholic education and make it available to as many children as possible. Sometimes these programs smack of nostalgic attempts at bringing back the glory days of yesteryear. I couldn't agree more that charter schools are not the answer, but I couldn't agree more with Zech when he says that what we have now needs to be replaced by a new model. The leaders who responded to Zech are good, faithful men and women who serve our Church and schools well. They would be remiss if they dismiss Zech with the insulting invitation to visit. They would be adding to their leadership resume and possibly creating a long-term solution if they bring Zech and his colleagues into the discussion as partners in changing the model, the context, and the paradigm for Catholic education today and into the future. God's work is truly our own on this one. Let's put our best minds to work, attack the reality and not the nostalgic dream, and put together a plan that speaks to the true mission of the schools we sponsor, namely, to bring Christ forth to our students. Sniping isn't going to pull this off, prayerful, reflective, and creative cooperation will.

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