On their call with Trump, the bishops were right to highlight the plight of Catholic schools

President Donald Trump is seen during the daily coronavirus outbreak task force briefing at the White House in Washington April 24, 2020. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

For the hour or so each day that I get out for a walk, I sometimes find it hard to believe that New York City is the center of the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States.

Of course there are signs: the eerie quiet of a city that is said to never sleep; the shuttered storefronts along the sparsely populated sidewalks; and, more ominously, that refrigerated tractor-trailer functioning as a makeshift morgue just outside our neighborhood hospital.

And yet, strangely enough, it does not feel like a crisis. Perhaps that is because most of us think of a crisis as a quick burst of bad news or a sudden traumatic event, followed by frantic, chaotic activity that lasts a relatively brief time. On the contrary, the Covid-19 pandemic has crept up on us in such a way that many of us are only now beginning to grasp that what we have experienced during the last eight weeks is in fact a profound trauma—a trauma made worse because, to borrow a phrase from Evelyn Waugh, it is “a blow upon a bruise.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has crept up on us in such a way that many of us are only now beginning to grasp that what we have experienced during the last eight weeks is in fact a profound trauma.

It is easy to forget that many people in our communities were facing crises and challenges long before Covid-19. Take Catholic education, for example. According to the National Catholic Education Association, from 2009 to 2019 Catholic “elementary school enrollment declined by 27.5 percent in the 12 major urban dioceses and 19.4 percent in the rest of the U.S.”—one reason why innovation in Catholic schools has zeroed in on urban areas.

Yet those efforts for innovation and change—no small challenge in ordinary times—have been seriously impeded by the Covid-19 crisis, which has disproportionately affected the populations directly served by Catholic schools.

Gail Richardson-Bassett, principal of Good Shepherd Catholic School in Garland, Tex., recently told America: “Many of our students come from low-income Hispanic families that sacrifice to send their children to a Catholic school. The pandemic meant many parents would not have any income.”

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Efforts for innovation and change—no small challenge in ordinary times—have been seriously impeded by the Covid-19 crisis, which has disproportionately affected the populations directly served by Catholic schools.

In New York, more than half the parents of students at St. Thomas Aquinas School in the Bronx have been laid off during the pandemic, J.D. Long-García reported for America. The Archdiocese of New York has come through with some funding, but dollars were short six weeks ago, let alone now.

So it makes sense to me that the Catholic bishops of the United States decided to focus on Catholic education during their recent conference call with President Trump and some 600 other participants. According to Crux, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, spoke first and “focused on education, saying that it concerns ‘parental rights, educational justice, and civil rights of our kids’ and thanked the president for his ‘courageous insistence that the nonprofits, faith communities, and our schools be included’ in the recent stimulus package.”

It makes sense to me that the Catholic bishops of the United States decided to focus on Catholic education during their recent conference call with President Trump and some 600 other participants.

Yet Cardinal Dolan also noted, according to an audio recording obtained by Crux, that current funding for schools is only guaranteed through this academic year and many Catholic schools are “really scared” about September.

Some Catholics have criticized the bishops for how they conducted this call: for not stressing immigration and the administration’s xenophobia; for allowing Mr. Trump to over-stress abortion; for being too chummy with a president whose performance we have abundant cause to criticize. But I think the bishops got it right here. Yes, it is unfortunate that Mr. Trump chose to politicize the call, which is his wont, and some of the pleasantries sounded hyperbolic and tone-deaf, but the bishops made a good tactical choice.

[The bishops] had 30 minutes with the man who, for better or for worse, is president of the United States.

They had 30 minutes with the man who, for better or for worse, is president of the United States. The bishops could have followed his lead and talked more about abortion, where Mr. Trump agrees with them, even if he once did not. They could have talked about immigration, where Mr. Trump strongly disagrees with them and always will. Or they could have talked about aid to Catholic education, where he is inclined to agree with them and might be willing to do something.

I have often heard it said that the U.S. bishops are “just a bunch of politicians.“ If that is true, then they are pretty bad politicians, for they often make tactical choices that most politicians would not make. They are not politicians, of course; they are pastors who occasionally have to engage in politics. That is not an easy thing to do, and they often get it wrong. But here they tried to get something rather than settle for nothing. That was the smart choice. As Max Weber once wrote, “politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.”

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