We just completed Catholic Schools Week in the United States, an annual event that over my lifetime seems to have acquired a recent gusto as a recollection of a remarkable past and as a defense of an expensive but vital branch of Catholic formation. It is a curious celebration when one breaks down the statistical data of Catholic formation of elementary aged children. From the most recent study conducted by CARA, Catholic schools serviced 1.3 million students in 2018, the last year tallied, down from 3.4 million in 1970. Religious education programs, by contrast, serviced 2.3 million elementary school children in 2018, down from 4.2 million in 1970. The 2018 ratio works out 2-1 in favor of religious education over schools in terms of those carried on the books.
In many parishes, then, Catholic Schools Week is a virtual nonentity except for wholesale notice in the diocesan paper, which is always glad to have a little good news to report. [My home diocese prints a separate insert to celebrate the week.] Is there a similar celebration for catechetical ministry? The mid-weekend in September is called “Catechetical Sunday” and parishes can choose to observe the event with giveaways and free resources for home use, such as this kit offered by Sadlier Publishers. Separate observances of Schools week and Catechetical Sunday can be problematic in parishes which provide both forms of faith formation. Standing alongside the Catholic school, a religious education program can collectively feel like the ugly duckling of the parish’s educational ministry.
The hard truth is that we have dual tracks of religious formation in many of our parishes, and the question frequently comes up about the allotment of parish resources and the cost of tuition, which can be out of reach for most Catholic families. How did we get here? In 1884 the United States Bishops met in the Plenary Council of Baltimore, the third in a series of general meetings to structure American Catholicism after the Civil War, and the 1884 meeting produced two remarkable mandates cited below:
[Title 6 states:] (i) the absolute necessity and the obligation of pastors to establish [schools]. Parents must send their children to such schools unless the bishop should judge the reason for sending them elsewhere to be sufficient. Ways and means are also considered for making the parochial schools more efficient. It is desirable that these schools be free. (ii) Every effort must be made to have suitable schools of higher education for Catholic youth.
[Title 7 states:] A commission is to be appointed to prepare a catechism for general use. When published it is to be obligatory. [This would become the famous “Baltimore Catechism.”]
Let this sink in for a moment. The full body of bishops in this country put itself on record as favoring a national Catholic school system, optimally free, and a mandatory component of full parish life. In 2020 this would sound like President Kennedy’s dramatic 1961 speech to “put a man on the moon at the end of this decade.” But in 1884 there was general support, even enthusiasm, for Catholic schools, whatever their cost.
Protestant mainstream America looked unkindly toward Catholics [there would be no Catholic president of the United States till 1960] and the public-school textbooks of 1884 were blatantly biased against Catholics. In 1875 Senator James G. Blaine fathered the “Blaine Amendment,” a constitutional amendment forbidding federal aid to religious institutions; states, for the most part, adopted this into their constitutions, which is why in the present day Catholic school children are not generally eligible for such things as text credits for tuition. As Catholic churches of the time served many ethnically based communities, the idea of free education in the mother-tongue for newly arrived immigrants was an added blessing of the bishops’ mandate, as foreign born children were the target of cultural abuse in public settings, if they could attend at all.
The parish of my birth in Buffalo, N.Y., began with the construction of the school in 1900. Mass was celebrated on Sundays in the school. It was not until 1904 that the church itself was constructed. This was the pattern of the times and continued until well after World War II. In 1949 the Los Angeles Archdiocese was opening a new school every 90 days. The edict from the 1884 Plenary Council of Baltimore was possible to maintain in large part because of the exceptionally low cost of labor—religious sisters, brothers, and priests who worked far below market value, and the strong financial support of Catholics. The United States remained mission territory until 1908, i.e., unable to provide enough clergy and religious to sustain itself, and thus the country was the recipient of thousands of religious sisters from Europe, primarily for schools and hospitals.
Religious education, on the other hand, took on various forms. In the larger cities of America, the school sisters taught religion to the Catholic children from public schools. In Buffalo, a predominantly Catholic city in my youth, public schools allowed Catholics to leave the premises and attend the closest Catholic school for instruction, a practice called “released time.” [I wonder what Senator Blaine thought of that.] Nobody pretended that CCD or religious ed met the academic standards of Catholic school formation, where religion was a daily portion of the curriculum. On the other hand, the religion classes for public school Catholics were taught by professional teachers with strong religious formation. I remind frustrated religious education volunteers over and over again that they are attempting to fill the shoes of state-accredited professional religious educators, and that their frustrations and failures are due in large part because, after Vatican II, we never honestly planned for the future.
Catholic schools have taken a numerical and qualitative hit in the past half-century. One hears many hypotheses as to why Catholic schools closed from the mid-1960’s in such large numbers:  all the nuns abandoned the schools;  tuition is too high;  the new theology of Vatican II is not worth the money and sacrifice. There is an element of truth here: religious did leave the classrooms in large numbers; they were replaced with lay persons, which meant hiking the salaries of teachers and thus the tuitions; the years immediately after the Council were trying times for all branches of educational faith formation.
I don’t believe that the above issues, in and of themselves, account for the present state of affairs of Catholic education. If the bishops of 1884 believed that every parish must have a school, and were very successful in making this happen, there must be a significant change in attitude between 1884 and 2020. Perhaps a good window on the reasons for this change is another meeting of U.S. bishops in 1972, which produced another document of a considerably different tenor, “To Teach as Jesus Did.” I will talk about this 1972 turn in the road in the next post on this stream.
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