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Where Are the Catholic Schools in a Synodal Church?

As the diocesan phase of the Synod on Synodality closed, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops collated the data by region. Many commentators have observed that the less than 1 percent response rate to the survey has no statistical value. Having administered schools, parishes and other institutions for four decades, I too am leery of such results because processes like this all too often only attract the cranks and malcontents.  

But desirous of doing penance for my sins, I actually read through the fifteen regional reports; barely a handful had the ring of normalcy to them. What really struck me, however, was that only nine of the fifteen even mentioned Catholic schools – and those mentions were little more than a passing wave.  

From this supposedly representative report on Catholic life in the United States, you would never know that:

The Catholic school system of this nation began as an adventure unique in the history of the Church due to the virulent anti-Catholicism pervading the “common” schools; it is still the largest non-governmental educational system in the world – even in its somewhat weakened condition compared to the mid-1960s.

Bishop Arthur Kennedy, a lifetime educator himself, repeatedly asserts that Catholic schools “must be in the vanguard of the New Evangelization.” That was the underlying conviction of many American bishops of the nineteenth century. Bishop Lancaster Spaulding of Peoria contended that “without parish schools, there is no hope that the Church will be able to maintain itself in America.”

Simply put: Get the children, you get the parents. That intuition was verified during the pandemic, as Catholic schools were flooded with new students whose parents were disenchanted by the almost-universal lockdown of “public” schools. Pastors and principals, on the ground, uniformly reported: the new children had to play “sacramental catch-up,” while numerous marriages were convalidated.  

It’s what I like to call “reverse evangelization.” Ideally, of course, children are committed to Catholic schools by serious, practicing parents. Frequently, however, that is not the case. Indeed, my own parents were not practicing the Faith when they enrolled me in the parish school.

Erie, PA 1960 [Source: The Batavian]
What is interesting about the “pandemic parents” is that the vast majority came into our schools – and have stayed.  Their reflections are worth considering.

They say they never realized how inexpensive our schools are; most elementary tuition hovers around $5000 (usually with family rates), with high schools coming in around $10,000. More importantly, they inform us that they never knew what they were missing and how their children have become little apostles of Catholicism, changing the culture of their homes.  

As Catholic schools were aborning in America, the clergy were staunch promoters, while laypeople were resistant – so much so that bishops had to threaten excommunication for failure to use the schools. In recent years, sadly, we find the laity far more supportive than most priests and bishops. 

Parents living in the real world know the challenges they face in rearing offspring today, even under optimal conditions. Presumably, that is why a recent EWTN/Real Clear Opinion Research survey revealed that 47 percent of Catholic parents with children in government schools are seriously considering moving them into our institutions, so dissatisfied are they by the lunacy now deemed “normal” in most state schools.  

Furthermore, I have a hunch that the rise of the “Nones” among Catholics is a direct result of that generation’s being the least served by Catholic schools (I would like to see that theory tested professionally).

A statistic was floated just last week that of the one million children in New York City public schools, 400,000 are Catholic. That should shock anyone with a Catholic sensibility. That means that nearly half a million of our kids are being exposed to critical race theory, gender-bending propaganda, and abortion promotion. 

A study five years ago documented that Catholic children in government schools most often lose their faith in God and the Church as early as fourth grade, due to the type of science classes they experience. 

When are bishops and priests going to have the courage of their predecessors in the nineteenth century and declare from the pulpit that consigning one’s children to the state schools is endangering their souls?  And then we wonder why so many of our churches are empty.

While the Synod survey suggested widespread discontent with authentic Church teaching, real Catholics are concerned about other matters, especially the education of their children. St. John Henry Cardinal Newman (on whose feast I am penning these words) once asked what he thought was a rhetorical question in a letter to the Archbishop of Sydney, then embroiled in a serious struggle on behalf of Catholic schools:

It is indeed the gravest of questions whether our people are to commence life with or without adequate instruction in those all-important truths which ought to colour all thought and to direct all action; – whether they are or are not to accept this visible world for their God and their all, its teaching as their only truth, and its prizes as their highest aims; – for, if they do not gain, when young, that sacred knowledge which comes to us from Revelation, when will they acquire it?

Indeed, if not when young, when?


You may also enjoy:

Daniel Guernsey’s The Remedy for “Canceling” and Division: Catholic Education [1]

Randall Smith’s Tales from the Crypt of Catholic Education [2]

Father Peter Stravinskas holds doctorates in school administration and theology. He is the founding editor of The Catholic Response and publisher of Newman House Press. Most recently, he launched a graduate program in Catholic school administration through Pontifex University.