Photo by Stephanie Cordle of the P-D

There is a report in today’s Post-Dispatch about the current struggles of Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Saint Louis.  This phenomenon is common to most Archdioceses, and the causes are many.  In other words, I don’t want to single out this Archdiocese, nor do I want to oversimplify the problems.

But, though the title of the article is “Catholic Schools Struggle in Economy”, I can’t help taking note of the above photo, which accompanied the P-D story.  It depicts a young girl in a classroom at Central Catholic School, which is located downtown.  Perhaps the picture gives a micro-window into one reason why Catholic schools are in some difficulties. 

The cross on the wall is devoid of the Corpus of Our Lord.  Surely the cross is a Christian symbol, but not a uniquely Catholic one.  The Crucifix is (though used by some non-Catholic groups) a clear marker of Catholic identity, and moreover is not a mere sign, but a sacramental.

And the girl pictured in the photo, while not immodestly dressed according to what passes for modesty today, is not exactly wearing what would have traditionally been expected in a Catholic classroom–even apart from any uniform requirement.  Before I get hate mail, I understand it is summertime, and I also do not fault the girl for the outfit, as I don’t know the circumstances of her family’s finances, background, knowledge base, etc.  In short, I am not focusing on the girl here but on the dress code of a Catholic school.

But these are mere externals, yes?  Externals, yes, but some externals are not “merely” so. 

There have been hard economic times in the past.  Though our current difficulties may exceed the hardships of the great depression, they don’t yet.  But the rise of the Catholic school movement in this country–an organic push to offset the protestantism of the compulsory government schools– occurred among people who were by and large not well off, and at times when hardship and sacrifice were common.  Among other reasons, they were founded to ensure the Catholic identity of our children and to assist in the passing down of our faith.

The disappearance of the low-cost, well-educated religious order teachers is a major factor.  But while most focus on the loss of the low-cost angle, I most lament the loss of the well-educated–or should I say, theologically well-formed– angle.  Our Catholic teachers, mostly sisters and brothers, were theologically qualified and dedicated to imparting the Catholic faith.  Today’s Catholic teachers, well-meaning and dedicated as they are, are co-victims of the Catechetical disaster in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, and are passing along the same faith they received.  Which is to say not enough, Catholic-wise.  The sad fact is that Catholic schools, by and large, teach “tolerance” instead of the Catholic faith; they practice “spirituality” instead of the Catholic religion.

Catholic families aren’t living Catholic lifestyles (and in particular are contracepting at nearly the same rate as their non-Catholic neighbors), and their faith is not being improved by what they get at most parishes.  In short, if the three pillars of 19th and 20th Century Catholic life in America were faith-filled homes, faithful parishes, and high-quality Catholic schools, then I would say that all three pillars have crumbled.  There is still life in all three, but on various forms of life support.

So, back to the article:  yes, times are tough.  Schools are feeling budgetary pressures.  But I submit that for a Catholic school to compete and succeed in these times the ONLY thing that will justify the expense and hardship is that it BE Catholic.  I don’t care if a purportedly Catholic school has a nifty computer room, or shiny new textbooks, or the latest pedagogical fad imported from the NEA.  I do care if it teaches the Catholic faith. 

Simple math– Which is a better value?  Having a public school impart secular values contrary to my wishes for $0, or having a supposedly Catholic school impart secular values contrary to my wishes for (at least) $4,000?

From the full article at STLToday:

Catholic Schools Struggle in Economy

by Sara Sonne Lenz

[The article begins by cataloging some specific examples of tough times at some area Catholic schools]

…These difficulties are not isolated.

Catholic schools around the nation are shrinking in number, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. While 24 schools opened nationwide last year, 174 closed or consolidated. Over the last decade, enrollment rates have decreased 20 percent, said Karen Ristau, president of the association.


One bright spot has been the city of St. Louis, where after 40 years of steady decline, Catholic school enrollment saw a slight increase in 2008 and maintained that gain last year.

Overall, however, Catholic school enrollment in the 11 counties under the Archdiocese of St. Louis has dropped by 11,000 in the past 10 years. Enrollment in the Belleville Diocese has dropped by 10,000.


Most parish schools must survive on their own through tuition, Sunday collections and fundraising, said Al Winklemann, associate superintendent at the archdiocese for elementary school administration. He said the archdiocese steps up when parents or the parish can’t afford to keep some schools open. Last year, the archdiocese gave $1.8 million in aid and this year that will grow to $2 million.

“It’s always been a challenge to maintain Catholic schools,” Winklemann said, adding that the cost of education has continued to rise as the economy has become more challenging. “I think all schools have felt that impact.”

MORE THAN ECONOMICS

But the economy is only part of the issue, said Thomas Posnanski, director of education for the Belleville Diocese.

Shrinking family sizes have caused a large enrollment drop in Catholic schools. Posnanski said he comes from a family of 12. He subsequently had five children, and his children have three kids each.


“The number of families having a smaller number of kids has had a direct impact on the number of kids enrolling,” he said. More than 60 percent of the families enrolled in schools in the Belleville Diocese have just one child, he said.


Catholics also are choosing parish schools less frequently, Ristau said.

“Catholics are not as strongly attached to the church as much as they might have been in the past,” she said. “They don’t go to Mass as much as they did 30 years ago.”

Indeed, Catholic researchers at Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate report that while 24 percent of Catholics born from 1943 to 1960 attend Mass at least once a week, 17 percent of those born after 1981 attend weekly Mass.


[…]

NON-CATHOLIC PUPILS

[…]

The Rev. Bill Vatterott, pastor of St. Cecilia, said 78 of the school’s 109 families receive some type of financial aid.

“The Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation has really brought life not just to the school but to the neighborhood,” Vatterott said. “It has allowed parents to provide their kids with a good, solid foundation that will change their lives and the lives of their kids and grandkids.”


One consequence of the foundation’s shift in mission is that Catholic schools in the city are serving fewer Catholic students. St. Cecilia’s student body is 70 percent Catholic; the national average is 85.5 percent. The Belleville Diocese’s average is 95 percent.

Sharon Gerken, executive director of the Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation, said a few parish schools in north St. Louis have no Catholic pupils.


“We still teach religion and prayer,” Winklemann said. “The fact that we have large numbers of non-Catholics in our schools does not change the program in any way, shape or form.”

[…]