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Catholic schools make the best antipoverty investments.

Suppose you wanted to give a few dollars where they would do the most good to alleviate poverty and to encourage human development in the United States. Where would you put those dollars?

One of the best places to put them is right back into our Catholic parish elementary and secondary schools, especially Catholic schools in poor areas. I'll go out on a limb and say that our church is making a mistake not to put a greater proportion of our Catholic antipoverty resources into Catholic schools.

This suggestion goes against some stylish trends in American Catholic thinking; and the parish, along with the parish school, is now considered passe -- a goner. But once we pass through this latest fad about the death of the parish (declared theologically RIP many times), I hope we'll soon return to appreciating the parish school for its economic as well as its religious mission.

In this century our country has given birth to several models of fighting poverty. One of these is the educational program, the prime example of which is the GI Bill of 1944, which guaranteed free higher education to veterans. The GI Bill not only reduced unemployment in the United States, it also broke down social barriers by making education generally accessible to an entire generation of Americans. It paid for itself in taxes generated by the success of the GI Bill generation. Besides the Homestead Act of 1862, no other self-help social program in American history can claim such success.

The other model is exemplified by Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, which sought to empower those in poor communities by funding a variety of community-organizing and economic-development efforts.

Over the past 25 years I have become familiar with some great economic-development programs -- many of them originated or supported by Catholics -- across the country. Other outstanding church-supported programs, such as affordable housing initiatives, provide great examples of what can be accomplished by directly funding economic-development efforts.

Simple arithmetic, however, shows that the number of people who benefit from such individual programs rarely extends into the thousands. But schools consistently touch the lives of thousands across generations.

The role of Catholic education has been hotly debated in America for well over a century. One school of thought holds that parish schools are an essential response of our scriptural mandate to "go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19-20). Another school of thought sees Catholic schools as an alienating force, drawing Catholics away from American public life: "If only Catholics were fully integrated into the public school system, the public schools would have never become the mess that they are." (Never mind that public schools are troubled in cities in which Catholics are only a tiny fraction of the population.)

Because of the burdens of maintaining parish schools, some bishops will not allow new ones to be founded, even in wealthy dioceses. Some pastors long for a more "pastoral" lifestyle, but don't want the school-associated worries of boilers or bingo.

In the decades when Catholic parishes and schools were at their peak, the Catholic Church began to invest in community organizing. Many saw this investment as a justifiable use of the church's power to do good. Pastors began to work with community organizers to press for social change. And the U.S. bishops founded an annual collection to fight poverty, the Campaign for Human Development (CHD), which funds groups doing community organizing and economic development.

But here I introduce a cautionary note: while the community groups founded during those years have grown in power, the parishes and schools that gave birth to them continue to close. Holy Cross Parish in Chicago, the founding parish of the famed Woodlawn Organization, has since closed, along with its parish school. And the parish that initiated the Campaign for Human Development, Our Lady of Lourdes in Chicago's Lawndale neighborhood, recently closed its school. I'm sure that the late Bishop Michael Dempsey, former pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes and founding director of CHD, would never, ever have let that happen.

Leaders empowered through the church's investment in community organizing have gone on to become important power brokers in American life. Some have betrayed Catholic principles, and a few have misused power and wealth to serve their own needs.

In hindsight it hasn't been an even trade -- closed schools and parishes in exchange for a few new power brokers. The metaphor is a blunt one, and the reality is much more complex. But the fact remains: Although some in the community are now very powerful, the Catholic institutions that empowered them are sad memories. Many of the people of Chicago's South Side neighborhoods are still poor, yet now there are fewer Catholic parishes and schools to offer learning and hope.

Am I saying catholics shouldn't support economic and community development and community organizing? Of course not. But we should realize that schools empower many, while organizing and development sometimes empower only a few. And I am saying that the parish and the school should come first.

Right now the millions from our church's one national collection to fight poverty primarily go to support the community-organizing and -development model, although a number of outstanding supported programs actually follow an educational model. We have no national collection to support local Catholic schools, which continue to close or consolidate. Catholics should encourage one another, whether they have children or not, to contribute to schools and scholarships -- and to view Catholic schools as one of the church's most effective ministries in the face of poverty. To address poverty we need the long-term efforts of institutions more enduring than community organizations. These institutions are called parishes and schools.

Parishes looking for a way to combat the disorganization of inner-city life and their people's lack of power have turned to community organization. Ironically they do not realize that they had in their own parishes and schools a more enduring power to transform lives, a power that organizers could only in their wildest dreams achieve. The proof of this statement is, after all, the simple and undeniable fact that the power and the wealth of Catholic parishes and schools paid for and empowered many community organizers to organize in the first place!

Parishes with schools already possess a greater power than local politics can offer. Parish schools help us achieve the ministry of the ordinary -- the many day-to-day and life-cycle tasks that parishes and schools do, mixing that special social, sacramental glue that binds us together in both practical and spiritual ways.

Recently I visited a neighborhood surrounding a Catholic university. The neighborhood had just experienced a marked increase in poverty and a deterioration in housing. As a result the Catholic parish grade school near the university had closed. Because many families have fled the area, the university has now begun a dramatic investment of millions of dollars into neighborhood economic development. But had the university invested a mere $100,000 or more annually in the adjacent parish school, an important glue for families would have been preserved. The university would now be spending fewer millions to rebuild the area and attract families back.

In many of our impoverished neighborhoods, greater economic development is nearly impossible because its necessary forerunner, human development, is in shambles. Long before children are ready to be organized, they need parents who will nurture them as infants and toddlers. They need parents who will read to them. Stable institutions like parishes and schools provide the broad networks of loving encouragement for such basic human improvements to take place. This is especially true in an age when many young mothers lack basic networks of support, primarily husbands, who somehow were more present when the churches were strong.

To maintain a parish and school is an expensive and exhausting enterprise. It requires constant evangelization, especially of the school parents, who nowadays participate in parish life only with a considerable amount of pastoral prodding. Some creative pastoral staffs are now realizing that they must today do what was done 40 years ago: stand outside of the school each day, talk to parents dropping off and picking up their children, and relentlessly invite, charm, and cajole them into the life of the church.

Over the past few decades, many excellent, highly trained Catholic teachers left primary and secondary teaching ministries for social work and organizing. Individually, this move was a personal, vocational choice. As a social policy, however, it was a mistake. We need to consider whether struggling Hispanic and African American Catholics must struggle harder because today there are fewer primary and secondary Catholic schools. Will they miss out on what Irish, Polish, Italian, German, and other Catholics enjoyed from Catholic education? We forget that it was only after teaching the people all day that jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

Parish schools are the best self-help programs going for the poor of our nation. Because of these schools, yesterday's poor Catholics are today's successes. The poor Catholics of the 21st century. should not miss the same opportunities. If we are serious about helping the poor, keeping our parish schools open should become a national priority for our church. We already collect millions annually to fight poverty. I think we should begin putting this money where it can do the most good -- into our Catholic schools.


Each month, advance copies of Sounding Board are mailed to a representative sample of U.S. Catholic subscribers. Their answers to questions about Sounding Board and a balanced selection of their comments about the article as a whole appear in Feedback.

The best way to

reduce poverty in a

community is:

Through motivation! We need to motivate and reward people for learning and going to work.

Name withheld Valley Forge, Pa.

Education is a must whether it be job training, technical college, or higher learning -- everyone who is able to be taught needs to learn skills necessary to work.

Father Darold Lehman Springfield, Minn.

To provide support for workers by providing low-cost day care, after-school care, teen centers, and senior centers. Workers need to know that those who depend on them at home are safe and cared for while they work.

Susan Pepish Olathe, Kans.

To encourage families who are able to "adopt" a needy family and give them support and assistance when they need it.

Sister Nancy Marie Livonia, Mich.

Education that includes programs on how to live -- economics, home- and self-care, sex education, and so on.

Marguerite Rivera Grand Rapids, Mich.

Parishes could possibly provide small loans or credit to help people get off welfare and into the job market.

Sister Mary De Sales Hoffman Manitowoc, Wis.

Poverty can be reduced when people understand they are only caretakers of the blessings they enjoy. The more affluent should be encouraged to share blessings wisely.

Father Eugene Schmidt Oshkosh, Wis.

Poverty could be reduced if classes were held on budget managing, grocery shopping, raising children, and job training.

Louise Rapp Santa Barbara, Calif.

Poverty can be reduced when people readily share their time and talents with those less fortunate; everyone needs someone to take an interest in their life.

Name withheld Rogers City, Mich.

To provide employment for the involuntarily unemployed, warm places for the cold, beds for the bedless, food for the hungry, love for the unloved, compassion for the homeless, and encouragement for the despairing.

Tom Dowling Hayward, Calif.

The best way to raise

funds for financially

pressed Catholic

schools is:

To get parents, grandparents, alumni, friends, and benefactors to feel ownership in their schools -- that would make them more generous in their support.

Name withheld East Syracuse, N.Y.

The parish church should support its school with special collections.

Name withheld Jacksonville, Tex.

We need to work toward a fair, public-supported voucher system for parents.

Father William J. Amann Hamilin, N.Y.

To invite community leaders into schools where they can see value-centered education firsthand. Let them understand that an investment in local Catholic schools is an investment in the future of the community that impacts their businesses.

Kathryn Powers St. Joseph, Mo.

To consolidate the buying power for Catholic schools within a certain region. That way the schools would be able to get better prices on commonly used items like textbooks and supplies.

Leo J. DesChamps Cohoes, N.Y.

The best way to raise funds for financially pressed Catholic schools is to develop an endowment fund which would enable schools to draw pupils from the most hard-pressed members of our society.

Sister Ann Heiskell Grand Rapids, Mich.

To hold variety shows and the like to attract the greater community into Catholic schools. Families would be more apt to enroll their children -- hence invest -- in Catholic schools if shown the love and sense of community they provide.

Mark Shipley Shawnee Mission, Kans.

Catholic schools from Pre-K through 8th-grade should be defined as ministry to the poor. That would bring more resources to the activity.

Name withheld San Antonio, Tex.

Creating regional rather than parish schools -- which duplicate services and overburden parish resources -- would put more time, energy, and resources into Catholic schools.

Name withheld Pittsburgh, Pa.


Not all problems in society can be solved by Catholic education alone -- especially in lieu of Catholic social outreach programs.

Name withheld Milwaukee, Wis.

Research by Father Andrew Greeley indicates that Catholic schools are effective in forming Christian values only when those values are reinforced at home.

Keith McCaffrey Hesperia, Calif.

If we want to continue to have good Catholic schools, we need to value the teachers more, which means better pay and benefits.

M. J. Samer Chicago, Ill.

I received a solid foundation in all aspects of my Catholic education, and I believe that I would not be the person I am today if I did not have those opportunities. However, my parents were penalized for my education because their tax dollars went to public schools and not toward my tuition.

Beth Chambers Pittsburgh, Pa.

A parish that has a school associated with it shouldn't be solely responsible for its financial support. All parishes should support aR Catholic schools.

James G. Triglia Quincy, Mass.

I remain unconvinced that Catholic schools should receive the majority of antipoverty support. Our efforts at educating for justice, and not just charity, have not caught on in too many communities.

Rita Koll St. Cloud, Minn.

Not only is a moral climate fostered in Catholic schools, but also learning and scholarship by the rigor and quality of teaching available in our parish schools.

Phyllis Dunagan Homezvood, Ill.

Unfortunately tuition charges are high at Catholic schools and shut out many unless there is a possibility of scholarship grants.

Name withheld Huntington Beach, Calif.

Catholic education should be available to an parish youngsters and arrangements should be made to subsidize tuition through parent participation in service projects or volunteer work.

Paschal A. Morlino, O.S.B. Baltimore, Md.

I can't disallow the fact that the parochial school children got the better education, but the children in the Catholic schools where my children grew up were rich and not afraid to flaunt it. God belongs in the ordinary where we can best spread the Word by putting funds into organizations and not elitist schools.

Name withheld Woodstock, Ga.

Catholic schools have been proving for years that they can produce resourceful and responsible Christian citizens.

Joanne Fox Sioux City, Iowa

There are 13 children in my family who attended Catholic schools. We thank our parents for giving us a Catholic education and a better start in life.

Marian Vandehey Greenleaf, Wis.

(All comments used in Feedback must be signed, but we withhold names on request. We regret that space limitations force us to condense letters and that many cannot be used at all. We try to reflect major opinion trends accurately. Our thanks to all who wrote. -- the Editors)

By Albert Schorsch III, an assistant dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a board member of the National Center for the Laity.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Claretian Publications
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes feedback responses from readers
Author:Schorsch, Albert, III
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Jun 1, 1997
Previous Article:Is your parish a good friend of the family?
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