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Who will vouch for Catholic schools?

We can't afford to be indifferent to the fate of our Catholic schools.

THE GOOD NEWS ABOUT CATHOLIC EDUCATION IN THE United States is that total enrollment in Catholic schools in 1998 increased somewhat over 1997. Several factors probably contributed to this growth. The population of the United States, for example, grew. The greater numbers reverse the trend of declining enrollment, something to be appreciated.

The bad news, however, is the prevailing torpor, maybe even indifference, among U.S. Catholics, bishops, priests, religious, and laypeople to the fate of our Catholic schools. When (and if) this fate is confronted, there is a general shrugging of shoulders, a kind of "So, what else is new?" attitude. Those American Catholics who do pay attention to the subject are often wont to say, "We can't afford to pay more for Catholic elementary and secondary schools."

It can be argued, perhaps persuasively, that those of us who care have not made the case for Catholic elementary and secondary schools. Granted that the educational quality of the best Catholic schools is not automatically superior to the educational quality of the best public schools. But assuming educational quality--and even the quality of religious education in parochial schools--under the best of circumstances, students in the latter schools become part of a Catholic community and are immersed in a system of values that may be unique. Obviously, some of this unique quality in Catholic schools has been lost as the number of dedicated religious teachers has diminished. Blessedly, however, dedicated lay women and men have replaced them, and the spirit of Catholicism has not been lost.

The question remains, of course: Can we afford Catholic elementary and secondary schools? The poorest parishes and areas, unfortunately, cannot do that job on their own. So why can't more affluent parishes adopt these less fortunate schools? This sometimes happens, but not nearly often enough.

Which brings us inevitably to a subject that is a veritable hornet's nest of anger and resentment. The word "cheap" is a cruel word, one that is probably undeserved when applied to most people, Catholic or otherwise. Yet the word "frugal" isn't fair either. Still, survey after survey shows that, for some reason, Catholics are far less generous in their Contributions to their churches than are Protestants and those of other religions. Generalizations, of course, are not appropriate when judging how much and how often religious people ought to contribute. Each individual must ask himself or herself, "Do I drop as much into the collection basket as I spend on entertainment each week?" Or: "Are my weekly contributions equal to my weekly purchases of items that are at least quasi-luxurious?

The quality and quantity of my church contributions are very much germane to the question, "Can we afford Catholic schools?" Church historians have made the case strongly that our Catholic Church has answered that question affirmatively during this past century, due to the willingness of Catholics--rich, middle class, and poor--to make the sacrifices necessary to build churches and especially schools.

Over and above the need for Catholics to give more generously to support our own Catholic schools, there seems to be an increased interest and sometimes political pressure for some sort of voucher program that would provide government subsidies to be used by parents and individuals as they choose. In the past such voucher programs have run afoul of the constitutional "proscription" that they would violate the separation of church and state. But can't reasonable people find a formula to support all schools without unconstitutionality? After World War II, the G.I. Bill made vouchers available to returning veterans who were free to use them for education in colleges and universities of their choice, including Catholic ones. There was no hue and cry about this fine program.

Some who oppose a voucher program that would allow students to attend schools sponsored by Catholic or other religions claim that such a program would "take money from" public schools to their detriment. But to insist that money spent in religious schools would necessarily be deducted from public schools is nonsense. Public-school budgets are determined annually; there is nothing fixed and unchangeable about them.

It is devoutly wished that U.S. Catholics will, first, begin to appreciate the importance of a strong and vibrant Catholic school system, and will then demonstrate a willingness to pay for it.

As an old pastor in years gone by liked to conclude, "And God will reward you in his own sweet way."
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Article Details
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Author:BURNS, ROBERT E.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 1999
Words:748
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