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Issue Date:  April 8, 2005

The treason of the clerks

Church leaders and Catholic educators are killing Catholic schools


A strange, almost spooky, phenomenon can be found among the leaders of the U.S. Catholic church. Bishops, priests, nuns, former priests, former nuns, religious education directors, catechumenate directors, etc. don’t like to hear good news. To be fair, not everyone with the preceding job description dislikes good news, but enough of them do to shape the funk, the malaise, the drift, the ennui that currently besets the church in this country.

Thus when I reported that Catholic priests in America are on average happier in both their work lives and their personal lives than any other men, even married Protestant ministers, I was denounced, especially by priests. How dare I say they were happy when they knew they were not? Besides, their personal opinions were equally as valid as my data, which were only my personal opinions anyway.

So why do research? Good question!

I was not unprepared for such a reaction since the research I’ve done since 1960 on Catholic schools has been similarly dismissed or, more often, simply ignored. I’ve argued that Catholic schools are perhaps the most powerful resource left to the church in America. I have defended this position with high-quality data and in analysis that follows all the rules of survey data analysis. Moreover, Anthony Bryk and his colleagues in their book The Catholic Schools and the Common Good demonstrated how Catholic high schools achieve their excellence. In his work on social capital, the late James S. Coleman cited the overlapping networks of school and parish as generating the social capital that provides useful resources for both institutions. As far as I can tell, very few Catholic leaders have read or even heard of these works. And they may have heard of my work but they haven’t read me either -- though they claim to know what I’ve said. (They don’t, by the way.)

Why don’t these clergy or quasi clergy want to accept good news about either the priests or the schools? Why this treason of the clerks? Why have priests stopped recruiting other priests? Why do Catholic educators compete to see how many schools can close? One possibility is that good news is really bad news and despair is good news. If you have despaired, then there’s no point in working. You fold your tents and phase out.

Another reason is that the schools belong to the pre-Vatican II church. They have to go, just like everything else -- the Mother of Jesus, saints, holy water, the rosary, the souls in purgatory, angels, all that kind of junk. Then we can really build a new church around the liturgy and the catechumenate and religious education.

Attend the meetings of Catholic educators. You will hear many pious clichés delivered with great fervor and piety, but they are innocent of meaning. No one jumps on a table and cries out, “Let’s save Catholic schools. They’re our best hope.” These Catholic educators really don’t believe that. They are men and women of limited education, devoid of both ideas and imagination, caught in an environment of great social change.

Public school administrators are worse, you might argue. They’ve had two ideas in the last quarter century -- self-esteem and multiculturalism -- and have dumbed down (to use the late Patrick Moynihan’s phrase) public education. But Catholic schools on the average are much better. Why doesn’t the world know this?

Where are the public relations campaigns that emphasize the quality and the effectiveness of the Catholic schools? Where are the bright new ideas for the future that might reassure the clients that Catholic schools have a future? Where has been the sustained effort over the years to support the existing infrastructure of the schools? Where are the attempts to establish foundations that will guarantee the future of Catholic schools? Where are the Sunday sermons supporting Catholic schools? Where is the dynamic leadership at the top?

The men and women who are responsible for the Catholic schools should have been doing these things for years. That they have not comes dangerously close to malfeasance, excused only by stupidity and incompetence.

It is necessary to close some schools for demographic reasons -- there are no more customers. Yet every time a Catholic school is closed, I wince. There goes another powerful resource. There down the drain are the sacrifices and dreams of many previous generations. I’ll be darned if I can understand why.

Don’t they understand that the combination of the neighborhood parish and the parochial school is one of the most ingenious community-building mechanisms that humankind has ever devised?

Apparently not. Then they are, you should excuse the expression, fools.

A couple of years ago I heard of a plan to establish a Catholic School Foundation in Chicago that would make it possible for every child who wanted to go to a Catholic school to do so, even if the family could not afford the tuition. This was a brilliant scheme I thought because it responded to the only serious problem that faced Catholic schools -- high tuition. So, putting my money where my mouth was, I emptied my eleemosynary coffers to begin the campaign. As far as I know, the foundation has disappeared from the radar screen. My money, I’m assured, is still there, but these things take time. I wanted to ask ... Well, I won’t use the language that comes to mind.

God forgive those who are permitting Catholic schools to slip under the waves.

Fr. Andrew Greeley is a Catholic sociologist and author.

National Catholic Reporter, April 8, 2005

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