Attention Catholics with empty schools

samebachurch2No doubt about it, that is one snarky headline I have put on this post.

I know that. At the same time, I have been struck — for several weeks now — by the latest wave of mainstream press reports about the American Catholic crisis linked to falling enrollments in Catholic schools, especially in the old neighborhoods of the great American cities. I mean, dig around a bit in this basic Google News search. While you are at it, surf around a bit in this one, too.

Some of the stories dare to mention the obvious. Many of the major changes in American Catholic life are linked to falling birth rates. Many of them. It’s an obvious question: You are suburban Catholic parents. You have one or two children. Do you want your one son to become a priest?

Meanwhile, over in Europe, things are much, much further along. The phrase “demographic suicide” is tossed around, from time to time.

It would be easy to say this is a Catholic problem, but it’s not. I mean, look at Russia.

This brings us to an interesting, but ultimately shallow, BBC report from Tbilisi in Georgia about a very feisty Orthodox patriarch with a rather outlandish big idea:

Two years after having one of the lowest birth rates in the world, Georgia is enjoying something of a baby boom, following an intervention from the country’s most senior cleric.

At the end of 2007, in a move to reverse the Caucasian country’s dwindling birth figures, the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, came up with an incentive. He promised to personally baptise any baby born to parents of more than two children.

There was only one catch: the baby had to be born after the initiative was launched. The results are, in the words of the Georgian Orthodox Church, “a miracle”.

The country’s birth rate increased by nearly 20% during 2008 — a rate four times faster than the previous year. Many parents say they took the decision to have another child on the basis of the Patriarch’s incentive.

As you would expect, readers are then offered a stream of anecdotes that flesh out that big statistic. What we don’t get — you may want to sit down — is any Orthodox figure discussing this topic in spiritual terms. In a nation that is 80 percent Orthodox, to one degree or another, that’s a rather big hole in the story.

Ultimately, this is an economic issue for BBC folks. Money is real. Faith is cute.

Now, economics are a big part of this story. But is money all there is? Note that the story also mention the birth rates of other religions — think Islam — in this part of the world. That’s a big ghost in the story, too.

In the end, the story offers nice churchy details, but no content. We are told there is a Christian revival in Georgia these days. We need more than that.

In a country which early last year boasted of having economic growth rates of 7.9% there is little doubt that economic factors may have played a role in bringing on the baby boom.

But the role of the Church cannot be underestimated in Georgia. Twenty years ago, just before Georgia gained independence from the Soviet Union, the Orthodox religion was all but suppressed in the country.

Now it is more than clear that the faith has never been stronger.

Oh really? How about some more facts?

Photo: The Sameba Cathedral in Tbilisi, Georgia.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    How about some more facts?

    Sigh.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    The story doesn’t even cover the state of Catholic schools in the U.S. very well. Some Catholic schools are thriving. Catholic schools in San Francisco and Silicon Valley are full and have waiting lists.

  • Sarah Webber

    Being a native Californian who is safely ensconced in NJ now that I have school age children, I would say the health of Catholic schools in CA has a lot more to do with how bad the public schools are than a higher Catholic population.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    Yes, Sarah. I think you are right. From what I can tell, many non-Catholics send their kids to the Catholic Schools in this area.

  • Barbara C.

    One other things of note is that the more orthodox Catholics who have way more than two children are less likely to send their children to Catholic schools. Most large Catholic families are more likely to homeschool, partly because they fear that the Catholic schools teach more heresy than orthodoxy.


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