Ghosts in the Catholic schools story

It’s official. Catholicism has little or nothing to do with the giant, heartrending story here inside the other Beltway — the closing of 13 of 64 schools in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore.

As you would expect, the Baltimore Sun once again played this as a giant story when Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien made the long-rumored news official, which is perfectly understandable. It is a huge story for all kinds of people here in Charm City, not just Catholics. As the coverage has made plain, many of these dying Catholic schools contain few, if any, Catholics. They have, however, been serving as an alternative to the city’s public schools, especially for families of color seeking an alternative approach to education — one that includes some emphasis on faith and stricter forms of discipline. That’s a theme woven into these Sun stories.

As I emphasized the other day (click here for a flashback) the newspaper is playing this story as a mix of blend of economics and the mysterious decline of crucial aspects of Catholic life in post-1960s America.

Here’s the crucial passage in the update. Is there an echo in here?

The challenges confronting the archdiocese mirror those faced by Catholic education in urban areas from the Midwest to the Northeast. In the decades since the peak enrollments of the 1960s, the thinning of the ranks of low-paid teaching nuns and brothers has forced schools to hire more expensive professional staff, ending the era of free or nearly free Catholic education. While tuitions were rising, Catholics were fleeing the cities for the suburbs, leaving behind lower-income families who could ill afford the expense.

In Baltimore, about a third of archdiocesan classrooms are empty. Elementary and middle schools have lost 20 percent of their enrollment since the 2001-2002 school year. Since then, the archdiocese — which includes Baltimore, surrounding counties and Western Maryland — has closed 16 of its schools.

Once again, let me stress that the flight to the suburbs is a major factor in this story, as is the decline of many old neighborhoods with deep roots into “old country” European lands. However, once again, the coverage avoids any input from Catholics — on the doctrinal left or right — who have other reasons to criticize Baltimore schools.

Here is the basic question: Where did the Catholic students and the teaching sisters, brothers and priests go? If declining numbers are crucial in this story, what are the other factors at work in this drama?

GetReligion readers have raised other important questions: Have the truly committed traditional Catholics, to a large degree, switched to homeschooling? Why have they done so? Are there some Catholics schools — in or near the city — that have been thriving while others decline? What, for example, is going on at this once declining school?

While reading this package, especially the parts emphasizing the athletics legacy at Cardinal Gibbons High School, another question came to mind: What would happen if you did a chart showing how many vocations — priests, brothers and sisters — have been produced by each of the city’s Catholic schools (those closing and those remaining open) during, oh, the past two decades? Would any patterns emerge? I know Catholic schools used to watch these statistics closely. Is this still true?

Toward the end of the main story, the Sun includes some interesting details that hint at some of the other cultural trends that have shaped this event. In the comments thread on my earlier post, the subject of Latino Catholics came up. Read the following carefully, focusing on the archdiocese’s recovery plan for its school system:

The plan calls for expanding tuition assistance across the archdiocese. The aid is now chiefly made available in the city.

The plan emphasizes a renewed commitment to the Catholic character of instruction, while recommending that the system expand its program offerings. Proposals include opening a new dual-language elementary school, doubling to four the number of schools offering programs for students with learning disabilities, and establishing a concentration in science, technology, engineering and math at four elementary schools. One elementary school would adopt a Montessori education approach for students ages 3-6.

School administration could also be reformed under a recommendation to give the superintendent, with advice from that school’s individual governing board, greater authority to hire and fire principals, who in many schools now answer to the local pastor.

Lots to think about, with little of it linked to Catholics and their faith. I guess that is the big, big, big ghost in this sad story about Catholic schools in the city that I call home.

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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.

  • Crimson Wife

    Have the truly committed traditional Catholics, to a large degree, switched to homeschooling? Why have they done so?

    Yes, most of the orthodox Catholics I know homeschool.

    Part of it is financial- families with large numbers of kids typically cannot afford to pay $6500/yr for elementary and $10,000+/yr for high school per child. Yes, there are sibling discounts and some financial aid available but usually not enough to make parochial school a viable option.

    A bigger issue is the secularization of the parochial schools. My DH’s alma mater had its students attend daily Mass. The schools in my area at most have it weekly and several only have it on a monthly basis. The reason I was told is that fewer than half the students are Catholic and most of those are only nominally so. The textbooks used are all secular with the obvious exception of religion class (and even that is feel-good Catholicism lite).

    Very little remains of authentic Catholic culture at these parochial schools, so it’s no wonder that orthodox Catholic families have turned to homeschooling…

  • dalea

    tmatt asks:

    Here is the basic question: Where did the Catholic students and the teaching sisters, brothers and priests go? If declining numbers are crucial in this story, what are the other factors at work in this drama?

    What I would like to see is how many students there are compared to how many Catholics there are. If the number of Catholics has grown and the number of students decreased, there should be a larger pool of financial contributors. Do the parishes those who moved to the suburbs joined have schools? If they do, then the number of students should have remained constant or growing. If they don’t, then why are they not contributing to keep existing schools going?

    Thinking on this, I note that about 20% of all schools are being closed. But this 20% has only 10% of total enrollment. So, a consolodation makes some sense. This story really needs graphs and maps.

    I suspect the story would have made more sense if had been written by a business reporter. This is basicly a story about reorganizing retail venues. Some underperforming ones will close with people directed to a nearby outlet. The fact that these are religious schools does not obscure that fact. I would have liked to know just where school financing comes from.

  • Rachel

    Crimson Wife–

    At risk of going off-topic, secular textbooks aren’t necessarily a sign of a secular curriculum. I teach at a Catholic school and we use secular textbooks, but we all augment the information in there with Church teaching. Besides, for a lot of subjects, it’s hard to have religious/secular versions. A noun is a noun, a fraction is a fraction, and “The Tell-Tale Heart” is one of the finest short stories in the English language whether you’re Catholic or not.

    To get back to the story, I also wish they’d mentioned more about the students with learning disabilities. I know that’s a huge problem at Catholic schools because we generally lack the funds to have good special ed programs, but how much of a demand is there? Would more parents send their kids to Catholic school if they had the academic support that they need? Not a religion ghost, but a ghost all the same.

  • Padraic

    Crimson Wife hit the nail on the head.

  • Martha

    “the closing of 13 or 64 schools in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore”

    That’s a big variation in numbers. Is it going to be 13 closed altogether, or just right now and 64 in total over the next few years? Or how will it be done?

  • Kristine

    I’m in a rural area of the U.S., but I’ve noticed a distinct decline in the number of children per family in the space of a generation. Here, that makes a huge difference in the numbers of students in the schools, both public and private. That’s another ghost I’d like to see covered.

  • Martin Kelley

    The traditionalist Catholics I know (most closely my wife) homeschool. Here in South Jersey, we’ve been hit pretty hard by proposed parish mergers and school closings. Parishoners at my wife’s church, St Mary’s in Malaga, have been putting up quite a fight (

    One of the things we’ve found is that all these stats are highly suspect. One that the Diocese put out and the local paper dutifully regurgitated was that the percentage of Catholics in New Jersey had declined over the last twenty years and so there weren’t enough students. It took all of three minutes and Wikipedia to confirm that the state’s population had risen faster than the percentage drop of Catholics and that the absolute number of Catholics had risen. Lies and statistics, easily debunked.

    From what we can tell the real agenda is to consolidate schools and parishes into regional megachurches with Protestant-like social services and large lay professional staffs. The small churches and orthodox priests get the heave-ho as the whole enterprise becomes a well-oiled corporation.

    It’s kind of surprising that the whole thing doesn’t have more investigative reporting trying to put the pieces to the puzzle together. We had a little national attention last year when it came out that a skanky real estate con artists with a Hollywood starlet and ties to both Bill Clinton and John McCain had bought out the Bishop’s personal beach house for $400,000. The developer’s plan was to buy churches cheap and flip them fast for profit. But the playboy’s in jail and the story’s lost its sex appeal.

  • dalea

    Martha, I suspect that the quote you have should read; the closing of 13 of 64 schools in the RC dioces of Baltimore.

  • tmatt

    dalea and Martha:

    Indeed. A typo. Thanks for the heads up.

    I hate having aging wrists.

  • michael

    Trust me Dalea, while there is an obvious business dimension to this, it is a lot more complicated than that. TMatt is sniffing the right trail here.

  • dalea

    I did notice that a few commentators brought up that one of the high schools was adjacent to St Agnes’ Hospital. The hospital had been trying to expand but could not secure land to do so. They made the connection that the closing was a land grab by the hospital.

    So, I think an article on the subject should deal with the net value of all the closed schools. And with the marketability of specific properties.

  • dalea

    When I was first out, in the early 70′s, I lived in a very Catholic city, one where something like 75% of white people were Catholic. Among the gay men I knew, almost every one from a Catholic background had spent time at a minor or major seminary or had been a novice in one of the orders. The fairly uniform story was that the person had never realized that he could have a life as an openly gay man and so had decided to go into the church where there was some small margin for being gay. When liberation came along and an open gay community came into being they had jumped from the order into the gay world. So, in some ways, I feel that is part of tmatt’s question: Where did the Catholic students and the teaching sisters, brothers and priests go? Those who were destined to go into the orders suddenly had a new option in life which they took.

  • TJ D’Agostino

    Many of the remarks above overstate the secularization of Catholic schools. Though Catholic identity and the quality of faith formation should not be taken for granted, by and large their quality remains quite strong. Catholic schools continue to be recognized by leaders in the Church as the most effective form of faith-formation for children (see USCCB document Renewing Our Commitment…), though not replacing parents as the primary educators. It should be fairly obvious that closing 13 Catholic schools will have significant implications for the Church’s mission in the Archdiocese, both in its capacity to educate and bear witness to low-income minority students (Catholic or not) as well as its ability to form Catholics in a culture where faith and reason, science and religion, are held together as compatible. Homeschooling, while a valid option for anyone, I believe is second to the vitality of an authentic faith-community present in Catholic schools at their best. Committed Catholic parents should consider investing their zeal for the faith in enhancing Catholic schools for their whole Church community. The loss of these 13 schools is tragic. Tragic for the students, Catholic and non-Catholic. Tragic for the city and for quality educational options. Tragic for the Church and for one of its most essential apostolates.

  • Crimson Wife

    Rachel wrote: “Besides, for a lot of subjects, it’s hard to have religious/secular versions. A noun is a noun, a fraction is a fraction

    Why is it that up until the middle of the 20th century it was very easy to find Catholic versions of textbooks? I’ve got a copy of the 1962 edition of the Voyages in English grammar textbook. It weaves Catholicism into many of the exercises such as the following from page 32:

    Copy these sentences. Use capital letters wherever they are needed:

    1. aaron was the brother of moses.
    2. cain killed abel.
    3. george washington was a great man.
    4. our first parents were adam and eve.
    5. jacob gave joseph a coat of many colors.
    6. show albert where to put his books.
    7. the magic lamp belonged to aladdin.
    8. joan sent an invitation to mary alice.
    9. mother sent a note to sister ann.
    10. little catherine knelt and said her prayers.

    If I’m going to be paying large sums of money for a supposedly Catholic education, I expect the school to do more than just pay lip service to the faith.

  • Bern

    Where have all the (white) Catholics gone? The lay (white) Catholics moved to the burbs, and beyond. Where I live, in the “far exurbs” of New York City there are 2 “mega-church”-sized Catholic congregrations within 5 miles of each other. The schools are small, and the CCD classes are huge, because folks cannot afford the school tuition on top of the high local property taxes, and want some religious education in a group setting for their kids. As the mother of a developmentally disabled child, I can affirm that their resources for accepting a-typical children are limited–that’s completely another story.

    Tuition went up because the free labor has disappeared, because religious dropped out and have not been replaced, for any number of reasons.
    The free labor that made parochial schools viable in the last century is not coming back, except for home-schooling moms. The social and cultural prejudices against immigrants and Catholics that made the parochial schools and hospitals system necessary has changed into something a lot less overt–the Know-Nothings are not torching any cathedrals today.

    All these “ghosts” may or may not be of any interest to secular reporters/media/readers, and would make a very long story indeed. Is it that the MSM don’t get it, or just that there’s not enough “space” for something that is, well, parochial?

    Off topic: except for sentence #4 there is nothing intrinsically Catholic about the “Catholic” textbook cited.

  • Ann Rodgers

    Let’s have some mercy on the reporter. The immediate task at hand was to explain the closing of 13 schools. To force the reporter to delve into the theologically and culturally charged question of why nuns are no longer teaching there would have been like tacking on the equivalent of a doctoral thesis.
    It also seems to me that all of these questions are being asked from a point of view that assumes that the major task of sisters should be to teach in Catholic schools. No matter what you think of the changes that took place in women’s communities after Vatican II, they were rooted in an effort to get back to tradition, to the missions that their communities were founded for In many cases that role wasn’t to teach but to meet some other need in society. It wasn’t until the huge Catholic school expansion of the 20th century in the U.S. that sisters from communities founded for all sorts of missions were pressured to teach.
    I don’t know that much abotu Baltimore’s history, but I do know Pittsburgh’s. And here the decline of inner city Catholic schools can be closely tied to the crash of the steel industry that pushed the Catholic population out of the city to either the suburbs or the sunbelt. The economics are very real.
    Another factor — both theological and financial — is the failure of most Catholics to financially support their parishes at a level that can sustain schools. In the Pittsburgh diocese there is a parish that teaches tithing. And even though they teach that only 5 percent needs to go to the parish, every child from that parish is able to attend the parish school tuition-free.

  • Crimson Wife

    “except for sentence #4 there is nothing intrinsically Catholic about the “Catholic” textbook cited.”

    I think you meant #9, the one referring to Sr. Ann.

    I agree that most of the sentences are generically Christian rather than specifically Catholic but they wouldn’t be found in a secular textbook.