In Catholic schools: Demographics is destiny, so is doctrine

Not that long ago, I wrote a post about religious faith and mathematics that turned into a “Crossroads” podcast. The post talked about a number of hot stories and trends on the religion-news beat — think thinning ranks in the Catholic priesthood, for example — and then boiled things down to this statement: “Demographics is destiny and so is doctrine.”

One of the other stories mentioned was this:

… Sometimes you have to see the numbers written on the walls. …

* Nationwide, the Catholic church has been forced to close many of its parishes, especially in urban areas, along with their schools — due to falling numbers in pews and desks.

This leads me to a timely story that ran recently in The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., and was also picked up by Religion News Service. The oh-so familiar headline proclaimed: “Catholic schools fight to keep doors open as future dims.” The lede was intentionally nostalgic and to the point:

NEWARK, N.J. (RNS) Suzanne Alworth remembers the glory days of Catholic schools: classrooms taught by nuns packed with close to 40 children in blue-and-white plaid uniforms.

But 35 years later, Alworth’s high school, Immaculate in Montclair, where she graduated in 1979, is fighting to stay open. The school is $900,000 in debt, enrollment is less than half of the building’s capacity and the Archdiocese of Newark will close its doors if it can’t come up with a plan to boost enrollment and improve its finances, said Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

“It was a complete surprise when they decided to close the school,” Alworth said. “I’m going to do everything I can to keep this school open because I believe in its mission.”

Like I said, it’s a familiar, but very important story.

I think it would be instructive to apply the old journalism mantra “who, what, when, where, why and how” to this piece. I am especially interested in the “why,” in this case. Why were there lots of Catholic students in the past and not today?

That opening section led to a solid statement of the bleak local numbers, which then tied into the national picture. The key, of course, is falling enrollments.

Enrollment in Catholic schools across the country has been on a steady decline since the 1960s, according to data from the National Catholic Education Association based in Washington, D.C. In the 1960s, there were more than 5.2 million children enrolled in almost 13,000 Catholic schools. Today, there are fewer than 2 million children in fewer than 6,600 schools.

In the last decade, almost 1,900 Catholic schools across the country closed and almost 580,000 students moved out of the Catholic school system, said McDonald. For many students and families, the closures and threat of closures have caused not only anxiety, but also heartbreak.

This story includes many fine personal details and local specifics. However, it left me asking big “why” questions: Why is this happening? What is the reality behind these painful trends? Why are the desks empty?

This passage offered a tiny hint:

Brianna White of Newark, who recently worked at a car wash and bake sale to raise money for Immaculate Conception, said all her siblings went to the school. She said the small Catholic school environment helped build her confidence.

There are some important tends hiding behind the phrase “all her siblings.”

You see, the elementary schools are closely linked to the local parishes, much more so than middle- and high-schools. The story does a great job of explaining that.

Catholic elementary schools, according to Dale McDonald, the director of public policy and educational research at the National Catholic Education Association, have taken a bigger hit than secondary schools. High schools, she explained, are more likely to be operated through religious orders or boards of trustees, so their funding is more tuition driven. She said the high schools also have a stronger hold on alumni who are likely to donate money that helps keep the doors open.

So if the key issue is at the parish level, what are trends in these parishes? The bottom line, in my experience: Find a parish with high worship attendance, a high baptism rate and, yes, large families and the odds are much better that the adjoining elementary school is in fine shape.

In this case, the story notes, local church leaders are trying to plug the holes in the existing system, combining resources so that strong schools with lots of kids can help support the parishes that have few, if any, children. There are also plans for an improved marketing campaign.

Over and over the story states that people remain committed to the “mission” of these schools. That’s important.

But something is missing in this story, a key element in the mathematical equation behind those empty chairs in all of those classrooms.

It’s the bigger “why” question. Are people committed to spiritual and sacramental life in these parishes? What are the worship trends there? And, yes, are these struggling parishes full of people — at all economic levels — who are committed to Catholic doctrines and to family life? In short: Where are the children?

Again, demographics is destiny and so is doctrine. At some point, journalists must consider asking the religious questions behind the failing numbers, probing the doctrines behind the math.

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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.

  • Bob Smietana

    There’s a couple of other demographic factors in this report (

    About 40 percent of Catholics overall are Hispanic0– and most of them are younger; but only 15 percent of Catholic school kids are Hispanic.

    • tmatt

      Key word: Other.

      The more info the better. Thanks.

  • boinkie

    in 1950′s the parish paid our tuition, so we could afford it, even though our parents were blue collar working class. Now you have to pay thousands in tuition, and there is no guarantee that the kids will learn Catholicism. So why sacrifice?

    • Daniel F. Crawford

      The tuition issue is a very real concern for blue collar Catholics who pay taxes to support the public school system and are in my area asked to pay nearly $10,000 per annum per child for the Catholic elementary school – which is not connected to the parish but is run by a private board. What was once an education open to all Catholic children – is now the private domain of the wealthy and very wealthy. Having been educated in a Catholic elementary and a Catholic high school with my three brothers and one sister, it saddens me that a wonderful education is now being denied to children whose families can’t afford the tuition.

      • BooBooGlass

        Absolutely right. It was once “Catholic” school. Now it’s “private” school. My own kids were in classes where only about half the kids were Catholic. Of course, the non-Catholic kids generated more revenue than my kids did.

    • Gail Finke

      This is a very real problem and I’m not contesting that. However, I think the point of the story is that beyond every other issue looms this one: There aren’t any Catholic children. When my husband went to Catholic school in the 70s, he was from a “small” family with four kids. Now most families have one or two children. ALL schools struggle with this rarely-acknowledged fact. There just aren’t as many children as there used to be, and all schools are fighting for what children there are.

  • fredx2

    This school was in Newark. A quick internet search shows that the public schools in Newark just laid off 1,000 teachers. Newark has shrunk. The population of Newark has shrunk over the last 30 years. So of course, they will have to close Catholic schools as well. The people who used to live in the cities now live in the suburbs. I live in the suburbs, and the Catholic school here is doing fine.
    And yet the overall national numbers are down for Catholic schools since 1960. Why? First, because of widespread use of contraception, there just are not as many kids around as there once was. The birth rate has fallen from 120 births per 1000 women to just over 60,
    And, tuition costs have skyrocketed, so only the well to do can really afford it now.

    • ThirstforTruth

      “Only the well to do can really afford it now..” ? True but also today’s parents are not willing to sacrifice their materialistic life style for a Catholic education.
      That was not the case in the past, where many parents were first generation immigrants who believed in the value of Catholic education and were unselfish as they put their children’s education first and foremost in their budgets.

      • James Kabala

        The religious instruction you can get in Catholic school for big money is often not much more rigorous or more orthodox than the instruction you can get in C.C.D. for free. It is therefore no surprise that to many it does not seem to be a worthwhile investment.

        I would also be interested to know how you define “materialistic life style.” Not everyone is rich, you know. The people who can afford a materialistic lifestyle are often the same ones who can afford Catholic school!

        • ThirstforTruth

          You are right that not everyone is rich! In fact, very few are truly rich meaning they have access to great monetary wealth I was referring to people who want it all for themselves and live beyond their means with a lavish life style. They will buy expensive cars, clothes and houses for their own vainglory and pleasure. take expensive vacations, etc and not consider solid Catholic education for their kids. I know of people who do this and still send their kids to Catholic school and get way behind on tuition payments.
          Their lives are just a series of monthly payments and they do not have proper priorities. Many parents allow their kids to go into heavy debt in order to get college degrees and do not consider forgoing their own material pleasures by sacrificing and saving to help educate their kids. Personal sacrifice is not in their lexicon. This was not true of parents of earlier generations who encouraged their kids to work and study hard and helped them gain access to good educations by personal sacrifice.
          I hope this helps you to understand what I see as very
          different attitudes today affecting Catholic schools financially. As for being satisfied with CCD programs, perhaps that is all that is available but studying the faith and living the faith everyday in a faithfilled atmosphere ha far more reaching effects. It is like the difference of taking a tennis lesson once weekly in class of ten people and one instructor and having daily private lessons from a Pro!
          In the Catholic school I am connected with financial aide
          is there for the truly deserving and yet I see this other side of the picture far too often.
          God be with you.

  • mikehorn

    The big missing piece here is another “why?” Why were there so many catholic schools to begin with? And why is the timing the early 1960′s rather than later?

    The first one is that American public schools were overwhelmingly Protestant starting in the 1800′s, teaching very anti-catholic lessons in most cases. The majority were Protestant, and religious freedom was a very new concept that in the case of the USA reflected the brutal Catholic/Protestant wars of the previous centuries from the Protestant side. There was some fighting over curriculum, but Catholics were a distinct minority. This led to a robust parallel system of Catholic schools that grew between 1800-1960.

    The Constitutionality of clear Establishment violations was not contested until successive waves of immigrants changed the Catholic/Protestant balance in The USA. think Irish, German, Polish, Norwegian. Significantly different than the Founding population of mainly British and Scottish, with some other Protestant European thrown in. The influx of Jewish in the 1920-50 period also contributed. This led to removal of Protestant indoctrination, to include prayer, from public schools that now had to serve more religions fairly. Removal of official prayer from public school helped make them acceptable to Catholic and Jewish parents, especially starting in the early 60′s.

  • Nathan718

    You can’t forget the drastic rise in tuition. With the teaching sisters (and their low salaries) gone, Catholic schools need to decide if they want to be primarily focused on providing an ecomical alternative to an increasingly hostile secular school system or if they want to be the preserve of the wealthy. Sadly, most seem to have chosen the later, charging anywhere from $5K to $10K per child per annum. If a faithful Catholic family has multiple children they are looking at paying at least $15K to $30K per annum on private schooling, something that is simply out of reach for most American families. Such wasn’t the case when my grandmother put 10 kids through Catholic school in the 50′s and 60′s.

    • Nathaniel M. Campbell

      “an increasingly hostile secular school system”

      A phrase that could only be written by someone whose only exposure to American public schools is through homeschooling blogs and other biased sources. Those of us who actually attended public schools, and who continue to support them, know that they are not “hostile” or “threatening” to people of faith. They don’t teach kids to be little Maoists or to hate Jesus. In general, they teach the same exact subjects as private religious schools, except for religion courses.

      Let me put it this way: I’m a professional theologian who was educated in public schools from kindergarten through my high school diploma. If public schools were really so hostile to the faith, shouldn’t I have come out of that wringer an atheist?

      • Nathan718

        Actually, I have a first grader in public school, am a former public school teacher with a Masters in Education, and am married to the daughter of two public school teachers (well, a teacher and a school counselor). I also attended public school myself for 13 years. But hey, at least you’ve manged to perfectly demonstrate the old saying about assuming.

        • Nathaniel M. Campbell

          I apologize for the assumptions — as a staunch proponent of high-quality public education available to all, I often bristle a little too quickly at blanket attacks. I’d be curious to know what, in all those experiences with public education, would lead you to the belief that it is “increasingly hostile”?

      • Thomas Gallagher

        No. You look fairly young, and so we can assume you attended public schools fairly recently. But things are changing in the secular culture, and changing fast, and in a thousand subtle ways. The College Board’s curriculum for Advanced Placement World History, to take one tiny example, gives no coverage whatever to the Reformation Era and describes Catholicism and Protestantism as “religions.” Such profound ignorance simply astonishes us, doesn’t it? How did you manage to come out of the system a theist? Well, the system wasn’t quite so anti-Christian just a couple of decades ago, and you’ve responded to the mystery of God’s Grace. Others will not be so blessed in the next generation.

  • David Rigg

    There are some interesting insight regarding vocations to the priesthood written by Fr. Dwight Longenecker in his blog on the Patheos website ( Fr. Lonenecker points out that vocations to the priesthood in religious orders are on a solid rise and forecasts the drought is vocations is over. The closure of many Catholic elementary schools is contrasted, as this article points out, by the more stable numbers of Catholic high schools. I pray that Fr. Dwight is correct.

  • Jane777

    Another problem is Catholic schools have the government as a competitor, and the government gets to fund it’s schools with the tax money of the people who send their children to Catholic schools. The reason I chose not to go to my parish school was if I have to pay for the government schools if I use them or not I should use them to save money. I would have chosen the Catholic school if government schools weren’t paid for entirely by the taxpayers.
    Plus, with so many Catholic schools having a reputation for heresy, no education about God is better than an erroneous and self-destruction causing understanding of God.

  • WRBaker

    Having taught in three urban Catholic schools, I have had the opportunity to see how things work and don’t work.
    Priests and nuns have been gone for so long now, that many parents who were Catholic school-educated don’t remember seeing any when they went to school. Teachers filling the void are not always Catholic, nor are many of the ones that are Catholic knowledgeable about the Faith. Unfortunately, this includes principals and diocesan education staff. It is discouraging to hear these people indicate their support for SSM, abortion, etc – and if you call them on it with the pastor, you will probably be branded a trouble-maker and not have your contract renewed (or worse).
    You see, the pastors/presidents hire the principal (with the blessing on the diocesan education department), so when it is pointed out that they might have made a mistake, they invoke the At-Will Contract that most teachers have to sign, which gives them the right to not rehire or fire you without reason or recourse. You can guess that the (arch)diocese is less than forthcoming in correcting these wrongs.
    Many of the inner-city school parents are poor and never experienced a Catholic school in the own country or in the U.S. While this adds to the complexity of parish funds destined for the school, where teachers only average 80% of the public school salaries, there are many foreign-born pastors who also did not attend a parochial school and often they don’t want a school in their parish (I was actually told this once by such a pastor).
    The main stumbling block to Catholic schools are the bishops, followed closely by his education department. The degree of the bishops commitment to Catholic schools will guide how much money he ensures schools receive.
    I have seen an urban school be promised three years of financial support. The education department forced a principal on a pastor, the principal managed to alienate teachers and parents. The school closed after two years, the parents told the last day of school. The principal went elsewhere, most of the teachers still don’t have a teaching position, though promised by the education department, the parents were sent scrambling to find a place for their children though many places did not have any financial assistance left. The bishop didn’t enter the fray, though many parents wrote, for, you see, he has his cathedral to be built.
    Welcome to the world of CCD for the inner-city students.

    • Sygurd Jonfski

      An excellent analysis, thank you. I fully agree.

  • Sygurd Jonfski

    I think the tuition is also a problem for many families, especially those with several children (see the comments by boinkie and several others below). But a bigger problem – also signalled by other posters – is the general turmoil in the Church and the resulting departure of more and more faithful. I don’t mean the ones who want the Church to be “relevant” – to them I say “good riddance”. I mean the real faithful, the truly believing Catholics. I see the Church now as a train, the engineer of which is prone to sudden accelerations and equally sudden stops, at each of which a bunch of passengers falls out until the train becomes near-empty. We all know who the engineer is.

  • saraw123

    I am in Reno, NV. Our parishes are not set up by zones–people go to the parish they like, not the one they are closest to. And no Parish Church is within walking distance for me. The closest one for me is 5.5 miles. So, one has to drive to the Church. However, my parish has no school attached to it. There are only 2 Catholic Elementary Schools here in Reno ,one is about 15 miles away, and the other is about the same distance but in another direction.

    So, besides the lack of children, there is a lack of reachable schools in case a family wanted to send a child to a Catholic School. Add to that, there is a lack of loyalty to one’s parish. I grew up in Chicago. I BELONGED to St. Felicitas Parish. I knew that sense of belonging. Today, nothing like that exists here in Reno.

    Yes, there are less children and no more nuns to teach at Catholic Schools, and so the tuition is up. But there is also less loyalty to a parish, as well. Add to all this, there are just plain less parishes and those that still exist are farther and farther apart.

    • Ella McGovern

      I would like to attend a closer parish than I do but unfortunately the two closest parishes are too liberal for me; they won’t even switch over to the new Missal. And don’t even get me started on macrame confession “screens” and taking down the crucifix all Easter season.