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.


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