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?

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About that ‘complex’ doctrine Catholic teachers must follow

Imagine this lede atop a national wire service story:

CINCINNATI (AP) — Parochial teachers are so ignorant of basic Roman Catholic doctrine the Archdiocese of Cincinnati is giving them a cheat sheet on some of the things that can get them fired.

That is, of course, not the spin that The Associated Press took.

Here’s the actual opening paragraph of an AP story published this week:

CINCINNATI (AP) — The doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church is so complex the Archdiocese of Cincinnati is giving teachers a cheat sheet on some of the things that can get them fired.

Complex doctrine, huh? According to whom?

The story continues:

A new contract proposal from the diocese specifies some violations of Catholic doctrine that could put teachers out of a job — including abortion, artificial insemination and “homosexual lifestyles” — and extends forbidden behavior to include public support for those kinds of causes, drawing some complaints that the language is overly broad and a cynical attempt to make it harder for wrongfully terminated teachers to sue.

Again, the story seems tilted — and tell me if I’m wrong — toward the teachers’ perspective.

Notice that the proposal is characterized as a “cynical attempt to make it harder for wrongfully terminated teachers to sue,” not a “crafty attempt to make it harder for rightfully terminated teachers to claim naiveté.”

AP quotes an archdiocese spokesman as saying the proposal clarifies what is expected of teachers, then provides background on a lawsuit filed by a teacher fired for getting pregnant through artificial insemination and a separate lawsuit filed by an unmarried teacher fired for getting pregnant.

Keep reading, and the story gives three sources critical of the proposal an opportunity to bash it, one after another. That tag team of critics starts with a union leader not even from Cincinnati:

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Yo! NYPost! Did that school have a Catholic covenant?

This story is getting very, very familiar and it’s clear that these lawsuits are happening for a reason.

As The New York Post reports:

A prestigious Catholic high school booted a Bronx senior for being gay, the girl claims in a lawsuit.

Amanda Acevedo, 17, says in court papers that a homophobic administrator at Preston HS in Throggs Neck took exception to her bringing a girl as a date to a school dance and embarked on a two-year campaign of discrimination that culminated in her expulsion in September.

“Such a disgraceful act is proof positive of the fact that they got rid of my daughter because of her sexual orientation,” Acevedo’s dad, John, charges in the suit, filed against the private all-girls school in Bronx Supreme Court last month. “No other reason makes sense. Preston High gains nothing by expelling a traumatized gay child — except a sick sense of pleasure at getting rid of a gay child.”

It’s understandable that the girl’s father does not care whether or not this Catholic school was trying to defend centuries of Catholic teachings on sexuality.

However, The Post team doesn’t get the same exemption from asking basic, logical, journalistic questions about the legal (canon law and secular) tensions inside Catholic education circles today. Your GetReligionistas have seen this syndrome before, as shown here, here and here.

What’s the issue here? Freedom of association for starters, as well as religious liberty.

In previous posts on similar topics (and comments from informed readers), it has become clear that:

(a) Some Catholic schools, especially those attempting to recruit large numbers of non-Catholic students, do not ask students and parents to sign “lifestyle” or doctrinal covenants in which they pledge to affirm, or not to publicly oppose, Catholic teachings and traditions.

(b) Some Catholic schools, however, have created covenants of this kind for employees, as well as students and their parents.

(c) This pro-covenant trend may be on the rise, due to a growing awareness among bishops and Catholic educators that religious institutions that do not set clear doctrinal standards — standards for admissions, discipline cases and faculty hiring and firing — are creating a foggy legal environment in which it is easier to file precisely these kinds of lawsuits.

So do the members of the Post team even know that these issues exist?

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The curious incident of the Catholic school in the L.A. Times

In one of the most famous Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Silver Blaze, the clue that led to identifying the criminal was a dog that didn’t bark.

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” ask the Chief of Police.

“Yes—to the curious incident of the dog in the night time.”

“But the dog did nothing in the night-time.”

Holmes, “Ah—that was the curious incident.”

In the media’s coverage of religion, we often stumble upon these “curious incidents” when something that should have happened doesn’t happen—and shapes an entire story.

Consider, for example, a recent story in the Los Angeles Times on the “Gay teacher at Glendora Catholic school fired after marrying partner.” The teacher, Ken Bencomo, was fired by the school “after he married his partner of 10 years” and the photos of the ceremony were published in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. Bencomo doesn’t comment in the story, but allows his attorney, Patrick McGarrigle, to speak on his behalf.

Take a look at this section and see if you notice anything unusual:

On multiple occasions over the year, McGarrigle said, Bencomo has introduced Persky as his partner to administrators at school events.
In a statement released through an attorney, the school said it is “a community of faith for those who wish to express, practice and adhere to values in education based on the Roman Catholic tradition.”

“While the school does not discriminate against teachers or other school employees based on their private lifestyle choices, public displays of behavior that are directly contrary to church teachings are inconsistent with these values,” the statement reads. “These values are incorporated into the contractual obligations of each of our instructors and other employees.”

Bencomo hopes to resolve the situation without legal action, but he has not ruled out filing a lawsuit, McGarrigle said.

“The school went to the draconian measure of firing him without warning and without legal reason,” he said. “They haven’t expressed any interest in finding a way for Ken to return.”

Is there any point, dear reader, to which I would wish to draw your attention? Indeed, to the curious incident of the omission of the reporter in reporting the “contractual obligations.”
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