Over the past week, I’ve received hundreds of emails about the report of our Blue Ribbon Commission on Catholic Education. The report calls for the closing or merger of dozens of our archdiocesan schools. Philadelphia has a long and venerable Catholic school tradition. So it’s no surprise that, while quite a few emails have expressed support, many more have been filled with confusion, anger and grief. This is natural. In fact, it would be abnormal and very troubling if people didn’t vent their feelings on a matter so close to the heart of Philadelphia Catholics.
But as tempers begin to cool, people read the report more closely, and schools consider appealing the Commission’s recommendations, we should keep a few basic facts in mind.
First, the Blue Ribbon Commission report is not finally about “closing schools.” It’s about putting Catholic education on a firm footing for the first time in decades. We tend to avoid this unpleasant work for understandable reasons: It can’t be done without suffering, and nobody wants to be the cause of other good people’s pain. But the work needs to be done. It can’t be delayed. Commission members have served all of us well by speaking truthfully – and offering genuine hope for the future — about enrollment and financial realities nobody wants to face.
The resource challenges we face in 2012 are much harsher than 40 or 50 years ago when many of us attended Catholic school. No family can run on nostalgia and red ink. Every parent knows this from experience. And so it is with the Church. We have a moral duty to use our resources wisely, not just in education, but in every aspect of our life as a believing community. If we haven’t always done that in the past, then we need to start now.
Catholic schools are worth fighting for because they do an extraordinary job of educating young people. We need to ensure that our schools are vigorously Catholic; academically excellent; and serve our people for decades to come. But we need to do it wisely and creatively, enlisting all the outside help we can. The Blue Ribbon Commission report is a vital step toward a strategic renewal of Catholic education in the archdiocese – which is why it’s a step forward.
Second, I’m very aware of the burdens many families and teachers will face because of the Commission’s recommendations. This was the hardest part of the Commission’s deliberations, especially since every Commission member has a long track record of service to the Church and a personal love for Catholic schools. I want to assure our people that the archdiocese will make every reasonable effort to place students and teachers in new positions and to assist those teachers who will lose their employment. No one will be ignored.
Third, one of the bright spots of a difficult week has been the number of business leaders and elected officials who have approached me privately to voice their support for Catholic schools and offer their help going forward. So maybe this is a moment when we can start imagining and doing the future differently. It’s useful to wonder how many of our schools might have been saved if, over the last decade, Catholics had fought for vouchers as loudly and vigorously as they now grieve about school closings. Some Catholics – too many – seem to find it easier to criticize their own leaders than to face the fact that they’re discriminated against every day of the year. They pay once for public schools; then they pay again for the Catholic schools they rightly hold in such esteem.
Something’s wrong with that equation. It’s important for Catholics to hold the leadership of their Church accountable. No bishop or pastor should fear that. But Catholics should hold public leaders – beginning with our elected officials in Harrisburg – to an equally demanding standard. School choice may not answer every financial challenge in Catholic education; but vouchers would make a decisive difference. They’d help our schools enormously. To put it simply: Vouchers are a matter of parental rights and basic justice.
Fourth and finally, in the weeks ahead, as emotions subside, let’s remember that all of us have the duty to treat each other with charity and civility in Jesus Christ. The Blue Ribbon Commission members who worked so selflessly on the report, along with many members of our archdiocesan staff, did their service with extraordinary dedication, integrity and concern for the needs of our people. They deserve our thanks and respect. They do not deserve the bitter – and unjust – criticism some parents and students have shown them.
Catholic schools exist, first and foremost, to form believing Catholic Christians; people of the Gospel; people of justice, mercy and charity. If they produce something less, then we need to ask ourselves whether they deserve to survive.
(Help make school choice a reality in Pennsylvania. Visit the web site of the Pennsylvanis Catholic conference and become involved in the effort.)