Archbishop Charles Chaput spoke with The Catholic Standard and Times’ director and general manager Matthew Gambino Jan. 19 about Catholic education in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. The interview came two weeks after the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendation to merge or close 49 Catholic schools.

Q. Were you more surprised by the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission or by the reaction of the people (to them)?

A. I was surprised by the breadth of the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission, as someone who hadn’t been in the Archdiocese from the beginning of the discussion.

But also I’ve been surprised by the intensity of some of the responses. The response has gone beyond the natural anger and family concerns to hostility, even assigning bad motivation to members of the Blue Ribbon Commission, or to the pastor or to me.

That’s really inappropriate to jump from being disappointed to being hostile and making rash judgments about other people. I certainly understand where it comes from, why the anger is intense. Yes, I was surprised.

Q. The parents and school administrators are really on the front lines in terms of people hearing from them. What would you say to the students themselves, both in the Catholic schools and in the parish religious education programs, who are the ones experiencing the coming changes?

A. First of all to the students in the schools, I want them to know that I understand why they don’t look forward to serious changes including being relocated, because their friends are together and they have a pleasant experience, the school is an “alma mater” which means a “dear mother,” and I certainly understand that.

But also I hope they understand the fact that we have to pay teachers’ salaries and we have to keep our buildings in good shape and pay utilities and that costs money. For us to be effective in a school it means we have to have a school filled almost to capacity. We can’t have hugely empty schools and be able to afford it.

So I would appeal to their common sense. Certainly everybody is on their side. I really want to keep all our schools open if possible but we have to deal with what is financially possible.

Q. At the end of the Jan. 6 press conference you mentioned that if we had had school choice vouchers 15 years ago we might not be in this situation.

A. Well we certainly wouldn’t be in the situation in the same way. I am especially concerned about the schools that are in the poorest parts of the Archdiocese where parents really can’t afford tuition. There’s just no way they can. We just have reached the point where we can’t subsidize those schools.

But if we did have significant voucher support it would make all the difference in the world. I think we do provide a quality education at a lower cost than other systems and I wish we could continue doing that. But we can’t.

Other schools will become in jeopardy over the course of time if we are unable to come up with a voucher system that works. It’s a matter of social justice, of helping the poor. They need a good education, and if we can provide it, why wouldn’t the broader community support a group that does it well? It’s universally acknowledged that we do this well, especially in areas where there is great poverty. We just need the resources to do it.

Q. What could you say to motivate especially Catholics to get involved in the political process of advocating for important issues like this?

A. I would tell them that they should be as passionate about this for the poor as they would be about their own personal concerns because that’s part of our Catholic identity: to be involved in the lives of those who are in disparate situations.

Also in terms of self-interest, if our poorer schools have students who receive vouchers, that would make more money available for other schools. Instead of spreading this subsidy out over this huge area we would be spreading it to a much smaller area. That would mean families who come from lower-middle class or middle class financial situations would be able to afford Catholic education too, because there would be more subsidy available to them from the school itself.

Q. So even if the voucher bill were to pass and would not include help for middle-class families, it would still help…

A. It would help immensely over the course of (time) – even immediately it would help them.

Q. Is there anything else you would like to say to the Catholic audience through and The Catholic Standard and Times?

A. I would like to say that Catholic education has an extraordinary history in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The decisions that we’re going to make are going to continue to make very good, solid citizens into the future. (The Catholic education system) isn’t going to educate more than 250,000 students as it did in the past because we just don’t have the resources to do that. Nor do we have the students who are asking for that kind of education. But we want to do it well. And we hope that the decisions that are made are going to make Catholic education sustainable for the next 10 or 15 years without any major changes.