Catholic Education & Sotomayor

sotomayor&obama I don’t agree very often with what Michael Paulson says over at the Articles of Faith blog at Boston.com – he doesn’t even ask the right questions, as a rule – but I had to concur with something he said the other day about President Obama’s address introducing Sonia Sotomayor as his nominee for Justice Souter’s Supreme Court seat: he said he was struck by “the language he used to describe the role of Catholic schools in offering children a path out of poverty.” Here is the quote from the President’s remarks:

“But Sonia’s mom bought the only set of encyclopedias in the neighborhood, sent her children to a Catholic school called Cardinal Spellman out of the belief that with a good education here in America all things are possible.”

You won’t get any argument out of me by suggesting that the way to get your children a good education here in America is to send them to Catholic schools, but I have to wonder what the President’s good friends and supporters in the public school teachers’ unions (never mind management) thought about that remark.

Meanwhile, at about the same time this remark was made, the papers reported that the last Catholic parochial school in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston would be closing next year, due primarily to declining enrollment. And as true as it is that the academic performance is superior, and as important as a sound academic foundation is to the life of the intellect, you can believe me when I say that academics is about the least of the good reasons I send my children to Catholic schools.

It wasn’t very long ago that Catholic families were strongly encouraged by the faith community to utilize the parochial schools as an important element of providing their children a good Catholic upbringing. As the parochial school systems sags and slowly collapses under the weight of indifference, it strikes me that such encouragement is almost wholly lacking these days in parish life. Local sponsorship of the responsibility for Catholic education seems limited to bulletin notices of area open houses, and an occasional fair to provide schools tables from which to hand out marketing literature normally reserved in magazine racks in the back of the church.

This seems to be part of a trend among much of the laity of abandoning anything distinctively Catholic. People just want to fit in – and I don’t understand why the priests seem so disinterested in resisting the trend. Maybe they try harder than I give them credit for, but there is simply insufficient depth to the soil of parish life in the form of supportive and receptive laity – I don’t know. It just seems to me that if so many Catholics want to blend in seamlessly to the larger, secular, culture – without being willing at the same time to abandon their Catholic name, then they can’t possibly discern a necessary difference between Catholicism and the spirit of the age.

Regarding the schools, it is as if people view the parochial schools as nothing more than public schools with incrementally better academics, and unwanted tuition bills. Actually, the parochial schools offer an environment relatively free of the fashionable academic conceit of godlessness, as well as a moral seriousness that not only doesn’t nurture the narcissistic insolence prevalent among too many youth today, but refuses to tolerate it very far. I won’t even mention the sexual mores.

You can’t put a price tag on that, and if Catholics, on the whole, could get their act together around this, there is no good reason why the tuition bill for parochial education couldn’t be at least cut to a nominal stipend, if not avoided altogether. It is widely said that the parochial schools do their superior work while spending less per child than the public schools do. Whether it be through vouchers or some other method, it would only take political will to allow Catholics (or anyone: non-Catholics are at least a significant minority in most parochial schools) to choose to send their children to Church-operated schools instead of government-operated schools, without paying twice.

The easy answer to the acculturation puzzle is to make a distinction between “real” Catholics and nominal Catholics, and to expect the nominal Catholics to find the exits, but I think that attitude does a disservice to those we might call spiritually poor. From the bishops on down, we try too hard to get along, and, in consequence, we fail to make the case to the many that Catholicism has something radical to offer; that being a Catholic is different than anything else. The loss of interest in the schools is just an obvious example of the loss of Catholic meaning through the withering of Catholic culture – although, for all it’s worth, I have little confidence that Justice Sotomayor, if she is confirmed, will demonstrate how a Catholic education can help shape the moral character with Catholic meaning… I hope I’m wrong.