By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
The Vatican’s point man on education today described the lack of government support for Catholic schools in the United States as a “disaster,” and suggested that it reflects a lack of “full democracy” that would enable parents to choose the educational option they desire for their children.
Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, a Pole who serves as Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, spoke today at a Vatican news conference to present a new document, “Educating Together in Catholic Schools,” about the collaboration between laity and members of religious orders in church-affiliated schools.
In response to a question about state support for Catholic schools in various parts of the world, Grocholewski asserted that “the United States is a disaster.”
“The state does not recognize full democracy for Catholic schools,” he said. Although “Catholic schools are certainly no worse than the public schools” in America, Grocholewski said, the financial strain on parishes, dioceses and religious orders to operate these institutions “makes it difficult to achieve the same economic conditions as the state schools.”
Grocholewski voiced much the same complaint about Italy, noting the irony that what he called more “liberal” European nations such as Belgium and Holland offer generous financial support to church-run schools, while traditionally ultra-Catholic Italy does not. Church leaders in Italy have fought for years to increase levels of government aid to private schools, to achieve what they call “full parity” with the funding of public schools.
Monsignor Angelo Zani, the under-secretary of the Congregation for Education, likewise called upon governments to respect the “sacrosanct liberty of parents to choose the educational option for their children.”
In essence, both men argued, an absence of state support prices some families out of private education, thereby compromising their freedom of choice.
To date in the United States, so-called “voucher” programs providing public funds for parents who enroll their children in a private school have have gotten off the ground in only in about half a dozen states and districts. Most are offered to students in low-income families, low performing schools, or special-education programs.
Over the years, experiments with voucher programs in the United States have sometimes been criticized for violating the First Amendment’s prohibition against establishing religion, but in 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote upheld a voucher program in Cleveland on the grounds that the goal of improving educational quality is a legitimate secular aim.
Ironically, during their fall meeting in Baltimore the American bishops elected as the new head of their education committee one of the few prelates in the country who has voiced ambivalence about vouchers, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Curry of Los Angeles. While not necessarily opposed to public support, Curry has warned over the years that government money never comes without strings attached. The long-term consequence of vouchers, Curry has warned, may be the secularization of Catholic schooling.
"Educating Together for Catholic Schools" notes a global trend toward reliance on laity in Catholic education, partly related to a shortage of vocations to religious life. In the United States, for example, 86 percent of Catholic school teachers in 1950 were priests, brothers and nuns, with just 14 percent laity; today, by way of contrast, 95.6 percent of teachers are laity, with 74.5 percent being women.
In light of this trend, the document calls for laity and religious to join forces to make Catholic institutions “the Christian ferment of the world” and “schools of Christian community.” That’s an especially urgent task, the document asserts, facing contemporary realities such as violence in schools and a “lack of interest for the fundamental truths of human life,” as well as “individualism, moral relativism and utilitarianism.”
Grocholewski argued that the decline in vocations to religious life should not induce orders to abandon their commitments to education, which, he said, would be “not only inopportune, but damaging from the point of view of the mission of the church.”
As part of the presentation of the new document, Zani offered a statistical overview of Catholic education in various parts of the world. Globally, he said, there are roughly 250,000 Catholic schools at the K-12 level, with a student population of 42 million and a teaching corps of 3.5 million.
Zani said the Vatican does not have data on how many of those students and teachers are Catholic, nor how many of those schools receive some form of public assistance.
Zani offered the following observations about Catholic education in the United States:
“In the United States of America, 27 percent of students in Catholic schools are minorities, and 13.5 percent are non-Catholic. Moreover, 43.2 percent of all Catholic schools are located in the poorest areas.
“Recent years have witnessed a statistically significant phenomenon, above all at the level of large metropolitan areas. Some religious congregations and dioceses with a strong tradition of scholastic institutions, usually attended by students from the middle classes, are deciding to withdraw from these large institutions. Facing new forms of poverty spreading today, they’re entrusting these institutions to others in order to open smaller scholastic structures of high quality aimed especially at the poorest and most disadvantaged classes in urban areas or to students from minority backgrounds.
“The drop-out rate in Catholic schools is 3.4 percent, in comparison to 14.9 percent in public schools. Ninety-nine percent of students in Catholic high schools graduate, and 97 percent go on to the university level.”