In today’s New York Times, authors Patrick McCloskey and Joseph Harris took to the editorial page to announce that “Catholic parochial education is in a crisis.” In many regards, this is quite true. Any observer of the state of the Catholic education over the past few years will likely recall the difficulty in which Archbishop Chaput weighed the closing of the Philadelphia schools and in which Cardinal Dolan has considered the New York closings. A school closing is never made easily or lightly.
As the article mentions, at the heart of the Catholic school crisis is the increased reliance on lay people. With a decline in vocations, the Church has had to hire more lay people to staff these schools. This is a huge financial undertaking. In addition to salaries, there are other costs, such as health insurance, retirement packages, and other benefits that require the investment of significant resources—resources that were not expended during an era in which priests and nuns filled the bulk of these positions.
The authors of the Times op-ed call for the Church to shift its spending and increase their per-student contribution to Catholic schools. In addition they go on to accuse “Bishops [who] preach social justice but fail to practice it within the church.” While a conversation about spending may be appropriate (there should also be one about state legislation on school choice, which Archbiship Chaput rightly noted almost a year ago), I’d like to offer another solution: a renewed call for religious vocations which can serve these schools and dramatically reduce costs.
Last year marked a twenty year high in vocations to the priesthood, a resurgence of women—young women—accepting the call to religious religious life, and a major report in October found that there are an abundance of (over six-hundred thousand) Catholic men and women who are potential priests and sisters. Catholics should pray for and encourage these vocations, which would be a major part of the solution. Moreover, leadership matters—in any organization. As my research indicates, where the leadership of the diocese is theologically orthodox, there are more vocations that could fill the role of educators in these schools, the altars of the Churches, and a wide array of needs, both practical and spiritual, of the Church, at large.
The Church is being refined on many levels—including parochial education. A conversation about a return to orthodoxy—in our seminaries, in our churches, and in our schools—is a conversation that needs to be had prior to any about spending. Though I fear it will be a much harder one to have.