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Catholic schools have kept generations of immigrant children in the bosom of the Church while helping to lift them to economic success. But that legacy is at risk. The children of Hispanic immigrants have drifted away from the Church and fallen behind in economic terms. The fact that Catholic schools have failed to serve them may be to blame.

A case can be made that the story of Catholic education in the United States is the greatest educational success story not only in the history of the Catholic Church but in all of educational history. As a Mormon teacher once said to me, “The title of the story of Catholic schools should be called ‘Never has so much been done with so little.’”

In the nineteenth century, the indomitable Archbishop John Hughes of New York made schools a top priority for his diocese, declaring: “The days have come, and the place, in which the school is more necessary than the Church.” Those first waves of penniless immigrant Catholics found a welcome not only in parish churches but in newly established parish schools. For many years now, American Catholics have surpassed American Jews in socio-economic status, and six of the nine justices of the Supreme Court are Catholics (all of whom were educated in the Church’s schools).

One of the greatest failures of the American hierarchy has been the pastoral care of Hispanics. For the first time in American Catholic history, newly arrived immigrants have not had the Catholic education of their children taken seriously. The results have been disastrous: Nearly half of Hispanic Catholics have left the Church for other religious communities, while vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life from the Hispanic population are embarrassingly low. In the 1980s, Archbishop Pio Laghi, then papal nuncio to the United States (and eventually prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome) castigated the bishops for their pastoral negligence in this regard. As he stated in the New York Times in May 1989, “The annual loss of Spanish-speaking Catholics to non-Catholic sects is significantly—I would say disturbingly—high.” He went on to echo widespread charges that Hispanic Americans suffer discrimination within the Church and that the Church fails to encourage religious vocations among them.

Four years ago, this regrettable lacuna in pastoral outreach was highlighted in a study produced by Notre Dame University. In 2009, the Alliance for Catholic Education at Notre Dame set a goal of adding one million Hispanic children to the rolls of Catholic schools by 2020. As a result, the portion of the Catholic school population that is Hispanic rose from 12.8 percent to 15 percent. We might rejoice in that gain if not for the fact that Hispanic youth comprise approximately 50 percent of all Catholic youth.

Why are Hispanics so under-represented in Catholic schools? First, a large percentage of Hispanic parents do not even know of the existence of a Catholic school. Second, coming from the Latin American experience where Catholic schools are largely the preserve of the affluent, struggling immigrants presume these schools to be totally inaccessible for them. Many have not been informed of how reasonable tuition is in most parish elementary schools (usually hovering around $4000–$5000), or of the financial aid generally available, especially in inner-city environments.

The model to aspire to here is offered by Filipinos, who are intensely committed to providing a Catholic education for their children. This is due to the very reverse of the Latino experience. In the Phillipines, Catholic schools dominate in all social classes.

Another “underserved” group—although not predominantly Catholic—is the black community. African-American bishops of the United States already in 1984 highlighted the significance of these schools: “Today the Catholic school still represents for many in the Black community, especially in the urban areas, an opportunity for quality education and character development. It also represents—and this is no less important—a sign of stability in an environment of chaos and flux.” It is no accident that the majority of black bishops in this country are not only the products of Catholic schools but also converts to Catholicism, precisely due to their Catholic education.

Native Americans, too, have been major beneficiaries of Catholic schools. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson as president gave a grant to priests to build and maintain a Catholic school on an Indian reservation (so much for his “wall of separation”!). In such schools that still exist, high school graduation rates range from 80 percent to 90 percent, while the rate for Indians in government schools is only 51 percent.

Aggressive secularization demands aggressive evangelization, and all the data show that contemporary Catholic schools continue to produce committed Catholics, as evidenced in higher Mass attendance, higher contributions of time, treasure, and talent to the Church, as well as higher rates of priestly and religious vocations than found among Catholics who have not attended Catholic schools.

The maintenance and growth of Catholic schools is not merely a matter of internal Catholic interest. There is also societal payoff, however, especially as the government schools continue to struggle. Catholic schools will continue to provide the only serious national alternative to government schools. Which is to say, Catholic education is more necessary today than ever before in the history of the Church and of our nation.

The Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., is a member of the Cardinal Newman Society’s Catholic High School Honor Roll National Policy Advisory Board, executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation, and editor of The Catholic Response.

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