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One needn’t be a Hegelian to think that ideas have consequences. We tend to focus on the negative effects of bad ideas, heresies, metaphysical errors. But true ideas are also powerful, and never more than when they are lived well and justly supported by the commonwealth. The idea of the Catholic school is a case in point. 

Consider the extraordinary history of Catholic schools in America. In eighteenth-century New Orleans, Ursaline Sisters educated both free and enslaved black girls. In the nineteenth century, when anti-Catholic sentiment ran high, parochial schools boomed as the country surged with Catholic immigrants. These schools provided a sound education for the poor that didn’t contradict their Catholic faith. 

Yet true ideas, especially when they move and live and have real effects, often face resistance. As Catholic schools expanded, powerful forces impeded their progress through legal means. State after state passed Blaine Amendments to deny public funding to any “sectarian institution”—which meant, almost invariably, Catholic parochial schools. The Blaine Amendments functioned then (and now) as a kind of anti-Catholic tax. They required Catholic families to pay for schools that weren’t hostile to their faith, and for the so-called “public” system of education (which often was hostile to their faith). These state-level attempts at raising the “wall of separation” even higher than the Constitution required were discriminatory attempts to handicap the very idea of Catholic schools. 

Yet Catholics cheerfully took up their cross, and they made great sacrifices. They built an educational system that delivered a quality education to both rich and poor. Pope Leo XIII made the idea of the Catholic school a cornerstone of his social teaching partly in recognition of the success of the Catholic school system in this country.

In 1885 Leo wrote to encourage the American bishops in an encyclical called Longinqua. He began, “We highly esteem and love exceedingly the young and vigorous American nation, in which We plainly discern latent forces for the advancement alike of civilization and of Christianity.” He observed that “the prosperous condition of Catholicity must be ascribed, first indeed, to the virtue, the ability, and the prudence of the bishops and clergy” as well as “to the faith and generosity of the Catholic laity.” What did he have in mind? “Schools for the instruction of youth, colleges for the higher branches, homes for the poor, hospitals for the sick, and convents and monasteries.” These were the “latent forces” that he knew advanced both civilization and the Church—but it was the idea of the Catholic school he stressed most.

Pope Leo wrote that religious liberty is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the “prosperous growth” of the Catholic Church. The Church could bring forth the greatest blessings if “in addition to liberty, she enjoyed the favor of the laws and the patronage of the public authority”—precisely what the Blaine Amendments were intended to forestall. 

Catholics had led the nation in founding not only parochial schools, but also high schools, colleges, and universities. “Catholics ought to be not followers but leaders,” Leo argued. Only a few years after Longinqua he would found The Catholic University of America in the nation’s capital as an anchor for the idea of the Catholic school as a latent force of flourishing. In many states, the discriminatory Blaine Amendments still stand. Bishops and laity had to overcome them in practice through extraordinary sacrifices. Spurred on by Catholic social teaching, parochial schools expanded at an exponential rate despite every obstacle. 

But then internal obstacles arose. The vast exodus of religious sisters and priests in the 1970s left Catholic schools without one of their greatest assets: well-formed teachers who knew their faith and their subjects. To meet this challenge, bishops had no choice but to look to the model of the public school system. Suddenly, the idea of the Catholic school had new problems, which Catholics handled in both good and bad ways. 

Today, Catholic schools—both weak and strong—have a challenge that dwarfs every obstacle of the last three centuries. Having become just as tuition-dependent as “private schools,” the parochial educational system is now under threat of utter collapse. The nationwide pandemic and the consequent economic shutdown may do what the dastardly Blaine Amendments failed to do and shut down Catholic schools, to the detriment of millions of families, and hundreds of communities. More than 600 of the nation's Catholic schools may have to permanently close because of this pandemic’s economic fallout. Family wages are dropping due to widespread furloughs and unemployment. The tuition payments, difficult for families to bear before, have become burdens that are simply impossible for many families to carry. For American children who rely on Catholic schools, our health crisis has become an economic crisis, and our economic crisis has become an education crisis that wounds the family, the nation, and the church. 

Catholic schools serve the common good of Catholics but also the nation as a whole. Our schools provide over $24 billion in annual savings to the American taxpayer, and educate children at less than half the cost of state schools. Catholics schools have a 99 percent high school graduation rate. If a black or Latino child attends a Catholic school, he is 42 percent more likely to graduate from high school and more than twice as likely to graduate college. A 2010 study showed that social cohesion decreases, and disorder increases, following the closure of a Catholic elementary school. These are mere white paper statistics, but they confirm the Leonine idea that Catholic schools are a powerful force for civilization. 

As I write, congressional staffers are preparing a multi-billion-dollar assistance package for public schools nationwide, to keep them open despite expected shortfalls in state education budgets. This is necessary and important aid, but it should not mimic the unconstitutional and discriminatory Blaine Amendments by leaving out Catholic schools. 

Catholics schools also educate America’s children and are no less deserving of scholarship funds that would help Catholic parents pay for tuition costs this fall. Like nations themselves, Catholic schools stand or fall by the grace of God. But right now, Catholic schools are in desperate need of both the prayers of Pope Leo and the intervention of our nation in this great moment of shared economic hardship.

C. C. Pecknold is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America.

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