In 1918, Mayor James Preston presented a 264-piece silver service to Cardinal James Gibbons on behalf of Baltimore and its citizens—a municipal tribute to the city’s beloved archbishop on the fiftieth anniversary of his episcopal consecration. Funded by public subscription, the cutlery, plates, teapots and coffee pots, serving bowls, trays, and platters of the “Gibbons silver” featured a unique decorative pattern, the cardinal’s monogram, and his coat-of-arms. For decades, much of the jubilee silver service was displayed in the dining room of the residence of the archbishops of Baltimore, located just behind Benjamin Latrobe’s magnificent Cathedral of the Assumption.
Then disaster seemed to strike.
One morning in the 1950s, the cathedral rector came downstairs to find that the Gibbons silver was gone: Stealthy burglars had entered the residence during the night and made off with it. The rector called the police. The police called City Hall. And Mayor Thomas J. D’Alesandro Jr., suspecting who might have been responsible for this caper, put the word out: If that silver isn’t returned in 48 hours, somebody’s gonna be in a world of hurt.
The next day, the telephone rang in the rectory of Our Lady of Fatima parish, several miles east of Baltimore’s downtown. The caller, declining to identify himself, simply said, “Look in your trash cans.” The pastor did. And there, in plastic bags, was the Gibbons silver service.
Thus Mayor Tommy D’Alesandro: paragon of efficient local government.
Another theft of something far more consequential than silver is on the near-term horizon—the theft, by COVID-19, of the Catholic school education on which tens of thousands of poor children and their parents rely as preparation for a life beyond poverty. And another D’Alesandro—Tommy’s daughter, more familiarly known as Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives—can and should emulate her father’s example and do something about it.
Many Catholic schools in the United States are in serious trouble because of COVID-19. The trouble is not educational; across the country these past four months, Catholic schools showed themselves far more supple in responding to the pandemic than the state schools, as Catholic schools implemented online learning far more quickly and efficiently. The trouble is financial: Too many parents, unemployed or under grave financial stress because of the shutdown of the economy, face the prospect of not being able to afford tuition at the Catholic schools they’ve freely chosen for their children’s education and formation.
If inner-city and other low- and middle-income Catholic schools are emptied because of unbearable financial pressures on parents, there will be multiple victims. The first victims of this education theft will be those Catholic schools’ former students. The second victims will be state school systems, overwhelmed by an influx of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of new students they cannot handle—especially under the restrictions that will likely be necessary to avoid an autumnal spike in COVID-19 cases.
Speaker Pelosi has publicly lamented the recently-announced closing of her Baltimore alma mater, the financially strapped Institute of Notre Dame: a venerable secondary school for young women whose first graduating class had heard the rumble of Civil War cannons from their classrooms. Many of my elementary school classmates attended IND and I share the Speaker’s sense of loss. But what are we to say, and do, about the virtual certainty that many, many Catholic elementary schools across the country, especially those serving low- and middle-income children, will be decimated by COVID-19 economic distress?
The chief obstacle to emergency financial aid for the low- and middle-income parents who still wish to choose Catholic schools for their children is resistance to such aid in the Democratic caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives. Speaker Pelosi rules that caucus with a firm hand. Might she adapt a page from her father’s playbook? Might she put the word out that anyone acquiescing in education theft, by blocking financial aid to the low- and middle-income parents who choose Catholic schools for their children, is going to be in trouble when seeking campaign dollars and plum committee assignments?
The long-term question of federal funds for independent schools can be debated and settled later. This is an emergency: a crisis for Catholic schools and state schools, for children and parents. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful woman in American political history, can help resolve that crisis by being her father’s daughter.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.