Catholic education facing up to challenges

Lisa Johnston |

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Catholic education in the United States has always faced significant hurdles, and the current challenges will be overcome as well, according to an associate professor of education at St. Louis University.

John James, a former Catholic school administrator who has written about and served as a consultant on Catholic schools, spoke at the First Friday series of discussions at SLU Jan. 17. The series is sponsored by the Catholic Studies Program at the university.

James handed out a chart that showed enrollment in U.S. Catholic elementary and secondary schools peaked at at 5.5 million in the 1960s and now is just over 2 million. News reports in recent years have cited massive school closures in Chicago, Detroit and New York. St. Louis also has been affected. "It has been called a crisis, and I think it is a crisis," James said.

But Catholic schools won't go away, James said. "Never, ever, ever, ever bet against the Catholic Church or Catholic education. That is a fool's bet. When the chips are the lowest, that is exactly when the game-changer happens."

Demographic shifts, changing attitudes, leadership issues and finances are driving the struggles, he noted. However, James said, Catholic education has always faced these problems and has endured. He cited several instances.

In the early 1800s, Bishop Benedict Flaget of Bardstown, Ky., came to visit St. Louis and reported indifference among Catholics and a Church "in total disrepair." Bishop Louis DuBourg arrived in St. Louis and cited an extreme personnel challenge. But he successfully recruited religious in Europe to come here and turned things around.

In the early 20th century, many of the women religious who staffed the schools had little or no training. But again, the challenge was met and they were trained. By 1972, a massive departure of religious orders from teaching was under way and even more predicted to leave in the next decade. Worries were expressed that lay teachers would not be able to fill the gap.

"Crisis is part of our DNA as Catholic schools," James said. "While we do have some present challenges, we ought not be too afraid."

The Church has made the importance of Catholic education clear, he said. In 2005, the Catholic bishops renewed their commitment, citing the contribution of Catholic colleges and universities in training administrators and teachers, particularly those who work in inner-city and rural Catholic schools. The bishops praised training of educators who are knowledgeable in matters of the faith, are professionally prepared and committed to the Church.

Blessed John Paul II, in remarks at Catholic University of America in 2008, expressed his gratitude to Catholic educators for their contributions and added his encouragement. "Religious education is a challenging apostolate, yet there are many signs of a desire among young people to learn about the faith and practice it with vigor," he said, adding a special appeal to religious brothers, sisters and priests: "Do not abandon the school apostolate; indeed, renew your commitment to schools, especially those in poorer areas."

The Church, James said, is "begging us to continue in our work to address these challenges, which are perennial challenges. And I believe we are up to the task."

He pointed to the efforts of SLU as a center of training Catholic teachers and administrators. The program is solid in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, has expanded to the Kansas City area and is in talks with the Diocese of Little Rock, Ark., and potentially dioceses in Texas and Oklahoma. SLU is the only university engaged in the research and training of Catholic educators in the southern part of the United States and is known for its research on the president-principal model of schools and alternative governing models, including inter-parochial Catholic schools.

James said "a game changer for Catholic education" is the Children's Education Initiative, a proposed constitutional amendment in Missouri establishing education tax credits benefiting public schools, Catholic school scholarships and special education.

He predicts that more Catholic schools will close, but new ones will be built. Some changes will happen, with more growth in inter-parochial schools, diocesan schools and a smarter view toward evangelization.

"For a long time we separated PSR, Catholic education, youth ministry and ministry to young families. That doesn't make a lot of sense," he said.

He sees renewal movements and the personal call to discipleship increasing, pushed forward through Catholic education.

"I don't know what form Catholic schools will take in the future. But I do know ... we will be training faith-filled, critical thinkers who will provide visionary leadership for the Church."

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