Catholic Schools: Necessary as Ever

In June, school graduations mark many family calendars. This June, a number of graduations will be the last to be held in some Catholic schools here (in Chicago) and in other dioceses. The usual bittersweet celebration of students leaving a school will mark also the closure of the school itself. This is a great loss for the Church and for the community at large.

Catholic schools constitute the best school system in Cook and Lake counties. Those who graduate from elementary school go on to high school. Almost 100 percent of those who enter high school go on to graduate and about 90 percent go on to college. No matter where students are on national tests when they enter the Catholic schools, they move into the 60th, 70th and 80th percentiles as they move through school.

More important than comparative statistics, however, is the personal formation given in an academic environment shaped by the faith. Catholic schools are free to consider any question that can be asked. They are free to talk about what is most important, about God and human destiny. Most schools, especially government schools, are forbidden to raise the really important questions and can talk only about civic responsibility and about paths to economic success. There is, however, a difference between success and happiness. That difference shapes the formation given in Catholic schools. It is beneath human dignity to live in falsehood. Catholic schools respect the human dignity of each student by teaching the truth about what is ultimately important.

The Church conducts school because Jesus was a teacher. He revealed to us what is really important in this life and the next. In homilies and conferences of all sorts, in well-developed catechetical programs in parishes and youth programs, what Jesus taught is handed on. But Catholic schools are essential to the educational mission of the Church. They provide an environment, along with the family, in which the faith is not only taught but lived. They are open to all, Catholic or not, and the Archdiocese remains firmly committed to making Catholic education available throughout Cook and Lake counties; but the nature of the schools themselves is clearly Catholic. That's why they are what they are and why the Church sponsors them.

The reduction in the number of Catholic schools by one third since 1969 has left the Church with less well-informed, less adequately catechized adults and parents. In recent months, the announcement of recommended Catholic school closings, the subsequent, agonizing process of reconsideration and re-examination, which prompted in some cases a re-energizing of parents and school employees, and finally the decision that some schools have found the means to remain open has put many, especially the students themselves, through an emotional wringer. We have to find a better way to assure the future of the schools. When closures seemed inevitable, some schools and their communities found more than two million additional dollars to keep their schools open, for which I am most grateful; but it would have been good to have had that money available before we had to speak of closures.

Schools close because students decrease in number, sometimes because a neighborhood no longer has many children, more often because parents cannot afford tuition. They close also because the buildings need major repairs that cannot be paid for by the parishes that own them. They close because of debts from operations that cannot be paid. It costs over $550 million a year to run the Catholic schools of the Archdiocese. Almost $450 million of that sum is paid by parents and others who give money for tuition. The remaining $100 million is raised through special events and fund-raisers, through alumni appeals, through the generosity of the companies and individuals who give to the Big Shoulders Fund for inner city schools, through parish and Archdiocesan subsidies. By way of comparison, it would cost over $1 billion in tax money for the government to educate all the students currently in Catholic schools in the Archdiocese.

For the last several years, plans have been building to create a new pool of funds for tuition assistance and for needed capital improvements in older school buildings. This pool of funds must be large enough, at least $150 to $200 million, to generate the assistance necessary to fund tuition for any child whose parents want to send him or her to a Catholic school but who cannot afford to do so. Given the now-heightened understanding of the financial plight of the Catholic schools, I hope we can very soon launch the campaign necessary to raise money for this fund.

This column is a plea not so much for funds as for a stronger resolve on all our parts. At the center of my desires for this Archdiocese is the maintenance of a vibrant, viable, faith-based school system, where quality education is assured for the future and where the vision of our faith shapes not only the curriculum but also the lives of teachers, students and parents. I am most grateful to and want to support as strongly as possible all those involved in maintaining, developing and strengthening Catholic schools: pastors and principals, teachers and school staffs, the superintendent and his staff, parents and donors.

Catholic schools, especially those that are parochial schools, were born of a desire to integrate the young into family, church and community in ways consistent with the faith of their parents. They have been one of the most effective means to strengthen the mission of the Church in our country and to contribute to the building up of a just, peaceful and charitable society. They are even more essential to that mission as society secularizes itself and becomes more openly hostile to the faith and more anonymous in its human relationships.

Last week I returned from a visit to Ukraine, a country which is trying to rebuild itself not only economically, after being absorbed into the Soviet Union for so long, but especially culturally. The official philosophy of the Soviet state was atheistic; and the schools, the means of communication and the arts were all directed to creating a culture stripped of religious belief. The result is a badly demoralized people, searching for some meaning in life and some identity that is not totally closed in on itself. In this situation, the Catholic Church in Ukraine, with the help of many generous people in Chicago and elsewhere, has created a Ukrainian Catholic University in western Ukraine. They planned and created this university because schools shape culture, both individually and socially. The new university is the only Catholic university on the territory of the former Soviet Union. It is making a great difference now and is a sign of hope for the future.

So, in somewhat different circumstances, are our Catholic schools here. I hope everyone in the Archdiocese will find a way to support them. God bless you.

Francis Cardinal George, OMI


Cardinal Francis George is the Archbishop of Chicago.

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