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Bishops To Consider Statement on Catholic Schools

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Washington--Faced with dwindling enrollments and nagging questions about the future course of Catholic education, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops in November will have an opportunity to make their first major statement on Catholic schools in nearly 20 years.

The document the bishops will be voting on is expected to include a strong reaffirmation of Catholic schools as well as suggestions for new methods to fund the schools and inspire greater parental involvement in Catholic-school issues.

"It offers the bishops some options to take some actions to deal with the financing of Catholic schools," said Sister Lourdes Sheehan, secretary of education for the United States Catholic Conference, the bishops' public-policy arm.

The statement was drawn up earlier this year by a task force composed of Catholic educators, staff members, and parents. It recently was approved for inclusion on the agenda of the November meeting here of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The bishops' deliberations come at a time when there is growing debate within the church over how to allocate its resources among various types of religious-education programs.

Figures from the National Catholic Educational Association show that enrollment in Catholic schools and the number of such schools continue to decline. In 1964, approximately 13,000 schools served some 5.6 million students nationwide; today about 9,000 schools serve 2.6 million students, according to the ncea Much of the decline has been caused by shifting demographics, as Catholics moved out of the cities of the Northeast to the suburbs or to the Sunbelt, where fewer parochial schools existed to serve them.

It is estimated that Catholic schools serve only 10 percent to 20 percent of the children of Catholic parents nationwide, a situation that has led some in the church to call for more resources to be directed to "total Catholic education" programs. These include after-school or weekend religious instruction for Catholic children who do not attend Catholic schools, as well as religious-education efforts aimed at young adults, the elderly, and other groups.

Tension Over Funding

More than two years ago, at a conference on the future of Catholic schools held in Dayton, Ohio, delegates called on the U.S. church to "develop more effective uses of our changing resources" and to embrace new means for "the delivery of education to all peoples."

Among the participants behind that call were representatives of church ministries and organizations that fall outside the domain of parochial schools, including the National Catholic Young Adult Ministry and the National Office for Black Catholics.

"There is some degree of tension over who should get what proportion of the resources for these various efforts," said the Rev. James L. Heft, provost of the University of Dayton, a Catholic institution where the 1988 conference was held.

However, many in the church favor continuing the commitment to Catholic schools because of their well-documented success at educating children as well as their greater ability to develop in students a strong commitment to the Catholic faith.

Catholic schools sprouted in the middle to late 1800's in the United States to serve the growing number of Irish, Italian, and other Catholic immigrants who balked at the strong Protestant leaning of the public schools of the day. One of their fundamental missions always has been to instill in pupils the Catholic faith.

The Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, a prominent Catholic priest, sociologist, and author, argued in a book published earlier this year that in the long run Catholic schools more than pay for themselves by creating parishioners who are stronger in their faith and give more generously to the church.

Religious instruction for Catholic children who do not attend Catholic schools, including the traditional Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, or ccd, program, has not proved effective in developing adults who become strong contributors to the church, he argues.

"Ccd does not attract a substantial proportion of Catholics, and is not in any meaningful sense an adequate replacement for Catholic schools," Father Greeley writes in The Catholic Myth: The Behavior and Beliefs of American Catholics.

'Action-Oriented Proposal'

The bishops' last major statement on the schools came in 1972 in a pastoral letter, "To Teach as Jesus Did," which reaffirmed the importance of teaching the Gospel.

The document set for the bishops' consideration in November is a statement, not a pastoral letter; the latter is considered a more authoritative explication of church teaching.

The content of the new statement has not been made public, but Sister Catherine McNamee, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, calls it an "action-oriented proposal."

"The thrust will be strengthened public support on the part of the bishops for Catholic schools, and specific strategies are being suggested," she said.

One proposal included in the document calls for the establishment of a national Catholic parents' organization to speak out on education issues such as school choice, said Robert Matt Sr., an Omaha businessman who served on the task force and who recently completed a three-year term on the uscc's education committee.

"One of the fundamental questions we face is, 'How can we be greater advocates for the role we play in education in the United States?"' he said.

The statement will also call for the establishment of financial endowments to help fund individual schools, such as those in use at private colleges and universities and at many independent schools, Mr. Matt said.

Catholic schools must also adopt the development methods used by colleges and private schools, he said, such as seeking gifts and bequests.

Internal Reorganization

Sister Sheehan, who also served on the task force that developed the education statement, was named education secretary for the U.S. Catholic Conference last December. A former Catholic-school teacher and principal and former staff member at the ncea, she is viewed as a strong proponent of church schools.

When she recently restructured her small department at the uscc headquarters here, two employees who were dismissed charged in interviews with the National Catholic Reporter, an independent newspaper that covers the church, that Sister Sheehan planned to emphasize Catholic schools over other religious-education efforts.

Such assertions were "just a red herring," Sister Sheehan said. The reduction of the professional staff from six to four positions was carried out to free up money to conduct research on several important issues. These issues include the training of a new generation of Catholic-school principals; the need to attract more professional religious-education directors; ways to include Catholic schools in the public-policy debate on school choice; and federal funding, especially research on the effectiveness of the Chapter 1 program for disadvantaged children in Catholic schools.

"I made the decision we needed to free up some money to bring in consultants and do research on those major issues," she said.

The uscc's education department traditionally has offered support to the bishops on education matters and lobbied for participation of Catholic schools in federal programs such as Chapter 1. Its mission is different from that of the ncea, which is the principal professional organization for Catholic educators.

Sister Sheehan said her office remains committed to out-of-school religious-education programs such as ccd as well as to Catholic schools. Two of the four staff members in the office will deal with religious-education programs, she said. One other employee will deal with Catholic schools and federal assistance, and the fourth will deal with higher-education and campus-ministry issues.

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