Pope Benedict XVI praised the U.S. Catholic community for its “remarkable network of parochial schools,” while urging steps to ensure their long-term sustainability, during an address at the Catholic University of America in Washington last week.
“Everything possible must be done, in cooperation with the wider community, to ensure that they are accessible to people of all social and economic strata,” he said in prepared remarks to several hundred education leaders from Roman Catholic schools and universities assembled on April 17. “No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.”
The pope’s U.S. visit came amid concern about the future of parochial elementary and secondary schools in the United States.
Earlier this month, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank that supports private school choice, issued a report raising alarms about the decline of Catholic schools in urban areas. It noted that since 1990, more than 1,300 Roman Catholic schools in the United States have closed. (“Papal Visit Spurs Plea for ‘Saving’ Catholic Schools,” April 16, 2008.)
Pope Benedict, who arrived April 15 for a six-day stay in the Washington and New York City areas, highlighted the tradition of Catholic schooling in the United States.
“The history of this nation includes many examples of the church’s commitment in this regard,” he said. “The Catholic community here has in fact made education one of its highest priorities.”
He acknowledged mixed sentiments about the church’s future role in education, even while making clear his conviction that its role is critical. “Some today question the church’s involvement in education, wondering whether her resources might be better placed elsewhere,” said the pope, a former university professor.
At their peak around 1965, Catholic schools enrolled almost 4.4 million students, or 12 percent of all U.S. students in elementary and secondary grades, the Fordham Institute report says. For this school year, Catholic schools enroll about 2.3 million students, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.
In the District of Columbia, where the pontiff spoke, the Archdiocese of Washington is moving to convert seven parochial schools into public charter schools, citing falling enrollments and rising operating deficits for the schools affected.
Teachers on a Strike
Pope Benedict also made an appeal to priests and members of religious orders to work in schools. The Fordham Institute report notes a dramatic shift in the parochial school workforce over time. In 1967, the report says, 58 percent of the teaching force in urban Catholic schools consisted of nuns, priests, and brothers. Today, they constitute barely 4 percent.
“Here I wish to make 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 pope said. “In places where there are many hollow promises which lure young people away from the path of truth and genuine freedom, the consecrated person’s witness to the evangelical counsels is an irreplaceable gift.”
Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of New York continued to have problems last week with some of its lay educators, who sought to highlight their frustrations to coincide with the pope’s April 18-20 visit to that city.
Hundreds of teachers set up picket lines outside 10 Roman Catholic high schools in the city and its northern suburbs, forcing some of the schools to close early just days before the papal visit.
The Lay Faculty Association, representing 450 teachers, called the strike after the New York Archdiocese rejected its proposal to reduce the term of its contract to three years instead of four, said union spokesman Henry Kielkucki.
The two sides have been in a dispute over wages, health premiums, and pensions since the contract expired in August. A second lay teachers’ union, the Federation of Catholic Teachers, which represents 3,000 teachers at 206 schools, accepted a four-year contract earlier this month.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2008 edition of Education Week as Pope Calls for Renewed Efforts to Bolster U.S. Catholic Schools