The Old Ways Still Work
Regarding “Rethinking Catholic Schools: Who Needs Them?” by Fr. Nonomen (December 6, 2013): The elementary school of Fr. Nonomen’s parish is not representative of all Catholic suburban schools. Many Catholic schools around the country are still thriving, such as the ones outside the city of Philadelphia. In my archdiocese, Catholic schools were built at the turn of the twentieth century to teach the large number of Catholic immigrants, but eventually they spread to the suburbs for the baby boom of the 1950s and ’60s. Many of these suburban Catholic schools remain vibrant today.
I agree with Fr. Nonomen that “Catholic schools distinguish themselves from public schools by integrating gospel values in academics and extracurricular activities,” and if he were to ask students, they would say that they’ve also found friendship and a feeling of community that comes from a shared faith tradition. This sense of community gives them a security that strengthens their sense of worth. Sharing the same values builds a strong foundation from which purposeful learning can develop.
I disagree with the way Fr. Nonomen characterizes most Catholic-school teachers as “fresh out of college and, therefore, ill-equipped to teach.” On the contrary, many faculty members in our suburbs have been teaching in Catholic school for several years, even though their salaries are well below that of their public-school counterparts. I’ve been teaching in Catholic school for thirty-five years. We were trained by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, otherwise known as the IHMs, or “master teachers.”
New teachers in Catholic schools can be an asset. They bring contemporary expressions of prayer to Mass for our students. And young teachers can more closely connect with the students who face extraordinary challenges today, especially in social media, ones that older teachers did not have to confront when we were growing up. These technological “natives” on staff help their older colleagues, as we, the mentor teachers, guide our younger apprentices in Catholicism. In other words, we support one another.
Parents who send their children to Catholic school know that it is well worth the tuition. Structure and discipline in the classroom, along with drill and review in the core subjects, are still effective today. We’ve added new “project-based learning” and “understanding by design” methods that are more progressive. Students work cooperatively and creatively to meet the Common Core standards, which provide them with twenty-first-century skills. A Catholic-school curriculum includes classes not only in religion and the basics but also in art, music, technology, science, math, foreign language, and physical education. We emphasize the importance of teaching the whole child.
Fr. Nonomen also contends that Catholic schools have to compete with good public schools for enrollment. But in many of our suburban school districts, Catholic grade-school graduates who go on to attend public high school are often placed in the honors track when they begin ninth grade. That’s why many parents consider it a wise investment to spend the money in the elementary-school years. The parents of our Catholic-school students are mostly Catholic, attend Mass every Sunday, and contribute financially to their parish.
Fr. Nonomen’s notion of an interfaith school replacing Catholic schools to “[nurture] a deeper understanding of common values and beliefs” is commendable and thought-provoking, but should not be the model for all Catholic suburban parishes. I would not want readers of Commonweal to be misinformed about the conditions of suburban Catholic schools today. I hope that, unlike Fr. Nonomen, my pastor never hesitates to write that monthly parish check.
Mary Anne Filano
Newtown Square, Pa.
A Sacrifice Worth Making
Like Fr. Nonomen, I am a pastor of a suburban parish. I have been a priest for almost forty years. Our parish, established in 1952, did not have a school when I was assigned here. When we began to investigate the possibility of introducing a parochial school in 2003, we heard the same arguments voiced by Fr. Nonomen. The local public school system is excellent and offers a better education. We can provide a quality religious-education program for those students at the parish. And the list goes on.
In spite of those arguments, we built a parish education center, which offers education from the cradle to the grave. The center includes a new parochial school for students from preschool through eighth grade. After only five years, our current enrollment is at capacity with six hundred forty students. Contrary to Fr. Nonomen’s experience, we have created a Catholic culture in our school. We have hired qualified religion teachers to teach the faith. We include the poor of our area and tithe 5 percent of our annual income to a Hispanic parish that would not be able to afford a Catholic school without our help.
Our parish has been transformed through the addition of our Catholic school. More parishioners are involved, and the life of the parish is strengthened by those who understand that the school is an integral component of our wider ministry. Of course it is more difficult. Of course it is harder to allocate funds. But Catholic education has enriched our parish. The sacrifices are paying off.
(Rev.) William C. Schooler
Keep Our Schools Open
Fr. Nonomen’s article is profoundly misguided, especially at a time when Catholic schools may be more important than ever before.
In the thirty years that I have been privileged to serve as a priest, I have spent nineteen of them as pastor. So I know first-hand that Catholic schools are the lifeblood of the parish, regardless of the prevailing socioeconomic status of the parishioners. I reflect fondly on my first assignment as a pastor at St. John Vianney parish in the Archdiocese of Phoenix. Its parish school serves hundreds of children, almost all of whom are Mexican or Mexican-American. That school is making a real difference in the lives of those children. Many graduates go on to Catholic high school and then enroll in a four-year college program. The overwhelming majority of those students will become first-generation college students. The data show that these children tend to remain faithful to the church and attend university. Their lives and the lives of their families will be forever different. St. John Vianney School is preparing students to be good citizens—in this world and in the world to come.
Catholic schools have been doing this for generations. Fr. Nonomen suggests that we should provide Catholic schools only for poor children in low-performing districts. To be sure, the poor—especially Latino families—need our Catholic elementary and secondary schools now more than ever. But the need for a quality Catholic school is not limited to those who do not have access to good public schools. The claim that children are better served by high-quality secular schools than by our Catholic schools could not be more mistaken. All children across the nation can and do benefit from Catholic schools, where academic excellence and formation in the faith are seamlessly integrated.
Fr. Nonomen argues that if we could close our Catholic schools we could use the money saved to make great religious-education programs in parishes everywhere. I might be tempted to believe that if I could find even one example where that has happened. On the contrary, I know of many parishes that have closed their schools and are now just trying to remain open because so many have left the parish.
Fr. Nonomen writes that he grumbles when he signs the monthly parish check to support his school. When I was pastor that was the first check I signed each month. I never saw this as subsidizing the school, but as an investment in the future of children and of the parish. I wish I could have signed two checks, not just one!
Our Catholic schools have been and remain the church’s best way to evangelize. As long ago as 1885, the Vatican document Spectata Fides taught:
For it is in and by these schools that the Catholic faith, our greatest and best inheritance, is preserved whole and entire. In these schools the liberty of parents is respected; and, what is most needed, especially in the prevailing license of opinion and of action, it is by these schools that good citizens are brought up for the state.
It is no secret that our Catholic schools are at a crossroads. The next two decades will be critically important to their survival and growth. The last thing they need are pastors who are not 100 percent supportive of them. “Rethinking Catholic Schools: Who Really Needs Them”? The People of God do!
Joseph V. Corpora, Csc
Notre Dame, Ind.
The Author Replies
I am delighted and even heartened that apparently there are some Catholic schools in this large country of ours that are supported with such fervor and passion. All the more reason, I believe, that it’s time to stop relying on outmoded, one-size-fits-all models for Catholic education and ask the more difficult—and more comprehensive—question of how to provide education for the Catholic person as a whole, childhood through adulthood. Fr. Schooler’s experience shows what can happen when a parish takes an honest assessment of its needs, prayerfully follows a vision, and believes that their budget is a theological statement! I applaud their efforts and hope that their parish education center will one day include a high school, a junior college, and a variety of continuing-education programs for adults as well. May many more parishes and dioceses have open eyes and open conversations.
Andrew Koppelman’s “Keep It Vague” (November 15, 2013) reminded me of my conscience-forming favorites—Robert P. George and Charles Taylor.
I went to Newark, New Jersey, to hear George on same-sex marriage rights, and decided neither my conscience nor my religion needed his arguments or his conclusions. His presentation seemed too tight, too intellectual to allow space to understand forgiveness, reformation, grace, and facts.
I went to Washington, D.C., to hear Charles Taylor (author of A Secular Age). Though the panel at the Catholic University of America was a disappointment, he was composed and confident.
Individual commitment to religion, in my experience at age eighty-four, is at the heart of the matter. How we perceive and receive the voices of leadership in the church depends on dealing with the many meanings of religious freedom, as we read and hear commentary on the words of Jesus in Scripture.
The fact that a large segment of Roman Catholic bishops followed George in advising (and at times demanding) that the consciences of others be in total agreement with theirs in order to be worthy for reception of the Eucharist gave me pause for serious reflection. In Canada, Taylor seems to have influenced emerging views on marriage rights. This is evidence of generous thinking about religious freedom in a secular culture.
It was leaders like Pope John XXIII, Bishops Rodimer, Hunthausen, Dozier, and many others, who gave guidance to explore, connect, and experience the vision of the council. How graced we are to now have the voice of Pope Francis inviting a continuation of that Spirit.
As The Church Always Taught
Richard Gaillardetz’s argument for a married priesthood was cogent, concise, and comprehensive (“Married Priests,” December 6, 2013). He presented well the logics and illogics of the history of the question, and advocated for an expanded, prophetic view of Christian marriage. All, I fear, to no avail, given that, as he says, many believe “a change in the church’s current discipline constitutes…a capitulation to a secular culture,” and, I would add, an admission of error. The immutable ecclesial axiom is “the church is never wrong.” She has sometimes been bad, even evil, and for that we have apologized, but in error?—never! How else can we explain Humanae Vitae or a Catechism that hews to a literal reading of the opening chapters of Genesis?
(Deacon) Brian Carroll
Catholic Hospitals & Women
In Cathleen Kaveny’s column, “The ACLU Takes on the Bishops” (January 10), she writes, “Properly understood, Catholic moral teaching requires Catholic hospitals to try to save both mother and unborn child, and if that is not possible, doctors must save the patient that can be saved. In early pregnancy, that’s the mother. The time has come for the bishops conference to revise the directives to make that crystal clear.” I agree; that would go a long way toward countering the perception that the church is antiwoman. This is a gut-level issue that women see as potentially affecting them or their loved ones—as opposed to, for instance, ordination of women. However one feels about that issue (and I’m not making light of it), no woman will ever die because she couldn’t become a priest.
After centuries in which the church was a pioneer in health care, especially for the poor, caring for those who had no one to care for them, I am troubled by what seems to be a prevailing perception that Catholic hospitals are not a safe place for women. The opposite should be true. The church needs to make every effort to reassure women that they are not going to be thrown under the bus, and to put in place directives to make sure that this isn’t happening in any Catholic hospital.
John Garvey’s column “‘I Do’ Undone” (December 20, 2013) could use a bit more nuance. He mentions the Irish loss of trust following sexual scandals—a reference to the abuse of children by priests and the cover-up by bishops. There is a huge difference between a priest breaking a vow of celibacy by engaging in a sexual relationship with another consenting adult and the criminal acts of sexual abuse against children. I doubt that the loss of so many older Catholics is the result of the occasional revelation that a priest or bishop has had an affair with another adult. The sexual abuse of children is not simply “breaking a vow”; it is a crime, and a crime of the worst kind.
Bishops and cardinals take vows to the pope and to the church—the oath taken by cardinals mentions Jesus/God once. It highlights loyalty to the pope and to the institution and even to “protecting” the institution by maintaining secrecy when necessary. Vows made to men should be broken when keeping them requires breaking vows to God.
Garvey writes that he is not the same person that he was when he was ordained; that’s true of married laypeople too. These vows should not be broken lightly, but they should not be considered immutable under all circumstances either. A priest who is miserable will not be an effective priest. Some marriages are so miserable that the couple should separate or divorce, especially if there are children who are harmed by the parents’ misery.
In some ways, it is more understandable when marital vows are broken. Most couples who marry make the decision after a relatively short time of knowing one another. They usually marry within six months to a year of becoming engaged. They are given very little preparation for marriage, and none for the demands parenthood will bring—being “open” to parenthood is a requirement for marrying in the church, which seems unconcerned about the suitability of the individuals to be good parents.
Priests are in formation—immersed in it and removed from the world—for years. Married couples are not removed from the world and immersed in marriage preparation for years. Priests and religious take temporary vows, leading to final vows. Couples who intend to marry do not have these “trial” vow periods, nor does the church approve of cohabitation, which would provide a sort of “immersion” experience for couples before taking “final” marriage vows.
Priests and religious who decide to leave the priesthood or religious life after final vows—even after years of preparation, immersion, discernment, and stages with temporary vows before making those final vows-—are usually permitted to leave without being punished by the church through the withholding of sacraments, as long as they follow correct procedure. Couples who decide to divorce are usually told they may not participate in the Eucharist. They may be offered the expensive and painful option of annulment, which many refuse to do because it forces them to deny that the marriage was ever “valid,” and many see that as a distortion of truth. They must also obtain the cooperation of a former spouse who may not wish to participate, and they must lay out their dirty laundry to a tribunal of strangers who will judge them and the “validity” of their marriage. It is not surprising that so many divorced people choose not to seek annulments.
In an ideal world, nobody would ever break religious or marital vows. But we don’t live in such a world.
The exchange “American Innocence: Niebuhr, Obama & the Ironies of History,” featuring James L. Fredericks and Andrew J. Bacevich (January 24, 2014), is interesting, and both writers make good points. But I hope I am wrong in my reading of Bacevich. Is he actually saying that there is no room left in politics for idealism or for the notion of building a better world? If so, I would invite him to visit France, where a very profound cynicism masquerading as realism now leaves the French incapable of addressing their socioeconomic problems. It is not simply that secularism has left many French with no concept of the transcendent; the disbelief in any possibility of building a better world has led large numbers of people to defend their current entitlements against all reasonable reform efforts. Confronted with the spectacle of a good-hearted man engaged in an act of generosity, a French friend of mine could only ask: “Qui profite?”
The French writer François Mauriac once said: “Strip away the spiritual striving from human beings and you will be appalled by how little remains.” I wonder what Mauriac would say about France today? Graham Greene notwithstanding, I prefer to live in a society where some sense of idealism prevails. There are at least possibilities for regeneration.
Declan C. Murphy