Forty years ago, as Vatican II was nearing completion, lay educator and liturgist Mary Perkins Ryan published a book that provoked a vigorous and contentious debate. The subject was not married priests or contraception but the future viability of the Catholic school system in the United States. In Are Parochial Schools the Answer?, Ryan questioned whether the U.S. Catholic Church needed to maintain a sprawling network of parochial schools that had been founded to educate and protect a persecuted minority. The system was failing in its mission to educate every Catholic student, she argued, and should be abandoned in favor of cultivating vibrant parish communities centered on the liturgical reforms of Vatican II.
Ryan’s book caused an intellectual uproar. The editors of this magazine felt compelled to editorialize on the subject and publish an essay by Ryan a year after the book was published to mark the occasion. “I found myself being called a tool of the Communists and an impractical religious visionary,” Ryan wrote. “It has all been very interesting.” But for all the attention the book received, it effected little change. In many cities and suburbs, the elementary school remains a focal point of Catholic parish life, despite a continued drop in enrollment and, most damagingly, the mass exodus of women religious from the convent and teaching jobs they traditionally held.