In Philadelphia, the protests surrounding Cardinal Justin Rigali’s announcement concerning the closure of Northeast Catholic High School in Frankford (Cardinal Dougherty High School is also slated to close) got me thinking about the reasons why Catholic schools have been shutting down throughout the country.
While I believe the protestors-- students, parents and alumni of Northeast Catholic—have their hearts in the right place (nobody wants to see their alma mater fade into obscurity); the reasons for this disaster go back some 40 years. One contributing factor has been changing Philadelphia demographics, but the big influence I think has to do with the changes in the Church brought about by the Second Vatican Council, which was called in 1962 by Pope John XXIII to regenerate the Church and bring it new life.
Unfortunately, instead of regenerating the Church, the Council seems to have set in motion serious degrees of decomposition.
. Take the schools, for instance. Cardinal Dougherty, which has a capacity for 2,000 students, currently has an enrollment of just 642. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Northeast Catholic’s enrollment dropped 29% in the last 10 years, and it is forecasted to decline another 24% in 3 years. While the Alumni of Northeast Catholic helped the school survive a financial crises 18 years ago, that’s unlikely to happen this time.
What do closed Catholic schools have to do with the Second Vatican Council?
According to the Seattle Catholic, in 1960 there were 53,796 priests in the United States. In the decades before the Council, there were so many seminaries in the country that bishops couldn’t open new ones fast enough. In 1960, religious Brothers (who often taught in Catholic schools) numbered 10,473; the total number of Sisters was 168,527. There were also 4.2 million parochial schools and 1,566 high schools. Before Vatican II, a 1958 Gallup Poll stated that 74% of Catholics went to Sunday Mass, proving that the Catholic Church in America, and throughout the world, was vibrant and healthy.
Does this sound like a Church in need of renewal?
After Vatican II, all these numbers took a nose dive. By 2002, there were 45,000 priests nationwide, and ordinations saw a decline of 350%. The number of seminaries saw a 90% decrease. The number of Catholics attending Mass dropped to 25%. (As for matters of faith, a New York Times poll also revealed that 70% of Catholics age 18-44 after Vatican II believe that the Mass is merely a symbolic reminder of Christ). The number of Catholic schools throughout the nation dropped by more than ½ from its zenith of five million students 40 years ago.
With seminaries and convents emptying out—don’t forget, it was the priests and nuns who used to run the schools practically free of charge—school staffs had to be replaced by lay people who expected big salaries and large pension benefits. Since the only way to meet this demand was to raise tuition to exhorbenet levels, families had to turn to public and charter schools. Catholic education was no longer an option because it was too expensive.
The closing of Catholic schools is a nationwide phenomenon. The New York Times reported that the Brooklyn Diocese had to close 14 schools (14 more schools will be closed in the coming year), while the Washington, D.C. Archdiocese is still in the process of converting many of its parochial schools into secular charter schools.
Despite the good intentions of the protestors fighting to keep Northeast Catholic and Cardinal Dougherty open, not much can be done to stop the decomposition of four decades.
Unlike the Church’s boom years before 1960, Catholics today don’t see much of a need for Catholic education. Add to this the slow trickle of Philadelphia Catholics into the suburbs, and what do you have? Big schools that are expensive to run that stand half empty. The reality is that many of the neighborhoods where these schools are located have become “unlivable,” with high crime, high city taxes, and poverty. Rising costs and a faltering economy have added to the problem, forcing those schools still open to triple tuitions to college level heights.
The causes of this problem are manifold, but mainly they can be traced back to the day that Pope John thought he was letting fresh air into the Church.
That fresh air, however, seems to have created a windswept house.
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