No Philadelphia Catholic School Is Safe
“I don’t know Chief … this shark is either very smart, or very dumb … ” So was the famous line uttered by the legendary Quint in Jaws, as he was trying to figure out the intentions of the great white.
After the recent roller-coaster ride regarding Philadelphia’s Catholic School closings—and now the many reprieves—Catholics across the Philadelphia region are wondering the same thing: Is the Church hierarchy very smart (in a conniving way), or very dumb? Or are they, and the “blue-ribbon” school commission deciding the fate of so many, just downright incompetent?
There isn’t a fourth option.
At issue is that a whopping 75 percent of Catholic elementary schools that appealed their closings were successful, meaning that their doors are staying open, at least for now. While it seemed like a “Good Friday” to many, something tells me it may turn into a day of regret, closer in fact to a Black Friday.
This is not meant to rain on anyone’s parade, as there is obvious cause for celebration for many families. After all, they had been told last month that their beloved Catholic schools—49 of them—were slated for permanent closure. While there was an appeals process, based solely on factual errors committed by the commission, virtually everyone figured there would be very few successful appeals, if any.
And with good reason.
In January, the chairman of the commission, John Quindlen, former chief financial officer of DuPont, made it crystal clear why schools were closing and consolidating.
“A lot of this should have been done 10 years ago … (but) … naivete and an unwillingness to face reality” kept many pastors and archdiocesan leaders from halting long ago the “death spiral” of declining population and rising tuition at so many schools, he said, according to the Inquirer. “They would say, ‘I can make this work … But we had to come along and finally say, ‘God bless you, but this has got to stop.'”
Fast-forward one month to the Church’s about-face, and Quindlen’s comments tell a starkly different story. “I celebrate the results and pray they all survive in the long term … Neither the commission nor the Archdiocese was in a rush to close schools. Our focus was on how to sustain them.”
Did he seriously say that with a straight face? How can you make the leap from a “death spiral” to “celebrating the results” and talking about sustainability in less than one month?
Give the Archdiocese credit for one thing: If they are trying to anger as many Catholics as possible in the most bumbling manner while ignoring all rules of good communication and PR, they are succeeding beyond their wildest dreams.
Let’s cut through the emotions tied to school closings and look at this situation objectively. Why the games? Why did the Church say one thing—that in retrospect now seems very suspect—and then almost completely reverse itself, all the while talking in platitudes that didn’t remotely address the questions and concerns of many?
It has left many scratching their heads, and even more seething.
So here are the questions that absolutely must be addressed in order for the Archdiocese to have any credibility moving forward, and to prevent the exodus of loyal, but very bitter, Catholics:
1.) Is Catholic education too expensive to sustain in most, if not all, of the 49 schools that were originally slated for shuttering? If yes—which is what the Archdiocese has been telling us, and selling us, for quite some time—then how can three out of four appeals have been successful? What changed? Did a billionaire step up and write a big check to keep the schools open? If so, we don’t need a name, because charity should be anonymous, but we do have a right to know if that happened (extremely unlikely as it is).
2.) If the opposite is true—that those schools are in fact affordable—then why have we been told something so radically different for so long? It’s like being pregnant: You are or you aren’t. Either the Church can operate these schools efficiently, or they can’t. There is no in-between. But that’s exactly where this situation is—in no-man’s land, and their equivocation has just added to the confusion.
3.) Is incompetence to blame for the contradictory messages? We were told that appeals would only be considered if factual errors were made in determining which schools closed. Well, by that logic, that’s a heck of a lot of errors. If a student makes “factual errors” on 75 percent of a test, his grade is a 25. Which, unless you attend a public school in Philadelphia, is an F. Not exactly a stellar track record.
4.) Were we lied to from the get-go? And if so, why? Was the threat of closings a grand conspiracy to flush out big contributors as well as lighten the wallets of the rank-and-file even more? Don’t scoff. The Archdiocese has a history of not being straightforward.
Just look at its red face regarding its mishandling—and lack of truthfulness—involving one of its schools in Philadelphia. According to a news report, a group starting a public charter school stated that it was assured by the Archdiocese that it could rent Our Lady of Mount Carmel school for that purpose—two months before the commission recommended closing the school! Mount Carmel appealed its closing. Any guesses as to how that turned out? It begs the questions as to why the Archdiocese would even allow the school to appeal when its fate had apparently already been determined.
Since we are on the topic of education, perhaps a refresher is in order. The Eighth Commandment tells us that we should not bear false witness against our neighbor. In layman’s terms, playing loose with the truth—and outright lying—doesn’t bode well for a Catholic Church preaching morality and in desperate need of credibility and trust.
5.) What about the folks at all the other schools who wanted to appeal but were dissuaded from doing so because the odds were so long for success? Common sense tells us that if they had known such a large number of schools would win their cases, many others would have appealed. Now, those parents and students feel even more burned than they did a month ago—a remarkable feat in itself.
6.) The appeals have thrown schools that were thought to be “safe” into chaos. Nativity BVM in Media, for example, was originally intended to stay open, absorbing students from St. John Chrysostom in Wallingford. St. John’s won their appeal though, and now, in a stunning reversal, Nativity is shutting its doors.
Not only do parents and teachers feel completely betrayed by this out-of-nowhere blindside, but there’s an even more unjust twist: Nativity apparently does not have the ability to appeal like all the other schools did. Talk about rubbing salt in the wound. And it’s exactly that type of move, accompanied by virtually no communication, which drives fuming parishoners to leave the Church. Hence the decline in church attendance and school enrollment.
7.) How can the Church push for school choice when it does not allow choice for its own members at the elementary school level? Some families in Annunciation parish in Havertown, for example, where the school closed because its pastor refused to file the appeal that so many parents begged him to file, must send their children all the way across town to St. Denis, when in fact they live within walking distance to Sacred Heart? How ironic that the very Church fighting the image of hypocrisy born from the sex scandal now engages in more hypocrisy: fighting for school choice as long as it doesn’t apply to its own flock. When will they learn?
8.) There are no guarantees in life, but what assurances can the Church give that, in the next few years, those 24 schools, as well as any others, will not close? Since it is impossible to believe that the problems of declining enrollment, rising costs and overall unsustainability have all been solved in the last 30 days, woe to those parents who take the recent reprieves to be a sign of long-term viability, for they may well be revisiting this exact situation in the near future. And that just isn’t right.
The point of this column is neither to agree with nor criticize the specific school closings and successful appeals, but to implore the Archdiocese to come clean with all the facts.
Quint had to figure out what the shark was doing and why. For all the blood, sweat and tears Catholics have shed for their Church over the years, they should never have to question the motivations of their Catholic leaders. They only seek the truth, and deserve no less. It’s time to give it to them.
And that’s no fish story.