The Catholic Church in Philadelphia Can Save Its Reputation

Something good could still come out of the Catholic Schools closing controversy.

I always try to check my emotions at the door when I begin a column. That’s why I rarely write in the first person. But, hey, I’m also human and a Philly Catholic, so I shed a few tears of joy when it was recently announced that four diocesan high schools and 18 elementary schools were reprieved from their death sentence and would remain open. I didn’t go to Bonner (mine was the other Augustinian school, Malvern), but a brother, an uncle and a bunch of my friends did. (In fact, my uncle was a member of Bonner’s first graduating class and has three Prendergast—yes, Prendergast—football letters. How’s that for trivia?). And I have an aunt who’s a grad of the school that has, perhaps, the greatest tradition of all—West Catholic.

(Quick tangent: I’m a graduate of Annunciation BVM grade school in Havertown, where a niece and nephew of mine currently go. Despite meeting or exceeding all of the thresholds laid out by Bishop McFadden in 2009 to remain open, Annunciation is nonetheless being closed. Ignoring the wishes of his congregation, the pastor refused to appeal. Scores of parishioners, encouraged by the 75 percent success rate of the schools that did appeal, as well as West Catholic remaining open even though it did not appeal, have taken their case directly to Archbishop Chaput. You can read their detailed appeal here.

Now that a short-term victory for many schools has been achieved, it’s time to push emotion aside and take an objective look at the situation, where more questions than answers remain. What changed? What transpired in 30 days that allowed almost half of the schools to stay open? Was it “faulty information” that the Blue Ribbon Commission received, as some allege? Or was it a few deep-pocketed donors stepping up to the plate? And if so, is relying on a handful of wealthy individuals really a sustainable financial solution?


Did the Catholic Schools Originally Scheduled to Close Provide Bad Budget Information?
It seems quite a stretch that bad information could be the reason for the turnaround. For that to be true, many schools must have submitted data painting a very negative picture—information subsequently determined to be incorrect (hence the reversals). Outside of a few pastors who lack the desire or energy to further the mission of Catholic education, that scenario doesn’t stand up to the common sense test, since most schools would obviously put their best foot forward in their quest to stay open.

So either the Commission did not request the right information, or completely dropped the ball in analyzing the documents it did receive (as referenced in last week’s column). Either way, given that the Commission’s decisions affected the lives of so many, Philadelphia Catholics had every right to expect more, especially given the composition of the Commission. Its members included former top executives of some of America’s largest banks and insurance companies who were familiar with making tough financial decisions. Something just doesn’t add up, and, fair or not, that is fostering cynicism and fear that future closings are inevitable.

Did the Blue Ribbon Commission Do a Bad Job?
Of course, there is another possibility—that the Commission simply never bothered (or wasn’t allowed?) to contact many of the schools in question. Since more than a few pastors confidentially enlightened me to that situation—why would they lie about something so easily verifiable?—it tends to further cloud the entire decision-making process, both closures and reprieves. And why on earth, if the Commission/Archdiocese realized that the data was incomplete and/or their methodologies flawed, would they not postpone the original announcement in January until they got their house in order?

As a result, many faithful are rolling their eyes (again), wondering how the Archdiocese could look so foolish, while still not communicating any long-term solution. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that, since enrollment has decreased sharply over the last decade while costs have risen, a viable plan must be enacted quickly, or the same situation will arise in the near future.

How the Catholic Church Can Restore Its Reputation
1) Start talking about the positive aspects of the Church, restoring the credibility that has been shattered by years of sex scandals, shredded documents and cover-ups. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest provider of social services in the entire world (and second in America behind only the U.S. government) and administers the world’s largest nonpublic school system, yet most people are unaware of those phenomenal achievements—a massive failure in public relations. The Catholic mission is perhaps the most noble on the planet, and the Church’s history, while certainly not without its darker moments, is a storied one. Unequivocally, pride in Catholic identity leads to fuller schools.

2) The newly created Faith In The Future Foundation—charged with fundraising and being a guiding force on marketing and recruiting for the 17 archdiocesan high schools and assisting parish elementary schools—is a good idea, but only if it offers membership to rank-and-file Catholics with ears to the ground. Much criticism directed at the Church is that it is too insulated from the pressing issues, and too isolated from the parishioners themselves. If the Foundation is comprised only of millionaires and politically connected Catholics, it will fail.

3) The Church needs to fight.The true long-term solution to keep schools open and thriving is to return some tax money (vouchers and tax credits) to parents so they can make the best choice where to educate their children. The Church should make school choice the number one issue in the primary and general election, and immediately, make an extremely aggressive push to have the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) expansion bill pass the Senate. Senator Jeff Piccola is selfishly letting it languish because he can’t pass his low-income voucher bill. The EITC bill passed the House by an unheard-of bipartisan vote of 190 to 7—a year ago! The biggest tragedy is that some of the schools that have been ordered to close might have been saved if this bill had passed last spring.
4) You cannot grow the Church by being inconsistent, and yes, hypocritical, especially to your own people. All of the suggested solutions will be for naught if the hierarchy doesn’t learn this one lesson. The Archdiocese has thus far refused to grant school choice to many in elementary schools, instead dictating what schools children must attend. That policy has created an immense backlash, with thousands feeling betrayed since they correctly see the Church pushing school choice for others, but denying it to them. And no amount of spin or enrollment explanations will change that bitter sentiment. Charity starts at home.

Of the countless emails I received in the last week—most from loyal Catholics—one message was most common: Keep the faith but fight the corruption.

If grounded Church leaders and reinvigorated rank-and-file Catholics keep that in mind while preaching a positive message and wielding a political sledgehammer, then prayers for keeping Catholic education alive far into the future will undoubtedly be answered.