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, which a niece and nephew presently attend. 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 (http://pawatercooler.com/v3/?p=23340).
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 readers 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?
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.
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.
With that distinct possibility looming, how can the Church avoid it?
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. From its humble beginnings as the church of a fisherman named Peter, Roman Catholicism became the most benevolent and impactful force the world has ever known. It’s time to tell that magnificent story and educate the world – again – on what it really means to be Catholic, while purging every aspect of the scandals which have rocked the church to its very foundations. 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. That is not to invoke "class warfare," for having intelligent business leaders is imperative, but by definition, most would not be able to relate to the concerns of the masses (no pun intended). If "average" Catholics are not given a dedicated platform to offer their perspective, the rigidness, bureaucracy and stagnation that has come to define the Archdiocese will only worsen. And the exodus of Catholics will accelerate.
3) The Church needs to fight. If you want a true long-term solution to keep schools open and thriving, and believe the best way is by returning to parents some of their tax money (vouchers and tax credits) so they can make the best choice where to educate their children, you are absolutely correct. But it doesn’t happen by itself.
It only happens when political muscle is flexed. It only happens when you play hardball. It only happens when you unabashedly make school choice the Church’s Number One issue in the primary and general election. And it only happens when you make it crystal clear to all legislators who doubt the ferocity of a newly awakened tiger – one that has shed its paper skin – that they will reap the whirlwind for that miscalculation.
Seems common sense, yet the church has been doing the complete opposite. For over a year, Freindly Fire and others have been successfully battling clueless church factions who have been pushing "educational reform" legislation (Senate Bill 1) that would neither educate nor reform. It’s such a worthless bill – written while Ed Rendell was still governor and not amended to include the middle class (at all) despite an infinitely more favorable Legislature and pro-school choice Gov. Tom Corbett – that, had it been passed a year ago, virtually none of the schools slated for closure would have been saved. School choice bills affecting just low-income families are born losers; only when the middle class is comprehensively included will there be light at the end of the tunnel to help Catholic schools survive and prosper.
Ironically, the Church – through its lobbying arm, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – hurt itself by backing the wrong bill and not being truthful that the middle class was excluded from that legislation. Upon learning that the bill would never affect them or help keep their schools open, many Catholics reacted with palpable anger, setting off another wholly preventable firestorm. One step forward and three back is not the way to achieve political success.
What can be done immediately? Make an extremely aggressive push to have the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) expansion bill pass the Senate, where "school choice advocate" Sen. Jeff Piccola is selfishly letting it languish (calling it "DOA") because he can’t pass his low-income voucher bill. Making the sin mortal is that the EITC bill, sponsored by Montgomery County state Rep. Tom Quigley, 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. But because of misguided legislative priorities and a total lack of political pressure by the Church, Catholics – and their schools – continue to suffer.
All of the suggested solutions will be for naught if the hierarchy doesn’t learn one lesson very quickly. You cannot grow the church by being inconsistent, and yes, hypocritical, especially to your own people. 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 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 a wielding a political sledgehammer, then prayers for keeping Catholic education alive far into the future will undoubtedly be answered.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television/radio commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com.