The firestorm surrounding my recent column that discussed the lack of unity in merged Catholic schools was reminiscent of the famous "Hamburger Report" of the 1970s, a scathing report on police corruption in Philadelphia. Despite serious allegations, including bribery, the headline that grabbed the most attention was cops getting free hamburgers.
That’s all the critics needed to distract attention from the real issues, which were relegated forever to obscurity.
So that we don’t have a "Hamburger" repeat, let’s set a few things straight:
1) The football story at the beginning of the column merely illustrated the deep divisions caused by classmates, coaches and parents from the same school facing off against each other. This was made possible by the archdiocese, which still allows totally separate CYO teams from merged schools to compete.
Nowhere was it written that the injured player was tackled with malice; there was no "sweeping verdict" as to intent, as some have publicly stated. Such inflammatory language is the result of either A) deliberate disingenuousness, or B) an inability to read. If it’s B, perhaps Catholic schools need to strengthen their reading programs.
The point of the story remains unchanged: If CYO teams had merged when the schools did, these problems wouldn’t exist.
And for the record, the injured player is just fine.
2) If peace, love and understanding reign in merged schools, then why the mammoth response? Why are intense debates still raging? Why the hundreds of Facebook discussions from all sides? And, no, posting a team photograph with smiling players doesn’t mean unity has been achieved. Please.
3) Some used the column as a reason to "choose sides," making the situation an "us-against-them" debate, be they St. Denis, Annunciation or Cardinal Foley. It’s not. This problem isn’t limited to just one school. Strife is prevalent in all archdiocesan schools that were merged. To make it "all about me," as some did, misses the point entirely.
There was, and remains, only one target of criticism: The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, a point made in no uncertain terms.
The archdiocese ruled with an iron fist in deciding what schools closed, and who would merge with whom. Fine. That’s the way it should be. But then it simply called for the basin, washed its hands, and walked away with little regard about what would be best for the children.
Did it really believe these painful transitions would be seamless if parents, coaches and administrators were left to sort out decades-old turf wars? Do they think that goodwill will prevail when a CYO team wants to merge, but is denied by its counterpart?
And for God’s sake, if the archdiocese was going to permit separate CYOs, the least it should have done was mandate those teams not play each other.
The lack of foresight is absolutely astounding.
Let’s face it. CYO teams from closed schools will eventually peter out as fewer join, so if they are destined to disappear anyway, why enable all the needless infighting?
4) Some have stated that CYO is a parish — not a school — activity. While that held true 30 years ago, when every parish had its own school, it’s painfully obvious that isn’t the case today. For many reasons, Catholic schools continue to close, and the archdiocese must adapt and change to deal with that reality. Failure to do so will give even more families a reason to bolt for public schools.
To emphasize why this issue matters to everyone, every new public school student costs approximately $17,000 annually to educate. More students mean more books, teachers, classrooms and buildings — an enormous cost. Since that money primarily comes from property taxes, including from seniors living on fixed incomes, it’s in everyone’s interest to stop the exodus and stabilize Catholic schools.
5) Unquestionably, the archdiocese should have handled merger issues much better. Since more schools are bound to close, here are some suggestions for the future: The church should mandate, from Day One, that students in merged schools wear identical uniforms. And it should foot the bill for those uniforms for the first year. No more option to choose your uniform, which only promotes division. This would not only alleviate financial difficulties, but would help soothe people’s anger.
More importantly, all students should prepare for and receive the sacraments together, as a unified class, including CCD/PREP children. While some view CYO allegiance as the official church religion, the real reasons for attending Catholic school are the sacraments and strengthening of faith. And where sacraments will be administered can be resolved by rational adults, such as alternating churches each year.
6) To compare classmates "competing" against each other in math class, as some did (which they don’t do anyway) to athletic competition is absolutely ridiculous. Enough said.
7) Some complain that merged programs will create teams with too many players. That’s called a sugar problem, easily solved by making several teams. Not only do other schools successfully do that, but that was commonplace when Catholic schools were bursting with students. Somehow, it all worked out back then, so why not now?
8) Here’s the bottom line: No reasonable, rational person can dispute that a unified atmosphere is infinitely better than one that, by its nature, promotes division. From sports teams to armies to merged corporations, history shows that the most successful are those that focused on assimilation and common bonds. But the archdiocese continues down the opposite, and ultimately self-destructive, path.
How can a school like Cardinal Foley ever give its students the indescribable social feelings of pride and school spirit that uniquely come from a pep rally? It can’t. Instead, it would have to hold not one, not two but three separate pep rallies for the school’s three separate athletic teams.
Objectively speaking, that’s insane.
It’s time the archdiocese admits that this has not been handled well, and acknowledges the huge level of discontent that exists. To make things right, it needs to quickly implement the changes necessary to bring Catholics together, starting with the proclamation that once a school closes, that’s the ballgame. All activities follow the students. Period.
Pope Francis innately understands that the Catholic Church is as much the people’s as the clergy’s, if not more. If this archdiocese’s flock is to remain faithful, the archdiocese needs to demonstrate the leadership — and humbleness — necessary to heal wounds and start anew.
Otherwise, the treasure of Catholic education will disappear forever.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and commentator. His print column appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected]