Last week’s special edition of the Rhode Island Catholic, our diocesan newspaper, included a section that featured Catholic schools. The headline on the front page read: “Catholic Schools Are Thriving.” What a shame that our diocesan newspaper has entered the world of “fake news” and “alternative facts.”

   At first, I thought that maybe someone typed “closing” instead of “thriving,” and the editing software mistakenly auto-corrected the word. Then I looked closely to see whether there was an asterisk or fine print that began with the word “in” followed by the name of some other diocese or region of the world where Catholic schools are actually thriving. Nope. The implication was clear: we are being led to believe that our Catholic schools are really thriving – a word that means to flourish, prosper, grow, or expand. 

   And then there’s the real world, where we have seen school after school close, mainly because of declining enrollment in a world where rising tuition costs have made a Catholic school education cost-prohibitive for most families. We see parish schools relying more and more on the money that parishioners drop into the church collection baskets on Sunday, sometimes to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. We see schools with debt running in the millions of dollars. 

   Back in 2006, when I became pastor of St. Elizabeth Church in Bristol, I inherited a school that had been closed a year earlier, and a debt of $480,000 (which the church had given to the school in its last years). Ask me how “thriving” that experience was. I also watched the local Catholic high school, Our Lady of Fatima in Warren, shut its doors. Ask the Sisters of St. Dorothy, who staffed the school, how “thriving” their school was. Another parish where I served, St. Brendan in Riverside, was also forced to close its school. Here in southern Rhode Island, the number of students enrolled at Catholic schools has dropped by the hundreds in recent years. 

   The list goes on, and you’ve read the headlines and stories in the real news. What’s happening is not particular to our diocese – it’s happening throughout the northeastern United States. 

   As someone who attended Catholic school from Kindergarten through grade 12, I regret what’s happening, and I’m saddened by it. But it’s reality. And any attempt to plan a new vision for Catholic education has to be grounded in reality – not in denial, wishful thinking, or sugar-coated headlines. Let’s face it: the future of Catholic education is in parish religious education programs, because that’s where all of these students who are leaving Catholic schools are heading. 

Given this reality, you would think that the church would be redirecting more money into these programs – the money should follow the kids, right? Nope. Instead, we continue to invest more and more money into an ever-shrinking population of Catholic school students (many of whom are not Catholic). And because parishes without schools are required to be a part of that funding, many pastors are left without the resources to hire full-time, qualified and competent Directors of Religious Education who are responsible for the majority of a parish’s young Catholics. 

   Think about that model: more and more money is being invested in a school system that has fewer and fewer students every year, while less and less money is being invested in parish programs that are growing.

   When we talk about “Catholic education,” we need to start thinking less about the dwindling Catholic school population and more about the growing number of young Catholics whose religious education depends on catechists. (Did you know that our parish religious education program is larger than the student body of the Prout School, and twice the size of the student body of Msgr. Clarke School?) 

   But hey, let’s look on the bright side: if the diocese believes that Catholic schools are thriving, then I guess they won’t need parishes to fund them anymore… after all, with the plethora of families and students in these “thriving” schools, they should be able to fund themselves, and parishes can expect a refund on all the money we invest into them – money that we can use to invest in the training, certification, and enrichment of our catechists. 

   You heard it in the Rhode Island Catholic: “Catholic Schools are Thriving.” Next week’s headline: “Catholic Seminaries Are Thriving!” 

 – Fr. Jared