There’s no denying the pain of the sweeping consolidation of Catholic schools recommended by a blue-ribbon commission. It was plainly visible on the tearful faces of schoolgirls leaving Saint Hubert’s Catholic High in Torresdale Friday, and at so many other parish schools across the Philadelphia region.
But it was inevitable, as new Archbishop Charles J. Chaput quickly acknowledged upon his arrival in September. In a pre-Christmas message, he wisely made that abundantly clear to his flock. Now the panel’s public recommendations serve as a tolling of the bells for four high schools likely to close and 44 elementary schools slated to be shuttered or merged with others.
As both Catholic enrollment and the number of schools has gone through a steep decline over the past three decades, the pressures on parish fund-raising and parents’ ability to pay tuition have become unsustainable financially, the panel found.
Of even greater concern is that dwindling enrollments could put children at risk of being shortchanged on a range of educational opportunities available in larger, better-funded schools.
So, the panel tasked by Chaput’s predecessor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, has given him what could become a blueprint for sustaining Catholic schools — albeit on a smaller scale, but with a more assured future and better results.
(By contrast, successive mayoral administrations have failed to right-size the municipal workforce even as the city’s population shrunk by 25 percent and the cost of government continued to grow.)
For Catholic school advocates, it’s either a bitter irony or a tribute to his legacy that the school recommendations were issued one day after the feast of Saint John Neumann. He’s considered the father of Catholic diocesan schools in this country.
The hope, of course, is that Chaput’s intervention eventually assures that the surviving Catholic schools remain a vital community asset to the region.
In the immediate aftermath, there should be ample provision for further discussion and debate as to whether the panel got it right in each and every instance.
Reports from other archdioceses where a similar commission process was used found that some stakeholders felt left out. That argues even more strongly in favor of an appeals process — and perhaps something more structured than merely the opportunity for pastors to appeal directly to Chaput on the decisions.
Even so, it’s unlikely that merely wiping away Friday’s tears will stem the sense of loss any time soon at the schools that eventually must be closed.