Forty years ago, as Vatican II was nearing completion, lay educator and liturgist Mary Perkins Ryan published a book that provoked a vigorous and contentious debate. The subject was not married priests or contraception but the future viability of the Catholic school system in the United States. In Are Parochial Schools the Answer?, Ryan questioned whether the U.S. Catholic Church needed to maintain a sprawling network of parochial schools that had been founded to educate and protect a persecuted minority. The system was failing in its mission to educate every Catholic student, she argued, and should be abandoned in favor of cultivating vibrant parish communities centered on the liturgical reforms of Vatican II.
Ryan's book caused an intellectual uproar. The editors of this magazine felt compelled to editorialize on the subject and publish an essay by Ryan a year after the book was published to mark the occasion. "I found myself being called a tool of the Communists and an impractical religious visionary," Ryan wrote. "It has all been very interesting." But for all the attention the book received, it effected little change. In many cities and suburbs, the elementary school remains a focal point of Catholic parish life, despite a continued drop in enrollment and, most damagingly, the mass exodus of women religious from the convent and teaching jobs they traditionally held.
Today, the problems diagnosed by Ryan are more acute than ever. When her book was published, roughly 50 percent of Catholic children attended Catholic elementary schools. That number now stands at about 15 percent. Parish schools, particularly those in urban areas, have great difficulty paying the bills and keeping teachers from fleeing to better-paid jobs at public schools. (I experienced this firsthand at a Catholic elementary school in the Bronx, where I worked as a fundraiser for three years after college.) The money and energy that could be spent on an array of Catholic adult and juvenile religious educational programs are largely devoted to keeping alive a school system that is woefully under-funded.
Yet the question Ryan raised is rarely asked in educational circles anymore. Parish schools--and by this I mean the thousands of elementary schools administered by churches across the country--remain in many eyes an unalloyed good. Schools continue to be built and there is great resistance to closing those that already exist. There are good reasons for this. Parish schools provide a solid education (several studies show they have a slight advantage over public schools) and, along with high schools and colleges, they have proved to be an unusually effective way of passing on the faith. But these successes should not blind us to the problems they face.
In 1884, the U.S. bishops gathered in Baltimore and set the agenda for their educational system. The goal, they famously wrote, was "every Catholic child in a Catholic school." That goal was never met, but that vision nonetheless drove educators well into the 1940s and 1950s. Right now, there is no such unifying vision behind the parish school system. Do these schools exist to provide an education for the minority of families who decide to send their children to Catholic schools? Are they another way to serve the poor in the inner cities? Are there other models that could reach more Catholic children? Unfortunately, these questions are not often asked, overshadowed by debates about vouchers and school choice. In view of the problems faced by elementary schools, they cannot be neglected anymore.
Ryan's book was written at a time when many Catholics "were trying to throw off their narrow Catholic identity," according to Daniel Callahan, a Commonweal editor at the time. Catholics were emerging from the ghetto and were suspicious of organizations, like parochial schools, that were part of that thick Catholic culture. Ryan wanted to get away from what she called a "defensive and minimal Christianity" and, for that reason, she advocated abandoning not only elementary schools, but high schools and colleges as well. …