By Allen, John L., Jr.
National Catholic Reporter , Vol. 34, No. 26
LOS ANGELES -- Against the backdrop of much good news about Catholic education, including record enrollment gains and new school construction, Bishop George Patrick Ziemann of the Santa Rosa, Calif., diocese raised the fundamental question during a talk here of who Catholic schools should serve.
Approximately 12,000 delegates and exhibitors attended the National Catholic Educational Association convention April 14-17, making it the nation's largest annual gathering of Catholic educators.
Speaking to a luncheon for members of Catholic school boards, Ziemann -- who sits on the national bishops' committee on education -- noted that canon law suggests that Catholic parents have a right to Catholic education for their children. He also pointed to the U.S. bishops' 1972 document, "To Teach as Jesus Did," which went so far as to state that it is the duty of Catholic parents to entrust their children to Catholic schools "when and where possible."
The bishop wondered aloud if rising tuition, which threatens to price out many Catholic families, is consistent with that philosophy. "I'm talking about parents who come to Mass every week, in some cases every day, both of whom are working, but they can't afford our schools," Ziemann said. "Do they have a right to the local Catholic parish school, or to the diocesan high school?"
Addressing his own question later in the talk, Ziemann said he believes "people who want to live the values of the church should have the first right to a Catholic education."
Ziemann said that if the church accepts that premise, "We will make it affordable, with tuition assistance or whatever, so people who come to us from a Catholic Christian perspective have the first right. I don't think we should take just those who can pay," he said.
Ziemann said that "lots of parents don't especially care about Catholic education, but they want a safe place ... they don't care for the public schools. They pay well, they support our causes," he said. "But is that enough?"
"I don't think it's right," Ziemann said. "I think we should take those who want our schools because of their Catholic vision."
The bishop said he would extend that philosophy to include non-Catholic families drawn to the religious ethos of Catholic schools, instead of those just looking for school safety or a good academic program.
The bishop also challenged schools to be "ecclesial," rather than just "Catholic." He said Catholic schools should support the local church, for example by feeding students into parish youth ministry programs and confirmation programs. "After all, in most cases it was the parish that built the school in the first place," Ziemann said.
Despite the spiraling cost of education, Ziemann told NCR in an interview after his talk that he believes schools can find ways to accommodate parents and families who want to be there. …