Vouchers: The Heart of the Matter
Doerr, Edd, The Humanist
In a November 1990 pastoral letter entitled "In Support of Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools," the bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States announced that among several goals to be accomplished by 1997 would be "new initiatives . . . to secure sufficient financial assistance from both private and public sectors for Catholic parents to exercise [the] right" to send their children to Catholic schools. This means, obviously, full or partial tax support for Catholic private schools through vouchers, tuition reimbursement tax credits, or some other mechanism.
This is hardly news. Since the 1840s, the U.S. Catholic bishops have sought public funding for their church's private schools through legislation, in the courts, in state referenda, and in the arena of public opinion--efforts which, to date, have met largely with failure. (It should be noted, however, that bishops have had more success elsewhere, having reached their goal of public support for Catholic schools in Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, and Australia.)
Joseph Claude Harris has recently published a useful book that provides needed perspective on the bishops' campaign for tax aid. In The Cost of Catholic Parishes and Schools (Sheed and Ward, 1996), Harris takes an inside look at the finances of Catholic parishes and schools. While strongly supporting vouchers, he declares that the real problem facing Catholic schools in the United States is not a lack of tax support but a lack of support by American Catholics for church institutions.
He points out that, while American Catholics in 1990 had an average household income of $40,435--8 percent higher than the U.S. average of $37,403--Catholic giving to their church was significantly lower than that of Protestants (although he provides no figure for average U.S. Protestant household income). Harris further estimates that Catholic giving per parish member in 1993 was $136 and compares this with the Protestant average of $388 ($529 for Presbyterians; $382 for Methodists; and $349 for Southern Baptists) cited in the Yearbook of Canadian and American Churches. Harris also notes that Catholic households donated an average of 0.6 percent of their income to their parishes, for an annual total of $4.6 billion. If Catholic giving increased to Protestant levels, it would end the church's financial problems and eliminate any need for tax support.
What Harris leaves out of his book is at least as important as what he includes. While he briefly notes that U.S. Catholic school enrollment has declined from 5.5 million in 1965 to about 2.5 million today--a slide from enrolling about 47 percent of Catholic children to about 21 percent--he makes no serious effort to explain the reasons for the decline because those reasons undercut the case for tax support.
The reasons behind the decline are both external and internal.
External reasons. Generations ago, when Catholics were often the target of discrimination, there was an understandable rationale for having parochial schools. …