Millions of Catholics in the United States were educated in Catholic schools during the past two centuries. It is no secret that such education has yielded amazing fruits for this particular faith community and for the larger society.
One could highlight the impact of Catholic education in “worldly” measures such as exposure to a holistic curriculum, preparedness to attend and complete higher education, and even social mobility.
According to the National Catholic Educational Association, 99 percent of students from Catholic high schools graduate and 85 percent of graduates go to a four-year college. That is an impressive record.
The list of well-known social, political, economic, intellectual and artistic leaders who attended Catholic schools is long.
By the middle of the 20th century, more than half of Catholic children, mostly Euro-American, attended Catholic schools. Today, Euro-American adult Catholics constitute one of most educated bodies in our society. Simply connect the dots.
Yet, the “worldly” measures tell only one side of the story. Perhaps the most important measures when highlighting the value and impact of Catholic schools are “ecclesial.” In other words, Catholic schools exist to be at the service of the church’s evangelizing mission.
Catholic schools are spaces where faith and life engage in dialogue in explicit ways. The spiritual dimension is the axis upon which the life of these institutions revolves. In Catholic schools, religion matters.
The vast majority of Euro-American Catholic priests, women religious and Catholic school teachers and administrators attended Catholic schools. So did most of the U.S. Catholic theologians and pastoral leaders I have met throughout my life.
When I meet Catholic women and men with awe-inspiring life commitments, clearly living the Gospel values at the service of God and others, I often ask them whether they ever attended a Catholic school. The answer most of the time is yes.
Just as these institutions have served well many generations of U.S. Catholics, with remarkable effects upon church and society, they also need to serve well the next generation of Catholics in our country.
There are about 14.6 million school-age Catholic children in the U.S. Of these, 8 million are Hispanic. Our Catholic schools presently enroll close to 1.9 million students. If anything, we should be building new Catholic schools — or at the very least, not closing those that already exist!
Those 8 million school-age Hispanic Catholic children will play a significant role defining the present and the future of Catholicism in the United States. We cannot afford to take them for granted. As a church, we cannot lose them.
We know that the number of Hispanic children enrolled in Catholic schools is remarkably small, compared to the size of the population: 315,610 during the academic year 2016-17. That is 4 percent of the 8 million.
There are many social, economic and even political reasons to educate Hispanic children in Catholic schools — they will be the Catholic voice in this country when casting their votes, serving in public office and advancing their careers a few years from now.
But the most important reason, I think, remains ecclesial. The Catholic Church in the United States needs priests, women and men religious, Catholic school teachers, lay ecclesial ministers, theologians. It needs well-rounded Catholic social, political, economic, intellectual and artistic leaders. It needs solid families.
Where will they come from? If we look closely at demographics, most will come from the Hispanic Catholic population.
Who will prepare them with the best education to serve church and society? Catholic schools definitely must play a central role. They have done it in the past. They can and should do it today.