So, how was your weekend?
If you’re a Roman Catholic in the greater Delaware Valley, odds are it was pretty awful. Friday’s announcement that the Archdiocese will close 49 schools (45 of them elementary schools) at the end of this school year hit people like a brick in the face, despite months of intense and at times detailed rumors.
It’s times like this I’m glad that the schools I attended are far outside the purview of the Archdiocese. I can’t imagine the pain of losing one’s alma mater, and I extend my sincerest sympathies for those latest victims of the Catholic closing carousel.
It would be easy—far too easy, really—for me to sit here and paint the Archdiocese as a villain. Lord knows I’m good at it. The copious pictures of teary-eyed students certainly don’t help their cause.
But really, this situation is not so black and white. The real revelation of this past weekend is this:
Welcome to your new Catholic reality.
A reality where the institutions you grew up valuing—the parishes, the schools, all of it—can easily be gone tomorrow. A reality in which, despite what you were taught, your faith can forsake you at the snap of two fingers. A reality where it’s not just someone else’s problem anymore, as city and suburb both feel the pain.
This is the Archdiocese of the new millennium. Stripped down, laid low by bad management and lack of vision. Their empire reduced by greed and arrogance, and probably not for the last time.
But for all of the blame the AD deserves—and they deserve a ton—this is also what happens when you’re saddled with a system that’s outlived its usefulness.
Families today are smaller and more scattered. As I’ve said before in this space, we’re well past the point where we need a church on every corner. The same goes true for schools, no matter how much it might hurt. There’s just too much Catholicism to go around, and you’re seeing the final, tragic aria of a bygone era.
Yes, as always with the Archdiocese, there is always criticism, always questions. Perhaps more schools should have been given the opportunity to come up with alternate plans, like St. Martin de Porres’s recent move to independence. Or perhaps an increased Cristo Rey presence—they’ve been very successful at educating on a budget.
And some choices will be questioned, like why poor Conshohocken was stripped of its one regional school, forcing students to trek all the way to King of Prussia. Or how in the world poor St. Veronica continues to survive intact.
And on and on and on. We could spend hours debating each and every choice. But for where we are now, regardless of how we got here, I’m not sure there was much that could have been done.
Not that it’s any consolation to those poor students and their families. Especially not for the parishes themselves, which will suffer the most. Yes, they’ll be fiscally healthier in the short term. But education still rules the day, and parents and families choose where to live based on access to good schools. If a parish can’t offer that, people look elsewhere, and it loses a large part of its vibrancy, its future.
And that I fear will be the end result of all of this. Not a galvanizing of the Catholic populace to work together, to see what can be done to correct the structural problems going forward.
But rather, a continued slow erosion, an inexorable exodus away from the church and its institutions. Another signpost on the road to irrelevancy and extinction—for schools and parishes.
Because that’s life in this new Catholic reality. If religion is all about trust, about believing that that which you give so much to will always return your devotion—how will you keep your heart open, now knowing what can happen?
As usual, I hope I’m wrong. I hope people are more resilient, and Chaput and his minions are more innovative and prescient than those who come before.
But if I’ve learned anything from the five years I’ve been doing this, it’s that’s the Archdiocese can’t be trusted to do the right, smart thing. That’s too bad, because you don’t get many second chances with this crowd. You don’t mess with the institutions people hold dear. Close a parish, close a school, and they’ll never forgive you, even if you have the best intentions, the best reasons in the world.
No, it doesn’t always make sense. But when it comes to love and loss, family and community, it doesn’t have to.
This plan is alleged to buy at least 10 to 15 years of stability. The cure, though, may be just as bad, if not worse, than the disease.