Saturday, May 09, 2009

Tim on Schools: "These... Are... Worth... Fighting... For"

Earlier today in St Patrick's Cathedral, Archbishop Tim Dolan ordained his first class of new priests for New York -- three for the 2.5 million-member archdiocese, two for the Bronx-based Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.

Sure, were he still in Milwaukee (Catholic pop.: 700,000), he would've had six ordinandi to send forth... but, hey, that bodes well for Gotham's future.

Four weeks into his occupancy of 452 Madison, while much of the tenth archbishop's introductory media blitz to date has focused on the hot-button questions that grab headlines and spill ink, the "No Outlet Left Behind" press-tour concluded this morning with a lengthy, laudatory interview in the Wall Street Journal that looked instead to the backbone of the Big Apple's ecclesial operation: the city's Catholic schools....
The issue that most New Yorkers, Catholic or not, may be interested in is whether the diocese's 279 Catholic schools -- an educational lifeline to over 88,000 children -- can survive. More than 50 have closed down in the past 25 years, and those that are left often struggle to get by. Surely they would have a better chance if New York had an education voucher program like Milwaukee does? So I began our conversation by asking the archbishop to talk about the Milwaukee experience. His already radiant face brightened even more.

"We called it Choice in Education and it was a genuine blessing," he says, sitting up in his chair and leaning forward. "It began under Gov. Tommy Thompson, and the idea was that parents would have a choice as to where they would send their children. It was restricted in that it was just the city of Milwaukee, and the parents had to be under a certain income level. But it was so successful" he explains, that demand soon exceeded the cap of 15,000 students.

When that happened, Milwaukeeans wanted to go further. Archbishop Dolan says he was "part of a coalition, two years ago, that worked with Gov. [Jim] Doyle to expand the cap to 22,000 students." As of now it serves about 20,000 children of families that meet strict income limits. "It's been a tremendous boost," he says, smiling enthusiastically....

[T]he archbishop says "the parents and the wider community appreciate [the voucher program]," and he stresses that it is popular with more than just Catholics. "The coalition that supports it is made up of, yes, Catholics, but also many Jewish leaders, civic leaders, many politicians, people who just love and support the community with no religious background at all. There seemed to be a widespread appreciation that this was a tremendous boost to the Milwaukee community, and of course we're always hoping to expand it."

Yet what has been possible in Milwaukee may not be in New York. "The challenge of keeping our wonderful Catholic schools strong, affordable, accessible and available," the archbishop says, is "all the more pressing here in New York because we don't have the blessing of vouchers." His next comment suggests that he doesn't expect them here anytime soon. "I know that the state of New York likes to consider itself kind of on the vanguard of enlightened progressive initiatives, but in this regard Wisconsin is way ahead."

Still, the archbishop is not deterred. After all, he reminds me, one of the greatest New York archbishops of all time, John Hughes, had a similar problem. "He got into a battle in the 1840s with what was called then the New York Public School Society, saying 'I'd like a portion of those [government] funds to educate our children.'" He lost that fight but went on to build the city's Catholic school system, which educated masses of Irish immigrants previously considered impossibly ignorant and unruly.

Hughes was continually short of funds, as the diocese is today, but Archbishop Dolan says this too can be kind of a blessing. "It's why the Catholic schools are scrappy," he says. "And in a way that's part of the genius of our schools: We are not rolling in dough. We have to fight for every dime; it becomes a communal endeavor. There is a sense of pride and ownership among the people because, darn it, we fought for this school, we love it, we scraped for it, we have mopped floors and painted classrooms, and we do not take this for granted."

When I rattle off the some of the dropping enrollment statistics in the diocese, the archbishop admits that the "schools can really cause us to go for the Maalox and Tylenol. But," he says, "what we have to ask ourselves is 'Are they worth it?' And we say you bet they are. They're worth it because nobody does it better than the [Catholic] Church when it comes to education."

The archbishop admits that at times others in the Catholic Church don't share his enthusiasm. "Some priests and some bishops have lost their nerve when it comes to Catholic schools. [They've] almost said, 'boy they were nice and we'll do our best to keep the ones that we got but more or less they are on life support and I guess in 50 years they're going to fade away.'" The archbishop says his predecessor Cardinal Egan rejected this line of thinking and he does too. "Its time for us bishops to say: these . . . are . . . worth . . . fighting . . . for," he says, emphasizing each word slowly. "These are worth putting at the top of our agenda, and these are worth something not only internally for us as a church as we pass on the faith for our kids and grandkids, but it is also a highly regarded public service that we do for the wider community. And darn it we do it well, we have a great tradition of it and we're not going to stand by and see it collapse."

So what's the plan? The archbishop, who seems to me part theologian, part historian, and part marketing guru, is already thinking about ways to explore and expand private funding initiatives such as the successful Inner City Scholarship Fund.

He is sure that there can be "wider participation from New York's philanthropic, business and civic community." There are many "who so love the New York community" and see education as "one of the finest investments we can make in the future of our community." Often, he says, givers are not Catholic. "I met someone a week or so ago who said if you ask me my religion I'd probably say I am an atheist, but I love Catholic schools because they do such a sterling job and I am going to support them."

If Archbishop Dolan can save and perhaps even revive the city's Catholic school system, he will be a hero to all of New York. But while he's working on that, he has two other problems that are troubling for the Catholic Church. The first is the growing number of 20- and 30-somethings, raised in the faith, who are not attending Mass or getting married in the Catholic Church. The second is the sharp drop in people choosing Catholic Church vocations.

I asked him what he thinks has gone wrong. For starters, he says, the Catholic Church for too long took for granted the Catholic culture, "when it was presumed that you would go to Sunday Mass, that you would marry a Catholic and be married in the Catholic Church, when it was presumed that you would always remain in the faith, with tons of priests and nuns and Catholic schools to serve you."

Those days are gone, and now he says its time to "recover the evangelizing muscle that characterized the early church." This means putting an end to the "wavering" that has too often characterized the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council and a return to a clear and confident message.

"Very often even the word Catholic even the word church has had a question mark behind it," he says. "Does it know where it's going? Does it know what its teaching? Is it going to be around? There was a big question mark. A young person will not give his or her life for a question mark. A young person will give his or her life for an exclamation point."
Within days of his installation, Dolan presided over his first fund-raiser for the Inner City Fund, which provides full or partial scholarships to almost 40,000 students whose families can't afford tuition costs.

For all the effort, the payoff is bigger still: as his predecessor loved highlighting, 98% of Catholic high schoolers in the three boroughs graduate, 96% pursue higher education. Two-thirds of the kids live below the poverty line.

PHOTO: Ismael Rodan/The Wall Street Journal