What are archdiocese's priorities?

March 07, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

Here's a revealing quote from Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien on the closings of 13 Catholic schools in Baltimore and Baltimore County: "This is my challenge for my tenure here. It's not one that I expected, not one that I would have wanted, but it's not one that I can avoid, and will not avoid."

Not one that he expected?

Closing schools, including Cardinal Gibbons High, didn't come up in the exit chat with his predecessor?

You mean to tell me that, while Cardinal William Keeler showed the new archbishop the restored -- at a conservatively estimated cost of $34 million -- Basilica of the Assumption, he didn't mention the looming financial crisis in the schools of the premier see?

Or, while Cardinal Keeler and the new archbishop strolled through the $1.5 million papal prayer garden, with its 7-foot-tall bronze of Pope John Paul II, the cardinal avoided the subject of tuition aid for the many schoolchildren who come from families of the working poor?

Is it possible the cardinal didn't point out the nearby St. Alphonsus-Basilica School, and how the archdiocese closed it, despite its having more than 200 students, because there was no money for a renovation?

It's hard to believe the cardinal left these things out as he briefed his successor. Maybe, dazzled by Latrobe's spectacular lighting effects in the rotunda of the restored basilica, the cardinal just forgot.

But here we are.

Here is the archbishop, just 2-1/2 years on the job, announcing the closings of more schools in order to save the entire system. Archbishop O'Brien points out that, nearly 50 years since the peak era of parochial enrollment in Baltimore, too many schools now operate with empty seats, perhaps 10,000 empty seats. "We want to stem the hemorrhaging," he said.

To its credit, the archdiocese came up with a plan of consolidations so that every student affected by the closures can still find a seat in a Catholic school next fall.

The church should be admired for sticking with its generous educational mission in the city -- and long after the majority of students attending the Catholic schools were Catholic.

"You'll question why we are educating non-Catholic students," Archbishop O'Brien told The Catholic Review. "We're educating them not because they're not Catholic, but because we are. It speaks to our social justice teaching, our commitment to serving the poor and our belief that every child is deserving of a quality education."

But if that mission is still valuable or even necessary (Baltimore public schools continue to improve and gain enrollment), the church needs to fund it -- and its schools need to be competitive, with good teacher salaries and better facilities and resources. To do all that, Archbishop O'Brien needs to get his words into the ears of the great metropolitan diaspora: those Catholics who have left the city, and those who have one foot out the door of the church.

That will be a challenge, tougher than the last time the archdiocese launched a campaign to raise money for schools.

For one thing, there is lingering mistrust of Catholic hierarchy in the wake of the child sex abuse scandal that has cost hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements and caused some dioceses to file for bankruptcy. Despite efforts at transparency, there is still much about it -- and its costs -- that is not known. When an archdiocese closes schools, one still wonders whether it's being done because the church needs to sell a property to raise cash for damages.

There is always the challenge of convincing moreaffluent, suburban parishes to support "social justice" (read: money for poor kids in Baltimore), and there are many conflicted Catholics who are generally, perhaps perpetually, suspicious of a church that asks its parishioners for donations while the Vatican hordes immeasurable treasure.

Many Catholics see the good that it sponsors yet find their church homophobic and painfully short-sighted in its prohibition of women and married men in the priesthood. They find appalling the church's opposition to birth control, particularly in the world's poorest countries.

And yet, despite all that, Archbishop O'Brien has an opportunity to get the eyes on the parochial prize again. Graduates of Catholic schools can expect to make $250,000 more during their working lives than public school graduates, according to a new report from the Sage Policy Group. It's Archbishop O'Brien's challenge to persuade alumni and other Catholics of means to support the mission of educating Baltimore kids.

But no more gilded domes, no more statues.

"If we have to choose between saving buildings and saving children," he said the other day, "we're saving the children every single time."

We'll see.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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