An archdiocese that gets it right

March 30, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

Dan Schuster, the Owings Mills-based concrete contractor who offered the Archdiocese of Baltimore $700,000 in an effort to avoid closing 13 schools, including Cardinal Gibbons, received a response in the mail on Monday.

"It was a cordial letter," Mr. Schuster said. "They said they'd like to talk to me, but the letter said they would not consider anything that goes against their plans."

Stubborn, the archdiocese appears to be. Not even $700,000 can get them to open their minds?

Mr. Schuster said the letter came not from Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, but from Richard Woy, the monsignor who serves as vicar general and has been deeply involved in the school consolidation plans.

"There are good people down there," said Mr. Schuster, "but they've made a decision that needs to be reevaluated. They've got to be open to a discussion. It has to be an open issue, and if I meet with them, there needs to be a decision-maker in the room.

"I'm very busy," said Mr. Schuster, founder and CEO of the company that bears his name. "I don't want to prepare for or attend any meeting where the outcome already has been decided."

The archdiocese repeatedly has said it won't alter its plans.

Mr. Schuster is particularly upset that schools in Baltimore, in low- and middle-class neighborhoods, are going to be shuttered. He believes fellow Catholics, around this town and throughout the suburbs, have an obligation to keep those schools open and help poorer children receive a solid education.

At the same time, Mr. Schuster has been paying for radio advertisements asking parishioners to withhold donations at Mass until Archbishop O'Brien reconsiders the decision.

Instead, maybe Mr. Schuster ought to suggest a Wichita plan for Baltimore.

In 1985, Bishop Eugene Gerber called on parishoners throughout the Kansas diocese to commit a percentage of their incomes to the Catholic schools there.

His goal was free tuition for every child in Wichita's 33 elementary schools and, eventually, the diocese's four high schools.

By 1993, enough Wichita Catholics had embraced the idea that the diocese could offer free tuition to all children of active parishoners, according to the National Catholic Reporter.

Most parishes commited between 3 percent and 5 percent income, higher than the national average for Catholics, most of whom are 1-percenters, the report said.

Wichita parishes without an elementary school paid to have their children attend neighboring parish schools, and churches that needed help got it from more affluent parishes. Enrollment in the diocesan schools grew by 30 percent in the 10 years after free tuition began, and no Catholic schools in Wichita have closed.

It sounds like Baltimore needs such a plan -- and maybe someone like Dan Schuster to get it started. "Here's mine," he could say to fellow Catholics, as he wrote the check. "Where's yours?"

It's nice to think about.

Too bad the archdiocese is so stubborn.

Instead of sounding retreat, the archbishop could chose to bring a message to the great metropolitan diaspora I've mentioned before -- those Catholics who have left the city for wealthier and more stable suburban parishes, or those who grew up in the suburbs with no emotional attachment to the old city parishes.

With his conviction that the education of children, Catholic or not, is in keeping with the church's social justice mission, Archbishop O'Brien could have boldly appealed even to those who have one foot out the door of the church because of differences with its teachings or with the hierarchy's handling of clergy sexual abuse.

I'm not saying this would be an easy sell. Published reports of pedophile priests, with some cases now linked to Pope Benedict XVI's days as a cardinal in Europe, will only make it tougher for diocesan officials throughout the United States to raise funds to keep operating.

Still, they manage to do it, and then some, in Wichita, perhaps because the fundraising is so focused on education and not, say, paying millions for abuse damages, or for dubious projects such as the one we had here -- some $35 million-plus for the restoration of the Basilica of the Assumption and another $1.5 million for an adjoining prayer garden.

Dan Schuster remains committed to writing the $700,000 check if the Archdiocese will consider keeping some of the 13 schools running "long enough so they can survive and become charter schools or independent." He believes at least some of the schools could be saved in the next few years.

"But I'm not going to any meeting until the [archdiocese] says they will objectively look at this again," Mr. Schuster said.

He's right, of course. He's a successful businessman who hates to waste time.

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