The Education of American Catholics.
by Andrew M. Greeley and Peter H. Rossi.
Aldine Publishing Co. 368 pp. $8.95.
Catholic Schools in Action.
by Reginald A. Neuwien.
University of Notre Dame Press. 328 pp. $10.50.
Among the odds and ends of my thoroughly uninteresting personal history, there are the following bits of data: Roman Catholic, education to the 16+ level, income over $15,000, six children, with all three school-age children in the public schools. As an instance of sociological trends, should one be surprised at this choice of schools? Before answering, consider some further biographical information. As a child, I attended parochial schools through the high-school level; my parents, respectful Catholics, never considered any other kind of school. While my father had only a high school education, he became a “successful” businessman, though not quite so successful, I suppose, as I have become in my line of work. By most indices, then, I occupy a higher social status than my parents. I am, moreover, a reader of Commonweal (not unfitting for an editor), and could thus aptly be thought of as a “progressive” or “liberal” Cathoolic. Finally, it should be said that I take my religion seriously; the atmosphere of my home, if not exactly pious, is clearly religious.
Now had I, some months ago, tried to answer my own question about the likelihood that someone of my background would be sending his children to public school, I would have answered “of course.” It all fits: more money, more education, a more progressive kind of Catholicism; ergo, public schools. Add to this the fact that I am highly critical of parochial schools (which is why I don’t send my children to them) and the picture is complete. Only the dullest would be surprised by my choice of schools.
They might not be surprised, but they would be wrong. If we are to believe the evidence gathered by Father Andrew Greeley and Peter H. Rossi of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, my children should, sociologically speaking, be in a parochial school. Every index I mentioned in my own case, including the reading of Commonweal and a critical attitude toward parochial schools, points in that direction, and overwhelmingly so. With statistics like these in hand, it is easy to understand why Messrs. Greeley and Rossi see few signs that the Catholic lay demand for parochial schools is about to taper off. On the contrary, the more affluent and educated Catholics become, the more likely they are to support the schools. This is not to say they won’t be critical of them; they will, but the criticism will usually reflect concerned commitment rather than hostility. Anyone who hopes that the parochial schools will gradually fade from the scene has little yet to go on. The hierarchy and the laity together overwhelmingly support them. There, at present, the matter stands.
The purpose of the Greeley-Rossi study, however, was not to inquire whether the schools should be continued, but to measure the effects of a Catholic education in later life. Together with another recent study, Catholic Schools in Action, there exists for the first time a sizable body of data on the quality, success, and problems of the Catholic school system. Both studies were sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation and, at least in the case of the Greeley-Rossi report, it got its money’s worth. The Notre Dame study, while useful, is marred by blatantly sloppy methods of data collection and evaluation. It is better than nothing, but it seems incredible that a university with the resources of Notre Dame should have tolerated such ineptitude (even the format of the book is terrible, as if the editor and his associates had decided that crude contents deserved a crude appearance).
The main conclusions of both books can be summed up fairly easily. The Greeley-Rossi study found that Catholic education is moderately successful in shaping adult behavior, especially in what they call “symbolic” areas: observance of Church law, respect for Church authority, sexual mores, and loyalty to the school system. At the same time, they note that American Catholic religious behavior is strikingly faithful in the first place, and that it probably would still be high had there never been a school system. In less “symbolic” areas—attitudes toward minority groups, civil liberties, even Christian charity—the impact of Catholic education is almost nil. Only 45 per cent of those whose education was entirely Catholic, for instance, strongly disagreed with the proposition that “Jews have too much power in the United States,” and only 41 per cent were willing to affirm that “Jewish businessmen are about as honest as other businessmen.” While it might be objected that those surveyed in the NORC study had been out of the schools for many years, and thus may reflect an older brand of Catholic education, the Notre Dame survey shows that those pressently or very recently in the schools display strikingly similar attitudes of bias toward Negroes and Jews. Though a higher parental level of education and social class, and a more fervently religious family life, were shown to help improve matters, they do little to arrest the overall drift of the evidence.
In other respects, Greeley and Rossi found little evidence to support the long-cherished views that Catholic education is “divisive,” that its products are less prepared to compete in the economic marketplace or that it hinders academic and intellectual achievement. The Notre Dame study generally supports these findings so far as the present generation of students are concerned. What the results of both amount to is that the Catholic schools have done a far better job in preparing their students for the world than many suspected. They are likely to be disappointing only to those Catholics who believed the schools were working miracles of religious education; no miracles, just moderate success, and then only in terms of ideals and norms more characteristic of the pre-Vatican II Church than what has come since. To wit, the wholly dull conclusion: the schools aren’t as bad as some believed, or as good as others thought. Naturally, even the creation of schools whose attainments are modest costs considerable money. Should one ask whether the humble results have been worth all the trouble, those most responsible for the schools will still answer Yes. If you say, “Look how little they have done,” they answer that a little is better than nothing and that, anyway, the schools can and will improve; and they are probably right on that point. If you say they have done a poor job instilling a lively concern for social justice, Negroes and Jews, and international responsibilities, they will probably, with obvious embarrassment, admit the point, but add that they are working on that and better results can be expected in the near future; and they are probably right on that score also. If you say that possibly some other system of religious education might work just as well, at much less expense, they will say that indeed it might, but that we already have a functioning arrangement whose deficiencies are easier to correct than it is to embark on totally untried paths. This becoming humility in the face of criticism combined with a steady determination to do better the next time around is difficult to argue against.
For it is an expression of faith, the kind which is proof against evidence and pragmatic arguments, and resistant, in practice, to radical experimentation. It is not, properly speaking, religious faith, but an admixture of the general American faith in the efficacy of education and a specifically Catholic faith in the abiding value of what has proved a hardy and growing educational arrangement. No one gives up his own history without a struggle, especially when he thinks it a glorious one. For most Catholics, the parochial school system is looked upon as the great triumph of the American Church. It symbolizes economic success, the steadfast loyalty of the masses, and victory over the well-arrayed forces of historic American anti-Catholicism. If that were not enough to assure the schools of a future, the hard fact that buildings exist, children fill them to overflowing, and money is owed would take care of the rest. The increasing availability of federal money, a more ready acceptance of Catholic schools by non-Catholic public opinion, and a somewhat diminishing faith in many quarters about the inherent superiority of public education merely garnishes the dish.
Yet there are some very real problems in the schools, as the Notre Dame study makes clear. Though the schools have managed to survive financially, they are finding it harder, not easier, to do so as time goes on. The 19th-century goal of “every Catholic child in a Catholic school” was never anywhere near realized; it is hardly mentioned today. Though the number of children in the schools rose steadily year after year (declining slightly for the first time only in 1965), the percentage of potential children only briefly approached the 50 per cent mark and is now declining. Not only has it become more expensive to build and properly equip schools, but also a serious teacher shortage has developed in the past few years. The reason for this latter development is quickly uncovered: the number of vocations to the religious orders, especially the sisterhoods, has nowhere near kept pace with the growth of the Catholic population. This has meant that lay teachers must be hired, and they cost money, even if they are underpaid. Between 1950 and 1961, the number of religious (nuns and brothers) increased by 47.5 per cent in Catholic secondary schools, the percentage of lay teachers increased by 169 per cent. The figures are even more dramatic in the elementary schools: the number of religious increased by 26.5 per cent and the number of lay teachers by 589 per cent. In 1950, there were 13 religious for every lay teacher; by 1961, there were 2.38 religious for every lay teacher (and the gap has continued to close rapidly even since then). As if this didn’t spell trouble enough, the past few years have seen a sudden drop in the total number of religious vocations, with an especially sharp drop recorded in the women’s religious orders (which have traditionally provided the bulk of Catholic teachers).
Figures of this kind introduce an entirely new factor into the parochial school equation. So far, the only important noticeable effects are the higher costs of securing teachers. But there are bound to be others as well, and they should make their appearance shortly. For one thing, Catholic parents have been reluctant to accept lay teachers. Should the schools become predominantly lay-staffed (which seems inevitable), the traditional enthusiasm for the schools could well begin to wane. For another, the bishops and clerical school superintendents have also been reluctant to take on lay teachers (even though they have had no other choice). Should they gradually come to lose control of the schools because of predominantly lay staffs, their enthusiasm could quickly wane as well. This seems all the more likely since the price they will have to pay for good lay staffs will not only be in money but in a sharing of power.
Just as the schools are beginning to make some genuine progress, and just as they are beginning to win some positive public acceptance, then, some very serious problems are developing—the kinds of problems which even a very heavy traditional faith in the schools could find hard to swallow. Yet should this faith be forced to undergo some degree of self-suppression, it will no doubt give rise to various kinds of sublimation: the sublimation of concentration on the high-school or college level only, or a conscious decision to cater only to the brightest and most highly motivated. And I can’t help thinking that if a Catholic like myself, one who has consciously chosen public schools for his children, is at the moment statistically rare, he won’t be for long. For sooner or later it is bound to dawn on more Catholics that the much-desired reform of the Church cannot take place as long as so much of its money is channeled into education. But at the moment, I’m afraid, that is my private faith, shared by few of my fellow Catholics.