State Aid Won't Bring Sheep Back In The Fold In The Language Of Business, Catholicism Is Losing Market Share.

Posted: November 08, 1992

Consider how the lilies of the field grow; they neither toil nor spin . . . Therefore, do not be anxious saying what shall we eat? or what are we to

put on? But seek first the kingdom of God and his justice and all these things shall be given you besides.

- Matthew 6:28-33

Coopers & Lybrand has helped us to see clearly the realities and challenges of operating our schools.

- Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua

The struggle between the priests and the money changers has changed little since Biblical times, except for a refinement in some Christian sects where - to save time, one supposes - the priest and the money man tend to be the same person.

That is why it can't be easy being Cardinal Bevilacqua these days, wielding the shepherd's staff with one hand and cutting the teaching staff with the other, dividing time between the spiritual life and all those roofs to be fixed and toilets to be repaired. It must be especially disheartening when one

considers that these days, when St. Matthew pits himself against your Coopers & Lybrands, by and large, your Coopers & Lybrands tend to come out on top.

In the short run, anyway.

The problem behind the sad but predictable closing or merging of archdiocesan parishes and schools is simply stated: Too many Catholics have left the Church. In this sense, St. Matthew (who started life as a tax collector himself) was exactly right. If the church had gotten more people to seek first the kingdom of God, it would have had the wherewithal to pay its bills. Cynics have voiced the opinion that the church might have lost fewer members if its heirarchy included more people like St. Matthew and fewer people like Cardinal Bevilacqua, if it included that is, shepherds committed more to sheep than to pasture.

To say this, however, is to underplay the larger trend, the bigger problem, namely, how Christianity, a mystical and radical religion, ill fits the ambient culture of developed countries, secular, scientific and bourgeois.

If Christianity (and Catholicism in particular) is tough on devout practitioners, it is almost impossibly hard for the Sunday hobbyist, challenged by the natural skepticism of science, distracted by the urgent need to make a living in a non-paternal economy, and distracted by the Dionysian allurements of popular culture.

Indeed, between popular culture and Christianity now lies a chasm of comically preposterous proportions. Not so long ago, Bing Crosby could save the parish in Going My Way by having the school kids cut a hit record of ''Swinging On A Star."

It is hard to imagine a plausible remake of this plot. With sufficient canon lawyers, I suppose, you could work it out so that proceeds of the sale of Madonna's Sex could save the Catholic school system, but the paperwork would be enormous.

In the language of business, Catholicism is losing market share. Catholics will continue to become former Catholics. And their children, lacking the inculcation and sentimental attachments that made the church oddly endearing, will increasingly turn to the more congenial religions or to other avenues of transcendence less mystifying, arcane and archaic.

It is genuinely distressing for practicing Catholics to observe the dwindling of their once formidable community and the institutions that play so significantly in their lives. I fear, though, that it is a sight they must get used to.

For however worldly and sophisticated in its temporal affairs, the church is not, at bottom, a business, which is to say, it is not out to please customers. It is out to save souls and bend them to its rule, take it or leave it.

Principled and immutable, the Catholic Church, more than any other Christian sect, cannot change to attract more members. Thus, paradoxically, it is doomed by one of its few remaining admirable qualities. Like baseball, it risks becoming obsolete and irrelevant, and yet to tinker with it is to spoil its essence.

In light of this, it is difficult to see how proposed voucher systems or other forms of state aid can be seen to do anything but forestall an inevitable collapse. The state may well have an interest, for purely secular reasons, in preserving a proven school system, but surely this cannot console Catholics in any profound way since it will not solve the root problem, the church's transparent failure to propagate the faith in developed countries.

Saving the schools would help the children, but not the church. From the Catholic viewpoint, vouchers or direct aid could save the day without helping the cause - a deus ex machina without the Deus.

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