A leadership problem at the heart of Catholic schools' woes

Students leave Monsignor Bonner-Archbishop Prendergast High School after Friday's announcement that the school would be closed in June.
Students leave Monsignor Bonner-Archbishop Prendergast High School after Friday's announcement that the school would be closed in June. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 08, 2012

My old high school was saved, my old grade school is doomed, in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's latest move to cut a quarter of its parish and high schools.

The closings, and dozens more over the last 20 years, are a private tragedy for parents and kids who choose these schools, for staff, and for the vast alumni community that still identifies neighborhoods by parish name.

For the taxpaying public, it's also a costly failure. Thousands of Catholic school kids continue to transfer to public district and charter schools each year, where they cost millions to educate, which means many of us will be paying higher property taxes.

The shutdowns, like the priest sex-abuse scandals and the multimillion-dollar payouts to victims, are the most public symptoms of a failure of leadership.

What a reversal. For more than a century, Philadelphia, like other big cities, enjoyed a set of parallel Catholic institutions that moved generations of immigrants toward the American mainstream while saving taxpayers millions.

Maybe it's easier to find builders than turnaround specialists. The archdiocese in recent decades has been run by men whose spiritual qualities I'm not equipped to judge, but as managers they were pygmies compared with their predecessors.

Catholic institutions were built under the leadership of inspired and forceful leaders: erudite Francis Kenrick and missionary St. John Neumann in the first half of the 1800s (the closings were announced the day after his feast day), and strong-armed prince-of-the-church Cardinal Dennis Dougherty, who from 1918 to 1951 mixed with Protestant politicians and Jewish real estate developers to get his parishes built, even as he advised the faithful to avoid racy moving pictures and other temptations.

Conservative Cardinal John Krol, who led the archdiocese from 1961 to 1988, also worked closely with the city's powers; he kept inner-city schools and churches open while Protestants shut and fled.

At the start of the '80s, veteran newspaperman Peter Binzen asked Philadelphia business executives to name the most important leaders in the city; all of them put Krol on the short list.

But by the time Binzen repeated the exercise 25 years later, nobody cited then-Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua. Bevilacqua's public role seemed limited to closing institutions his predecessors had opened, fighting Philadelphia's plan to give city employees gay-partner benefits, and organizing damage control for dangerously wayward priests.

What changed? The archdiocese, like Catholic churches across the United States and Europe, ran out of young people willing to commit their lives to the care of others as priests, the church's frontline managers, or as nuns, its low-cost labor force and institution-builders. The church's former effectiveness gave it an outsize reputation that masked declining lay participation and its failure to stop corruption in its ranks.

The problem starts at the top, in Rome. The church in its most expansive periods was built by enthusiastic young people such as Ignatius, Teresa, and Francis, who, loyal as they were to Rome, tangled regularly with their immediate superiors.

Leonard Swidler, the Temple University religion professor who trained with conservative Pope Benedict XVI and liberal theologian Hans Kung in Germany long ago, recalls how Benedict's ally and predecessor, John Paul II, changed the way bishops were recruited, relying on strict orthodoxy instead of seeking creative pastors.

Vatican II is supposed to have liberalized the church. But the conservative reaction to it seems to have left us with a docile leadership of careful old men, unlike the builders of old. Except that it turns out they weren't careful enough to stop molesters, or to expand the ministry.

Could it have been different? Almost from the start of the church in America, there were active lay Catholics who asked for more say in choosing leaders and running parishes. Center City's Holy Trinity Parish sued the diocese in the early 1800s for the right to own its building and hire staff.

A Pennsylvania court confirmed Neumann's personal control over parishes. That helped him manage his growing school system. But it also left the laity dependent on a caste of specialists that has aged and shrunk.

Lay boards are also capable of mischief and failure. But the more able people who are part of the process, the more likely someone will demand needed action and bring trouble to light.

The most robust surviving Catholic institutions - the hospital chains owned by Mercy and Franciscan sisters, the universities run by Jesuits (St. Joseph's) and Augustinians (Villanova), the sisters' colleges such as Immaculata and Neumann - have integrated lay administrators and use the worldly experience of outside professionals.

There are signs Archbishop Charles Chaput is adopting a similar model to help keep the surviving schools afloat. They are being urged to set up boards that recall what the ecumenical, business-led BLOCS Catholic-school support group has organized at a few schools in North and West Philadelphia and Delaware County. A similar board helped save Archbishop Carroll High from closing.

I've paid for a total of 66 years of Catholic schooling (not in the Philadelphia Archdiocese) for my own six kids. I like the general discipline, the speedy problem-solving, the levelheaded Christian education, the good kids and families the schools attract.

I've also saved my neighbors a lot of money. I hope my own kids will have the option of choosing well-run Catholic schools, when their time comes.


Joseph N. DiStefano writes a business column for The Inquirer and the PhillyDeals blog for Philly.com. He graduated from St. Monica School, Berwyn, which is combining with St. Patrick's in Malvern, and where he still holds the fifth-grade detention record, and, after a brief expulsion, from Archbishop Carroll High School, which remains open. Contact him at 215-854-5194, JoeD@ phillynews.com, or @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.

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