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The crisis behind the departure crisis

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If you don't know what the sacraments mean, and you don't understand what the Church stands for, why would you get out of bed on a Sunday morning?

Kevin and Marilyn

A young girl we know, recently changed schools because the one she was attending wasn't Catholic enough. She decided that she wanted a school where faith was first, not the more secular tone of her prestigious former school. This is a serious girl who, with her parents, has demonstrated a true understanding of the real purpose of education.

It's not an easy step to change schools and join a new one where social groups are already linked. Clearly, her family helped her make this mature decision, even though this change meant new challenges, such as difficult transportation arrangements, money for school uniforms and an earlier rising schedule for the rest of the family. This family's commitment to the true purpose of education is rare, but once was the standard decision of Catholic families.

The tragedy -- and it is a tragedy -- is that a Catholic education is now a luxury that few Catholic families can effort. In our state, tax-payers pay the public schools $15,500 for each child in attendance. Money is the primary reason behind the massive closing of 1,336 Catholic schools in the last 10 years. After having paid taxes for the public school, those Catholic parents who desire a religious education for their child face an additional cost on average of $7,200. That is $7,200 un-tax-deductible dollars for each child. This is the reason a Catholic education is increasingly the province of the wealthy.

This educational arrangement is profoundly unfair. There are over 55 million Catholics in our country. Our state and local governments in Massachusetts are said to be over-represented by Catholics politicians, but why aren't they addressing this inequality?

While our Church hierarchy is back on its heels dealing with the sexual scandals, this outrageous educational unfairness goes largely ignored. The majority of Catholic parents in Boston and around the country are de facto forced into selecting the public school system.

There are, of course, many fine public schools, but by law they are forced to exclude what Catholics know to be the true meaning of a child's life. This means the government provides the meaning of life. The religious and spiritual dimension of human life is officially "out-of-bounds." Thus, the purpose is determined by a legally-imposed neutrality, the choice between belief and unbelief. And, of course, this means that those parents who favor "unbelief" get what they want from their educational dollar. We and our children lose.

As Stephan Karson, wrote recently in the online site Crisis, "the legally-imposed official neutrality between belief and unbelief in public schools -- which has actually meant a rigid regimen of secularism, and a resulting atmosphere (in varying degrees) of moral relativism necessarily affects the way students think and act."

"Think and act" is the very driving purpose of an education! But in increasingly utilitarian America, this think-and-act purpose of education has been reduced to "training." Training to get the grades and scores for admission to college, or training to immediately enter the workforce. It is training a child to be a "useful" member of society -- someone prepared to pay taxes and contribute to our ever-demanding economic system -- a cog in the manufacturing machine or a skilled programmer in a high-tech cubicle.

Unable to find or afford a Catholic school, this leaves those parents seeking to pass on the faith to their children with two alternatives. The first is to homeschool their children, which is increasingly popular with Christian parents. Currently, there are close to 2 million children being homeschooled. However, not all parents have the training, time, or temperament for the task.

Most parents, then, look to their parish's religious education program (commonly called CCD) to provide education in the faith. While many generous and committed souls volunteer as CCD teachers, as an educational program, it has huge problems. One is finding qualified teachers. Currently, our parish is still searching for teachers. Another is the amount of time each child devotes to learning about our faith: one hour a week for approximately 24 Sundays a year. Still another issue is the uneven quality of the curriculum. Finally, there are all those Catholic students who are playing sports on Sunday mornings, or those who simply choose not to attend. From the hierarchy to Catholic parents, CCD suffers from being a low priority.

The research on this is clear. Notre Dame scholar Christian Smith reports that we are failing to pass on the complexities of our faith, but only a hurried and watered-down version. Ask a Catholic child or teen the meaning of the Eucharist or about any aspect of Catholic social teaching. Ask them why they are here on Earth and what they should do with their lives.

This is one reason for the massive leakage. If you don't know what the sacraments mean, and you don't understand what the Church stands for, why would you get out of bed on a Sunday morning?

A few weeks ago, the Pew Research Center reported that "Catholicism has experienced a greater net loss due to religious switching than has any other religious tradition in the U.S." Further, for every two converts who enter our Church, 13 Catholics leave and become "former Catholics."

This is evidence of a massive failure of Catholic education. It is the real crisis in our Church today and something must be done about it.

- Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline, Mass.

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