Imagine schools – a whole school system – where 99 percent of all high school students graduate. Imagine schools where 86 percent of students go on to college. Imagine, as well, that these same schools disproportionately educate kids of color and the economically disadvantaged in some of the toughest neighborhoods. These schools close the achievement gap, helping to right the wrongs of racism. They do so at half the cost of public schools. Imagine all this as our nation struggles to confront its racial inequities.
The good news is that you don’t have to imagine. America’s Catholic schools are, each and every school day, doing all this here and now. The record is clear and indisputable. And here’s more good news: our Catholic schools stand ready to offer top-notch in-person education to our children during this pandemic, abiding by CDC guidelines. Furthermore, the Supreme Court in its recent Espinoza decision swept away the ugly structural vestiges of anti-Catholic bigotry in education (the so-called Blaine amendments) resulting in a huge win for school choice, including parents’ right to choose a faith-based education for their children.
Now the bad news. The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic has uniquely hammered the country’s parochial schools. More than 100 are set to close. Many are in economically distressed neighborhoods where a Catholic school education can sometimes be the difference between a full and successful life and a prison cell or early grave. These are places like St. Louis, where three inner-city schools are closing, and New York City, where Cardinal Dolan just announced the tragic news that 26 Catholic schools in the city are shutting down.
You might think that there would be a bipartisan effort to rescue these schools, but the fact that parochial schools were eligible for the first round of congressional grants and loans in the initial COVID-19 relief bills has triggered a backlash. The teachers’ unions are strenuously opposing any aid to non-public schools in the upcoming school aid bill, despite the fact that private schools have been uniquely economically devastated by the pandemic and are incurring all the same additional costs of safely educating children in this environment.
The backlash entered a new phase when the Associated Press reported that the Catholic Church had secured Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds for its parishes, schools, and administrative offices. The PPP program was designed specifically to keep people employed. The Catholic Church, with its distinct organizational structure, employs a lot of people – including teachers, janitors, nurses, and bus drivers – and was therefore eligible for PPP loans just like any other non-profit. The AP’s report mixed “How Dare They?” shock with a veiled anti-Catholicism that would have pleased the old Blaine amendment backers.
It’s worth considering what “aid to the Roman Catholic Church” means in practice, because the church’s contributions to our society are immeasurable and benefit all Americans, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
How so? Beyond the men and women who work in parishes, parochial schools, and archdiocesan offices across the land – American workers that the Paycheck Protection funds were meant to keep employed during the lockdown – there are the Catholic organizations, orders, and societies that have ministered to people in need from our country’s beginning.
They’re the bodies that engage in corporal works of mercy – feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and imprisoned, burying the dead and giving alms to the poor. By these works Catholics respond to the basic needs of humanity. The hospitals, orphanages, nursing homes, adoption agencies, soup kitchens, thrift shops, food banks, and organizations like the Knights of Columbus, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and Catholic Charities are “the Catholic Church.” They’re busy in the best of times and busier still amid the current pandemic. They’re also busier at a time when church collections are down because church services have been prohibited or limited.
One in six Americans admitted to a hospital, for example, is admitted to a Catholic hospital. Likewise, one of every six acute-care hospital beds is located at Catholic-owned or affiliated hospitals. Larger Catholic health systems invest significantly in charity care for the poor – eight percent of overall budget on average and as high as 19 percent in some systems – while for-profit hospitals nationwide average little more than one percent in charity care.
We’re all in this together. We hear that a lot these days in speeches and television ads. The Catholic Church has acted upon this great truth from our nation’s founding right up to the current coronavirus crisis. It’s the work of our hands. How ignorant and counterproductive for politicians and the media to argue otherwise when it comes to the Catholic Church.
Maureen Ferguson is a Senior Fellow for The Catholic Association.