Can the Internet and Catholic Schools Save the Church?

God_signEarlier I argued that the Catholic Church must aggressively seek to reclaim the large number of Catholics who have strayed from their faith. I’ll continue that line of reasoning here and suggest that there is another way, rooted in education, in which the Church can reverse its fortunes–saving its own Catholic schools!

But before we get to these two particular strategies, let’s quickly review the challenges that face the Church in America:  Fewer parishes.  Fewer priests.  Fewer churchgoers.  Less Trust.  More apathy.  Indifference.  Irrelevance. It’s going to take efforts that are both intense and strategic to help remedy this regrettable situation.

Reversal of Fortune #1:  Herding the “Sheep” Back

Regaining the interest and commitment of lapsed Catholics to the faith is much easier said than done.  But the effort to shepherd them back to the flock must be made if the Church is to remain vibrant.

Putting the invitation to return to Catholicism directly  in front of the “departed” is definitely important.  However, whether or not the RSVP will ultimately be answered in the affirmative will depend on a form of education — in this case successfully reacquainting Catholics with the beauty and personal value of their religion.   This approach is exactly what the web site I reported on earlier, Catholics Come Home, and its excellent promotional videos, endeavor to do.

Maybe I’m mistaken, but it seems fair to say that the Church itself has not been strategic enough in recapturing the hearts of disenchanted Catholics.  Frankly, that would explain why so precious few of these valued former brethren actually return.  They walked away from the Church for one or maybe several important reasons.  In turn, the Church has to give them compelling reasons to rejoin the faith.  But it seems as though the lay apostolate works  harder at reclaiming “former” Catholics than the Church itself.

Fortunately, Church leadership in some cities like Phoenix and Chicago have decided that direct media appeals offer a viable means to reconnect people to Catholicism.  Accordingly, new media initiatives have been instituted, and I’m pleased to report, these efforts are realizing unexpected success.  The reason these efforts have been successful, though, is because after the media touch points occur,  viewers encounter content that is both meaningful and possesses compelling educational value.

I will say that some Church leaders recognize the need to connect with people in our digital age through social media.  To their credit, you will also blogs from prelates such as Cardinal O’Malley of Boston and Archbishop Dolan of New York as well as priests are blogging.  And Pope Benedict is using Twitter as well as Facebook.  Rumor has it that God has a twitter account now, too, and that He’s also a blogger!

Reversal #2:  Don’t Let The Sheep Stray From the PenNCEA_CatholicSchools

Now let’s turn to the second way a reversal of fortune can occur.  The Church must do whatever it can to keep Catholics from leaving the faith in the first place.   There’s plenty that the Church at its various levels can do pastorally and otherwise to maintain its membership.  But I’ll focus on the one vehicle I know best here.

Maybe I’m just too education-centric, but it seems to me that there is no better pre-emptive measure than our Catholic schools. If more families, both Catholic and non-Catholic, can be motivated to send their children to these schools, then the chance of forming new Catholics and retaining them in the faith increase dramatically.

Reinvigorating Catholic schools will be challenging, however, because they’re rapidly becoming an endangered species.  For instance, some 2386 Catholic elementary schools have closed their doors since 1975, and 1,500,000 fewer children attend those schools that remain.  These figures represent decreases of 30% and 40%, respectively.

Unfortunately, the situation isn’t much better for Catholic secondary schools.  The number of high schools has decreased by 25% by virtue of 400 of them closing.   The surviving schools now serve 30% fewer students, a loss of more than a quarter million compared to 1975.  So we can add ‘ fewer Catholic schools and fewer students’ to our already disheartening picture for the Church.

Too Little Too Late?

The good news is that the crisis has finally begun to capture the attention of growing numbers of Church leaders.  The bad news is that the full Church is not moving quickly, systemically, or forcefully enough to combat the dilemma effectively.

Again in fairness, the problems are extremely challenging ones — the migration of more affluent Catholics to the suburbs puts urban school consistently at risk financially;  diocesan education offices often can’t influence parish schools adequately; many pastors are unwilling or ill prepared to accept responsibility for the schools; Catholic philanthropy for its K-12 schools is insufficient particularly in poor parishes; competition with local charter schools has intensified.  And the list goes on.

I’m proud to say, though, that Catholic institutions of higher education are stepping up in unprecedented ways to help K-12 schools. These include college and universities like those in our Greater Milwaukee Catholic Education Consortium as well as many other Jesuit institutions and Notre Dame.   These efforts give rise to some noteworthy optimism, and I’ll write more about them in the future.

But for the time being, without meaning to be brash or irreverent, I urge the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to make the revitalization of our nation’s Catholic schools one of its highest priorities.

The Church needs to make the gate uninviting from the outset through  freshness and vitality, to cement its flock through vibrant Cathoilic schools, and then seek to recapture the hearts of those who still go astray with inventiveness and resolve.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Catholic schools can help save the church.  But here’s the rub:  We might not be able to save Catholic schools! I’ll have much more to say on this theme later, but for the time being, give thought to how we might preserve the national treasure of Catholic education.

7 Responses to “Can the Internet and Catholic Schools Save the Church?”

  1. 1 Michael Derrick November 12, 2009 at 10:32 pm

    While reclaiming lapsed Catholics is a worthy and important cause, I can not help to have constant crises of faith concerning the Catholic Church.

    For example I recently read an article in the Washington Post:
    The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington said Wednesday that it will be unable to continue the social service programs it runs for the District if the city doesn’t change a proposed same-sex marriage law, a threat that could affect tens of thousands of people the church helps with adoption, homelessness and health care.

    For the life of me I cannot understand why the largest charitable organization in the world would punish innocent people (the ones who need our help the most) because of laws (especially laws seeking equality). I personally feel hurt as a Catholic that the Church would do such a thing.

    I feel that if the Church put more time and energy into Schools, and charitable work, instead of tainting itself by getting involved in politics, more lapsed Catholics would rejoin the faith.


    • 2 billhenk November 13, 2009 at 1:21 pm

      Your points are very well taken, Michael. So you know, I have not been without my own crises of faith over the years, and to this day, there is still a fair amount about the Catholic Church and how it operates that I struggle to grasp. The question I always ask myself is “What would Jesus do?” When the Church doesn’t act in ways that match my understandings of His teachings, I am, rightly or wrongly, disapppointed. In the case you cite it’s hard for me to imagine that Jesus would think a strict, conservative Biblical interpretation would be more important than the Church caring for His people. If our God is indeed one of boundless love and forgiveness as we’ve been taught, I don’t personally see Him withholiding His affection and grace based upon a person’s sexuality. But no human can know God’s mind, so maybe I’m mistaken on several of these counts. In any case, I hope that the situation in DC can be resolved in a way that allows those who desperately need the Church’s help to receive it.


  2. 3 Rachel November 14, 2009 at 8:40 am

    I think that our generation (I am newly christened into my 30s!) will be lead back to moral ground through Church. Now, what that “Church” looks like is yet to be determined, but I think that as a Catholic it is easy to struggle with all of the different beliefs of the Church. Some struggle with the issue of women in the Church structure or beliefs on contraception or gays, but all too often one thing drives young believers from the Church. As a product of K-12 and Catholic education and then undergrad and grad work at Marquette, I can say that I am aware of apologetics but it doesn’t mean I don’t struggle. Here’s to grappling with the truth and not treating our faith options like cafeteria food!


    • 4 billhenk November 15, 2009 at 11:03 am

      I share your hope about reclaiming moral ground, Rachel, although there isn’t consensus among Catholics what that means. I also agree that it remains to be seen what the Church will look like in the future.

      Regrettably, it seems to take only one major issue to drive many Catholic believers, young or old, from the Church. The reason I stay the course is that the Catholic Church derives directly from Jeus and the Apostles, and so no matter how much I struggle with issues like the ones you cite, I keep coming back to that fact. That doesn’t make what the Church says or does necessarily right, and the reality is that unpopular positions it has taken over the centuries have given rise to the formation of other Christian religions.


  3. 5 Marco December 29, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    I think the real (positive) changes to Catholics and Catholicism from the Internet will be the ones very few people have already considered, see this post of mine:

    The real effect of the Internet on Catholicism (or any other religion)

    Best Regards,
    Marco Fioretti


    • 6 billhenk December 29, 2009 at 4:20 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Marco. I appreciate what you had to say in your post. The interactive/communal capacities that the Internet offers for religion are definitely interesting, and it will be fascinating to watch them unfold.


  1. 1 Welcome to Milwaukee, Archbishop Listecki! « The Marquette Educator Trackback on November 19, 2009 at 7:26 am

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