Sizing up Catholic schools: a partnership between religious, laity

Vatican City, Nov.27, 2007 (CINS /CNS) - A transformation has occurred in Catholic schools over the last 50 years, and the Vatican took its measure at a recent press conference.

The occasion was the Nov. 20 release of a document, "Educating Together in Catholic Schools: A Shared Mission Between Consecrated Persons and the Lay Faithful," prepared by the Congregation for Catholic Education.

The congregation said lay teachers now make up the overwhelming majority -- at least 80 percent, according to one official -- of the 3.5 million teachers working in the church's 250,000 schools around the world.

That represents a dramatic shift, reflecting the declining numbers of men and women religious. In the United States, the percentage of lay teachers went from 14 percent in 1950 to more than 95 percent this year. Similar figures were cited for places like Australia, France, Spain and Hong Kong.

In the past, the Vatican has exhorted religious orders not to abandon their traditional teaching charism. Closing schools seemed like a costly surrender.

But the ever-dwindling number of consecrated religious has made it difficult to keep these schools open even in a Catholic country like Italy, where about 50 Catholic schools close each year.

The new Vatican document seemed to accept that the lay role in Catholic schools is here to stay. That's not necessarily a bad thing, said Msgr. Angelo Zani, undersecretary of the education congregation.

"Far from being an impoverishment, this transformation constitutes a great potential for the Catholic school," Msgr. Zani said. A mature and committed laity has emerged, he said, and they consider church-run schools an important part of their religious community.

Lay salaries, of course, have made Catholic schools more expensive to operate.

Polish Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, head of the education congregation, took aim at countries -- including the United States and Italy -- where the church has had little success in winning direct state aid to private schools.

"The United States is a disaster, because the state does not recognize full democracy as far as schools are concerned," Cardinal Grocholewski said.

U.S. Catholic schools are just as good as public schools, the cardinal said, but without state aid they labor under a greater economic burden. Dioceses and parishes are forced to pass on higher costs to the parents of students, and sometimes have to close the institutions, he said.

Overall, Catholic schools are enjoying success, and Msgr. Zani gave several examples:

-- In Lebanon, Catholic schools are attended by 210,000 students who belong to 18 different faiths or churches. Nearly one-fourth of the students are non-Christian, most of them Muslim.

-- In the Holy Land, where schools have a mixed student body of 55 percent Christians, 45 percent Muslims and some Jews, the curriculum is designed to promote interreligious tolerance.

-- In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Archdiocese of Sarajevo founded three new schools -- attended by Serbs, Croats and Muslims -- during the height of the civil conflict. Today the archdiocesan schools number 15 and serve more than 10,000 students.

-- In Morocco, the church runs 17 educational centers with 11,000 students -- all of them Muslim. The program seeks to connect the inspiration of Christian values with the local Muslim reality.

-- In Eastern Europe, the fall of communism has unblocked the situation for Catholic schools, many of which now receive state aid.

Msgr. Zani said that in the United States, non-Catholic students today make up 13.5 percent of the total in Catholic schools, while 27 percent come from minorities. He noted what he called a significant U.S. trend: Some religious orders that have operated schools frequented by upper middle-class students have recently opened smaller institutes in poorer urban areas.

He said the dropout rate is 3.4 percent in U.S. Catholic schools, compared to 14.9 percent in public schools. Ninety-nine percent of U.S. Catholic high school students graduate, and 97 percent continue education at the university level, he said.

Globally, church-run schools today serve almost 42 million students, Cardinal Grocholewski said. According to official church statistics, enrollment at Catholic schools has gone up about 60 percent over the last 30 years.

The new document did not unveil any major new programs or policies, but it made a few key points. It called for cooperation between consecrated people and laity in three areas: mission, formation and openness toward others.

It welcomed the contributions of lay teachers, but it emphasized that all educators in Catholic schools are "required to be witnesses of Jesus Christ" and to demonstrate that Christian life has meaning for everyone.

"Teachers, just like every person who lives and works in a scholastic environment, educate -- or they can also diseducate -- with their verbal and nonverbal behavior," it said.

Beyond the required professional teaching skills, both religious and lay educators in Catholic schools need to have theological and spiritual formation, it said. In places where religious orders have ceded their teaching role, they may still be able to share elements of spiritual formation with lay teachers, it said.

Lay teachers, for their part, can help make better connections between the school and the rapidly changing world, the document said. In view of increasing globalization and the interdependence of nations and cultures, Catholic schools should promote a vision of the human being that goes beyond individualism, it said.

A major goal of today's Catholic schools, it said, should be to teach students "to respect the identity, culture, history, religion and especially the suffering and needs of others."

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