Dear Church, Teach Your Children Well

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The Catholic Church appears in retreat, losing faithful members and closing parishes.

Even among those who call themselves Catholic, there is apathy and/or misunderstanding.

A Gallup poll two years ago showed only 39 percent of Catholics attended Mass weekly.

A Pew Research survey last year revealed that 69 percent of Catholics may not believe in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist – one of the core beliefs of Catholicism. (A wording problem in the question throws the exact finding in doubt; but the gist of it isn’t shocking.)

Another Pew study of the whole U.S. population described the growth of nones, “consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular,’ now standing at 26 percent, up from 17 percent in 2009.”

In the face of this weakened or abandoned faith, what can the Church do?

One answer is to teach – as in “Go, therefore and make disciples … baptizing … teaching …” (Matthew, 28: 19-20).

But here is some more data:

Since 1965, when the United States featured 13,000 Catholic schools with 5.2 million students, the numbers have plummeted. According to the National Catholic Education Association, the 2019-20 school year featured 6,183 schools with 1.7 million students.

Those numbers will likely drop again after the economic fallout of COVID-19, with another 100 or more Catholic schools expected to close. The Archdiocese of New York has already announced the closing of 20 schools. The Archdiocese of Boston is closing 11.

There seems to be less Catholic teaching, not more.

Struggling Catholic schools are hoping for help, at some point, from a possible boost to parents who want to send their kids to Catholic schools. Long-term, the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Espinoza v Montana case could open up public funding indirectly reaching Catholic schools, through vouchers.

That would help, but the Church must do more to educate its youth.

For those not in Catholic school, the only alternative offered is religious education –- i.e., Catholic “Sunday school” – before or after Mass. It is a light curriculum at best, or what Bishop Robert Barron once referred to as “banners and balloons Catholicism … that’s been a pastoral disaster.”

Banners and balloons? He’s not kidding. When I taught religious education a few years back, the first thing the director did was show me where the arts-and-crafts room was. The two to three classes a month of skimpy fare was hardly sufficient.

Catholic schools, on the other hand, typically try to present the faith at least twice a week as part of the school day. If the religion teacher believes it and presents it, the kids get a decent introduction to the faith.

Short of the impossible dream of re-establishing Catholic schools in every parish, though, the Church can still attract students.


Here’s another piece of data:

From 1999 to 2012, the number of home-schooled students in the United States has grown from 850,000 to 1.8 million, according to the National Center of Education Statistics.

And, because of the coronavirus shutting down all schools last spring (and possibly this fall), more families got a taste of homeschooling, and liked it. A USA Today poll showed “six in 10 [parents] say they would be likely to pursue at-home learning options instead of sending back their children [to school] this fall. Nearly a third of parents, 30 percent, say they are ‘very likely’ to do that.”

Some of those staying away from school may be doing so temporarily because of the virus. But others may have discovered the benefits of homeschooling, especially in comparison to public schools.

This is where the Church can step in, to discover a way of serving those families who don’t send their children to a Catholic school.

The biggest need for homeschoolers is support – in terms of advice and community from other homeschool families, as well as tutoring in some subjects.

It may be that not every parish can support its own school; but can’t every parish be a homeschooling center? Parishes have halls and religious education classrooms that are often empty on weekdays. Can they be used? Can Churches offer curriculum – especially a solid religious education – and even provide tutors? Maybe there could be a connection made with the local Catholic school for remote classes, or shared material.

Such a Church would not be a one-hour-a-week place to visit, but more of a center for family life – making Catholics more active, more informed and less likely to become “nones.”

One organization, Regina Caeli Academy, provides a model of such a hybrid homeschool/Church experience. The model features two days of instruction at a parish, along with three days at home. The academy is slowing growing. with 16 centers nationwide, including one that opened in Dedham, Massachusetts (St. Mary of the Assumption Church) last year.

This suggestion is not to discount Catholic schools. (I teach at one.) Catholic schools need to be supported by the Church and, possibly, indirectly by public funds. But they need to be true Catholic schools – not just private schools that offer religion classes. And Catholic education traditionally has meant a rigorous education (i.e. reading, writing, and lots of it).

I have seen too many Catholic schools water down their religious identity and their academics to attract or keep students. They end up turning off faithful Catholic families.

The Catholic Church needs to implement a plan – and not a Band-Aid program – for teaching its faithful, especially its children. Stop the retreat. Stop standing pat.

If this is a battle plan, then this is the time to charge.

The Church may seem weak and vulnerable – and it is. Yet throughout history, whenever the Church has depended on the Word of God, it flourishes.

The Church will always be criticized by the secular crowd, but it still holds quite a weapon, sharper than any two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12).


Kevin Thomas is a writer and teacher, living with his wife and children in Standish, Maine.