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Decline of the Catholic school system in the U.S. continues, with no end in sight

In 1970, there were more than 9,000 Catholic elementary schools in the U.S. enrolling some 3.4 million students; last year there were just over 5,000 schools with 1.2 million students.

Students in the Diocese of Nashville, Tenn., pray during a Feb. 1, 2018, Mass in celebration of Catholic Schools Week in Nashville. (CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register)

A little over two centuries ago—in 1810, to be precise—a brave, devout woman named Elizabeth Ann Seton launched two tiny schools, an academy and a free school. The site was a former farmhouse in rural Maryland that also housed the first members of her newly founded American branch of the Daughters of Charity.

Virtually unnoticed at the time, that event is now regarded as the start of the parochial school system in the United States. But celebrations of this 210th anniversary, if any there be, can only be muted, not to say filled with anxiety. For the once mighty Catholic school system is now in a state of decline, with no end in sight.

The start of this pandemic-ridden school year was further darkened by the news that some 150 Catholic schools across the country had closed for good. Such closings are hardly new—Catholic schools have been closing for years—but this number of closings was substantially higher than usual and a troubling sign of what may lie ahead.

As to that, consider these numbers (the source is CARA—the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate). In 1970, there were more than 9,000 Catholic elementary schools in the U.S. enrolling some 3.4 million students; last year there were just over 5,000 schools with 1.2 million students. The picture is the same at the secondary level: in 1970, nearly 2,000 schools with over a million students, compared with 1,200 schools and 556,000 students last year.

For a long time, the Catholic school system has been the most impressive institutional achievement of American Catholicism. And now? The loss of schools and students reflected in these numbers is tragic in many respects, but especially for the weakening they imply of the Church’s ability to transmit the faith from one generation to the next.

Reading that, of course, some people no doubt will say: Not to worry. After all, non-school religious education takes up the slack, doesn’t not?

With all due respect to the dedicated volunteers who serve as religious education teachers in thousands of parishes, there are two problems with that particular response. First, it’s hard to imagine that an hour of religious instruction on Sunday morning is, on the whole, as effective a means for transmitting religious faith and values as a full-time, five-day-a-week school staffed by committed teachers.

That aside, moreover, there’s the discouraging fact that the numbers for non-school religious education itself are equally as bad as the numbers for schools. Here are some more CARA figures: 4.3 million primary school-age children and 1.3 million secondary school-age children in parish religious education in 1970, as against 2.2 million primary school children and 527,000 secondary school children in 2019.

Many factors have combined to produce the present situation. They include a declining birth rate and, in the case of schools, rising costs or, in many places, simply the lack of a Catholic school. Face it, too, part of the blame rests with weakened commitment to the faith among nominally Catholic parents who could afford to send their children to Catholic schools but see no particular reason either to do that, or to send the kids to religious education, or to provide serious religious formation at home.

There are no easy answers here, but for starters let’s set aside the prevailing laissez-faire acceptance of the decline and disappearance of Catholic schools and launch a serious effort at the national level to explore possible responses. Meanwhile: St. Elizabeth Seton, pray for us and the children.


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About Russell Shaw 235 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, and, most recently, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity.

21 Comments

  1. Possibly by coincidence, Father Edward McGlynn, an associate of the agrarian socialist Henry George whose theories heavily influenced a socialist and modernist interpretation of Catholic social teaching, was overtly hostile to the Catholic school system. He felt it indoctrinated Catholic children in the tyranny of Rome and prevented them from being real Americans. It was, however, to explain his socialist views that he was summoned to Rome in 1887. When he refused to go, he was excommunicated for disobedience on Jul 4, 1887 (effective July 5, due to the holiday). Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum in 1891 to explain the Church’s actual position on private property and present a suggested program to apply the Church’s teachings. George, McGlynn and others immediately claimed the encyclical was an attack on them, and later that it really supported socialism instead of condemning it. McGlynn was reinstated when he finally traveled to Rome and agreed to meet with Leo XIII, who pretty much gave up on him as a hopless case. McGlynn continued to rail against Catholic schools for the rest of his life.

  2. This is a huge issue that has received limited attention. In the Chicago Archdiocese there seems, from what I know, little interest in rescuing Catholic Schools on the verge eliminatation. I have the impression that they just do not care. So a school closes, so what, seems the attitude. Until Bishops make it a priority the slide will continue.

    The other side of this is that there will be a continuing decline in well catechized catholic children, resulting in a continiung decline in church attendance etc, etc. I am amazed that the Bishops just don’t get it: that retaining and growing Catholic Schools is a must.

    There needs to a 21st Century Ann or maybe a Bob Seton to rise up and do something to get the American Catholic Churches attention to stop this from happening. As mentioned in other comments the Sacred Heart School in GR, Michigan was brought back from elimination. Not sure who all was involved, but think Rev. Robert Sirico, founder of the Acton Institute, was a major player. This success story and there are probably others that show that schools can be retained, if priest and bishops make that commitment. However it’s hard work and the work need priest and bishops support, it is not job for wimps. I bet if a bishop stood up and made it a priority this slide could be stopped and maybe bend the curve up. And as I frequently say, maybe start by just saying the Rosary and getting the Blessed Mother involved.

    • GrandRapidsMike is spot on. As products of Catholic education, my wife and I have seen our own grandchildren flourish in Catholic schools where doctrine is in the front of the room. We witness waiting lists from families who want their children to receive a full-life education that positions them for life, humility, duty and mission.

    • To add a few points: 1) Catholic schools are not a substitute for teaching the faith at home. Parents are foundational to building good faithful children. However Catholic Schools are complementary to the teaching and supporting the faith. 2) The Catholic school goals needs to be focused on teaching the faith and not as a backup to poor public education systems. 3) With many state starting to require LBTQ or whatever that is teaching in public schools we are on the cusp of a total radicalization of moral decline of the culture. The Catholic Church teaching and it schools will be the only firewall left to fight this cultural swamp.

  3. The problem is that many Catholic schools do a poor job teaching the faith. And as I see it, bad catechesis can actually innoculate a child against the faith. My wife and I send our child to a Catholic school, but we choose the school because it excels at teaching the faith.

    • When my son was in Catholic School in the 70’s, he received a very poor education in the faith from feminist nuns who made it clear they did not like boys. He learned nothing about the faith and our local small parish had no religious education. As a financially struggling parent, I had to work 12-14 hr days just to pay the Bills. There must be a better way!

  4. Parents are the primary educators of their children. It is THEIR God-given responsibility to pass on the faith, not the Catholic school nor the parish.

    Our local Catholic school does a very poor job; they won’t be getting my money. And our parish religious ed is similarly low-grade.

    Parents are the key to well-catechized children.

  5. “Decline of the Catholic school system in the U.S. continues, with no end in sight” — because it is no longer a Catholic school system.

  6. The greatest moral and ethical obligation of all, is to educate themselves, and others, to truth. Education is our supreme top priority, as a moral and ethical obligation, most importantly to our children, the future.
    Yet the United States spends the least on education as a major deemed “rich” government, rapidly nearing 2 Trillion student debt. Yet the US spends near a Trillion a year on, world majority on war, murder of humans, in an insanity.
    Catholic religion, spread from the Germanic region of Europe, to the World. For Germany has been in all of history the area of the greatest demand and promotion of, Education itself. Einstein, Diesel and the list goes on.
    Today Germany is the neat, clean, and financially solid, top of the list.
    The US grows more financially, morally, ethically, bankrupt every day, in lack of education to Truth. Today, its questionable if Reading, Writing, Math is taught, in schools, in the USA. Falling to be, a nation of debt and wage slaves.

    • Where are you writing from? Have you ever been to the United States? These pointless screeds of yours are inappropriate and deeply disrespectful. I’m not sure whether your thinking emerges from deep personal pathologies or deep malevolence, but it is inappropriate in either case. If you are not willing or able to contribute anything meaningful to the discussion, please find something else to do with your free time than posting on this site.

  7. 61 million+ babies have been murdered since 1973….how many of those would have gone to catholic schools? I was taught evolution in catholic school in the 60’s. As long as the catholic schools/church rub shoulders and mingle in with the secular crowd, you’re going to continue to see this decline and worse. You’re supposed to be a light in this world, according to Jesus, but instead the leaders are stumbling in the dark and bringing you all down with them. Take a moment and this Christmas season and see how much of the world and you talk about Santa Claus and how much Jesus is talked about…..I think you’ll be shocked!

  8. Could Catholic schools be doomed because they are modelled after government (taxpayer) funded (aka “public”) schools? Even before Covid19, the public system was breaking down. The cracks are now fissures.
    .
    Education is like anything else–the market needs to be allowed to operate with a great deal of freedom to get the best results.
    .
    I believe that Catholic homeschooling is doing fairly well in these chaotic times.
    .
    Please note: I am well aware that “homeschooling is not for everyone,” and our two-wage-earners-required society means we need someone to babysit (let’s be honest) children under 14. Part of the reason we need two earners is the huge amounts of money we pay in taxes both overt and covert to pay for all the “free” and government mandated goodies.

    • Two-wage-earners is due to the US is a wage and debt slaves, due to slave wages in the United States.. or simple low wages, slave wages.
      Major food inflation is now due to the US in the US is now the most food import dependent nation on Earth. A 133 billion in human food imports, in comparison all the wheat “Bread of Life” raised is around 10 billion.. Yet other nations have recently taken over sectors of the food industry in the US.. With out a whimper of protest or recognition from leaders. The US in the hoarding of the wealth by a few, accelerated the repeated historical selling the people out, starvation.
      To higher education, a amazing part of the budgets go to, Sports, and administration, not teachers.
      The big part of US budget is war, murder, extermination, of humans, as the US Genocide of Yemen, or unjust war on Iraq, Iran, and doom to Haiti, and the Americas, that Catholic “assumed” leaders cannot recognize.
      But Biden looks to be.
      Biden looks to be the first since Kennedy to finally reverse the tide, A true Catholic.

  9. Being on parish finance council after being educated 1-8 at a Catholic school it’s not too hard to see the reasons, which I will ramble: 1)Nuns and sometimes brothers worked for almost nothing for decades but most were skilled educators and fervent believers (ours and other farm families used to take the nuns eggs, milk and meat as their cupboards would be bare, and they would sometimes call us in need) 2)We did not have numerous fundraisers that make us weary like today; you were a member of the parish and if you were using your envelopes your children could attend the school with no tuition charge, although there were book fees and such 3)it is much easier to send your kids to public school, as there are no restrictions on special needs coverage provided by the State agencies (such as certain therapies etc…) (back in the 40s or so the Catholic School kids could not even ride the school bus)4)Our school will accept any child, under our terms but they may have to pay full tuition 5)There is sometimes a sense of entitlement, and after their child left the school to go to high school the parents stopped supporting the parish and the school — one parent went so far as to say in a school meeting that the church would not even be there except for the school (ignorance). When you see a Catholic school parent on facebook bragging about their trip to DIsneyworld why would a parishioner feel the call to pay more for the school. Funny thing is, we have some devout public school teachers who come to weekends masses much more faithfully than the parents who are still getting a subsidized education for their children (percent of church tithes go to school and students in need can get ‘scholarships’.) When we switched from tithing models to tuition models the attendance and the collection fell quite a bit. 6) Priests do not want the burden of a school and running a small business while trying to be a Pastor at the same time — it can be very rewarding for them but almost impossible to manage everything while keeping Ceaser happy on all his tax and human compliance rules. They just throw up their hands and close the school

    Interestingly, many of the top students at the high school came from the Catholic School and students there will say about a good pupil, “yeah, but they went to the Catholic school.” A public school teacher trying to deal with Common Core told me that one method they use is “what the Catholic school” uses. In a simpler manner a non Catholic visited the Catholic school and was amazed at how well behaved the students were, as compared to her school.

  10. We faced this issue 30 years ago. Our decision was to enrolled our children in the Seton Homeschooling program. Not an easy road but one where we learned God will not be outdone in generosity. Our grandchildren are currently the beneficiaries of this authentically Catholic education. Given the decades long decline of the Catholic school system, we pray homeschooling will continue to be an option available to parents seeking a faith filled education for their children.

  11. About 40 year ago I was involved with an independent group of parents that called for “The Continuation of Catholic Schools” in the City where I lived. We were opposing the financial separation of Parochial schools from their parishes, something that was being mandated by the Archdiocese. The reasons for dumping the entire cost of the school on to the parents through tuition increases were several, but the worst effect, in my opinion, was to separate the older generation from the new. The effects were easily anticipated and proven by multiple outcomes – School closings, birth limitation, non-Catholic enrollment and influence, Parish closings, urban flight to avoid city Public Schools, etc. Catholic life in the cities is dissolving before our eyes. When I was a boy in NYC over 90% of Catholic children went to a Catholic school. Even on the Secondary level the participation was astonishing. And it was all done by a far poorer population – and it wasn’t just because we had low cost educators in religious habits. In those days, every kid knew what the Eucharist is. Today, if researchers have correctly understood the numbers, hardly 20% of Catholics have a true understanding. The comparisons between then and now are sobering indeed. One part of the solution to the deteriorating situation is certainly that Catholic people, as a unified whole, need to take up again the responsibility for the education of our youth. The older couples help the younger; the childless help the childbearing; the wealthier help the needy. We need to build up our sense of a cohesive community, or 20 years hence we will be a fraction of what we are even today.

    • My father and his four siblings were able to attend parochial schools all throughout their school years, while my grandmother was a homemaker, and my grandfather, with a mere eighth grade education, was able to support his family. I was told this was possible because the church basically gave the education for free (or next to nothing). This was in the 1940’s.

      Today, I couldn’t afford to send one of my children, let alone all four, to a Catholic school. In order to do so, I would have to abandon my home duties to work full-time, or limit the number of children I have (rhetorical statement). My vocation as a wife and mother would “take a hit.”

      We chose to homeschool. We are able to attend Mass daily, teach subjects from a Catholic worldview, and fully embrace the domestic church.

  12. bang on ! you got it. Ive been in catholic education for over 30 yrs here in Canada. NO other realistic response can say it better than a lack of faith, and Church leadership. There is very often more anti-Catholicism in the once Catholic schools. Faith sustains a Catholic school. Where that is lacking,as now, you can talk about economics all you want.. that you be firm in place if the faith were.. it’s been ‘off’ for over 50 years.

  13. The decline in Catholic education and schools relates directly to the decline in teaching sisters subsequent to Vatican II. The nuns tossed off their habits and those that stayed became social workers.

  14. While I agree with much of them, missing from the comments above is recognition of the impressive growth of Catholic home schooling. As measured by the curriculums now available to faithful caregivers, buoyed by COVID-19 lockdowns that are causing parents to take a renewed interest in their childrens’ education and formation, we are witnessing an evolution of catholic education – not it’s extinction. Sadly, many Catholic schools today are Catholic in name only, taken over by spineless administration and political correctness. Don’t fall in the trap of focusing on “schools”. The child’s soul formation is preeminent, and no Bishop can ever fill the shoes of the parent to cultivate it.

  15. Sacred Heart school in Grand Rapids has had well-deserved attention. The school indeed is a model of the resurrection of Catholic schools. However, they were alone in their diocese at the time. Their success was possible because the school went back to their Catholic roots, as in a “classical” model of education. Note that St. Augustine was a master Rhetoric teacher before his conversion. Even in his time, the classical liberal arts was a standard of true education. He was able to merge that to his new-found faith.

    The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education was born to help Catholic school teachers and administrators learn and train in classical methods. Classical education (broadly stated) is exactly what the “old-fashioned” parochial schools used to do before the modernist education infiltration. It works every time it is tried. There is even a diocesan school in the ICLE network, run by a religious order, and they are all thriving. There are, of course, many Catholic and classical homeschooling resources. So it is the method and content that is important. Both parents and community can rally around that because of distinctiveness–not because they are groveling to the bottom like a public school.

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  3. Decline of the Catholic school system in the U.S. continues, with no end in sight – On God's Payroll

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