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Pittsburgh diocese announces mergers for four Catholic schools

February 15, 2021 CNA Daily News 0

Pittsburgh, Pa., Feb 15, 2021 / 04:47 pm (CNA).- Four Catholic elementary schools will merge to form two schools for the school year beginning in fall 2021, the Diocese of Pittsburgh has said, as the local bishop stressed their continued importance.
“Catholic schools are vital to the future of both our Church and our world,” Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh said Feb. 12. “They educate minds, hearts, and spirits, teaching the value of service as they prepare young people to become productive citizens and future leaders.”
“Each day I thank God for all who faithfully support our Catholic schools,” said Zubik. “They serve our students, our diocese, and Jesus himself.”
Saint Elizabeth of Hungary school in Pleasant Hills will merge with Saint Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin in Whitehall. The Saint Gabriel campus will serve as the main site of the merged school.
Saint Phillip school in Crafton will merge with Saint Margaret of Scotland school in Green Tree, whose campus will serve the merged school.
Father David Poecking, president of South Regional Catholic Elementary Schools, said the decision follows “more than a year’s deliberation and many, many hours of study.”
“While change can be difficult, we can bring together the best of the past to support a strong future for the newly merged schools,” Poecking said.
The mergers were recommended after study of financial and demographic data, enrollment trends, and consultation with the parish and school communities.
Zubik approved the merger on the recommendations of the South Regional Catholic Elementary Schools, which became the new regional governing board in July 2020. It had previously served as an advisory board since its creation in 2017.
The Pittsburgh diocese credited the board with stabilizing enrollment and finances. It sees progress in regional organization of some schools.
“With regional governance, all of the parishes in a geographic region support Catholic school education and all have a voice in forwarding the mission of those schools,” the diocese said.
Michelle Peduto, Director of Catholic Schools, said the diocese’s school system will continue to work “to provide families with spiritually vibrant, academically excellent and financially sustainable Catholic schools for generations to come.”
The diocese is continuing a strategic planning initiative begun in 2015 in part as a response to declining Mass attendance, the financial struggles of some parishes, and fewer priests.
The diocese’s “On Mission for The Church Alive” initiative has been working to merge what were 188 parishes into what ultimately will be fewer than 60 parish groupings.
In November 2020, the diocese announced that it would begin a third round of parish mergers. This stage of the parish merging plan aims to reduce 107 parishes to 81.
The diocese faced controversy after the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report, which detailed sexual abuse allegations in six of Pennsylvania’s eight Latin-rite dioceses, including Pittsburgh. In 2020 CBS Pittsburgh reported that since the report’s release, Mass attendance had dropped 9% and offertory donations declined 11%.
Several hundred sexual abuse claims have also posed significant financial difficulties for the diocese.
Even in 2018, regular Sunday Mass attendees numbered only 120,000, a 30% decline from 10 years before. There are about 628,000 Catholics in the diocese’s territory, according to the diocese’s website.


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Open for learning: How Boston Catholic schools kept their students safe

February 10, 2021 CNA Daily News 1

Washington D.C., Feb 10, 2021 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Boston “followed the science” and have kept its students safe amid the pandemic, the archdiocesan superintendent told CNA on Wednesday.


“I think the Catholic schools, overall, have been vindicated,” said Thomas Carroll, superintendent for the Archdiocese of Boston schools. “A lot of uncharitable things were said when we opened our schools across the country, but it turns out we were right and science was on our side.” 


Unlike public schools in the rest of the state, Catholic schools in the archdiocese – the largest district by geographic area and the second-largest school district by population in Massachusetts – opened in the fall for in-person learning. 


“When we reopened, I said, my position was not that we’re going to be reopened ‘hell or high water,’” Carroll told CNA. “My position is we’ll be open as long as it’s safe to be open. And we’re literally watching the health data every single day.”


Carroll said that if COVID case numbers were to “spin out of control” once again, he would have no problem closing the schools. “But it didn’t spin out of control,” he said. 


At the outset of the pandemic, the archdiocese had actually closed its schools to in-person learning before the public schools had shut their doors. 


By the end of the 2020 school year, the archdiocese announced in June that 10% of its schools would close. The closures were due in part to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, with families unable to make tuition payments, according to WBUR.


Projections were grim for the 2020-21 school year. Initially, the archdiocese was looking at a nearly 17% drop in student enrollment. 


That all changed on July 15, when state public school teachers’ unions announced a delayed start to the year followed by remote learning. Parents began moving their children into the area Catholic schools.


“So at that moment from July 15th forward to like the third week in October, we gained more than 4,000 students,” Carroll said – a figure that almost entirely made up for the projected drop in enrollment. About 80% of those new students had been previously enrolled at public schools that were no longer meeting in-person. 


When Carroll first announced that archdiocesan schools would be opening in-person for the school year, he received a barrage of criticism. Carroll said he was repeatedly asked if he would be attending the funerals of the students who would die of COVID-19. 


In fact, he said that out of coronavirus cases in his schools, the vast majority of them have come from the “outside in”—meaning the student was first infected in the community and then brought the illness into the school. The schools themselves were not significant sources of community transmission. 


“We have, at the moment, zero active cases of spread,” he said. “We’ve had very few over since inception. We’ve had hundreds of cases since the beginning, but they all cycle out. To my knowledge, nobody’s been hospitalized.” 


Unlike in other dioceses, archdiocesan schools have not had to cap student populations due to social distancing measures. In Massachusetts, students are only required to distance about three feet apart from each other – which was essentially the pre-pandemic standard distance between desks. 


Carroll credits the strict discipline inherent to Catholic schools for why his district has experienced relatively few cases of COVID. 


“The one thing Catholic schools do really well,” he said, “is we get kids to follow instructions.”


“So this whole exercise from a public health perspective is having a reasonable set of rules and getting everybody to follow them religiously. Well, that’s what we do,” he said. 


Students wear masks, wash their hands frequently, and stay in cohorts, he explained.


Some of the aging school buildings have large windows that can be opened to improve ventilation. “The fact that we don’t have enough money for nice new buildings has turned out to be a huge asset,” he said. 


Despite the district’s large size and student population, Carroll told CNA there have not been differences of spread with regard to the location or demographics of schools. The archdiocese has schools located in both rural and urban communities, as well as in both affluent and disadvantaged areas. 


The archdiocese was recently recognized by Gov. Charlie Baker (R) in his State of the Commonwealth address, for safely resuming in-person classes. Carroll said that the low level of infections in his schools helped to sway governmental policy on future school closings. 


Initially, when the state designated geographic areas as “red zones” of community spread, Baker wanted the local schools to shut down automatically. 


The archdiocese did not close its schools in the “red zones,” arguing “that the only safe place for the children in a red zone is a school – a school that’s following the (safety) protocols,” Carroll recalled.


Carroll said that children in other schools who have had to attend school remotely for months are suffering from it.


“It’s going to be catastrophic for these kids, particularly kids from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, homeless kids, kids with special needs,” he said. 


Despite the low infection level in the current school year, he still acknowledges that new variants of the virus could force schools to close again. 


“I think people should reflect on that and they should reflect on the much larger number of people that are being stranded now and how all of their leaders have completely ignored science and health data,” he said. 


Despite the challenges and new protocols, Carroll said that he was “glad we all got back together,” and that he was “astonished” that things are still going well with in-person learning.


“And we’re grateful because our kids are doing great,” he said. 



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US Supreme Court urged to protect KY religious schools from shutdown

December 7, 2020 CNA Daily News 1

CNA Staff, Dec 7, 2020 / 04:37 pm (CNA).- An order shuttering in-person education until Jan. 4 in Kentucky amid rising COVID-19 cases amounts to religious discrimination, the US Supreme Court has been told in amici curiae briefs.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) temporarily halted in-person learning in the state by executive order.

The order, which applies to both public and private schools, allows for elementary schools in “red” zones (counties with 25 or more new coronavirus cases a day) to reopen as long as they are following state public health guidance.

Danville Christian Academy sued over the order.

A federal district judge had ruled Nov. 25 that Beshear’s order could not apply to private religious schools because it infringed on their First Amendment rights. On Nov. 29, a federal appeals court overturned that decision, upholding Beshear’s original order.

Danville Christian Academy has asked the US Supreme Court to temporarily suspend the executive order, while its appeal is pending.

Several groups have submitted amici curiae briefs in the case in support of Danville Christian Academy.

Thirty-eight Republican Senators – including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul, both of Kentucky – filed one such brief Dec. 4.

“COVID-19 is undoubtedly a serious health threat, but the Constitution applies even in difficult times. This Court should again remind Governors across the Country that shutdown orders cannot trample Constitutional rights,” the Senators stated in their amicus brief.

The state’s attorney general and treasurer have also indicated their support for Danville Christian Academy.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty submitted an amicus curiae brief, arguing not only “That movie theaters and horse tracks are open for business, but religious schools cannot open, is reason enough to vacate the Sixth Circuit’s stay,” but also that Beshear’s executive order is subject to strict scrutiny because it interferes “with the right of parents under the Free Exercise Clause to direct ‘the religious upbringing and education of their children’”.

Alliance Defending Freedom’s senior counsel, John Bursch, and other ADF attorneys filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of 17 Christian schools in Kentucky.

“The Kentucky governor’s order allows movie theaters, indoor event venues, gyms, childcare centers, and professional offices to operate, but private Christian schools cannot, even when they comply with all recommended public health and safety guidelines. That’s why we are asking (the) high court to put a stop to the governor’s unconstitutional edict,” Bursch said Dec. 4.

“Government discriminatory treatment of religion must end. Now,” the ADF brief in Danville Christian Academy v. Beshear states.

“In the nine months since the COVID-19 pandemic began, state executives have consistently imposed more severe burdens on religious conduct than comparable secular activities. They do so without any showing that religious activities present a greater COVID-19 risk than their secular comparators,” ADF added.

“Instead, governments have consistently favored commerce over religion and—often with a judicial seal of approval—have cloaked their disparate treatment of religious worship and education in terms like ‘emergency police powers’ and ‘substantial discretion.’”

Religious schools and churches have also submitted briefs in support of Danville Christian Academy, while a group of church-state scholars wrote one in defense of Beshear.

Beshear defended his order, citing health risks and the order’s equal treatment of public and private schools. “Kentucky is in the midst of a deadly third wave of the coronavirus. We have taken the necessary actions to slow the growth in cases and save the lives of our fellow Kentuckians,” Beshear said in a Dec. 4 statement, reported by the Courier Journal.

“In the most recent executive order regarding schools, every school is treated equally and each is asked to do its part over a limited period of time to slow the spread of the virus. The effectiveness of these actions requires everyone to take part, and anyone or any entity that tries to be the exception lessens the effectiveness of the steps,” he added.

Bursch pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in late November, which ruled that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions on religious services during the coronavirus pandemic were a violation of the First Amendment’s protection of free religious exercise.

“As the U.S. Supreme Court said in its recent order halting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order in New York, ‘even in a pandemic,’ the First Amendment is not ‘put away and forgotten,” Bursch stated.

The federal appeals court which ruled to uphold Beshear’s order said that the case was “distinguishable” from Cuomo’s order, since the Kentucky order applied to both religious and public schools, the Courier Journal reported. 

The case also comes shortly after the four bishops of Kentucky announced in late November that they will continue holding in-person Masses, despite Beshear’s order for all places of worship to halt in-person services until Dec. 13.

Schools throughout the United States have grappled with what to do about in-person learning after the coronavirus pandemic caused nationwide shutdowns last March. Though the country saw a dip in coronavirus cases over the summer, recent surges this fall, shortly after classes resumed, have caused some schools to close again, and some states to reinstate lockdowns or stay-at-home orders.

Catholic schools have worked to put extensive health and safety regulations in place, including mandatory masking and social distancing, and virtual options for families who choose to keep their children at home. Some Catholic school leaders and bishops have argued that children have a right to in-person learning, which can help to ensure the quality of their education and to prevent their social isolation.

Some Catholic schools, such as those in Baltimore, have seen spikes in enrollment this fall because they are offering in-person learning more consistently than area public schools.


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Bishop Daly: Catholic schools should embrace faith, never compromise

November 18, 2020 CNA Daily News 1

Denver Newsroom, Nov 18, 2020 / 03:07 am (CNA).- The U.S. bishops’ new chairman for Catholic education says he hopes to bring his experience as a Catholic school teacher and president, as well as pastor of two parishes, into his new position.

In an increasingly secular society, when people’s lives seem more and more to lack meaning, “our schools remind us of Christ’s love…a dignity of the human person that is beyond the mindset of the present moment, or the latest educational trend,” Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington told CNA Nov. 17.

Daly’s fellow bishops on Nov. 16 elected him to serve as Chairman of the Committee on Catholic Education for the U.S. bishops’ conference, which provides guidance for the educational mission of the Church to Catholic elementary and secondary schools, Catholic colleges and universities, and college campus ministry.

The bishops’ conference has 18 standing committees that each focus on a specific topic related to the bishops’ mission. Each committee is made up of both bishops and lay consultants, with one bishop serving as chairman.

Daly worked in Catholic schools for 19 years before his appointment as bishop, including serving for a time as a teacher and later as president at Marin Catholic High School near San Francisco. He succeeds Bishop Michael Barber, SJ of Oakland as chairman.

The “first mission” of any Catholic school should be the salvation of souls, he noted, but too often Catholic schools focus almost exclusively on academics, to the detriment of their Catholic mission.

A Catholic school ought to be academically excellent, while always keeping in mind why Catholic schools exist— to strengthen the faith foundation, he said.

Instead of being merely a private prep school with “a little bit of religious flavoring,” a Catholic school should encourage and guide its students to “seek the Lord with a sincere heart,” Daly said.

“We don’t need more ‘private schools.’ We need schools that are Catholic, that teach and proclaim the Gospel with the realization of academic rigor,” he said.

The USCCB’s Catholic education committee exists to support Catholic schools in their mission, Daly said, and one of the ways this is done is by supporting the priest who serves the school. This may involve training or inspiration for the priest to help him better shepherd the school, he said, and to motivate the parish community to support the school.

One of the most important factors in a school’s character is the academic leadership, which for elementary schools is most often the principal, he said.

Daly said he saw the school he previously worked for turn from a more secular attitude to a direction of faithfulness thanks in large part to its principal, who “never forgot the example of his education growing up as a Catholic.”

The principal was at once a very good administrator, and also a humble man of faith, Daly noted. Thanks to his strong leadership, that school is now producing religious vocations, which Daly said is a strong indicator of a Catholic school fulfilling its mission.

One of the biggest current challenges to Catholic schools, to no one’s surprise, is the fallout from COVID-19 and ongoing lockdowns, Daly said.

At least 140 Catholic schools— mostly elementary schools— have closed in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic, he said, and elementary schools remain the most vulnerable to closure.

“I think we have to re-examine why we have our schools, and why they’re so important to families,” he said.

Making Catholic schools accessible for students with disabilities is also a priority, he said, and he hopes his committee will be able to assist and encourage schools to expand their special education programs.

Daly said historically, Catholic schools arose in the United States during a time when many public schools were de facto Protestant, and often presented a somewhat hostile environment to Catholic families.

“The need for Catholic education today is as important as it has been since the 1800s, when the Church and our mission were [often] attacked,” he said.

Part of the reason for this, Daly said, is that laws in many states make public school curricula nonconducive to an education in Catholic values.

For example, during the Nov. 2020 election, voters in Washington state approved a ballot measure that will require “comprehensive sex education” in public schools, which Daly noted “undermines core beliefs of our faith” by failing to address complex moral issues tied to human sexuality, and failing to discuss sex in the context of marriage.

He said serving as a priest and educator in San Francisco— today a very secular and liberal city overall— allowed him to observe indifference and later hostility to the Church’s message firsthand.

Daly said within Catholic education, there ought not be a dichotomy between “social justice” and “piety.” He pointed to the life of St. Teresa of Calcutta as an example of strong faith and morals manifesting in a life of service.

Catholic schools ought to be places of learning, he said, which involves allowing students to encounter differing viewpoints and ideas. Catholic schools should respect students’ freedom, not forcing them to accept the faith, but also not compromising on the Church’s beliefs.

While realizing that not every student who enters a school or university is or will be Catholic, there ought to be at least an exposure to Catholic theology, morals, and intellectual tradition at the university, he said.

Today, many students graduate from Catholic universities having never taken a Catholic theology class. Some Catholic universities may do this because they fear that students of other faiths will be less likely to attend, or because a more Catholic curriculum may be viewed as “narrow-minded.”

“Too many institutions of higher learning and Catholic education have compromised their mission, and that to me is not going to be effective,” Daly commented.

“Education with humility leads to wisdom; without humility, it leads to arrogance.”

During February 2020, Gonzaga University, a Jesuit school located in the Spokane diocese, announced the creation of a law clinic focused primarily on LGBT advocacy.

“While the Catholic tradition does uphold the dignity of every human being, the LGBT Rights law clinic’s scope of practice could bring the GU Law School into conflict with the religious freedom of Christian individuals and organizations,” Daly told CNA at the time.

“There is also a concern that Gonzaga Law School will be actively promoting, in the legal arena and on campus, values that are contrary to the Catholic faith and natural law.”

Daly said he wrote to the university president in February, requesting that the president speak to him about the clinic, but never received a reply— likely because the situation unfolded right before the start of the coronavirus pandemic.