Archbishop of DC takes the tough questions on Catholic schools

No, he’s not yet a cardinal, but Washington, D.C. Archbishop Donald Wuerl is a major Catholic figure in the U.S.

And there he was Saturday, in the middle of a room full of religion journalists, shaking hands and making chit-chat. He looked perfectly at ease — and stayed that way even when he faced a few tough questions.

He came to the Religion Newswriters Association get-together to talk about Catholic schools — the threat they face and how to save them. Catholic schools are “endangered,” he said, but they work.

“We can’t walk away from Catholic schools,” he told us.

vidcap_nc8popewuerl0402.jpgWuerl’s basic point was this: Catholic schools must be saved, but the Catholic Church can’t do it alone. The wider community — and government — must help, particularly in inner cities where children need an educational alternative.

Wuerl makes many of the same arguments in a new pastoral letter to the Archdiocese of Washington.

He told us about a new tuition-assistance program in the archdiocese that has raised $2 million from the community, helping to keep 445 students in Catholic schools. It’s a start, but the real need was more like $18 million.

He told us about a similar program he had started in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, supported by businesses, foundations and other faith leaders, which today keeps about 1,000 inner-city kids in Catholic schools. The vast majority of them are not Catholic.

“More and more our our neighbors recognize the unique gift that Catholic education is to the community,” he said.

Wuerl made the expected call for government support of Catholic education, always a sticky subject. “I think it is a simple question of justice,” he said.

The archbishop of Washington is a soft-spoken fellow. He’s the kind of guy you have to stay quiet to hear. But he gets his point across. He was gracious and funny and confident enough to mix it up with a bunch of newspaper people.

Asked about possible savings that might result from merging dioceses (and presumably having fewer bishops in charge of them), he said: “You get a lot of mileage out of one bishop.”

Wuerl and Mark Gray, a Catholic Church researcher at Georgetown, shared the usual reasons for why Catholic schools are failing: economics; population changes; competition, staffing.

Asked if the growing numbers of Catholic immigrants would help, Wuerl said: “They come here precisely because they don’t have the resources.”

Gray said that in some respects, Catholic families are more like everyone else: “It’s definitely a trend, not only having fewer children, but waiting longer to have children.”

Wuerl wrapped things up by talking about visiting a school and asking fourth-graders why they attend a Catholic school. One of them said “I come to this school to get an education and get a life.”

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.