Originally posted on Sightings at the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

In a bittersweet column in the Wall Street Journal, Joe Queenan suggests that “all sorts of iconic, useless institutions could be under siege; coleslaw, fedoras,” etc. Added to that headlined list were U.S. Savings Bonds, dachsunds, Fortune cookies, hatchbacks, and more. In the expanded list of “examples of revered institutions that once served a valuable function but are now no longer necessary” were galoshes, rice pudding, polenta, etc. Queenan also derided T-shirts bearing messages. (My recent birthday sweatshirt reads: “Irony. The Opposite of Wrinkly.” I dare him to touch that.)

His column was prompted by the presumed impending demise of Muzak and the planned disappearance of the penny in Canada. Those of us who reckon with cultures of religion can extend the list. Things like misleading signs in churches, notably “Welcome to All.” Cliché-burdened headlines such as “Mainline Protestant Decline” or “Nones Are Fastest Growing Religious Population in America.” We take such very, very seriously—but not too seriously. To get serious:

What are we going to do with headlines referring to the crisis in American Catholic education? To comment on declines in Catholic parochial education, on my part, is not Schadenfreude. I have no leftover Protestant prejudice against parochial education, being the product of the Lutheran counterparts to the Catholic version. We had no nuns slapping our fingers, as too many Catholic memoirs remember them, and our teachers could marry. Fortunately for me, being the son of a Lutheran teacher. The Martys support two Lutheran-based but open-to-all. Positive views of parish-based education at its best, or even at its upper-middle good, lead me to read as many editorial comments on all sides of this crisis-issue. Readers do not need my help in finding web coverage of the topic.

Typically, the reporting inspires ideologically-based debate. If the New York Times writers suggest that there’s a sort of solution at hand for Catholics: simply allow for married clergy and the supply of help will grow. And such suggestions get slapped down by defenders of celibacy for clergy. Don’t tamper with sacrament-like institutions. Hands off, Catholic dissenters and critics! Cost would be forbidding, in any case.

Studying statistics would at least help inform the debates. Patrick J. McCloskey and Joseph Claude Harris, in the Times article, lead off with attention to the crisis: “Catholic parochial education is in crisis. More than a third of parochial schools in the United States closed between 1965 and 1990, and enrollment fell by more than half.” However, there is reported to be “strong demands from students and families.” The authors know that much of the decline is demographic. Families are smaller. Change in communities, including moves of millions from Catholic urban enclaves to suburban dispersals hurt schools. Economics plays a part everywhere.

Catholic schools have a long way to go down before they’ll fit in the company of fedoras and Muzak, but no serious church members, parents, or citizens of any faith or no faith can allow for the decline and fall of Catholic education, without taking a second look at what it has meant and asking, with responsible leaders, questions such as “How can Catholic education be saved?” and if it should be. Lowered temperature among ardent defenders of Catholic schools, vouchers, etc. as well as cool analysis will help.

If these institutions continue to fade and fail, who will notice?


Joe Queenan, “If Muzak Goes, Will Rhode Island Be Next?” Wall Street Journal, February 8, 2013.

Patrick J. McCloskey and Joseph Claude Harris, “Catholic Education, in Need of Salvation,” New York Times, January 6, 2013.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, “The Plan to Save Catholic Schools,” Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2013.

Originally posted on Sightings at the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Categories: Institutions

Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.


  1. Donald Cooper

    My background is not Catholic. However, when I was interviewing candidates for undergraduate admission to my university, I gradually realized that the Catholic secondary schools did an exceptionally good job of creating awareness of the continuity of Western civilization. There are many other objectives to secondary education, but I felt that the schools of these students were doing something right, and the decline of these schools is a loss to the mix of American education.

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