The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is planning to close 49 schools, and thousands are feeling the pain. Michael Wetzel, a veteran English teacher at Monsignor Bonner and Archbishop Prendergast High Schools in Drexel Hill, told The Inquirer that the news of their closing was "tantamount to a death."
I sympathize with Wetzel. I graduated from Monsignor Bonner in 1990, and I understand his sense of loss. Students will be uprooted, and teachers will be out of jobs.
Worse still is the end of a tradition - as well as the decline of the traditional values that once fueled Catholic education.
For more than 50 years, Bonner has maintained a culture of honor, loyalty, and integrity, providing its students with the moral foundation to become successful, upstanding members of society. Consider James P. Gallagher (Class of 1959), a former president of Philadelphia University; Ed Stefanski ('72), a former general manger of the 76ers and a current executive vice president of the Toronto Raptors; John Cappelletti ('70), who won the 1973 Heisman Trophy; Mike Teti ('74), who was head coach of the U.S. men's Olympic rowing team in 2008; or Christopher G. Donovan ('71), the speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives.
Bonner's Class of 2011 continued this tradition of excellence. Its members earned more than $8.5 million in scholarships, and 95 percent are pursuing a postsecondary education. Since Bonner's founding in 1953, more than 18,000 young men have graduated from the school.
Unfortunately, like all good things, Bonner appears to be coming to to an end. Although the merging and shuttering of dozens of archdiocesan schools is meant to rescue and rebuild the system, the Catholic Church has clearly lost much of its market share when it comes to education in Philadelphia. In 1960, at its peak, the archdiocese was educating more than 270,000 students. Today, that's down to only 68,000.
Some say sexual-abuse scandals are the reason. Others blame competition from charter schools, as well as policymakers' failure to make school vouchers widely available.
The archdiocesan commission that recommended the closings concluded that Catholic school enrollment is echoing the declining population of the city, and it noted in its report that the Catholic families remaining in the city are having fewer children. It also noted that fewer men and women are becoming priests and nuns, leading to a shortage of religious personnel to staff the schools and driving up their costs.
But there is another problem the commission did not mention: deteriorating values. Catholic education cannot be easily sustained in an environment that's not rich in traditional values, especially when it comes to the institutions of marriage and family. Tragically, these institutions have been crumbling for decades in the United States.
Marriage rates among young adults continue to drop. For the first time in history, according to census data, the nation has more single than married adults aged 25 to 34. High rates of divorce, cohabitation outside of marriage, and the broader breakdown of the nuclear family are to blame.
The rate of out-of-wedlock births, meanwhile, continues to rise. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the share of children born to unmarried women rose 26 percent from 2002 to 2007, when single women gave birth to four out of every 10 babies. This was more than double the rate in 1980.
The Catholic Church's historical mission has been to address such problems in society. Now, unfortunately, it needs to focus on tending to its own. Let's hope the archdiocese's decision to consolidate its schools will help stabilize its enrollment and bring new life to a once-thriving Catholic school system.