Character – The Social Safety Net

One hundred and thirty years ago, the bishops took action. We were an immigrant Church. Our “foreign” faith and our susceptible youngsters required shelter from an ambient culture which, though religious, was inimical to Catholicism. At the Third Plenary Council in Baltimore in 1884, the bishops mandated the establishment of schools in parishes thereby formalizing and expanding the educational instruction initiated a century before in various pockets of the nation by the Ursulines, the Jesuits, the Daughters of Charity and others. In the ensuing century, the bishops’ decision proved fruitful and gave rise to thousands of “parochial” school across the country where many of us learned our four ‘Rs’ (reading, ’riting, ’rithmetic, and religion). In our pursuit of the unity of knowledge, our character was infused with faith-based virtue and molded by a rigid regimen of discipline. Today Catholicism has become mainstream.

Now, however, a different situation challenges us Catholics, and it is time for the laity to take action – and so they have. The crisis (not too strong a word) confronting us faces us not just as Catholics but also as Americans. The endemic deterioration of our nation’s educational system in many of our largest cities is perilous. As Americans we are concerned because these poorly educated youngsters will be unprepared to participate in the totality of civic life and hence to contribute to a more productive society; as Catholics we are concerned because education is not merely a work of mercy, it is a means by which we help others come to appreciate the fullness of the human person.

In 1884 under the impetus of the bishops, the Church rose to ensure the well-being of her flock in an environment hostile to Catholicism. Today under the impetus of the laity, she rises to ensure the well-being of all students in a secularized environment hostile to anything faith based. Consider the progress the laity is making in inner city parochial schools in New York, Camden, Baltimore, Nashville, Wichita and elsewhere.

An especially promising example has appeared in Philadelphia where, as in other major urban centers, the cycle of poverty and inadequate educational opportunities are inextricably linked, and where the high school graduation rate for African American and Hispanic males approximates 50%. The Independence Mission School (IMS) ( is a system of 14 independent Catholic grade schools with over 4,100 students organized last year by a board of lay men and women “to provide sustainable, affordable, high quality Catholic education to children of all faiths in under-served urban neighborhoods through a new model of governance, funding and accountability for the member schools”.

Go to its website and discover the good news. The IMS schools provide a safe, results-oriented and supportive environment to these inner-city kids, 1/3rd of whom live below the poverty level, and 2/3rd of whom are non-Catholic. The cost per student is less than one half that of students in public schools and yet by 7th grade the IMS students are performing up to 2 or 3 years above grade level. What makes this miracle on the Delaware possible in part is the effective use by IMS of the Pennsylvania tax-credit scholarships. The 14 schools operate independently of each other where appropriate and in partnership with each other where efficient. Clearly, it is a collaborative model which builds and rewards the enthusiasm of students, faculty and supporters without compromising the principle of subsidiarity at the school level.

Most significant, though, is the IMS focus on the whole student. For many of the parents and guardians this is the “Catholic” part (not so much the religious instruction whose curriculum the Archdiocese provides and requires). There is a high expectation for individual behavior and performance. Character development is paramount and is recognized as the foundation for a student’s productive future. Ultimately, it is character that breaks the cycle of poverty.

Some may question the legitimacy of the Church committing limited resources to the education of so many non-Catholics. Two points might address their concern. One is that – as missionaries have witnessed in non-Christian lands – education is evangelization. Two, as St. Paul suggests, before a student can hunger for meat he needs basic milk.

Dana Robinson is chair of the board of the National Catholic Community Foundation.

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