I forget when and where it was in which, as a reporter, I heard a stunning lecture on the impact of birthrates and basic demographics on the rise and fall of religious institutions in the United States and elsewhere. What made the lecture so interesting was the connection the speaker -- it might have been the United Methodist thinker Lyle Schaller -- made between traditional forms of religion and higher birth rates (and, correspondingly, between liberal forms of religion and much lower birth rates). Think about the recent decline of mainline Protestantism. Think about churches in Europe.
Anyway, enough about my fading Baby Boomer brain. The key is that these factors often figure into news stories about religion -- especially in a Catholic context. Think about the priest shortage. Think about the relative health of conservative Catholic orders (emphasis on the word "relative") and the sharp decline or even death of the orders that appeal to progressive, modern Catholics. Think about those painful parochial school closings in urban areas across the nation, but especially in the Northeast and upper Midwest.
Here in Baltimore, Catholics were just hit with a stunner -- the closing of Towson Catholic High School. This was a small, but highly symbolic school, in large part because of its elite athletics programs. Round one of The Baltimore Sun coverage of the closing was absolutely by-the-book stuff, in terms of talking to upset parents, sad statements from church officials, etc. I am simply saying that the book is missing a some crucial pages. We read, for example:
Citing the "tidal wave of this dire economy" and a $650,000 deficit, the 86-year-old school notified parents and its 20-member faculty via e-mail Tuesday that it would not open for classes in September.
But many who loved the small school are convinced that more could have been done to save it. They described a pattern of indifference by Monsignor F. Dennis Tinder, the pastor of Immaculate Conception. The alumni association's president, Paul A. Mecinski, said that if his group had received some warning of the dire situation, members might have been able to help. ...
Tinder did not make himself available for comment. But Sean Caine, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said the combination of $160,000 in unpaid tuition from last year and the sudden loss of 81 students from next year's projected enrollment was too much for the school to overcome.
Then later on, there is this additional information:
Enrollment declines and closings have afflicted Catholic schools, which serve about 2.5 million students nationwide, for a decade particularly at elementary schools level and at schools such as Towson Catholic that serve urban populations.
"It has been a steady and pretty troubling trend," said the Rev. Ronald Nuzzi, senior director of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program at the University of Notre Dame.
Several religion ghosts hover nearby: * How healthy is urban Catholicism in Baltimore -- one of the strategic liberal Catholic cities in America -- in general? What is happening with the Latino population? Asians? * Are there healthy Catholic schools in the area? Are they all suburban? Is this simply linked to the old Catholics-moving-to-the-suburbs trend? Are healthy schools linked to healthy parishes? What is the status of this particular parish? * Several years ago, I was stunned to learn that some conservative Catholic families in South Baltimore were pulling their kids from Catholic schools in order to home school them, obviously, or even to send them to conservative Protestant schools.
Why? I asked one mother about this and she said: Our Protestant school is a much safer environment for our children than the Catholic school they were attending. My children are not harassed at the Protestant school about issues like birth control and the size of our family. They don't have to hear the pope attacked week after week by teachers. Our family felt like our traditional Catholic faith was under attack -- in a Catholic school.
I have met other Catholic and ex-Catholic families with the same story. Is this small, but symbolic, problem affecting the support for some schools? How many, if any?
* Obviously, what is happening with birth rates in urban Catholic families in Baltimore? What is happening to the actual pool from which this declining number of students is being drawn? The bad economy is there -- you bet. But this trend has deep roots and long legs. This is not something that just started happening. If Catholic families in Baltimore used to average three to five children and now the average is 1.3, that's going to affect the schools.
Of course, that issue has doctrinal content in a Catholic context.
The Towson story is a big one. It might be time for a deeper look at some of these issues in Baltimore.