Philadelphia Metropolis


A Catholic Conspiracy?

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Rigali Use This.jpgThere's a theory circulating that the whole kerfuffle over the closing of Catholic schools in Philadelphia was orchestrated by the archdiocese as a way to shake the tree for more money.

The theory goes that the Blue Ribbon Commission recommended way more school closings than needed to rouse students, parents and potential donors to step forward and "save" the schools. In short, they created a phony crisis.

I don't buy it. 

I don't think the process was rigged in any way.  I don't see the commission playing such a Machiavellian role of deliberately closing too many schools.

I think they were true to their mission.  They laid out a case that a severe contraction was necessary in order to both change and preserve the Catholic school system.  Though there were exceptions, most of the schools they targeted had experienced steep declines in enrollment and, looking ahead, the demographic trends were not favorable.

The answer as to why there was such a major change between the initial report and the final list is simple.  The Blue Ribbon Commission was appointed and given its mandate by Archbishop Justin Rigali.

But, there was a regime change at the top.  By the time the commission completed its work, Cardinal Rigali had been, um, retired by the Vatican and replaced by Archbishop Charles Chaput.

My bet is that if Rigali was still in charge, he would have accepted the commission's report in its entirety and enacted virtually all of its recommendations. Of course, he

would have sighed and said it was a matter of great regret that the decision had to be made, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

Ever since he took over the archdiocese in 2003, Rigali had dithered over the issue of schools. He acted as if it was just too big a problem to get his arms around. He appointed this commission only after being pushed by private donors and others interested in Catholic education to do something, anything about the situation.

The commission provided perfect cover for the Cardinal. It's not him who would be lowering the axe. The authors of the action were a group of independent lay people and outside educational experts.

Chaput is a different cat. To use a grammatical analogy, Rigali is an adjective. Chaput is a verb. He's turned out to be much more active and forceful than his predecessor.

That commission wasn't his. He didn't have a direct stake in affirming its recommendations. When an uproar did ensue, when donors came forward with pledges of $12 million within a matter of weeks, he adjusted to the situation. He could not ignore the groundswell of support. Instead of seeing the angry reaction as a problem, as Rigali might, he saw it as an opportunity to harness some of that energy to help the schools.

But, let's not go too far in laying out laurels. It's important to note that Chaput did not save the schools that were due to be closed, he gave them a reprieve.

They have to come up with money; they have to change the way they operate and they have to attract students if they are to remain open.

He is giving them an opportunity not a guarantee.

In other words, he's treating them like adults and putting their future into their own hands. I think it's admirable.

-- Tom Ferrick

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