Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Our Endangered Catholic Schools

Our Endangered Catholic Schools (Washington Post)

By Chester E. Finn Jr. and Andy Smarick
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The positive findings in the Education Department's recent evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program provide more evidence that high-quality private and parochial schools can have invaluable benefits for low-income, minority students. Tragically, however, Catholic schools, long the heart and soul of urban private education, are disappearing. Last year, seven Catholic schools in Washington were converted into charters, and the Dioceses of Brooklyn and Cleveland are considering another round of school closures.

This accelerating crisis, which robs disadvantaged city students of desperately needed educational options, has such profound and negative implications that two U.S. presidents, almost two generations apart, urged intervention. One of us helped staff Richard Nixon's "panel on non-public education" in 1970; the other wrote the Bush administration's report last year. Yet schools keep closing.

If America is to preserve inner-city Catholic education, help is needed from the other side of the aisle. We hope the Obama administration will step forward.

Most urban Catholic schools were originally built to educate the children of European immigrants; today, they mostly serve poor African American and Latino students. With their long track record of successfully educating ill-served populations, these schools can play a central role in the nation's effort to expand educational opportunity and reduce the achievement gap.

But not if they disappear. Between 2000 and 2006, nearly 1,200 faith-based urban schools closed, affecting 425,000 students. Most were Catholic schools, though other faith traditions also closed many of their inner-city schools.

In these communities, good schools are scarce. Districts try, and charter schools start, but a big fraction of the successful schools in such neighborhoods are Catholic. They have intentionally kept their tuitions low to stay within reach of poor families. Their disappearance weakens American urban education and blights the prospects of many thousands of needy youngsters.

Piecemeal local solutions have fallen short. This is a national education crisis that needs a national response.

It's possible that President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan understand the gravity of this challenge. Over the past decade, their home town of Chicago led the nation in Catholic school closures -- 63. Surely they grasp the heart-rending human impact of these school closings.

Both have solid records as urban education reformers, particularly with regard to charter schools, which are built on the belief that parents need sound education options and that the common good is well served by schools run under various auspices, not just by large public-sector bureaucracies.

Urban Catholic schools, though far older than charters, are cut from the same cloth. They serve the public interest by providing a rigorous, safe education to needy students, and they are run by an organization, the Catholic Church, that through hospitals, charities, food banks and more has long made valuable contributions to the larger community. Yes, religion is woven into the fabric of these schools, but that shouldn't justify governmental indifference to their plight, especially given the paucity of other great schools in these communities.

The Obama administration could help turn this fatal tide. Stimulus funds could be used to shore up schools on the brink, provide assistance to their teachers and administrators, or expand and replicate promising local strategies. The president could support education tax credits or scholarships, which would help needy students and stabilize school enrollments. By simply underscoring his support and concern for these schools, he would indicate the bipartisan nature of this issue, thereby providing cover to others eager to act but wary of the political implications.

America can no longer be distracted by the ideological battles surrounding educational choice and competition. The issue today is simply our willingness to save vital institutions that have admirably served poor children for generations.

Republican administrations have pushed this issue as far as they were able to -- but without great success. We are audacious enough to hope that, for the sake of hundreds of thousands of at-risk children, this Democratic administration will put its shoulder to this wheel and push until there is movement.

Chester E. Finn Jr., a White House aide from 1969 to 1970 and assistant secretary of education from 1985 to 1988, is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Andy Smarick, a White House aide from 2007 to 2008 and deputy assistant secretary of education from 2008 to 2009, is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Fordham Institute.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

LATEST RESEARCH: Most Catholics Optimistic About Future of Church

I've attached details of the latest research on Catholics about their faith...


Most Catholics Optimistic About Future of Church, Only a Minority Say an All Male and Celibate Priesthood Important to Personal Faith

Syracuse, NY - In the face of some difficult issues - including the ongoing sex abuse scandal, a priest shortage, dwindling parish memberships and church closings - a surprising number of Catholics revealed a good amount of optimism for their religion, according to the latest 2009 Le Moyne-Zogby Contemporary Catholic Trends (CCT) survey.

When asked whether they were optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the Church, 36% said they were very optimistic, and 37% replied somewhat optimistic. A minority of respondents, then, were either somewhat (18%) or very (5%) pessimistic about the Church's future. Progressive Catholics are the most likely to be pessimistic with 40% saying they are somewhat (36%) or very (4%) pessimistic. Only 7%of the self-described Orthodox are somewhat (6%) or very (1%) pessimistic about the future of the Church.

"These numbers remind us that news headlines are only part of the Catholic religious experience. When asked to reflect on the Church, I expect that most people think of their personal religious lives, not the national headlines. Religion is experienced, most vividly, in the parish and the family. In fact, 76% of respondents said that family connections are an important aspect of their faith. So, to me, these numbers suggest that most Catholics are satisfied with their personal religious lives" said Dr. Matthew Loveland, principal investigator of the CCT project.

The results were pulled from polling members of Zogby Interactive's volunteer web panel, a sampling of 3,812 panel members, including 767 self-identified Catholics.

Among other findings:

- American Catholics describe themselves in a variety of ways. For example, given a list of common religious identities, 20% chose Progressive to describe their religiosity, followed next by 11% who chose Orthodox. The least frequent descriptors chosen were Evangelical (7%), Fundamentalist (4%), and Born-Again (3%).

- A stark difference emerged between the self identified Progressives and Orthodox in terms of mass attendance. While 63% of Progressive Catholics attend mass less than once per month, 79% of the Orthodox attend mass at least once a month. Nineteen percent of the Progressives attend mass weekly or more, while 65% of the Orthodox attend this frequently.

-Catholic panel members were asked to rate the personal importance of a number of elements of their faith. Catholics are largely in agreement about the importance of the Sacraments to their faith, as 64% said they are very important and 23% reported that they are somewhat important. Respondents also ranked the Church's concern for the poor highly, as 61% said it was very important and 29% chose somewhat important. Teachings about Mary as the Mother of God are also ranked highly, 54% saying it is very important and 27% somewhat important to their Catholic faith.

- Less agreement was found about other elements of the faith. A minority say it is very (24%) or somewhat (12%) important to their faith that the priesthood remain all male, and fewer believe it is very (19%) or somewhat (13%) important for the priesthood to remain celibate. Here again we find differences between self identified Orthodox and Progressive Catholics. Sixty nine percent of the Orthodox believes it is somewhat or very important that the priesthood remain all male, while only 6% of the Progressives feel this is important to their faith. Similarly, 61% of those identified as Orthodox say a celibate priesthood is important to their faith, while only 6% of Progressives agree.

The Spring 2009 Contemporary Catholic Trends survey polled 3,812 randomly sampled members of the Zogby Interactive Panel between February 23rd and 25th , including 767Catholics. Panel members have volunteered to participate in periodic Zogby Interactive polls. The sample is weighted so that it reflects the political affiliation, age, race, gender, and education of the U.S. adult population.

A Searcher With Faith in Mind

Interesting op/ed in today's Washington Post about research being done on how faith influences the human brain


A Searcher With Faith in Mind (Washington Post)

By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, April 15, 2009; A19

Religion has often unintentionally enabled scientific skepticism. The faithful will issue a challenge to science: Ha, you can't explain the development of life, or the moral sense, or the nearly universal persistence of religion. To which the materialist responds: Can too. It is all biology and chemistry, thus disproving your God hypothesis.

To this musty debate, Andrew Newberg, perhaps America's leading expert on the neurological basis of religion, brings a fresh perspective. His new book, "How God Changes Your Brain," co-authored with Mark Robert Waldman, summarizes several years of groundbreaking research on the biological basis of religious experience. And it offers plenty to challenge skeptics and believers alike.

Using brain imaging studies of Franciscan nuns and Buddhist practitioners, and Sikhs and Sufis -- along with everyday people new to meditation -- Newberg asserts that traditional spiritual practices such as prayer and breath control can alter the neural connections of the brain, leading to "long-lasting states of unity, peacefulness and love." He assures the mystically challenged (such as myself) that these neural networks begin to develop quickly -- a matter of weeks in meditation, not decades on a Tibetan mountaintop. And though meditation does not require a belief in God, strong religious belief amplifies its effect on the brain and enhances "social awareness and empathy while subduing destructive feelings and emotions."

Newberg argues that religious belief is often personally and socially advantageous, allowing men and women to "imagine a better future." And he does not contend, as philosophically lazy scientists sometimes do, that a biological propensity toward belief automatically disproves the existence of an object of such belief. "Neuroscience cannot tell you if God does or doesn't exist," Newberg states with appropriate humility. Neurobiology helps explain religion; it does not explain it away.

But Newberg's research offers warnings for the religious as well. Contemplating a loving God strengthens portions of our brain -- particularly the frontal lobes and the anterior cingulate -- where empathy and reason reside. Contemplating a wrathful God empowers the limbic system, which is "filled with aggression and fear." It is a sobering concept: The God we choose to love changes us into his image, whether he exists or not.

For Newberg, this is not a simple critique of religious fundamentalism -- a phenomenon varied in its beliefs and motivations. It is a criticism of any institution that allies ideology or faith with anger and selfishness. "The enemy is not religion," writes Newberg, "the enemy is anger, hostility, intolerance, separatism, extreme idealism, and prejudicial fear -- be it secular, religious, or political."

Newberg employs a vivid image: two packs of neurological wolves, he says, are found in every brain. One pack is old and powerful, oriented toward survival and anger. The other is composed of pups -- the newer parts of the brain, more creative and compassionate -- "but they are also neurologically vulnerable and slow when compared to the activity in the emotional parts of the brain." So all human beings are left with a question: Which pack do we feed?

"How God Changes Your Brain" has many revelations -- and a few limitations. In a practical, how-to tone, it predicts "an epiphany that can improve the inner quality of your life. For most Americans, that is what spirituality is about." But if this is what spirituality is all about, it isn't about very much. Mature faith sometimes involves self-sacrifice, not self-actualization; anguish, not comfort. If the primary goal of religion is escape or contentment, there are other, even more practical methods to consider. "I didn't go to religion to make me happy," said C.S. Lewis, "I always knew a bottle of port would do that." The same could be said of psychedelic drugs, which can mimic spiritual ecstasy.

Every religious discussion eventually comes down to the question of truth. Can we escape from the wheel of becoming, or hear God's voice in a wandering prophet, or meet a man once dead? Without such beliefs, religion is mere meditation. Newberg's research shows an amplified influence of religious practices on those who "truly believe." But Newberg himself has difficulty sharing such belief. His research on the varieties of religious experience -- and his scientific understanding that the brain is drawn naturally toward artificial certainties -- leave him skeptical about the capacity of the human mind to accurately perceive "universal or ultimate truth."

Yet, he told me, "To this day, I am still seeking and searching." And that is the most honest kind of science.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Crown Of Thorns

I was asked this week by a fellow Catholic, "Why is it called 'Good Friday?'"

As I reflected on the question, I remembered something I heard on the Catholic Channel on XM Satellite Radio. A priest was asked the same question and answered, "because of the hope that came from the darkest hour of humanity." I really connected with that quote and found a visual representation of the concept I'd love to share with you.

Take a look at the attached (click on post title for a link to the picture and article) and imagine the light at the center of the "crown of thorns" as being the light of hope illuminating the darkness representing the darkest hour of humanity.

Leave it to the Hubble Telescope to once again provide a rare visual glimpse of Christ (see earlier post "Rich Man - Poor Man" for two other intriguing Hubble pictures).

Happy Blessed Easter!

Friday, April 10, 2009

10 Reasons The Resurrection Really Happened

Blessings to you and yours on this Good Friday. Click on the post title to see the article from The Daily Beast.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Healing Moment

It's been 34 years since my father's suicide, but the wound on my soul still finds healing moments thanks to the grace of God.

Recently, such a moment came in an innocent phone call with a long lost friend. Lee Jay and I became friends in junior high. He's Jewish. I'm Catholic. We clicked. We enjoyed each other's company greatly at tender moments of transition in each of our lives.

One of my favorite childhood memories was the honor of being invited to Lee Jay's Bar Mitzvah. It was a grand event filled with religious majesty and wonder. My friend Lee Jay became a man before my very eyes as he read from the Torah in the tongue of his ancestors. I felt the presence of God in the moment the same way I felt His presence at my First Communion and Confirmation (I have no memory of my Baptism, but I'm sure God was there too).

My father's death came early in my 9th grade year. After his death, I struggled to maintain meaningful personal friendships. Perhaps it was a loss of trust precipitated by my father's actions. Perhaps it was the great sadness that descended on me and everything around me. But all close personal friendships ended at that moment. In high school and college, I had many acquaintances, some close acquaintances, but no close friends.

As I transitioned to adulthood, I tried, sometimes desperately, to reconnect with good friends of my youth. But none were open to reestablishing friendships. In many ways, I felt I had failed these friends and, I'm ashamed to admit, occasionally I would wallow in self-pity.

Fast-forward to early 2009, I noticed a friend from my Bellevue days searching on Facebook for Lee Jay. And thought, I wonder what happened to him? Within a second or two, thanks to Google, I found him. He's an attorney and expert in conflict resolution and lives on the west coast (What a perfect fit for his many personality gifts). I found his email address and sent a message his way. He immediately responded with a call to my voicemail that made my soul sing. Within hours we were reunited via cell phone. It was as if we had not been apart for 30+ years. Lee Jay was still the genuine, earnest young man from my youth and so filled with joy. He heartily welcomed me back into his world. As we were finishing the call, I shared with him how much his Bar Mitzvah was one of my most vivid and significant memories. Then what he said floored me. Lee Jay told me of how touched he was that I wanted him and his family to be at my father's funeral.

That's right. He was there. Perhaps it was my desire to block the painful memories of my father's death, but I had forgotten.

We promised to stay in touch and eagerly look forward to reuniting face to face.

As I ponder the conversation, I realize God had opened up an old wound and sprinkled his healing grace on my soul. I am constantly amazed at God's love for each and every one of us. Amazing grace how sweet thou art...

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Why President Obama Is Losing Catholics

"President Obama's approval rating among Catholics has eroded, but it could get much worse."

Intriguing OP-ED piece in today's Washington Post. Click on title link to read it.