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Pittsburgh Catholic Column: November 14, 2008

An investment in hard times

by Dr. Charles J. Dougherty

When the economy slumps, as it has, families try to reduce their spending. “Extras” are eliminated. Except for the Warren Buffetts of the country, there is little money for investments.

One reduction that families no doubt consider is the cost of a Catholic education for their children. Is it worth the extra cost to pay for a Catholic school education in hard times? I believe that it is.

The magnitude of the present problem suggests that fundamental adjustments may be under way that will have an impact on how we live and work. If this is so, it will affect us all, but especially the next generation. How that generation is prepared in today’s schools may make the difference for our nation’s future. Two related aspects of Catholic education can best prepare today’s young people for tomorrow's challenges.

Catholic schools are well-known for a high level of discipline. Discipline in the external learning environment supports the development of self-discipline. No matter what economic challenges lie ahead, it will take self-discipline to deal with them. Indeed, historians who write of our time may well conclude that our fundamental problem was not financial but instead was a lack of self-discipline in our culture as a whole. Even if the future is not changed in significant ways by our current problems, the self-discipline promoted by Catholic education is a lifelong virtue that aids immeasurably in achieving all of life's goals.

Catholic schools have this atmosphere of discipline because faith is explicit. It forms the bedrock for a world view in which some things are true and some false; some acts right, others wrong. This simple but all-important insight is one that is rapidly eroding in a society where many hold that all values are relative and that judgments of true, false, right and wrong are all subjective. Again, the next generation may need this world view to correct the culture that stands behind our economic problems. And even if they do not need a firm sense of true and false, right and wrong to deal with economic changes, they will need it to lead good lives.

These two features of Catholic education — discipline grounded in an objective world view – are often noted approvingly by non-Catholic parents of children in Catholic schools and by non-Catholic students in Catholic universities. They do not share all we believe, but they are pleased to partner with us because we “stand for something.” The educational benefits of that are clear to them. It is also a living rebuff to those who believe that the discipline of an objective world view is always intolerant of others.

A second reason why Catholic education is a wise investment in hard times is a function of hard times themselves. It is easy to forget God when times are good. But when there is suffering, believers turn to God. When families face the loss of homes, jobs and opportunities, they need the hope that is central to faith. In Catholic schools, God and prayer are an explicit part of each day. This is of great direct value to young people whose families are suffering now. In addition, it gives them the inner resources and social structures to cope with the sufferings that they will inevitable know in their own futures.

Finally, though we all know exceptions to this, education in a Catholic school increases the likelihood that a student will keep the Catholic faith or return to it later in life. Parents whose Catholic faith is central to their lives and identities want their children and their grandchildren to experience that same faith. The financial sacrifices associated with the cost of Catholic education is thus an expression of the love of parents for their children and for their family into the future. It is an investment that is not fundamentally financial but spiritual. The expected return is not just in the long run. It is, we believe, in the ever-lasting run.