The effects ripple through communities as schools and the parishes that support them lose members. They are often buckling under the pressures of declining enrollment and a weak economy.
Several challenges facing the church, in addition to a faltering economy, help to explain why so many schools are closing. Society is more secularized and there is a decline in the church-going population. The priest sex abuse scandal has kept the church in the news — and in court — for many years. And there have been demographic shifts in America's Catholic landscape, including immigrants who are Catholic but who do not put a priority on a Catholic education.
"Fewer and fewer people are going to church now," said Jim Goodness, spokesman for the Newark (N.J.) Archdiocese, "and fewer and fewer parents are sending their children to Catholic schools."
That means less tuition. And despite the Catholic Church's legendary wealth, on a local level it doesn't have the cash to close the gap in individual parishes. And if regular operating costs, such as maintenance and teacher salaries, are being covered by deficit spending, then the parish starts talking about closing a school, Goodness said.
If a school's finances are in trouble, the discussions about closure begin at the parish level, Goodness said. If the parish administration can't see a way to keep a school open, it will make a formal request to the archbishop to close it. Once that decision is made, the diocese will often look to lease the building to a non-profit or a public school, Goodness said.
For instance, what was once Paterson Catholic High School now houses grades 7-12 of the Paterson Charter School for Science and Technology.
"Our hope is that schools return and that people will come back to schools that might have closed," Goodness said. "Or we can get multiple uses for buildings. Even though the Catholic school might not be there, we can use the building for religious education."
If a Catholic school is used by the municipality, the building can help preserve a sense of community and have a lasting purpose beyond parochial education.
The closure of a big Catholic high school, or several Catholic schools in an area, can hurt public school districts.
"When schools close, whether they're charter schools or Catholic schools, we get kids going into already-overcrowded schools," said Irene Sterling, president of the Paterson Education Fund, a nonprofit agency that works with the community to help improve education in Paterson, N.J.
"Historically, the Paterson school district has tried to lease those school buildings, which often works out so that kids still get schools, we get to use the buildings and the church gets the income to support other ministries," she said.
Sterling said she sees a sense of loss in her community.
"Schools are very unique places — when a school closes, even if somebody takes over that building and the kids stay or the families stay, the community is different afterwards," she said.
With fewer parents choosing Catholic education for their children, because of financial reasons or growing disillusionment with the church over the sex abuse scandal, times remain challenging for the church.
One of the main problems is the economy, which has many parents forgoing a Catholic education when they can choose a public school. "Nothing beats free," Goodness said.
Catholic school teachers and superintendents said that they don't believe the cases of priest sex abuse have had a significant effect on parents' decisions on what schools to choose. Goodness also said that settlements in the abuse cases did not divert resources from Catholic schools or other ministry services, such as tending to the poor.
Aside from the economy, demographic shifts in the American Catholic landscape have posed some problems for Catholic schools.
In place of the Catholic immigrants who came to this country, and to New Jersey, at the turn of the 20th century from countries such as Ireland, Poland and Italy, Goodness said, "now in some places, like Hudson County, an area that may have been traditionally one ethnic group that was Catholic has changed to two or three ethnic groups that are not even Christian."
Or, some immigrants who are Catholic — coming from Latin America or Asia — are often used to state-sponsored education, religious or not, and might be unable to afford a Catholic education, Goodness said.
Another challenge is that many new immigrants are sending a lot of their money back to the old country to support family, Goodness said.
In an earlier America, anti-Catholic sentiment was a powerful social force and drove many Catholics to take their children out of public schools and put them into Catholic schools where they would be among their own kind, and likely to succeed, without voices of discrimination around them, Goodness said.
However, some parishes and schools have long been making a concerted effort to include Spanish-speaking Catholic immigrants in their communities. For instance, the Newark Archdiocese sometimes uses madrinas, or "godmothers" — members of a particular congregation who speak Spanish — to seek out families who they think might be interested in a Catholic school, but are disconnected from the community by language and unfamiliarity.
Goodness said that in some areas, "outreach to people in the mother tongue is very strong," and often effective. That speaks to the church's willingness to adapt to its changing population, which is welcomed by members of the Hispanic community, and may prove to be even more fruitful, given the election of Pope Francis, the first pontiff from Latin America.
— By Tatiana Schlossberg, The Record (MCT)