Three years ago, the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit raised $20 million to renovate its flagship Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament. While some Detroit-area Catholics were skeptical about a project so costly at a time when many of the city’s Catholic parishes and schools were in disrepair and struggling to stay open, Detroit archbishop Cardinal Adam Maida insisted that the project was a necessary display of the archdiocese’s strength and its commitment to Detroit.

Now, the archdiocese is preparing to close 15 Catholic schools in metro Detroit next month; only 12 will remain in the city, down from more than 120 at mid-century. The church leadership has refused to hear any appeal of its decision, arguing that demographic trends have made the schools unsustainable. While it is true that enrollment in most of the schools has dropped severely and tuition cannot cover their costs in most cases, the archdiocese could afford to keep the schools open if it wanted to. The fact that it refuses to do so amounts to an abandonment of its educational mission in Detroit and, in the eyes of many Detroit Catholics, a profound display of the archdiocese’s weakness.

To be sure, Detroit’s Catholic schools are struggling. The city’s population — Catholic and non-Catholic — has fallen drastically since the middle of the century, and the nationwide decline in priests and nuns has forced Catholic schools to rely heavily on lay teachers, who come at a comparatively high cost. As a result, enrollment has decreased sharply, and tuition — especially in the inner-city schools, where nearly all of the students rely on financial aid — can no longer cover the schools’ operating costs. The closing schools have outstanding debts totaling over $16 million and run an overall yearly deficit of about $3 million.

Still, despite low enrollment, Detroit’s Catholic schools remain among the best educational opportunities the city has to offer. High schools like Detroit’s Holy Redeemer, which has just 189 students currently enrolled, vastly outperform the city’s disastrous public schools — Holy Redeemer graduates more than 95 percent of its student body, and more than 95 percent of its graduates go on to college. For the archdiocese, schools like Holy Redeemer represent a financial burden. But for many of the 2,241 students attending the doomed schools, the archdiocese’s decision to free itself from that burden will mean an inferior education — if not an abridged one.

When the archdiocese decided to renovate Cardinal Maida’s home cathedral, it undertook a massive fundraising campaign, approaching each of its 315 parishes for contributions and courting big donors at Maida’s residence. If Maida and the rest of the church leadership had the same level of commitment to the education of Detroit’s children, there can be little doubt that they could have launched a similar effort to keep the schools open. There is no shortage of potential benefactors who would be willing to help: In the absence of any fundraising effort by the archdiocese, individual high schools like Notre Dame and St. Martin de Porres have solicited donors willing to pay off their debts and balance their operating budgets, only to see the archdiocese refuse their offers.

On “moral” issues like contraception and divorce, where profound shifts in the attitudes of mainstream American Catholics over the past several decades have rendered the Vatican’s traditional positions obsolete, the church has taken pride in standing firm against the popular tide. It is disheartening to see the Archdiocese of Detroit, at a time when its services are so badly needed, surrender its schools to demographic shifts. If Cardinal Maida wanted to make a show of the church’s strength in Detroit, he missed his chance.

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