Pope Francis Visits Private School in East Harlem

Using the pope for political purposes is harder than it seems.


Students at OLQA
From OLQA's Website

After addressing major global power centers the White House, Congress, and the United Nations General Assembly, Pope Francis today visited Our Lady Queen of Angels (OLQA), a Catholic school in East Harlem. The visit highlights the pope's devotion to society's overlooked, since the school serves an underprivileged community. But it also undermines some facile portrayals of the pontiff, and may even serve to hearten proponents of school choice.

This trip to a school where 69 percent of students qualify for need-based scholarships and 22 percent are English language learners is fitting for Pope Francis, known for his ministry to the vulnerable and his calls to embrace immigrants. Speaking to Congress on Thursday, Pope Francis said: 

In recent centuries, millions of people came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom. We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants…Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our "neighbors" and everything around us. 

The trip also shows how difficult it is to shoe-horn the man and his moral philosophy into a single predefined category of contemporary American politics.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned and trades on a steady invocation of income inequality, has tried to use the moral authority of Pope Francis to garner support for his progressive political agenda. The New York Times reports the mayor stating, for example, "We are amplifying the pope's agenda; we are answering his call to action." Yet de Blasio opposes tax credits for parents who send their children to parochial schools like OLQA, putting him at odds with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and school choice proponents generally.

Moreover, OLQA is part of a network of Catholic schools in New York called the Partnership for Inner City Education that explicitly embraces elements of the charter school network model, against which de Blasio has actively worked. Politico reports that the Partnership has studied the work of charter networks including Success Academy, Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools.

According to CNN, the Partnership's superintendent and chief academic officer Kathleen Porter-Magee said she hopes the pope's "visit fundamentally changes the conversation about Catholic education in America." Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, went even further, stating, "This is his most important stop…We think this is the perfect place for Pope Francis to be."