This melancholy suggest comes from a recent and very interesting talk by Fr Aidan Nichols OP, which he gave to St Mary Magdalene in Brighton, at the invitation of Fr Ray Blake - you can listen to the talk here. It echoes the musings of the Bishop of Lancaster. Fr Nichols was focused on the lack of (really) Catholic teachers, the bishop on the lack of Catholic pupils. Both suggest the answer may be to have a smaller number of schools which could claim to be genuinely Catholic.
It is good to have this kind of debate, but I think this is the wrong answer. Catholics, as teachers or parents, aren't as committed to the Catholic school system as they were fifty years ago. If that changed then the problems just identified would be ameliorated, if not solved. The lack of commitment stems from two issues. First, they lack a sense that Catholic schools are important for the spiritual development of Catholic children. Second, many nominally Catholic schools are so bad that they are not, in fact, beneficial to the spiritual development of Catholic children, and serious-minded Catholic parents and teachers would not be welcome in these places.
So there's a chicken-and-egg situation here. But that's just another way of saying that if things started to improve, we'd rapidly get into a virtuous circle: better reputations leading to more committed people in the schools, leading to better reputations... It cuts both ways. Are there ways for the bishops to start the process off? Of course there are.
You don't need an instant army of Catholic pupils and teachers to do a few basic things which, frankly, are a necessary condition for the emergence of such an army.
1. Insist on Catholic markers. Crucifixes in classrooms, images in the entrance hall, mid-week Masses for feast days, visits by the parish priest and bishop. Can this be forced down the throats of an unwilling staff? Yes, it can. The Bishops send inspectors round: they should do their job.
2. Get rid of Connexions and sex education. Yes, it may sound radical but Church teaching should be followed, at least in a negative way. It is hard to find inspiring Catholic teachers to explain the teaching of the Church in an attractive way, but our bishops have an obligation to stop abortion being promoted actively in the school. And they should do it NOW.
3. Insist on proper catechism in preparation for First Holy Communion, Confirmation, and Marriage. Parents want their children to have the sacraments, this is the Church's chance to insist they know something about the Faith. Teach them the Penny Catechism. Ok, that's not the only option. But they should know the basics. If they have to know these things, they will help in establishing decent catechesis in parishes and schools. It is for the Bishop to ensure children are catechised for Confirmation: they should do so. And insist that Parish Priests do the same for FHC and Marriage.
I don't like the idea of Catholic schools being handed over to the state. This is a betrayal of the people who paid for them. It is also a betrayal of the children, of whatever faith, are in the school, who are likely to find the moral environment deteriorate significantly after such a hand-over. Even a weak faith, in this context, is better than none. Bishops are responsible for all the souls in their dioceses: they will be asked, on judgement day, what they did to save each and every one. 'I fed them to the lions' won't be a good answer.