There is a wide range of opinions on Catholic education among Catholics today &, as a teacher of theology in a Catholic high school, I have some interest in what people are saying. The online chatter is predictably hit-or-miss, often filled with interesting grammatical choices & fuzzy logic, & people I’ve talked to directly, including some priests here in the diocese, are sometimes too at ease with stereotypes, innuendoes, & hearsay about particular schools, my own included. Thoughtful considerations are out there, however, & in this post I’d like to offer some preliminary reflections on a few of those that, though not original to me, at least help me to think through the issues.
Some people continue to celebrate Catholic schools for their academic achievements, the spiritual formation they offer, the success of their athletic programs, & the many social & academic opportunities they have traditionally provided. Others express doubts about these schools & their achievements, suggesting that home schooling, charter schools, & even public schools are a preferable, & less expensive, option. Some of these people go so far as to disparage Catholic schools, generally or specifically, for their failures to teach orthodox Catholicism in their classes or promote a Catholic culture throughout the school. I’ve heard it said that Catholic schools are, or this or that particular school is, lacking in every regard that counts, far too interested in financial success, test scores, & athletic titles, & far too unconcerned with forming its students in the faith. “_____ is too liberal; _____ is a den of heretics; _____ is pro-choice; _____ teaches its students a radical feminism that subverts Church teaching on marriage, family & motherhood. Money, worldly success, trophies & awards, new buildings, notice by the powers-that-be: this is all that students can look forward to at this school.” There’s nothing so easy as painting with broad strokes, but there you have it. Some of the people whom I have heard say things like these have no connection with the schools in question, & in one case a person whose job requires him to play close attention to stereotypes about the faith confidently endorsed one regarding a Catholic school here in Phoenix.
More thoughtful & substantive critiques of Catholic education in general are available, & these should give all of us greater pause. Some people, including those who have taught in Catholic schools, suggest that Catholic schools are essentially public schools covered by a thin veneer of religiosity. Yes, we have our liturgies, weekly or monthly, our morning & classroom prayers; & yes, we have Theology classes, 4 years worth. Yet the academic structure of our schools, which separates the disciplines into discrete subject matters which have little connection to each other, discourages the formation of any real Catholic culture, which is always marked by a self-conscious attempt to integrate apparently disparate experiences & fields of study into a unified vision of reality. How can students be expected to see all things in a deeply Catholic way, to become convinced that “All truth is God’s truth,” or to have even an inkling of what it means to take captive all thoughts for Christ, when they shuffle off to classes where their teacher, who may not even be a Catholic, is unlikely to have had an intellectual formation that enables them to see even their own discipline in light of the Church’s profession of faith? With academic specialization the expected norm, & without any questions even being raised about it & its pernicious effects, what chance does any Catholic school have in developing a culture capable of nurturing students in the faith? How, in other words, can we expect our students to see anything that really matters in light of Christ when he is the subject of but one class per day, & when Catholic Theology is just one more subject to be studied? A subject, moreover, often expected by students to present few intellectual challenges, with teachers more than occasionally agreeing, even if only implicitly. Prayers can be ignored & occasional liturgies endured by students whose concerns are merely academic or social, & if their Theology courses are taught by those with a questionable grasp of their subject & an inability to address broader questions from within the faith, they can slide through their Catholic education without any serious intellectual engagement with the faith, & thus be largely unformed both in their faith & their intellect. So much the worse when their school has a well-deserved reputation for focusing on sports or other activities considered extracurricular. It’s better, then, so the logic goes, to educate the children at home &/or the local parish, & save a considerable sum of money.
While I share many of these concerns, I’m not ready to sound the retreat from Catholic education just yet. Catholic education in its present form, like public education, has a short history, & the Church has always shown an ability not only to build success stories from unimpressive origins, but also to adapt itself & how it fulfills the will of Christ when necessary. It’s impossible to tell what form our schools will take even in the near future; giving up on the project now either because this or that school is stuck in the “spirit of Vatican II” phase of recent Catholic history or too closely mimics public models of pedagogy sounds too much like simple frustration, impatience, or even a cowardly refusal to get one’s hands dirty & try to effect the necessary reforms. Here we must distinguish between those who engage in genuine attempts at reform, which patiently flow from within the life of an institution, & those who, even with the best of motives & most proper of concerns, flee from a flawed institution in the pursuit of a purer alternative. Prudence is of course required here, as parents & educators may legitimately believe they are called by God to something other than a “traditional” Catholic education. Publicly funded charter schools whose pedagogical mission is fueled by a classically-based curriculum are an increasingly attractive option for many parents, students, & teachers, & represent a long-overdue return ad fontes, so to speak. Administrators & teachers in Catholic schools can benefit by refreshing their own curricula in dialogue with these schools, especially since a genuinely Catholic curriculum will be rooted in the liberal arts & the many ways these have developed throughout Western social, cultural, & intellectual history. But all involved here should also adopt a long view of history, one which pays close attention to would-be ecclesiastical reformers like the Donatists, the Albighensians, & the Protestants, seeking to discern the motives & effects of their departures & applying, mutatis mutandis, what we can learn from them to our present-day educational challenges. Again, Catholic education as we know it may not be around in a hundred years, but that’s not our call. Too much good has been done in our schools to turn away because of imperfections, even if they are structural. Wendell Berry has noted that the most important changes in religious history often flow from the margins. It is from the desert, he says, that the prophetic word comes. When that word, however, calls for wholesale abandonment of the means by which God has worked, we should be cautious.
At any rate, all this raises for me—as does going to work every day to teach theology & philosophy at a Catholic high school—the question of what exactly I & my colleagues are trying to accomplish. Mission statements abound in our schools, but they are usually just vague enough to sound impressive & to leave even those bound to them uncertain as to whether or not they are being fulfilled. Of course we hope to achieve much of what all educators strive to do, so I can leave all the academic things to the side. But we are supposed to be Catholic educators for some special reason. Do we know why? And can we tell when we are not succeeding? What does it mean to say, as we do at my school, that Christ is the reason for this school, that he is the unseen but ever-present teacher & guide?
To start with the obvious, one of our obligations is to discern the ethos of the society in which we live & teach so that we may know more clearly what is resisting the Church & its attempts to educate its people. We are at war, after all; not just with “secular humanists” or the apostles of unbelief, National Catholic Reporter Catholics who view the Church in adversarial terms, relativism, postmodernism, or whatever other -ism develops out of the cancerous pride of life apart from Christ, but with the powers & principalities that actively resist the reign of Christ. And not only are they legion, but they are not always easy to discern. Caution is needed so that we don’t slip into simplistic generalizations about what battles we are fighting. But this also means, among other things, that a simple rehearsal of the storied past of Catholic education in this country by its supporters is fruitless, as the increasing secularization of society presents new challenges to our schools that differ significantly from those of just a few generations ago. This secularization, which continues to develop in new & unexpected ways & is ever-resistant to easy analysis, ensures that a growing number of students in Catholic schools, even if their families are Catholic, will be more deeply influenced by ideas & institutions that conflict, openly or not, with the Church. One can not expect that even Catholic students will have the ecclesial upbringing necessary to detect & resist the manifestations of secularization. Even the most basic theological & moral concepts will often appear foreign to many of these students. As an example, my colleagues & I must spend significant amounts of time trying to subvert the assumptions that form the foundation of the fuzzy ethical subjectivism so popular today before we can even come close to helping them understand the what & the why of Catholic moral teachings. These students are not moral relativists, despite the popular stereotype. Far from it, as they have many strong, if imperfectly formed, moral convictions they take to be absolute. The problem is that they have imbibed just enough of the live-&-let live nonsense that passes for compassion or tolerance or whatever you call it these days to discourage their being able to develop even a preliminary ability to understand their convictions & why they hold them, or why they should. They lack not only a normative moral vocabulary, but also a moral grammar & syntax. Thus their wild inconsistencies; one minute they’re organizing collections for the latest people to suffer from earthquakes & tsunamis, protesting the death penalty, or working in a soup kitchen, & the next they’re agreeing with Peter Singer that newborn infants aren’t really “persons” or claiming that sometimes abortion is the most compassionate option. And, as Gilbert Meilaender has perceptively noted, the relativism so many young people seem to embrace is likely to be something of a defensive reaction against those who would challenge their convictions & practices. In a society where the learned are growing more comfortable in mocking & disparaging Catholicism, claiming that all beliefs are private property, equally valid, or not open for disputation can appear the safest path. A surface relativism without real depth or conviction can thus become a means of self-protection, especially for college students whose professors & peers are routinely on the attack. Our students need to be educated on these matters, to have their inconsistencies straightened out & their fears assuaged, & that’s one of the reasons many of their parents send them to Catholic schools. But without the proper foundations that have traditionally been provided in a Catholic home & parish, such a task becomes more & more herculean, which is why we educators have to spend considerable time & effort on prolegomena. In earlier generations Catholic educators could assume a shared moral discourse, rooted in certain assumptions about God & human nature, that bound them with their students & made it easier to consider current issues together in light of the gospel. Today there is a moral free for all. After virtue, indeed. Even students who identify themselves as Catholics, who have attended Catholic schools their entire lives, & regularly attend mass with their parents, exhibit a moral schizophrenia that can intimidate teachers who are not themselves well-versed in intellectual history & the Catholic moral tradition. Thus, an awareness of this schizophrenia & its roots becomes one of the essential responsibilities of Catholic educators, who, if they are to be effective catechists & apologists, will bring to light their students‘ assumptions & logical inconsistencies, as well as the implications of their assumptions.
In light of the above, I think it clear that the principal task of Catholic education in our society today is the formation of a Catholic culture whose ethos is rooted in & shaped by an anthropology faithful to the Church’s deposit of faith. This anthropology will be a faithful exposition &, when necessary, development of the Church’s teaching on creation & incarnation, such as is found in John Paul II’s catechesis on the theology of the body. There are numerous distortions & denials of this teaching, as is evident when one considers the the topics of abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, & the growing number of bioethical issues routinely misread by journalists & other talking heads today. As Catholics, we highlight two particular points that are either misunderstood or denied by those outside &, increasingly, inside the Church. First, that all persons bear the image of God & thus possess an inherent dignity, regardless of size, age, health, or cognitive capacities. The trend today in bioethics is to distinguish between “persons”, those held to possess rationality & all the abilities associated with it, & mere human beings, such as unborn children, newborn infants, those with cognitive disabilities, & those who have suffered brain trauma or severe dementia. While Peter Singer may be the most celebrated exponent of this distinction, those who agree with him are growing in number & influence, including in the health care professions. Such a distinction is also embraced by some of my students when we read & discuss selections from Singer, including those from serious Catholic families, who thus find abortion rights, doctor-assisted suicide, & euthanasia increasingly acceptable & their alternatives mean-spirited, if not incomprehensible. They often accept this distinction & its consequences in the name of compassion & common sense, & show few signs of being troubled by those consequences. And these are students who as Juniors had an entire semester course in which they studied the social teaching of the Church, which is rooted in the proclamation of human dignity. “That’s speciesism,” say folks like Singer. “Maybe so,” the Church says, “but it’s also the truth.” Lose this point, & it is hard to imagine how a life in service to others is possible.
Secondly, we profess that we are created with a natural orientation toward God, that a proper understanding of eros includes a recognition that nothing this side of eternity can satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts. We are religious beings, drawn toward eternity. Our most fundamental longings are for that which transcends the physical world, as good as that world is. In fact, the only way to honor this world is to see it as incapable of fulfilling us; it is a gift from God, but it is never self sufficient. We are composite beings whose feet are planted firmly on the ground but whose eyes are lifted upwards toward a mystery which transcends everything we see & enjoy. The fact that we can bow says something important about us. Whether we bow in respect to another person or in the act of worship, we are the only animal that can adopt such a posture with the awareness that in lowering ourselves physically we are in fact raising ourselves. And what other animal has developed a vocabulary of gratitude? What animal, in the the most primal act of feeding itself, expresses both respect & thanks? Only the human animal truly prepares & eats a meal. The crude materialistic philosophy on display in the catechisms of unbelief so prominent today fails to answer the most basic questions we ask about ourselves, & any Catholic school will find ways, & not only in the Theology classroom, to highlight the orthodox alternative as the only truly humane option. This includes a strong emphasis on the Incarnation & its implications for our understand of ourselves & the created world, which means we will have to counter every manifestation of the gnostic dualisms so evident in our society, including the more “religious” alternative to Catholic teaching. When our students are shown what a consistent materialism looks like, they naturally recoil, for they can not bear the thought that the universe has, in the words of Richard Dawkins in his popular River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, “precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference,” & that they are the accidental by-products of such a universe. Many of them, however, will choose a dualism that allows them to possess souls, & thus to affirm a spiritual center, but souls which are dragged around by their bodies they will one day jettison. This permits them to challenge Church teaching on the ethical implications of its anthropology, & spout the “I’m spiritual, not religious” mantra. If a person is really only the spiritual part, why get all flustered about liturgies, rituals, & the morality of easing suffering souls into a compassionate death? What we do with, & to, our bodies becomes less important.
Catholic students are as confused about these issues as anyone else, & at times as dogmatically opposed to the Church as those outside the Church. This is in large part due to their inability to grasp the incarnational logic of Christianity, something that seems to get bypassed as part of their theological formation. Or, more likely, when they do here this language it appears strange to them, if not incomprehensible. We teach them for about 50 minutes a day, 4 days a week; they are exposed in society, & often in their own homes, to messages in direct conflict with what they get in class. They are being intellectually & spiritually formed “out there”, even if implicitly & without their conscious participation. While they rarely discuss with parents or friends the origin, nature, & ends of the human person & the implications of the different answers, their faith is being formed by the media they are exposed to, the habits they are forming, & the choices they are making. Indoctrination is occurring. As educators we need not recoil from such a word; I quite willingly engage in the indoctrination of my students insofar as I teach them true doctrines & how to detect false doctrines. That’s not scary, just honest. Public education seeks to indoctrinate students, as do parents. Yes, I’m using the archaic meaning of the word, but that meaning still stands for something important. If Catholic schools take their task seriously, they will seek to counter the indoctrination of their students with a full bodied presentation of the truth revealed to us in & through Christ. In other words, with true indoctrination. They have to believe something, & they will, with or without our help. Leave them to their own devices in the name of respecting their freedom etc. etc., & get ready to duck in a few years’ time. Great damage is done when we play around with this word & pretend there is some such thing as a “neutral” education, one where our students are allowed free space to roam & make up their minds on things they can barely understand, much less choose wisely & well about. The myth of secular neutrality has been exposed by many writers; MacIntyre & Hauerwas are two of the best-known, with Hauerwas making his points with verve & humor. Read his interview with US Catholic reproduced in the Hauerwas reader, especially the stuff on tolerance. Hilarious, & right on.
For Catholic educators to do our job we must take mores seriously their formation in our secular society & consciously seek to elaborate throughout our schools what John Paul II called a more adequate anthropology, one which helps our students to see concretely that they are created for something more than worldly success. In other words, we are called to help our students see something particular. Discussing the Church’s task is societies based on atheistic or agnostic materialism, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said the following:
“Now the Church must once more make an effort to create social spaces in which people find on offer not only that burdensome collective identity that drags us down, but also a collective identity that opens up possibilities, that supports the individual & brings him into the process of learning to see.”
I think this speaks to the distinctive task facing Catholic schools today. We are to seek new ways to create & sustain a thoroughly Catholic culture whose ethos encourages students, Catholic or otherwise, to resist false views of the human person & to see differently than the society they live in, & to use their critical & imaginative faculties to enable them to realize that only a Catholic vision of man does justice to who & what they are. Because we have a fundamental disposition the goodness, truth, & beauty, it stands to reason that Catholic schools can play a formative role in helping students to see more clearly what those things are, where they are to be found, & what their counterfeits are. The entire curriculum should work toward this end, & administrators should seek innovative ways to inculcate the Catholic vision outside the classroom. It’s not so much a message to be preached as a series of assumptions to be incarnated. How this will be done will no doubt differ from school to school. Campus ministers, chaplains, & others, including but not limited to Theology teachers, will pray & work in search of new ideas. Again, with different personnel with different interests & abilities, each school will have different approaches. My own suggetions would focus on the arts curriculum, & the development of courses in Theology & the Humanities that use music, film, literature, painting, sculpture, & architecture as a way of probing the Catholic profession of faith. The key, however, is in challenging the regnant anthropology & its ethical implications with one informed by the Church’s unique vision of the human person.