In 1935, a French politician asked Joseph Stalin to appease the Pope by tolerating Catholicism in the Soviet Union, where atheism was the state “religion.” Stalin roared “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?”
In fact, the Pope had many divisions throughout the world. Catholic churches and schools taught the faithful that God, not man, ruled over the universe. These unarmed divisions destroyed Soviet-style communism from within and exerted Western Catholic pressure from without.
That was then, this is now. Has Pope Benedict XVI lost his divisions, especially schools, to the relativism that he denounces in his recent encyclical (Caritas in Veritate)? From Rome, the Pope calls for virtuous conduct in the marketplace, yet Church teaching no longer “trickles down” to the Catholic masses the way it once did. As spiritual “transmission lines,” Catholic schools face two challenges: the exodus of Catholics to “value-neutral” public schools, and the subversive influence of academics who flout the “Magisterium” (the “teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church”).
Historically, Catholic schools played a special role in America, where immigrants faced hostile Protestants who used public schools to impose their brand of Christianity on the “inferior races” arriving from Eastern and Southern Europe. In Race and Liberty in America, I show how anti-Catholicism peaked in the 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan persuaded Oregon to ban all church schools. The Supreme Court struck down this odious law, declaring that children were not “mere creature[s] of the state.” Catholic schools continued to operate without State interference, thus offering Catholics and black migrants an alternative to state-run education.
As a graduate of Catholic schools, I benefitted from this school choice. During the 1970s, my public schooling culminated with the violent anarchy of junior high school. My parents sent me to a nearby Catholic high school. The absence of fear was liberating. The nuns, priests, and lay teachers offered a well-rounded education, including religious training. In 1980, I was off to Catholic college for study of the Great Books, history and rigorous coursework in religion (biblical criticism is not for lazy students). I gained a deeper understanding of Church teaching even if my “work-hard, party-hard” side sometimes got the better of me.
In 1994 I returned to my alma mater as a lecturer. The college had opened its doors to sixties radicals bent on reconstructing the school in their own image. As I taught History, the tenured radicals pummeled students with sensitivity training, lessons on “white privilege,” feminist discussion of the Goddess, and library display of gay or transgender authors. The Great Books program was gone, replaced by a “diversity” curriculum. There was no time left for schooling future professionals in the virtues that the Pope and Church deem necessary for living the Good Life.
Fifteen years later, the situation is worse. Catholic schools have blended into the great Blob of Diversity that has homogenized State schooling. We are witnessing a disuniting of the American Catholic body by those hostile to Church teaching. Academic administrators, eager for the respect of their peers, mimic the schools that once sneered at “dogmatic” Catholic education. The best education, progressives argued, was “pragmatism” based on modern (later postmodern) notions of citizenship. Few paused to consider how time passed by their pragmatic causes: eugenics, admission quotas limiting Jewsprogressives rushed off to new causes forgetting the damage wrought by their past handiwork.
One might ask: Who will pass on the essence of Pope Benedict’s latest teaching? Or the basic Truths of the Church? Or simply offer school choice to those trapped in failing public schools? Non-Catholics ought to be concerned about the survival of Catholic schools because Catholic dioceses subsidize the tuition of disadvantaged minority studentsan act of charity that our government has yet to take (and probably shouldn’t given the State’s track record).
American Catholics must recover sanity in their schooling. In his latest message, the Pope reminds us that a marketplace of value-neutral people is on the road to destruction. Benjamin Franklin said as much 200 years ago: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
It is time for Catholics and others to abandon value-neutral schooling. This is something that Catholics, Protestants, and Jews can agree upon. The Catholic school is just one avenue to “get the message across.” Home schools, Protestant schools, yeshivas are essential as long as the State abandons public school children to the anomie of mass culture.
“Trickle-down” theology via the mass media is not enough. Virtue takes conditioning, and like learning a language, it is better to start young. If Catholic schools don’t do it, parents will simply leave the Church (as they have in droves), for what have we to offer our children if we are like the rest of society?
“You cannot go on seeing through things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. . . . If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To see through all things is the same as not to see.”C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
|Jonathan Bean is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor of History at Southern Illinois University, and editor of the Institute book, Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader.|