Way back in 1987, Father Stephen O’Brien penned a slim but important volume entitled: Mixed Messages: What Bishops and Priests Say about Catholic Schools (National Catholic Education Association). A major point was that, while clergy generally speak in glowing terms of our schools, “the talk” all too often is not matched by “the walk.” In other words, their actions belie their stated beliefs.
That fascicle came back to mind recently as I read the weekly column of a diocesan bishop who is one of the most vocal and strongest supporters of Catholic schools in the country. In this instance, it was not his actions that caused befuddlement but his words which, whether he knows it or not, contradicted the entire premise of his column the previous week. At the outset of the academic year, he praised our schools to the highest heaven, as well as the administrators and teachers that make it all possible; he encouraged parents to use our schools. However, the next week, he declared his support for the “government” schools; indeed, he went so far as to say that anyone who says that we Catholics oppose those schools is fostering a “false and malicious canard.”
Well, I for one, do oppose those schools, and I believe that every thinking and believing Catholic must do so as well.
First, nomenclature is important. The bishop in question regularly refers to the so-called “public” schools as “government” schools, and rightly so. The adjective “public” connotes control by the people; that is certainly not the case – and hasn’t been so for a very long time – except that the situation has worsened exponentially in short order. Witness: Parents being arrested for daring to challenge school board policies and finding themselves denominated “domestic terrorists.”
In truth, it is our Catholic schools that are truly “public,” in the sense that they are “controlled” by the faithful in two important ways: they pay the bills, and they use (or don’t use) the schools, if they find them defective or inadequate.1 So, firstly, we need to change the overall conversation by changing the terminology.
Second, why do priests and bishops praise our own schools and then go on to pledge allegiance to the government schools? For three reasons, I believe: first, for fear of serious push-back from the powerful CCD/religious education lobby;2 second, for fear of Catholic teachers who work in the government schools; third, for fear of parents send their children to the government schools and who resent being challenged in that regard. Fear is the operative motive.
Yet fear did not constrain the majority of the early bishops of our nation – men like John J. Hughes or John Lancaster Spaulding. They did not hesitate to threaten excommunication of parents who failed in their duty by submitting their children to institutions that undermined their faith, in those days through the pervasive anti-Catholicism spawned by the Nativists and Know-Nothings.
Third, priests and bishops have to summon up the courage to say loud and often: Parents who entrust their children to the government schools are endangering the souls of their children. Pope Pius XI saw this already in 1929 and so declared, without fear of contradiction, in his encyclical Divini Illius Magistri that “the so-called ‘neutral’ or ‘lay’ school, from which religion is excluded, is contrary to the fundamental principles of education. Such a school moreover cannot exist in practice; it is bound to become irreligious” (n. 79). That has happened in spades in this country over the past half-century, with galloping force: critical race theory; promotion of fornication, contraception and abortion; gender theory;3 sex education which makes future choices for chastity well-nigh impossible; gender theory; science education,4 which negates any supernatural explanation. And we haven’t even touched on the inferior academics in most of the government schools.5
Fourth, even with the very best out-of-school religious education program, it is naive to imagine that one hour a week can undo the damage of thirty hours of secularist indoctrination.6 The best thing would be to shut down CCD completely (which I did in the three parishes I pastored) and instruct parents to use Catholic schools. If they say they can’t afford the tuition, and prove it by submitting financial records, the parish picks up the tab.7
Another aspect of the issue is the need for clergy to challenge the priorities of their people: The Catholic education of one’s children or a winter vacation? Catholic schooling or 750 cable channels? Once more, priests are loathe to do this, for fear (there’s that word again) that the more well-to-do will not take kindly to such talk and register their disapproval in the collection basket. The priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley found that “there are virtually no statistically significant correlations between attendance at CCD and later religious beliefs or behaviors,” while the exact opposite is the case for attendance at Catholic schools.8 In case anyone doubted what he was trying to say, he made it quite clear: CCD “as a substitute for Catholic schools is simply a waste of time.”9 So, what to do with children not in Catholic school?
Fifth, give the parents a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and tell them to prepare their children for the various sacraments (after all, they are the primary educators of their children!). When they believe their children are ready for First Confession, First Communion, or Confirmation, they should contact the priest, who will make a determination. Actually, that was the rather common practice prior to the invention of CCD.
Sixth, the present is what the Bible terms a chairos, that is, a particularly favored moment. Parents and tax-payers are seeing, some for the first time, how utterly bankrupt the whole government educational system really is. How else to explain the “Public School Exodus” movement?10 The “pandemic” opened many eyes. While most government schools were closed, the vast majority of Catholic schools were open for business. With virtual education, many parents discovered for the first time (shame on them) just how bad the material is that is being fed to their children. Heading for the exit sign is not enough; now, political pressure needs to be exerted that when the children leave, so does the funding. The motto is simple: Let the dollar follow the scholar.
Parental freedom of choice in education is a relatively new concept on the American scene; it is the perennial teaching of the Church. Thus, the importance of forming intelligent coalitions with like-minded individuals and groups to press for genuine freedom of choice, not limited to parents who can afford it but for all parents, precisely because it is their God-given right to direct the formation of their sons and daughters.
So, to put a finer point on all this for the bishop who occasioned this reflection: If the government schools and CCD are so good, why should any parent follow your advice from the previous week and entrust their children to Catholic schools? Why should anyone in his right mind pay for something that can be had for nothing?
No, we thinking and believing Catholics do not support the government schools. Indeed, we condemn them as the godless and pernicious institutions they are.
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