Culture of Death or Culture of Life?
“In order that the Catholic school and the Catholic teachers may truly make their irreplaceable contribution to the Church and to the world, the goal of Catholic education itself must be crystal clear. Beloved sons and daughters of the Catholic Church, brothers and sisters in the faith: Catholic education is above all a question of communicating Christ, of helping to form Christ in the lives of others. … Yes, it is above all a question of communicating Christ, and helping his uplifting Gospel to take root in the hearts of the faithful.” –Message of St. John Paul II to the National Catholic Educational Association of the United States
In increasingly secular Ireland, some non-Catholic parents are complaining that they can’t find any non-Catholic schools in which to enroll their children. Indeed, the Catholic Church in Ireland still owns and operates over 90% of the schools. One mom, who is an atheist, fretted that if she sends her daughter to the local school she might be “indoctrinated” into the Catholic faith.
Having just returned from Ireland, however, it seems that this mom’s fears are misplaced. Many Irish Catholic parents told me they are concerned about precisely the opposite problem: that by sending their children to Catholic schools they risk having their children indoctrinated out of the faith. Whether in Southern or Northern Ireland, the comments I heard from parents and other Catholics were the same. “Our young people are not being taught their faith in our schools.” “Our Catholic schools and parish education programs have been corrupted by a terrible cancer that teaches and promotes what is contrary to our faith.”
One needn’t look far for evidence that Catholic education in Ireland is failing. By far the starkest evidence is the recent referendum on abortion. Amongst 20-to-30-year-olds, some 80% voted yes for abortion. The numbers were similar in the case of same-sex ‘marriage’, with overwhelming numbers of young Irish voting to change the definition of marriage in 2015. Meanwhile, Church attendance has been plummeting in recent decades: whereas well over 80% of Irish Catholics attended Church weekly in the early ’80s, that has since dropped to 41%. Those numbers are significantly worse among young Catholics.
There has been a radical shift in Irish culture, which did not occur in a vacuum. Of course, there are many factors that have contributed to this shift. Nevertheless, many of the Irish parents I spoke to were quite clear that in large part they blamed the Catholic schools and parish education programs. If over 90% of Irish schools are owned and operated by the Catholic Church, and yet over 80% of young Irish people are voting to legalize the killing of unborn babies, clearly, something has been catastrophically lost in translation.
It’s Not Just Ireland
I don’t mean to pick on Ireland. In fact, almost everywhere I go I hear concerns from parents about so-called Catholic schools and education programs that have been taken over by bureaucratic educators who are hell-bent on eviscerating the Catholic identity of the school, or, even worse, promoting a pseudo-Catholicism that uses the language and culture of the Catholic faith to promote values that are polar opposite to what the Church teaches. The relativistic mindset reigns at most schools and universities, including many of those calling themselves Catholic.
One startling recent example comes to mind. I have told you previously about the struggle by Ontario parents to stop a new sex-ed curriculum imposed by the previous provincial government. The curriculum was at the vanguard of radical liberal ideology, introducing children in the earliest grades to graphic sexual topics, teaching them that there are numerous so-called “genders,” and treating fornication, masturbation, and homosexuality as normal, acceptable sexual practices.
Recently, however, the newly-elected conservative Ontario government announced that they are scrapping the curriculum – fulfilling a campaign promise they made to the tens of thousands of Ontario parents who had complained. One of the first organizations out of the gate with a statement was the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) – the official union of Catholic teachers in the province. And what did these Catholic teachers have to say? Amazingly, they expressed their “great disappointment” with the decision, because, they said, “a modern and comprehensive Health and Physical Education curriculum is key to promoting healthy living.”
What an extraordinary betrayal of the students entrusted to their care, and the parents who believe that by sending their children to Catholic schools, they will actually learn the Catholic faith! But then again, OECTA is the same group that routinely marches in the Toronto gay pride parade, and that recently criticized a school board that had passed a pro-life resolution for being “needlessly divisive.”
When I read about things such as this, it is almost impossible not to think of Christ’s stark warning: “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Second only to parents, teachers labor under a great burden of responsibility: the responsibility to impart truth and to model for children in the most impressionable years of their lives the behaviors that will bring them to Christ. Sadly, many Catholic schools and individual teachers have abused the sacred trust given to them by parents, introducing into the classroom error and gross immorality.
The Power of a Good School
On the other hand, in my travels I have also had the privilege to witness the remarkable fruits when Catholic schools remain faithful to their Catholic identity and are careful to ensure that their faculty and staff are faithful, practicing Catholics.
In the United States in recent years, for instance, we have seen the creation of a number of small, independent, privately-funded Catholic colleges. In most cases these colleges have a fraction of the budget, and a fraction of the student population of the large, ostensibly “Catholic” established universities. And yet, a staggeringly disproportionate number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life come from graduates from these colleges. Furthermore, many of the graduates of these colleges end up getting married to one another, having large families, and diligently bringing their children up in the faith.
It is no exaggeration to say that the future of the Catholic Church in the United States largely depends upon these colleges. Their apparent insignificance in worldly terms belies the disproportionate influence that they are having on the Church and the culture. They are truly the leaven in a godless age.
What distinguishes these colleges is their unstinting fidelity to the vision of Catholic education outlined by St. John Paul II in his apostolic exhortation Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Every aspect of their curriculum and culture is oriented towards “communicating Christ.” True Catholic education exists to provide an environment in which students are enabled to build and deepen their relationship with the Triune God, to foster an academic culture aimed at the pursuit of truth, and to actively promote growth in virtue. A Catholic university, says St. John Paul II, should be “an authentic human community animated by the spirit of Christ.”
What these colleges understand is that education cannot be separated from the formation of the human person and the development of his vocation — whether secular or religious. No matter how strong the faith of a person might be, without a certain degree of practice in the virtues, it will be hard not to be led exclusively by the emotions and impressions that constantly enter our minds. Not only does this have moral ramifications, it also has intellectual ones: a person who is at the mercy of his passions is also prey to being manipulated by the fashions of the moment and is poorly equipped to enter the workforce and contribute constructively to society.
This is the great irony of the so-called “comprehensive sex education” programs embraced by so many school boards and schools. The self-declared aim of most modern educational programs is to prepare students for the work force. However, these schools then educate their students in selfish immorality, actively working against the formation of character by training in the virtues. No matter how much technical information that you cram into a student’s head, without a formation in virtue, he or she will lack the habits and higher purpose that will drive him or her to work reliably and to become a citizen whose life builds up, rather than tears down, society.
Our Great Need: Renewal in Catholic Education
This is why St. John Paul II so urgently exhorted parents to prioritize education. “Parents must set themselves very definite priorities, such as the determination to have schools in which their children’s faith will be respected, fostered and enriched; schools in which their children learn the value and beauty of the Church’s teaching,” he said. “They must also see to it that their own homes are places in which these values are first fostered and lived. Parents’ own practice of the faith, their own love for Christ, is of course fundamental.”
Transformation of culture begins through the training of personality and character in the home; but the next most intimate partner in the project of forming persons is the schools. For six or seven hours, every day, our children’s minds are under the influence of a number of authority figures, whose ideology may radically conflict with that of our faith. Ideologues are always keenly aware that he who controls the minds of the next generation, controls the future. This is why anti-life and anti-family extremists have focused so much of their energies on dominating the university faculties. If we are to have any hope of fighting the Culture of Death and replacing it with a Culture of Life, Catholics everywhere must begin to take education deadly seriously.
Parents must be willing to sacrifice enormously either to send their children to new schools, or to homeschool them. They absolutely must take a keen interest in the culture and curricula of their children’s schools. They must be willing to invest enormous time and resources in starting new schools and supporting good local schools. And they must be prepared to compensate for any deficiencies in their schools by cultivating a robust and organic Catholic culture within the home, one that includes the conscientious study of Scripture and Church documents.