The high-priced spread, revisited

Readers of a certain vintage (say, over 60) will remember the Imperial Margarine TV ad that dismissed butter as “the high-priced spread.” That image came to mind rather unexpectedly when I was addressing the parents’ associations of two prestigious Catholic prep schools several years ago.

No, no one threw a margarine-smeared dinner roll at me during my talk. The Q&A, however, was full of contention when I said that a first-class liberal arts education at a college or university with a strong Catholic identity would prepare their sons and daughters for anything. Absolutely not, parents insisted. The kid had to get into Harvard, or Stanford, or Duke — or some other academic version of the high-priced spread — lest his or her life be ruined.

When I pointed out that undergraduates at so-called “elite” universities are frequently taught by graduate assistants rather than by senior faculty, the parents were unmoved. When I reminded them that few, if any, members of the philosophy departments at elite schools are convinced that there is something called “the truth,” rather than just “your truth” and “my truth,” they didn’t budge. When I cited the experience of my daughters, who had gone on to premier graduate schools and successful professional careers after attending a small, demanding Catholic liberal arts college, I was met with blank stares.  When I asked why they were willing to spend north of a quarter-million dollars to send their children into a decadent environment in which corruption (chemical, intellectual, sexual, political, or all-of-the-above) was a real and present danger, the mantra continued: the kid must attend an elite school to have any chance in life, because that’s where you begin to “network.”

The morning after one of these events, I had coffee with several monks who taught at the school, and who thanked me for trying to break the parental fever about elite universities. They, too, had tried, to no avail. Did I have any suggestions? Yes, I said. Next fall, give the parents of every incoming senior a copy of Tom Wolfe’s novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons. It’s quite raw at certain points, I warned. But the story of how an idealistic, intelligent young woman who makes it into an elite school gets corrupted, first intellectually and then morally, ought to give pause to even the most overwrought parent.

I’ve no idea whether the monks took my advice. I hope they did, if only for the shock Wolfe’s prose would administer.

I was reminded of this absurd parental fideism about the high-priced spread (university division) when federal prosecutors indicted 33 upper-tax-bracket parents for allegedly using various scams — bribes, fake academic records, imaginary athletic achievements — to get their kids into Georgetown, Yale, Stanford, and other schools assumed to be essential ticket-punches on the path to success in 21st-century America. The kids are, one hopes, mortified. The parents are in serious trouble. And the schools ought to be profoundly embarrassed — if embarrassment is possible in the politically-correct animal house of elite American higher education today.

Fortunately, Catholic parents serious about real education and real formation have other options.

One of those options, the University of Dallas, just made an outstanding choice for its new president, selecting Dr. Thomas Hibbs, a first-class thinker who is also a committed Catholic, an able administrator, and a leader. Tom Hibbs joins a gallery of other Catholic college and university presidents — among others, John Garvey at the Catholic University of America, Michael McLean at Thomas Aquinas College, Stephen Minnis at Benedictine College, Timothy O’Donnell at Christendom College, Msgr. James Shea at the University of Mary, and James Towey at Ave Maria University — who are leading a renaissance in Catholic higher education. Their schools, and others, seek to prepare students for any post-undergraduate endeavor by giving them a firm grounding in the liberal arts, Catholic faith, the experience of Catholic community and public service. And they succeed.

I don’t doubt that, with some careful curricular navigation, by seeking out like-minded Catholic peers, and by getting involved in a vibrant Catholic campus ministry, well-prepared young people can survive, even flourish, at elite schools. I teach some of them every summer. But a sheepskin from those schools is not essential to a fruitful life and Catholic parents should resist blowing incense to the totem of the high-priced spread (university division), not least in light of this latest scandal.

COMING UP: An open letter to Cardinal Reinhard Marx

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Your Eminence:

I noted with interest your recent announcement of a “binding synodal process” during which the Church in Germany will discuss the celibacy of the Latin-rite Catholic priesthood, the Church’s sexual ethic and clericalism, these being “issues” put on the table by the crisis of clerical sexual abuse.

Perhaps the following questions will help sharpen your discussions.

1) How can the “synodal process” of a local Church produce “binding” results on matters affecting the entire Catholic Church? The Anglican Communion tried this and is now in terminal disarray; the local Anglican churches that took the path of cultural accommodation are comatose. Is this the model you and your fellow-bishops favor?

2) What does the celibacy of priests in the Latin-rite have to do with the sexual abuse crisis? Celibacy has no more to do with sexual abuse than marriage has to do with spousal abuse. Empirical studies indicate that most sexual abuse of the young takes place within (typically broken) families; Protestant denominations with a married clergy also suffer from the scourge of sexual abuse; and in any event, marriage is not a crime-prevention program. Is it cynical to imagine that the abuse crisis is now being weaponized to mount an assault on clerical celibacy, what with other artillery having failed to dislodge this ancient Catholic tradition?

3) According to a Catholic News Agency report, you suggested that “the significance of sexuality to personhood has not yet received sufficient attention from the Church.” Really? Has St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body not been translated into German? Perhaps it has, but it may be too long and complex to have been properly absorbed by German-speaking Catholics. Permit me then, to draw your attention to pp. 347-358 of Zeuge der Hoffnung (Ferdinand Schoeningh, 2002) the German translation of Witness to Hope, the first volume of my John Paul II biography. There, you and your colleagues will find a summary of the Theology of the Body, including its richly personalistic explanation of the Church’s ethic of human love and its biblically-rooted understanding of celibacy undertaken for the Kingdom of God.

4) You also note that your fellow-bishops “feel…unable to speak on questions of present-day sexual behavior.” That was certainly not the case at the Synods of 2014, 2015, and 2018, where German bishops felt quite able to speak frequently to these questions, albeit in a way that typically mirrored today’s politically-correct fashions. And I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering just when the German episcopate last spoke to “present-day sexual behavior” in a way that promoted the Church’s ethic of human love as life-affirming and ordered to human happiness and fulfillment, at least in the years since its massive dissent from Humanae Vitae (Pope St. Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on the ethics of family planning)? But that, as I understand Pope Francis, is what he is calling us all to do: Witness to, preach, and teach the “Yes” that undergirds everything to which the Church must, in fidelity to both revelation and reason, say “No.”

5) The CNA report also noted that your “synodal process” (which, in a nice tip of the miter to Hegel, you described as a “synodal progression”) would involve consultations with the Central Committee of German Catholics. My dear Cardinal Marx, this is rather like President Trump consulting with Fox News or Speaker Pelosi consulting with the editors of the New York Times. If you’ll pardon the reference to Major Heinrich Strasser in Casablanca, even we blundering Americans know that the ZdK, the Zentralkomitee der Deutschen Katholiken, is the schwerpunkt, the spearhead that clears the ground to the far left so that the German bishops can position themselves as the “moderate” or “centrist” force in the German Church. You know, and I know, and everyone else should know that consultations with the ZdK will produce nothing but further attacks on celibacy, further affirmations of current sexual fads, and further deprecations of Humane Vitae (based, in part, on the ZdK’s evident ignorance of the Theology of the Body and German hostility to John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical on the renovation of Catholic moral theology, Veritatis Splendor).

Your Eminence, the German Church — the Catholicism of my ancestors — is dying. It will not be revitalized by becoming a simulacrum of moribund liberal Protestantism.

I wish you a fruitful Lent and a joyful Easter.

Featured image by Daniel Ibáñez/CNA