We need Catholic schools now more than ever

Jared Staudt

Our ancestors, Catholic immigrants to the United States, built up the largest private school system in the world. They made an enormous sacrifice, scraping pennies together for the formation of their children. Why were they so committed to giving their kids a Catholic education? They understood that education provides the foundation for how to live — how to think, what to value, and how to contribute to the world. Catholic schools were formed to give children a complete formation, setting them up for both success and their eternal happiness. Nonetheless, since the 1960s, Catholic education has been in decline and now an overwhelming majority of Catholic children are formed primarily by the public schools.

If public schools educate the bulk of Catholic children, then the state of the public education bears directly on the future of the Church in the United States. Authors Mary Rice Hasson and Theresa Farnan make a poignant and pressing case against public education in Get Out Now: Why You Should Pull Your Child from Public School Before It’s Too Late (Regnery Gateway, 2018). Here are their reasons for why public education has become untenable: 1) Public schools are now committed to spreading gender ideology, despite the findings of science; 2) Meant to form citizens, they have eroded patriotism and indoctrinated socialism; 3) The absence of engagement with religion combined with scientism have led to practical atheism and relativism; 4) School systems have been eroding parental rights and marginalizing parents’ role in their child’s education; 5) The steady decline in academic achievement has been furthered by Common Core.

The authors state the urgency of their case: “The risk of harm to a child’s moral and human formation in the public schools today is serious and nearly certain. Few children are intellectually adept enough to detect the illusion being passed off as truth or wise enough to avoid the moral pitfalls that accompany an immersion in ‘sexual health’ or gender ideology” (148). The reality of this claim is hitting home in Colorado right now as the State House considers HB 19 1032, a bill which doubles down on existing standards covering human sexuality for public schools. Its proposed language states:

“Comprehensive human sexuality education . . . also teaches youth about the different relationship models they and their peers may engage in, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender peers, and how to be a safe and healthy partner in a relationship. [It] also fosters youth social-emotional health and well-being by teaching self-acceptance and respect for those whose sexuality, gender, gender expression, or lived experience differ from their own. [It] rejects the use of shame, stigma, fear, and gender norms or gender stereotypes as instructional tools and recognizes that such tactics are counterproductive to youth empowerment and particularly harmful to vulnerable and questioning youth.”

We must reverse the decline of our Catholic schools as we need them now more than ever before!  Archbishop Aquila has been leading the way in calling for a renewal of our schools by emphasizing discipleship as our most important task. If our children live as disciples (or students) of Christ, they will know their true identity as children of God, will have the wisdom to see what matters most in the world, and will enter their vocation and work with the courage necessary to thrive in a secular world. The formation of disciples is holistic: entering into a relationship with God, knowing the truth, pursuing what is good by forming virtue, and developing the skills to succeed. Our children need a community of faith and love to reach their fullest potential, as God will help them to be fully alive in Him.

The Church recognizes that parents are the primary educators of their children. The challenges in education today require cooperation to give our children the best education possible. The Archdiocese of Denver is committed to making Catholic education available to all students, an education that is robustly Catholic, provides an integrated liberal arts curriculum, and offers a healthy and holy environment. Our Catholic schools are committed to renewal and growth in the midst of greater need, but parents also must be more involved than in the past. I agree with Hasson and Farnan that it’s time to “look for alternatives. … If you are concerned about your child’s faith, intellectual formation, and patriotism, public schools are working against you. It’s time to get out, now” (177).

COMING UP: Historical clarity and today’s Catholic contentions

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One of the curiosities of the 21st-century Catholic debate is that many Catholic traditionalists (especially integralists) and a high percentage of Catholic progressives make the same mistake in analyzing the cause of today’s contentions within the Church — or to vary the old fallacy taught in Logic 101, they think in terms of post Concilium ergo propter Concilium [everything that’s happened after the Council has happened because of the Council]. And inside that fallacy is a common misreading of modern Catholic history. The traditionalists insist that everything was fine before the Council (which many of them therefore regard as a terrible mistake); the progressives agree that the pre-Vatican II Church was a stable institution but deplore that stability as rigidity and desiccation.

But that’s not the way things were pre-Vatican II, as I explain at some length and with some engaging stories in my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books). And no one knew the truth about pre-Vatican II Catholicism better than the man who was elected pope during the Council and guided Vatican II through its last three sessions, St. Paul VI.

On January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII, thought to be an elderly placeholder, stunned both the Church and the world by announcing his intention to summon the 21st ecumenical council. That night, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (who would be known as Paul VI four and a half years later), called an old friend. An experienced churchman who had long served Pius XII as chief of staff, Montini saw storm clouds on the horizon: “This holy old boy,” he said of John XXIII, “doesn’t know what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.”

That shrewd observation turned out to be spot on –– and not simply because of the Council, but because of the bees and hornets that had been buzzing around the ecclesiastical nest for well over 100 years.

Contrary to both traditionalist and progressive misconceptions, Catholicism was not a placid institution, free of controversy and contention, prior to Vatican II. As I show in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, there was considerable intellectual ferment in the Church during the mid-19th century, involving great figures like the recently-canonized John Henry Newman, the German bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (grandfather of modern Catholic social thought), and the Italian polymath Antonio Rosmini (praised by John Paul II in the 1999 encyclical, Faith and Reason, and beatified under Benedict XVI). That ferment accelerated during the 25 year pontificate of Leo XIII, who launched what I dub the “Leonine Revolution,” challenging the Church to engage the modern world with distinctively Catholic tools in order to convert the modern world and lay a firmer foundation for its aspirations.

American Catholicism, heavily focused on institution-building, was largely unaware of the sharp-edged controversies (and ecclesiastical elbow-throwing) that followed Leo XIII’s death in 1903. Those controversies, plus the civilization-shattering experience of two world wars in Europe, plus a rapid secularization process in Old Europe that began in the 19th century, set the stage for John XXIII’s epic opening address to Vatican II. There, the Pope explained what he envisioned Vatican II doing: gathering up the energies let loose by the Leonine Revolution and focusing them through the prism of an ecumenical council, which he hoped would be a Pentecostal experience energizing the Church with new evangelical zeal.

John XXIII understood that the Gospel proposal could only be made by speaking to the modern world in a vocabulary the modern world could hear. Finding the appropriate grammar and vocabulary for contemporary evangelization didn’t mean emptying Catholicism of its content or challenge, however. As the Pope insisted, the perennial truths of the faith were to be expressed with the “same meaning” and the “same judgment.” Vatican II, in other words, was to foster the development of doctrine, not the deconstruction of doctrine. And the point of that doctrinal development was to equip the Church for mission and evangelization, for the modern world would be converted by truth, not ambiguity or confusion.

Over the past six and a half years, it’s become abundantly clear that more than a few Catholics, some quite prominently placed, still don’t get this history. Nor do the more vociferous elements in the Catholic blogosphere. Which is why I hope The Irony of Modern Catholic History helps facilitate a more thoughtful debate on the Catholic present and future, through a better understanding of the Catholic past.