When President Barack Obama, in mid-June remarks to a townhall meeting in Belfast, Northern Ireland, equated the city’s separate Catholic and Protestant schools to racial segregation in the United States, he became the target of sharp criticism from Catholic clerics and educators in both Ireland and the U.S.
He was referring specifically to the history of the sectarian “troubles” in Northern Ireland, but he failed to acknowledge that Catholics were purposely treated as second-class citizens in the North, which is under British rule. Their schools were not only a safe haven from oppression but a necessity to give Catholic children any chance of advancing in a society split, not so much by doctrinal disputes, but by the British government’s belief that their faith put the loyalty of Catholics to the Crown in question.
Whether or not President Obama intended to cast aspersions on Catholic education in America, many Catholics have become suspicious of his motives on issues of religious liberty. This stems in part from his administration’s insistence on the HHS mandate that requires Catholic institutions, among other faith-based entities, to fund contraceptives, abortifacents, and sterilization procedures for employees against core Church teachings (although Hobby Lobby, a chain of stores owned by a non-Catholic Christian family, had a recent legal victory against the mandate).
There’s also Obama’s relatively recent about-face on the issue of gay marriage, in which he “evolved” from opposing it to becoming an ardent supporter.
It does not help that, aside from all this, Catholic education is in trouble in many parts of America. Increasing secularization, changing demographics and social mores, and financial pressures – along with the rise of public charter schools in some areas – have caused the closing or consolidation of many parochial schools.
Who stands to lose the most from the loss of Catholic schools? Not the children of the upper middle-class and the wealthy, whose parents have the option of pricey private schools to avoid public education.
As outlined in a recent article in The New York Times, which followed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor back to her Catholic girls’ school, which is now closing, it may be the sons and daughters of inner-city minorities. For these children and their parents – both Catholic and not – parochial schools have long provided an affordable, academically rigorous and values-based alternative to troubled public schools.
All hope is not lost, as pointed out in a recent letter to the New York Times from Notre Dame University professor Rachel Moreno, who is working on an innovative cooperative program involving Notre Dame and five Catholic schools serving the disadvantaged in Arizona and Florida.
But the challenges are real, and for many parish schools in particular, the outlook is grim.
Of course, there are those in America who would gladly say “Good riddance” to Catholic education, feeling that it exists to indoctrinate children in Catholic values and beliefs (which, in part, it does). But that objection is founded in the assumption that public schools don’t indoctrinate students in values and beliefs.
While they may not pass along Christian doctrine – indeed, many public schools, fearing legal action, are hostile to students’ religious expression, especially of the Christian variety – there is no doubt that many educators and administrators have strong points of view on certain social and political issues and are not reticent about passing those on to their students, with or without parental approval or knowledge.
And since these are public schools, public tax dollars are used for this purpose.
For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) – which recently shelled out $30 million dollars to settle dozens of cases in an elementary-school sex-abuse scandal, so that the little victims wouldn’t have to testify against their teachers – has set aside almost $1 million more, supplemented with federal tax money, to teach teens how to promote enrollment in ObamaCare to their families.
That is hardly the only example in which students, from elementary school to college, are taught concepts about environmentalism, sexuality, politics and economics that, while not part of religious doctrine, are as dear to their adherents as any tenet of any faith.
Those who decry faith-based schools also ignore especially the Catholic Church’s commitment to educating both boys and girls, wealthy and poor, stretching back more than 1,500 years.
In the year 407, St. Jerome, one of the Doctors of the Roman Catholic Church, wrote, “Parents should educate their daughter as well as their sons.” He also sent letters to noble parents who asked advice about educating their daughters, recommending demanding biblical study, which would require literacy.
In the late 4th Century A.D., a Catholic nun – the use of the word “Catholic,” from the Greek “katholikos,” meaning universal, first appeared early in the 2nd Century – named Egeria wrote a detailed memoir of her travels from the western Mediterranean to the Holy Land.
In the United States, literacy for many women was severely lagging even into the 20th century, but the Roman Catholic Church has long valued education for women, all the way back to the Middle Ages, when learned religious sisters took on female students (and sometimes male ones as well).
Starting somewhere around the 500s, monasteries were educating boys, both for the priesthood and for lay life. Sons of nobility were taught alongside children of nearby villagers.
From its earliest centuries, the Church has been involved in instructing the young not just in theology, but in Latin, Greek, arithmetic, geometry, music, philosophy (including the works of Plato and Aristotle, translated and preserved by monks) and science (Copernicus, along with cosmology, studied canon law, theology and medicine).
In America, Catholic education goes back before the formation of the United States. In 1718, Franciscans established a school for boys in New Orleans; in 1727, the Ursuline Sisters did the same for girls (the Ursuline Academy is still in operation).
Any discussion of the Church and children brings up the inevitable references to the horrific and lamentable child-sex-abuse scandals, in which roughly 4 percent of active priests between 1950 and 2002 were accused of abuse (with a smaller percentage actually found guilty), with cases stretching back 20 or 30 years erupting into the media in the early 2000s.
Dioceses that failed in their obligation to protect children from these predatory men have rightfully paid a huge price, both in reputation and money. While the sins of the past weigh heavily upon the Church and the faithful, aggressive measures have been taken to protect today’s children both in churches and in schools.
In 2006, Hofstra University researcher Carol Shakeshaft, who participated in a 2002 Department of Education study of sex abuse in public schools, is quoted in a CBS news story as saying, “(T)hink the Catholic Church has a problem? The physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse of priests.”
As outlined in this collection of stories at the Huffington Post, the sex-abuse scandals in the LAUSD alone go far beyond the multimillion-dollar settlement referenced above. And these are not tragedies from decades ago; this is going on right now.
Recent news stories point to abuse by, for instance, sports coaches, non-Catholic and non-Christian clergy and Scouting leaders, along with the uncounted victims of predators living in the child’s home.
Those who insist this is primarily a Catholic problem are either being willfully blind or intellectually dishonest.
There is no perfectly safe place for children as long as predators put themselves in positions of power over the vulnerable, and there is no educational environment free of strong opinions and fervent beliefs. But if children are not equipped with the practical skills and knowledge they need to survive in the world as adults, more generations will not realize their full potential as people or as citizens.
So, if Catholic schools begin to fade from the landscape, many parents will lose an effective alternative to public schools; a deep and abiding American educational tradition – indeed, a tradition of the Western World itself – will be diminished. Indoctrination will continue, not oriented to a divine order, but to the will of individual educators and the State.