Send This Man To School
W. H. MARSHNER
The USCC Department of Education is “helping” the American bishops to produce a pastoral letter on Catholic education, the provisional text of which I recently had occasion to see. It characterizes the rival, public education, as a “system which does not systematically embrace faith-inspired values. Such a school system,” the pastoral continues, “may seek ‘neutrality’ with regard to religious and moral values; but neutrality is impossible, since all education involves values, and morality is deeply imbedded in all formal education.”
This is a smoothly constructed pair of sentences, constructed to resemble a critique of public education while carefully avoiding the terms of a persuasive critique (such as the one launched last winter by Cardinal O’Boyle). It says that public schools are just not “systematic” about what they really do and that they try to remedy this lack by “seeking” to do something that nobody can do: an inconsistency floundering toward an impossibility. The truth, of course, is that public education is thoroughly consistent about what it really does and inconsistent only about what it pretends to do. It pretends to inculcate humane “values” without sectarian overtones or specifics, but what it really does is to inculcate the dogmas of an anti-religion, or ersatz religion, called secular humanism. This charge is exactly the one leveled by Cardinal O’Boyle and, for that matter, by hundreds of other reflective Catholics, including, oh, everybody from Farley Clinton to Michael Novak. The secular humanist propaganda of public education is a fact too blatant to overlook—for anybody who is not himself a secular humanist. Which observation raises interesting questions about why the USCC overlooked it.
I called the acting director of the Department of Education, USCC, a Dr. H. Giles Schmid. We chatted about the forthcoming pastoral, who had written it, how people like it and so forth. I mentioned the above-quoted passage, saying I thought it was an “interesting” argument and rather a new slant. Dr. Schmid corrected me: “No, this is something we’ve been saying for years, that behind the facade of neutrality the public schools are not really value-free but are teaching Protestantism.” I didn’t challenge the point, but I could scarcely believe it. This ancient argument! The charge that was true a century ago is still being applied as the real case against the school system that gave us the incandescent youth of the Sixties and that promises us an even groovier product in the future, what with SIECUS and NIMH lending a hand. It’s preposterous. Yet there is no denying that Schmid’s thesis exactly explains the wording of the proposed pastoral: “a system that does not systematically embrace faith- inspired [i.e. Protestant] values.”
Dr. Schmid hastened on to corollary points. What we need to do, he said, is to “convince the public schools that you can’t avoid teaching values but that you can replace the Protestant values with genuinely non-denominational values. These wouldn’t be Protestant, wouldn’t be Catholic; but they’d be true and human and something on which you could then build in your explicitly Catholic education.” This was the admission I was hoping to hear (journalistically, of course; as a Catholic, I wept inwardly). Out loud, I suspected that the public schools wouldn’t be too hard to “convince” on this precise subject. I wondered, though, whether these “human” values might be something like the natural law. Dr. Schmid didn’t seem to have any opinion on that question, as though the idea had never occurred to him or, perhaps, as though the terminology were unfamiliar. With a few parting words, we rang off.
The top bureaucrat for education for the whole American Church, it seems, holds to the possibility of a theory which the Church has spent just over 120 years saying was impossible. Beginning with Pius IX’s allocution Quibus luctuosissimis, going through a whole series of important documents by Leo XIII, and reaching a climax, perhaps, in the stunning declarations of the French episcopate in 1908 and 1909, the Holy Catholic Church has flatly declared that public (non-Catholic) education is intrinsically perverse. The Church has a long and painful familiarity with state-run school systems that claim to be neutral (not in the absurd sense of value-free, as the USCC seems to believe, but) precisely in the sense that although they do not teach Catholic dogmas and take no stand on the validity of the Church’s claims, they nevertheless give children a sound and morally acceptable secular formation. The Church’s rejection of this position, please note, is not based on the claim that there is no truth or moral wisdom apart from God’s revelation (the Reformation’s view). “Look before you leap” is a fine maxim and, like “wear a smile,” not noticeably dependent on scriptural authority. But the Church does insist that little “attitudinal lessons” of this kind are not the stuff of education. Education, to be worthy of the name, must put a man in touch with reality and with his own history as a man, for example, of Western culture. Education, in other words, involves vastly more than nice little “humane” values: it involves philosophical principles and historical facts. Now the Incarnation is an historical fact which “public” education refuses to teach. The existence of God is a rigorously provable philosophical conclusion which public “education” refuses to deduce. In other words, the trouble with “neutral” education is that it is an intellectual cheat. Its neutrality is gained not at the expense of sectarianism but at the expense of truth.
Oh, yes, and lest we forget: the other reason the Church won’t put up with public education is because the job belongs to parents by divine and natural right. Is this, perhaps, another idea which never occurred to Dr. Schmid?