Friday, January 4, 2013

Why aren't our plans working out? -- part 4

Continued from last week…...

I ended my last harangue talking about the episcopacy. I have always thought it a singular sign of God’s mercy and favor that I am not a bishop. It is a rather thankless task. Ill-tempered pundits like myself can tell everyone what’s wrong and how to fix it. It is left to the bishops to actually do things. They must shepherd  the sheep which in our times more closely resembles the herding of cats. That said, I continue my harangue.

You may think that I want to see the end of Catholic schools. On the contrary! I believe in Catholic schools and Catholic education. For twenty years, I worked very hard to maintain a Catholic school that educated young refugees at reduced rates. I would do just about anything to keep it all going. Once I spent a holiday cleaning up mouse droppings so the health inspectors would not close the lunchroom and with it the school. If cleaning up after rodents is not supporting Catholic education, I don’t know what is. I am simply trying to say that pouring money into a sinking ship without trying to fix the leaks is foolish. I don’t want the ship to sink. I want to fix the leaks. 

If you think it is inflammatory or irresponsible to question the morals of Catholic school graduates, you are fooling yourself. I am reminded of my bright college days and the happy afternoon hours when my friends and I were still sober enough to enjoy the happy afternoons. At one particular gathering, when we were trying to medicate away the day’s difficulties, one of my classmates started mercilessly beating a classmate of whom he was not particularly fond with a broom. Most of us thought, considering the political tensions of the sixties, and our state of inebriation, that it was bound to come to this. What we had not noticed was that the victim’s hair had somehow caught fire. He had a foot thick Afro hair style. Even he didn’t know that he had ignited, and probably thought he was one more victim of racism. With our classmate successfully extinguished, we resumed our pursuit of higher learning, and I do mean higher. Once again, it was the sixties.  Civility and discretion are of limited value on a sinking ship or in a burning building, or a burning hairdo for that matter.

Before we rescue Catholic schools one more time, let us ask what we are rescuing. What is the goal of Catholic education? I would venture that the goal of Catholic education is Catholic Education. I can hear bemused silence. Catholic schools are, at least in my neck of the woods, a very fine education, much better than government education. The teachers are fine teachers. The parents are generally very committed to the well being of their children. The “education” part of the equation is fine. It is the “Catholic” part that is the problem.

I have tried to point out that, though we do produce some Catholics, we still produce quite a few sex-crazed, sports-addicted pagans.  I have heard colleagues say that “They come back when they get married and start having kids of their own.” I read a recent article titled “A Nation of Singles” by Jonathan Last.  It seems that 23.8 percent of men, and 19 percent of women, between the ages of 35 and 44 have never been married. Add to that the people between 20 and 34, the years when people generally start families, and the percentage of never married reaches a whopping 67 percent of men and 57 percent of women. That means a huge number of Americans no longer marry. Marriages are way down. Ask any priest in any parish. People don’t get married much anymore. So if they come back when they get married and have kids of their own, they’re not coming back. Not now, not never, no how.

Forty years ago the optimists said, “They’ll all be back when they get married.” Some of them got married. But most didn’t come back. Now they aren’t even coming back for their funerals. Their kids, what few kids they had don’t bother with marriage and tend to keep mom and dad’s ashes on the mantle next to the football trophies. Why should they bother with marriage? For forty years we winked at the promiscuous ways of our children and now what can we expect from our grandchildren? I remember old Father Hertz, one of my Latin teachers at Crayola University here in Frostbite Falls. He was so old that he used to reminisce about the Spanish American War. I am not exaggerating one little bit. Because he had reached an impossibly old age, the University decided to name a shiny new 19-story  residence hall after him. He was as pleased as could be, until he found out what went on in the building. The behavior of the progressive young Catholic residents of the building could have made a sailor blush. Fr. Hertz asked to have his name removed from the building. The University refused. This was in 1972. The rutting adolescents who made Fr. Hertz regret allowing his name to be tacked to that 19-story bordello are now 60 years old. Their grandchildren are approaching their 20's and they are the third generation for whose return we so optimistically wait. Ain’t gonna happen, at least not in the numbers sufficient to recreate the good old church we once knew.

We are at a historic moment. Ethnic Catholicism is dead. One can no longer be Catholic simply because one is Irish or Polish or Mexican. I remember a battle royal I had in a former parish with a young Irish American colleen who stood up at the open microphone during the progressive Mass and invited everyone to join her in a march to protect a woman’s right to abortion. That’s the point at which I folded the progressive Mass down. Enough, at that point was enough. She was furious with me. She said that I had no right to tell her what it meant to be Catholic. She was born Catholic! I reminded her she was not born Catholic. She was baptized Catholic. No one is born Catholic. She hated everything that the Catholic Church stood for, but she could not conceive of being ethnically Irish and not Catholic. She would have no reason to drink green beer on St. Patrick’s day or march in the parade. So the Catholic Church would just have to change to suit her. That was 25 years ago. It is much easier now to be Irish and not Catholic. 

The Americans who think of themselves as Irish have rediscovered pseudo-Druidism which allows them to kill their babies and still be Irish. I imagine that some author will soon make the case that St. Patrick was a Druid anyway who the Catholic church co-opted, just like St. Bridget was actually a Celtic goddess. Neo-paganism is wondrously wacky and flexible. The point is this. One cannot be Catholic because one is Irish, or Polish or Mexican or anything. In the dawning age of neo-paganism, one can be Catholic only because Catholicism is the truth. Catholicism is a coherent way of life. We Catholics believe that the Catholic way of life is the best and surest way to heaven. It is not just an inconvenient organization that my ethnicity or cultural associations force me to be part of. For the first time in a very long time one is completely free to not be Catholic, and the Catholic education system has yet to wake up to that reality.  It is a mistake to take anyone’s Catholic identify for granted and yet we assume that if a child is in a Catholic school, that child is probably Catholic, no questions asked. We’re glad for the tuition and one must keep enrollment up. We need not teach them Catholicism. They are already Catholic.  They should learn their prayers and it would be nice if they went to church and they should get their sacraments, because, well, they are Catholic.

What I am trying to say is that many, perhaps most, aren’t Catholic by any reasonable definition. The Catholic school system should exist to teach Catholicism to a world that is, in fact not Catholic. One goes to medical school to become  a doctor. The reason one goes to dental school is to become a dentist. The reason one goes to a cosmetology school is to become a cosmetician/cosmetologist.... whatever. Perhaps it would make sense for someone to go to a Catholic school to become a Catholic, or perhaps a better Catholic. American Catholic schools were created in the 19th century to protect Catholic children from the Protestant culture and the government schools that taught it. Now there are precious few Catholic children to protect. There are lot of people who have Baptismal certificates and who would like to have a swell Confirmation party, but they aren’t Catholic in any practical sense. Catholic education will succeed only if its clear that it teaches one how to be Catholic, how to live the Catholic life. One should only go to such a school if one want to be a Catholic, or if one wants his children to be Catholic, not because they want their children to have a good education which is currently not available in many urban government schools. So the question to ask before we can even begin to construct a form of Catholic education that deals with the new reality is; what does it mean to be  Catholic?


  1. Brilliant. We're supposed to hold to a standard and invite others to join us, not lower the standard to be inclusive. I actually know people who left the Church because it wasn't "Catholic enough", which was a mistaken response, I believe, but I understand what they meant.

  2. When a system gets too fraught with cruft and errors... it's time to reboot. Sometimes all you can do is re-install the Operating System.

    The fact that so many of these 'Catholic' schools are closing may not be a bad thing. We can always start new ones that aren't staggering under an epidemic of mission creep.

    FYI... the *faithful to the Magisterium* Catholic school near my house, where young men (tweens!) pray the rosary during daily Mass.. well, that one is packed to the rafters. Praise be to God!