Why choose a Catholic school?

| Todd Flanders | August 29, 2013 | 0 Comments

“The greatest challenge to Catholic education in the United States today, and the greatest contribution that authentically Catholic education can make to American culture, is to restore to that culture the conviction that human beings can grasp the truth of things.”

— Blessed John Paul II

PencilCup_schoolWhy Catholic schools? The question is more urgent than ever in a crowded K-12 marketplace. It’s not enough for a Catholic school to be a smaller version of a public school, with prayer and service projects added. Essential as prayer and service are, ours is first a teaching mission. If we are to serve families well, we need to focus on how that mission makes a contribution not offered elsewhere.

This first of two articles explores the challenge laid to us by Blessed John Paul II, indicating our unique opportunity to make a contribution. The second will address ways Catholic educators can commit and prepare to meet the challenge.

The pope was right, “Human beings can grasp the truth of things.” Yet, our culture and the American education establishment increasingly doubt truth can be known outside of math and science. The challenge Pontius Pilate put to Jesus, our culture now puts to us: “What is truth?”

There is a fear today of anyone proposing answers to questions like, “How should I live?” “How should I love?” It’s a fear that claiming to know ethical truth makes people dangerous. “A common truth intimidates us,” writes Pope Francis in “Lumen Fidei,” “for we identify it with . . . totalitarian systems.”

So, the standard approach in schools now is to avoid possible danger through inculcating a view that people of different backgrounds have different truths, so everyone’s “truth” demands equal respect.

But isn’t this really the same as teaching there’s no ethical truth at all? I offered a simple critique of this ideology to an upper level class at the University of Minnesota recently. I pointed out cultures whose “truths” include honor killings of women, death sentences for homosexuals, or brutal repression of religious groups. A bright young woman said, “Well, if that’s their culture, who are we to question it?” She had absorbed the new dogma well.

Now, we should all favor cultural diversity in the best sense. People of different backgrounds can all contribute to the common good. In America, our phrase “e pluribus unum” captures this understanding: “Out of many, one.”

The idea is that since everyone shares a common human nature, “oneness” or real community is possible. Whether Christian, Jew or Confucian, Western or Asian, black or white, our common humanness grounds moral principles all can know.

People in cultures around the globe know you shouldn’t lie, cheat, steal or murder. They couldn’t get on very well otherwise. And when a culture goes bad, as Stalin’s U.S.S.R. and Hitler’s Germany did, the only way to judge them is by standards that saner people actually know.

‘Dictatorship of relativism’

What if the newer idea, that all cultural values are equally respectable, were taken to its logical conclusion? There could be no moral principles for ordering our lives together, no judgments to be made.

Pope Benedict XVI put it this way: “A ‘dictatorship of relativism’ threatens to obscure the unchanging truth about man’s nature, his destiny and his ultimate good.”

It’s a way of saying that those who deny unchanging truth will come to look with suspicion — even intolerance — on any who think there is such truth. “In the name of tolerance, tolerance is being abolished,” Pope Benedict said. “This is a real threat we face.”

Intolerance of clear thinking has educational consequences. Denial of moral principles for ordering our lives together is a dilemma for anyone teaching young citizens of the U.S.

Our nation, the first in history to do so, was founded on a declaration: “We hold these truths…” During the Civil War, Confederates claimed that a slave society was their “way of life,” a cultural truth demanding equal respect. That view was rejected by the Union, whose president said our nation is “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Here’s the dilemma: human equality is either an example of an “unchanging truth” or not. To teach it as merely a cultural value is to undercut it — by accepting the Confederacy’s arguments. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. And, if there is one truth of human nature, there are probably others. Logic finds itself leading to the conclusion, taught by the Church, that there are indeed many truths about the human person.

Teaching truth

Catholic schools must teach them. We must reinvest in teaching rational principles that ground our common lives together. Such principles are part of our Catholic heritage, so we have special equipment for so urgent a task. They are at the root of Catholic support not only for human equality but for life, family, religious freedom and much more.

Denial of truth today presents another yet deeper challenge for Catholic schools. Some of our moral positions are increasingly seen as irrational, and worse, as prejudiced. George Weigel calls this emerging attitude “Christophobia,” a gut-level aversion to Christian ideas. Catholic education should help dispel this fear.

For our faith is itself a form of knowledge. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. This is good news, and not only for us who already believe. Acceptance of good news, reliably proclaimed, is not irrational. To the contrary, our acceptance of Christ truly risen can transform reason away from our tendency to bend it toward selfish interests, toward our preferred “way of life.”

The Christ we proclaim proposes that the deepest questions have a reasonable answer. That answer is ultimately a person, and that person is Love itself.

The truth which is love is not prejudiced or intolerant. It is not dangerous to coexistence.

“As a truth of love,” Pope Francis writes, “it can penetrate to the heart, to the personal core of each man and woman. Faith is not intransigent, but grows in respectful coexistence with others. Truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us. Far from making us inflexible. . . it enables witness and dialogue with all.”

Dialogue is important since we usually don’t grasp truth very well, fallen as we are. And, tempted to selfishness, we can think and act in undignified and prejudicial ways toward others. We are prone to disregard moral truths we all at some level really know. We do so for the sake of greed or power or pleasure, or to conform to popular opinion. We have a word for these defects — sin. But the fact of sin shouldn’t turn us away from the pursuit of truth. It should instead turn us toward the pursuit with greater humility and vigor.

So, why Catholic schools? Because we have the freedom and responsibility to lead the young in pursuit of truth. Ultimately, to the truth that sets us free. It’s the answer to Blessed John Paul II’s challenge. The unique service Catholic schooling can offer requires of educators special commitment and preparation. I will address these in a second article, in the next issue of The Catholic Spirit.

Flanders is headmaster of Providence Academy in Plymouth and instructor in the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute.

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Category: Commentary