Mission Fit in Catholic High Schools

Imagine that a young woman takes a job in a Jewish Yeshiva school teaching mathematics. She is a perfectly competent mathematics teacher, perhaps even quite good. But after a few weeks of teaching, she begins to bad-mouth the State of Israel: not merely the current policies of the State of Israel, mind you, but the very existence of Israel itself, saying things like: “Israel should never have been created,” and “The Palestinians have a righteous claim to the entire territory, and those who don’t recognize this are simply bigots.” How long do you suppose this woman would keep her job?

So too, let’s imagine a young man who gets a job at a Muslim school teaching economics. Once again, he is perfectly conversant with modern economic theory and teaches it quite charmingly. Most students like him. But now let’s suppose that the school’s administrators discover that this teacher has been drawing pictures of Mohammed on the chalk board for the amusement of students, forbidding young Muslim women from wearing their head scarves in his class, and criticizing the Koran’s prohibition against usury. How long would anyone expect this gentleman to keep his job?

And finally let us suppose a recent young American college graduate takes a job teaching science at a Hindu school in a poor section of Mumbai. Although knowledgeable in her subject area and dedicated to her students, she is openly contemptuous of the notion of reincarnation, calling it “utter nonsense as far as science is concerned.” She has also told the children of Brahman caste parents that they ought to be “ashamed of the injustices their ancestors committed against the members of the lower castes.” Once again, how long would we expect this young woman to keep her job? Indeed, wouldn’t many Americans be likely to accuse her of a very unbecoming lack of “multi-cultural sensitivity”?

If in each case you answered that the teacher in question would certainly be fired instantly, and if you suppose that almost no one would expect the school to act differently, then why is Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco taking so much flak for trying to ensure a modicum of fidelity to Catholic teaching in the Catholic high schools within his archdiocese?

As many readers will know, eight California state legislators wrote the archbishop recently to complain about his new policy of asking teachers to sign a pledge that they would uphold the Church’s teachings in class. The archbishop wrote back to them pointing out, first, that the “morality clauses” in the new teacher’s contracts did not apply to the teacher’s private life, but had only to do with their public duties as teachers in avowedly Catholic schools where they have been hired to carry out an educational mission in accord with the dictates of John Paul II’s encyclical on Catholic education, Ex corde ecclesiae.

Archbishop Cordileone’s second response was similar to those I’ve supplied above. He asks the eight Democratic congressmen:

Would you hire a campaign manager who advocates policies contrary to those that you stand for, and who shows disrespect toward you and the Democratic Party in general?   On the other hand, if you knew a brilliant campaign manager who, although a Republican, was willing to work for you and not speak or act in public contrary to you or your party – would you hire such a person? If your answer to the first question is “no,” and to the second question is “yes,” then we are actually in agreement on the principal point in debate here.

Now let’s say that this campaign manager you hired, despite promises to the contrary, starts speaking critically of your party and favorably of your running opponent, and so you decide to fire the person. Would you have done this because you hate all Republicans outright, or because this individual, who happens to be a Republican, violated the trust given to you and acted contrary to your mission? If the latter, then we are again in agreement on this principle.

My point is: I respect your right to employ or not employ whomever you wish to advance your mission. I simply ask the same respect from you.

As we all know, they, and others of their ilk, are unlikely to show him the same respect — not only of the sort they would expect for themselves, but even that which they would show any other religious school.

Why not?

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco

There seem to be two explanations. The first is that Catholics are not sectarian. They insist that their schools and hospitals and adoption agencies remain open to all and not serve Catholics only. When an institution’s generosity is this wide, ungrateful people can get the idea that this is a public benefit, and like other public benefits, it is something they deserve – and deserve on their own terms.

Catholic schools are not public schools. Indeed, they best serve the public good precisely by not being public schools. Parents who send their children to Catholic schools must know this, or they would be sending their kids to the free public schools instead.

The other reason for the problem is one I can identify with readily because I grew up Protestant. This is the sort of “know nothing” anti-Catholic bigotry that has long characterized many proponents of America’s “civic religion.” Many Americans have never been comfortable with parochial schools, and they still aren’t. They have long assumed that all schools should be subject to the state and serve the purposes of the state.

There are plenty of public schools that do what public schools do. There is only one place where children can get a Catholic education. It takes a certain kind of fascist intolerance – all within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the liberal consensus about the state – not to allow even those few schools to remain open and free to furnish the sort of education they were founded for.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.