Tales from the Crypt of Catholic Education

A Note from Robert Royal: Before we turn to Professor Smith’s valuable insights about our current need for truly independent institutions – and his plea that we support them generously – I have to appeal to your generosity for support of The Catholic Thing. We only ask our readers for donations twice a year, during the Easter season and then again towards the end of the year. But reader support is what makes TCT possible. Literally: Without your support we would cease to exist. Some readers see me or Fr. Murray on EWTN, or follow Brad Miner in his own media appearances, and assume we must be getting paid handsomely. The truth is that we never receive anything for these appearances and, in fact, we often spend days of our own time preparing for them. The same is true of the coverage we’ve offered here of everything from the 2013 conclave to the synods and other events at the Vatican. Our main focus is always TCT itself – which is to say: we labor to bring you the very best material we can every morning, every day of the year. As do our very gifted writers who could be getting much greater compensation doing other things, but like the TCT staff stay at this work because we know how crucial it is for the Church, and through the Church for the world. You must think that too. Our business manager Hannah Russo predicted there would be 30,000 email subscribers to TCT by the end of the year. For the first time, she was wrong: we passed that number early, two weeks ago. We already have 1,000,000 more hits this year than last year (with almost two months left to go), and from what people tell me as I travel around America and other parts of the world, we’re quite far from reaching our limit. Given the challenges inside and outside the Church, we believe TCT is more needed now than ever. If you are one of our TCT regulars, or are one of the many who have only just come to know us lately, we need you to do your part. There are few sites where you will find as steadily Catholic news and analysis as you see here every day. So can you give: $50, $75, $100, $500, $1000 to Our Thing? I always like to remind people that you can also set up smaller, painless monthly donations that make a big difference to our program planning. It’s easy too: Just click on the Donate button or, if you prefer, you can mail your donation to the Faith & Reason Institute office. (All donations are fully tax-deductible.) With your help, TCT will celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2018. Please, if you’ve appreciated what we’ve done in the past and see what desperately needs to be done for the future, don’t delay. Support TCT today. – RR

I was out the other night and saw little ones dressed as witches and monsters, which put me in mind of a television show from years ago called Tales from the Crypt, a spin-off of a comic book series I had seen years before. Not being a fan of the “horror” genre, I didn’t watch the show much. But whenever I did, it usually involved a grisly story of some poor unfortunate, unsuspectingly getting caught up in some macabre affair. A couple adopts a boy, plotting something horrible, but the boy turns out to be something even more horrible. The blood or gore did not make the show terrifying; it was the macabre and the unexpected.

I had that same “What-macabre-alternate-dimension-am-I-in?” reaction of many of the show’s characters when I heard a story from my friend about his son and his troubles at a diocesan Catholic high school. The young man graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from college, spent over a year teaching junior high kids in Iraq and English to Iraqi Christian women, and then distinguished himself as a top student at Oxford where he co-authored several publications with an Oxford professor.

As his stint teaching Catholics in Iraq suggests, this is a young man dedicated to his faith, to learning, and to service in the Church. So when he finally got back home to the States, he naturally (and oh-so-naively) decided he wanted to dedicate himself to teaching at a diocesan Catholic high school.

And so, off he goes to interview at a diocesan Catholic high school in his town, which just happened to have several openings. Four people interview him; they all love him; this looks like a no-brainer. But just as in Tales from the Crypt, where seemingly joyous moments were always followed by a macabre “twist” (revealing an underlying malevolence), so too with our poor, unsuspecting young Oxford scholar.

The topic suddenly turned to whether he has a teaching certificate. (Don’t these people read resumes?) “Oh, so sorry. That might be a problem.” The interviewers exchange meaningful glances. They clear their throats. They mumble something about having to ask the diocesan education office for a waiver to hire him. And the interview is at an end.

The next day, the geniuses devoted to Catholic educational excellence at the diocesan bureaucracy nix the hire. Why hire a guy who risked his life to teach Catholic women in Iraq, has high honors and a degree from Oxford when you get someone with a bachelor’s degree in education from Southwestern Community College, Springfield Village Mall Branch, who has – praise be to God! – a teaching certificate.

I mean, sure the Oxford kid may be smart, but how do you know he can teach unless he has a teaching certificate? It would be like thinking someone could be a great artist or a great poet without having one of those Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees. Joseph Ratzinger: brilliant guy, sure, but would you put him in front of a classroom full of diocesan high school students? Do you have any idea how much reading that guy assigns?

The Sower by Vincent van Gogh, 1888 [Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands]

The Oxford kid who was undeterred by Al-Qaeda in Iraq couldn’t quite make it past the Catholic diocesan educational bureaucracy in his own hometown. Institutions so devoted to shooting themselves in the foot in order to please the town bully should not be puzzled why they have so much trouble walking – and why running is a mere memory from the distant past.

As I said, I never really liked Tales from the Crypt. I prefer happy endings. So perhaps I should mention that, two days later, another Catholic school in the area, one not micro-managed by the diocese, got the young man’s resume, called him instantly, and hired him after a fifteen-minute phone interview.

Horror stories leave you wondering whether there is a monster hiding in your closet, waiting until no one is looking to jump out at you. Certainly, this particular horror story is unique, not a monster stalking your children. How I wish it were not so.

One more tale: A gifted young woman I know was consistently being undermined by the administration at the local Catholic high school where she taught theology. “The main task of the theology teacher is to attend the student’s football games and activities, to show them that the Church is there for them.” “With all this reading, you are destroying our child’s faith.” She left that school and now teaches at one of the finest Catholic classical schools in the country, one much less expensive than the mediocre diocesan high school where she taught before.

The teachers at her current school are told to make students responsible for their own work. They expect excellence, and they get it. And when she asks for help, she gets it. Last year, an older, award-winning teacher had taken her under her wing and they were having frequent conversations about teaching. The principal put a stop to that, announcing: “She has to sink or swim on her own.”

Interesting thought; but as long as he was on the subject of “sinking,” this gentleman might want to remember Christ’s warning about “anyone who causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

I call these “Tales from the Crypt” because it suggests a dead, moribund institution. The good news is that these “crypt keepers” are part of a larger entity that specializes in resurrection from the dead. Signs of new life and growth are springing up all over; usually not on the stone-hard crypt, but around them, in the fertile, loamy soil where the seed of the sower can take root, grow, and flourish.

Please look for these signs of life and support them – generously.

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.