A minor kerfuffle erupted earlier this month when Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York made the unforgivable mistake of saying complimentary things about the president of the United States. The occasion for this crime was a group phone call  between several hundred Catholic leaders and educators, and members of the Trump administration, including the president.
The purpose of that call was to highlight the financial plight of Catholic schools, which, like so many other institutions, face immense challenges in the wake of the pandemic and economic disruption. The president, for his part, took the opportunity to boast about his pro-life credentials, calling himself the “best [president] in the history of the Catholic Church,” and reminding people on the call about the importance of “November 3.”
Rather than chastising the president for his many and various failings, the Catholic prelates on the call (Cardinal Dolan, but also Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, L.A. Archbishop Jose Gomez, and others) spoke about the importance of Catholic schools – including their importance to non-Catholics and especially to low-income and minority communities. The bishops urged the president to take action to help struggling schools beyond the immediate crisis and thanked him for his promises to do so.
This was all deeply upsetting to some people. Mostly, it seems, it was upsetting to the same sort of people who, in 2009, could not fathom how anyone could be so uncivil as to object to a Catholic university like Notre Dame bestowing honors on a champion of abortion rights such as President Obama.
I mention Obama at Notre Dame, not as a tu quoque defense of Dolan (or Trump, for that matter) but to emphasize the chasm that exists between many American Catholics when it comes to politics and the conception of public goods. It’s not just that different Catholics have different criteria as to what makes a politician or policy utterly unacceptable; it’s that each side’s criteria are morally incomprehensible to the other.
That problem – the intransigence of our political divisions, even between and among Catholics – is actually a pretty good place to begin thinking about the importance of truly Catholic education for both the Church and the nation.
To see why this is, we can turn, briefly, to Aristotle. “Education ought to be adapted to the particular form of constitution,” Aristotle wrote, “since the particular character belonging to each constitution both guards the constitution generally and originally establishes it.”
Put another way: we ought to educate our young people to be good citizens of the kind of country we hope for them to inherit. Educating them in this way both preserves what is already good in our country, and brings into being what is good, but lacking.
In America, we mostly educate for materialism.
Most Americans are educated in schools that aim – with wildly varying degrees of success – to give students the best chance to accumulate the best credentials possible so that they can enter into the workplace in the most productive (and lucrative) way. Students are taught, implicitly and explicitly, that the purpose of education is to advance your material well-being. The measure of an education, both in its ends and its means, is practical materialism.
Most American students are also steeped in what Pope Francis has called “the technocratic paradigm,” which teaches students to see both persons and objects as so much raw material ready for manipulation. The natural order is rejected in the name of utility and efficiency, while the meaning of Creation is erased in the name of self-expression. Sometimes this is taught explicitly, most often it is taught implicitly. But it is taught and learned, this practical materialism.
A society of citizens educated in this way cannot but be divided, because it is a society that has abandoned the only ground upon which reason and reconciliation are possible: truth. A society that is educated for materialism is not formed for freedom or democracy or peace, because “it does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” That, you may recall, is exactly how Joseph Ratzinger once described the dictatorship of relativism.
At their best, Catholic schools teach young people to see the world in the light of the greatest mysteries of the faith, and those mysteries suffuse every aspect of their education. At its best a Catholic education, reveals to us our own humanity by revealing to us the God who made us, loves us, became like us, and redeems us. We come to know who we are by coming to know the One for whom we are. That experience transforms the entire horizon of human experience.
Our Catholic schools are not immune from the problems facing public education in America. Too often, Catholic education is indistinguishable from any other kind of education, except for the religion class a few times a week. But Catholic schools still represent one of the last viable alternatives to an education system that is overwhelmingly forming our young people, not for true freedom or true flourishing, but for the opposite.
Bishops who take seriously their mandate to teach, would do well to prioritize Catholic education; it is hard to instruct a flock in the faith when the flock has been inoculated against truth. Bishops must encourage parents to take seriously their role as primary educators, which may mean reminding parents that their obligation is much more than ensuring that Junior gets into a good school.
And bishops ought to be willing to look for help when and where it is available. There are innumerable reasons to be wary of feeding at the government trough. Money almost always comes with strings attached. But the survival of our Catholic schools is critical to the common good of our country. Saving and renewing Catholic education is an important step toward healing a divided nation, and a divided Church.
*Image: Jesus Teaches the People by the Sea  (Jésus enseigne le peuple près de la mer) by James J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]