No Hyenas for Us, only Saints

Note: Many thanks to all of you who responded – and so generously – to the beginning of our mid-year fundraising campaign yesterday. We’re off to a good start. I receive and read all your messages and wish I could respond to every one of them. But time and sheer volume prevent that. Please be assured, though, that all of us – staff and writers – deeply appreciate your support. One reader commented that she particularly liked the 1000-word limit on our columns. I do too and enforce it strictly, to the annoyance of our writers – except for today. I think we need to hear this slightly longer message on Catholic education, which I believe is going to be the only effective way out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves, in both the secular world and the Church, though it may take a generation or two. – Robert Royal      

(The following is excerpted from a homily preached at the Mass inaugurating the Awards Night of the Catholic Education Foundation at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City on 26 April.)

St. John Henry Cardinal Newman was once asked by his Bishop what he thought might be the place of the laity in the Church. He retorted:  “The Church would look foolish without them.”  An uncharacteristically laconic response for Newman.  Which leads to the next question: If the Church would look foolish without the laity, what kind of laity would redound to her edification and effectiveness?  Newman tells us clearly: “I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity.”

And what will such a “well-instructed laity” accomplish?  It will be:

your gaining that proper confidence in self which is so necessary for you. You will then not even have the temptation to rely on others, to court political parties or particular men; they will rather have to court you. You will no longer be dispirited or irritated. . . , at finding difficulties in your way, in being called names, in not being believed, in being treated with injustice. You will fall back upon yourselves; you will be calm, you will be patient. Ignorance is the root of all littleness.

How is one to get this “well-instructed laity” to bring about “the new evangelization” –  that living and preaching of the Gospel in formerly Christian lands?  We have the answer in Newman’s establishment of the Catholic University of Ireland, to be sure, but likewise (and even especially) in his founding of the Oratory School in Birmingham, often called “the apple of his eye.”

The educational project, however, is always situated within a particular cultural and political milieu.  Contemporaneous with Newman, in these climes, we encounter the fiery and impassioned John J. Hughes, the first Archbishop of New York, protecting his flock under siege from a vicious anti-Catholicism, causing him to declare, without fear of contradiction: “The days have come. . . in which the school is more necessary than the church.”

John Lancaster Spaulding, Bishop of Peoria from 1876 until 1908, likewise contended: “Without parish schools, there is no hope that the Church will be able to maintain itself in America.”  The bishops of our nation understood this very well when, in their 1884 plenary council, they mandated the establishment of a Catholic school in every parish, with the goal of having every Catholic child in a Catholic school.  We never achieved that goal completely, but we did come close – until we lost our nerve and sense of direction.

While the bishops of the United States were fighting off the assaults of bigoted Protestants, the ever-prescient Newman had dug deeper and had uncovered an even more disturbing phenomenon in his sermon “The Infidelity of the Future” (by “infidelity,” he meant a lack of faith in the supernatural).

He explained that, yes, there have always been atheists; however, something different was aborning: “Individuals have put them [such ideas] forth, but they have not been current and popular ideas. Christianity has never yet had experience of a world simply irreligious. . . . [C]onsider what the Roman and Greek world was when Christianity appeared. It was full of superstition, not of infidelity.”

And 150 years later, behold! A new form of anti-Catholicism, not Protestants against Catholics, but virulent secularists against all people of faith, but directed toward us Catholics with a particular venom: hence, vandalism of our institutions; FBI surveillance of our churches; harassment of serious Catholics by law enforcement and the judicial system. Institutional maintenance will not do.  The Catholic drive toward assimilation in the 1940s and 50s got us into this mess.  Truth be told, the Church in America was never counter-cultural and so produced all too many Bidens and Pelosis.

Current assaults against the Church and her teachings are even more pernicious than those of the nineteenth century, spreading through thoroughly hostile and godless, so-called “public,” schools as children are exposed to every kind of perversion and lunacy imaginable.  Indeed, a recent study revealed that the average Catholic child in a government school loses his or her faith by the fourth grade!

Therefore, every priest and bishop should warn parents that subjecting their children to government schools endangers their souls.  Of course, that will mean ensuring that authentic Catholic schools are available and affordable, and likewise challenging the priorities of all too many parents who prefer a winter vacation to the Catholic education of their sons and daughters.

And further, our situation demands we be proactive in protecting the Catholic identity of our schools from any incursions. Historically, totalitarian forces always go after our schools first.

Yes, Catholic schools are more necessary today than ever before in our history, but schools determined to form intentional Catholics, comfortable with being different.  The aggressive secularization of the moment can only be held off and even reversed if the Church is able to offer her members an alternative vision of life and what sociologists call a viable “sub-culture” (actually, the Catholic “sub-culture” is the real culture, while what society is offering is no culture at all).

John Paul II with schoolchildren in Philadelphia in 1979

In essence, that is what St. Benedict did as the decadent Roman culture was breathing its last, and his alternate vision saved not only the Church but Western Civilization. The principal agent of that renewal was a monasticism which founded schools everywhere.  What emerged in relatively short order was the glorious Middle Ages – the Age of Faith – with the good, the true, and the beautiful producing a superabundance of magnificent works of literature, art, music, and architecture – and thousands of saints.

Believers must be convinced – and then must convince everyone else – that the Fathers of Vatican II got it right when they declared in Gaudium et Spes: “Without the Creator, the creature vanishes” (n. 36).  History supports that assertion.  Just look at the bloodshed of every godless movement of modernity from the French Revolution to the Mexican Revolution and the Spanish Civil War to the murderous campaigns of the Nazis and Communists.

Would Cardinal Newman be surprised by what I have just related?  Or would he not say that this is all the logical conclusion to what he saw a century-and-a-half earlier?  As for us, might not many be tempted to despair?  That, however, would be the wrong response. As St. Teresa of Àvila said, “The world is in flames. . . .Do you wish to put them out?”

We have been putting out those flames for a long time through our schools.  The modern popes have seen this.

The bicentennial message of Pope Paul VI to the Church in the United States contained praise for the American Catholic school system and an encouragement to continue the tradition: “The strength of the Church in America (is) in the Catholic schools.”

The esteem of Pope John Paul II for the American Catholic school system was evident in his 1979 videotaped message to the National Catholic Educational Association, in which he hoped to give “a new impulse to Catholic education throughout the vast area of the United States of America. . . .the Catholic school must remain a privileged means of Catholic education in America. . . worthy of the greatest sacrifices.”  He referred to the Catholic school as “the heart of the Church.”

Pope Benedict XVI devoted an entire address to Catholic education during his 2008 pastoral visit to the United States.  One paragraph stands out in particular:

[Catholic education] is an outstanding apostolate of hope, seeking to address the material, intellectual and spiritual needs of over three million children and students. It also provides a highly commendable opportunity for the entire Catholic community to contribute generously to the financial needs of our institutions. Their long-term sustainability must be assured. Indeed, everything possible must be done, in cooperation with the wider community, to ensure that they are accessible to people of all social and economic strata. No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.

At times, we hear “old-timers” agree that Catholic schools were effective in “the good old days,” but not so much anymore.  But consider these facts:

  • Millennial Catholics who attended Catholic schools are seven times more likely to attend weekly Mass than millennial adults who attended public schools.
  • Some 51 percent of those ordained to the priesthood attended Catholic grade school and 43 percent, a Catholic high school.
  • Men who have attended a Catholic secondary school are more than six times as likely to consider a priestly vocation.
  • Women who have attended a Catholic primary school are three times as likely to consider being a religious Sister.
  • Catholic school graduates are more likely to pray daily, attend church more often, retain a Catholic identity as an adult, and are faithful stewards.

            If our schools are so necessary for the welfare of the Church, it goes without saying that the maintenance of a Catholic school is not the sole or even primary responsibility of parents; according to the teaching and law of the Church, it is the responsibility of the entire Catholic community.  Therefore, the generous engagement of every parishioner is expected and needed, that is, if we are committed to the survival and growth of the Church in our own place and time.

            Near-penniless immigrants built our Catholic institutions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while much wealthier Catholics of the present century can’t – or won’t – maintain them.  That sad fact calls for a serious examination of conscience.

            With the abysmal state of public education now near-universally acknowledged, it’s clear that our Catholic schools will be providing the only seriously formed leaders for the foreseeable future, both academically and morally. We must be determined that our schools produce veritable “counter-cultural scholars.”

            My dear friends, we need to revive what I like to call “The Spirit of 1884,” in which the bishops of our nation issued their clarion call to have every Catholic child in a Catholic school.  Decades ago, Thomas Merton was already warning Catholic parents against subjecting children to atheistic government schools and thus letting “their children grow up according to the standards of a civilization of hyenas.”

No hyenas for us, only saints!

You may also enjoy:

Michael Pakaluk’s Truth is the Telos of a Catholic University

Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy’s The American Catholic Church: A Defense

Father Peter Stravinskas holds doctorates in school administration and theology. He is the founding editor of The Catholic Response and publisher of Newman House Press. Most recently, he launched a graduate program in Catholic school administration through Pontifex University.