Whenever I have occasion to reflect on how my Catholic school education failed me, and how it continues to fail young souls, I often remember a particular afternoon in 1976. I was twelve years old and in sixth grade at Our Lady of Mercy school in Potomac, Maryland, the suburb outside of Washington where I was raised. On this particular afternoon Mr. Sewell, our teacher, was trying to teach us social studies, a course suffused with proto-PC dreck about the "values of all cultures" and other nonsense.
The class wanted no part of it. A few days before, Mr. Sewell had made the mistake of playing the class a tape of a young and intensely charismatic preacher. I forget the man’s name, but he was the most electrifying speaker I’ve ever heard. He had been a drug addict, dope dealer and thief, but had discovered the Lord and was set right. He had a staccato delivery and an assurance born of faith that was riveting. One part that never forgot was when his life was bottoming out and he was arrested. He had prayed for the first time in his life the night before, and when he tried to mouth off to the police he couldn’t speak. Then he tried to take a swing but couldn’t move his hand. "I didn’t realize it at the time," he said, "but I was caught. An angel held my tongue and another held my arm."
We cried out with delight. We had been born in the 1960s and many of our older brothers (although not mine) and their friends were hippies. The culture was increasingly telling us that the highest aspiration of man was to feel good and buy things – after all, we were one of the wealthiest suburbs in Washington, and the fact that most of our parents were, unlike the baby boomer adults to follow seemed more of a holding pattern than a steady state. This preacher was us that the pot some of our older brothers smoked was poison and that things meant nothing. I never forgot the image of two winged messengers restraining this man, clutching his filthy denim arm (it was the 1970s so the bad guys in my mind were hippies) and rancid, pot-soaked tongue. The class was mesmerized, girls with their heads on their disc in attention, us boys leaning forward to catch every word.
After that, it was hard for Mr, Sewell to teach social studies. We were hungry for God. He did play us one more tape of the preacher but that was it. Today, looking back over my long, haphazard journey home to the church, I sometimes feel a bit of resentment. Why, in a Catholic school in a Catholic state with a glorious Catholic history dating back to the first Maryland settlers, didn’t we have a religion class that featured speakers like this preacher? Why didn’t we learn, well, Catholicism?
We didn’t because we had come into the church at a misfortunate time in her history. When confronted with the excitement of the social changes of the 1960s the church blinked. Although Vatican II in 1962 is often blamed for loosening up the church too much, there is nothing in the Vatican II documents or in any papal encyclicals that calls for the dramatic changes in the curriculum that came into play in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, in 1983 the Vatican allowed for sexual education in schools (four years after they gave it to us at Our Lady of Mercy), but only, in the words of the late Catholic journalist Paul H. Hallett, "Only under moral safeguards and with the effective supervision of parents." Yet the Vatican seemed to be preaching to a choir that had steadily moved in a different direction, a direction still prevalent in catholic schools today. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that many Catholic schools, at least if the well-regarded ones I attended and have visited frequently are any indication, are not teaching Catholicism, leaving some of us to discover it on our own. It’s a scandal that no one seems much interested in.
You wouldn’t know that Catholic education had failed from the way people talk about it. After all, Catholic schools send a majority of their students to college. Even non-Catholic parents line up to get their kids into Catholic schools. Yet the truth is these kids might know a lot about the modern world, but they are graduating knowing nothing about Catholicism. Prove it to yourself: go to the nearest Catholic school, and ask the first ten kids to name the following people and what they did: Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Merton, St. Teresa, St. Ignatius Loyola, Dorothy Day. Few kids get past the first two names.
For most of my life, these names were a mystery to me. I was born in 1964, the son of two Catholic parents. My father went to Washington’s best catholic schools: Blessed Sacrament, Gonzaga, and Catholic University. Dad always saved some of his grades and notebooks from those years, and it reveals a distinctly intellectual Catholic curriculum. At Gonzaga he was required to study Lain, Greek, Western History (although it was just known as history in those benighted times) and Religion, including church history. They studied Thomas Aquinas, the intellectual father of the church, as well as Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. The read the Illiad and the Odyssey. Mass was required, as was a prayer before every class. There were three hours of homework at night. By the time he was a senior dad could read Latin fluently. As editor of the newspaper at Catholic University he sprinkled his editorials with classical references that the was sure the student body would understand. He understood the two cities of western culture, Athens and Jerusalem. He knew the link between St.Ambrose, St. Augustine and Aquinas.
Still, even as my dad was graduating from Gonzaga in 1946 changes were underway that would undermine the church. Schools in the United States were growing increasingly secular. Whereas once Protestant Christianity was taught in the public schools, both the Enlightenment, Darwinsim and the philosophy of liberals like John Dewey, who argued against religion in education, began to drive Christianity out and replace it with, well, nothing. (It’s hard to argue against a public school pushing a certain religion; it’s equally hard to argue for the removal of religion completely, partularly in acivilization whose values had been formed by one.)
In the 1947 decision of Everson vs. Board of Education Judge Hugo Black ruled that due to the First Amendment "No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion."
More decisions followed that made religious education illegal in public school buildings. The came the revolutionary times of the 1960s and 1970s, with their hostility towards tradition and embrace of psychology and New Age therapies. The Catholic schools were bending with the changing winds. This was evident with the change that began in the classrooms of Our Lady of Mercy when I was growing up. As a small child I had heard stories from my older brothers about the nightmare that awaited me when I got into Sister so-and-sos class. The residing pastor was a rough Italian who used to come to every classroom at report card time and deliver the grades himself. He would stand in the front of the class, call your name, and then make comments as you walked the last mile: "Mr. Judge, pretty good in English, but what’s this? What’s this D in chemistry? You would do well to bring that up, eh?" Imagine the outraged parents and lawsuits if someone tried that today.
Of course, today there are very few priests like Mercy’s old headmaster left. By the time I went through the school in the 1970s he was on his way out. Along with most of the tough old nuns who had tormented my brothers. The school has, however, just hired a "social justice" instructor. It was not edifying to see his new office pasted with bumper stickers bearing the kind of slogans popular in Berkeley: "IF YOU WANT JUSTICE WORK FOR PEACE." I suppose it would be too much of a stretch to teach the kids the philosophy of John Paul II.
Anyone who has spent any time in a Catholic school knows that this kind of thing is rampant and is corroding the church. When I worked for a brief time at Georgetown a few years ago, I was assured by more than one person that the pro-life dictates in the university’s health plan were easily circumvented. Just last week I went to a lecture on Thomas Merton at St. Anselm’s high school in Washington, and the talk ended in a diatribe about how much Merton would have hated George Bush. As Jude P. Dougherty, a philosophy professor at Catholic University, explains in an essay in the book The Mind and Heart of the Church: "Catholic institutions themselves have not escaped the drift towards secularism. Some have modeled themselves after the secular school; many have surrendered ties with ecclesiastical bodies in an attempt to qualify for state funding. Others have…advised administrators not to persue a distinctively Catholic course but to seek objectives only insofar as they seem consonant with legal trends. A too-Catholic student body, an effort to maintain Catholic identity through a predominantly Catholic faculty, are regarded as invitations to hostile rulings on the part of courts when determining eligibility for federal funds and tax-exempt status." Others, such as Georgetown University, have all but surrendered their Catholic identity to modernity and political correctness.
Another problem Dougherty cites is the replacement of the hard core subjects for theory, clinical psychology, counseling and social service. While these things are important, he notes, "Social science cannot replace history and philosophy. Learning theory or clinical psychology is no substitute for metaphysics….There is little knowledge gained from contemporary social science of the sort bearing on fundamental moral issues that was not also available in antiquity."
Now that as an autodidact I have learned something about my faith, I realize how right Dougherty is – just how ignorant of the faith I was and how the high priced schools I went to did nothing to discourage the condition. In high school I attended Georgetown Prep, one of the most prestigious Catholic schools in the country. In my four years there I never once read a single word by or about St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, the religious order responsible for the founding of Georgetown Prep. I also never came across Aquinas, Dorothy Day, St, Thomas Moore, Chesteron, Merton, even Tolkien, and Flannery O’Connor. I was, however, forced to take a graphic sex ed course taught by Bernie Ward, a man who is now a left-wing radio talk show host in San Francisco. The class cited no Catholic thinkers on sex and marriage – this during the ponitficate of John Paul II, who had done groundbreaking work in human sexuality. Instead, we read The Road Less Traveled, that megaselling tract of self-fulfillment, and listened to graphic talk about sexual organs. Still, nobody cared about that. There were many students at Prep who were at the school for one single purpose: the get into a great college and thereby make as much money as possible. To them Ignatius Loyola, the man who would give away his sole piece of clothing to a poor person, was a stranger. Prep now charges about the cost of a small car for a year’s tuition. The well held to send their boys there would be better off home schooling them and giving the money to the poor. They would be well advised to follow the advise Jesus gave to the rich man. But then, they probably don’t get the reference.
Somehow, though, I discovered the real meaning of Catholicism. It happened when I found a book my late father had left behind. - The Storey Mountain, the Catholic classic by Thomas Merton. I picked the book out of a pile, and from the first paragraph knew I was dealing with something quite different from the Catholicism of social studies and sex ed:
"On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violenc e and my own selfishness, in t he image of the worl d in which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him, born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers."
I still remember having to steady myself after reading those words, like I had been struck. Who was this Merton? Why hadn’t we ever read him at Mercy or Prep? He didn’t make Bernie Ward’s curriculum.
I devoured The Seven Storey Mountain, and Merton’s other books. Here was a guy who had gone to Columbia and was a brilliant writer, who loved jazz and women, and he had left it all to become a Trappist monk. This was not the abstract, pious saint of stained glass windows or the post-1960s habitless nun who was hip to what the kids were doing and liked rock and roll. This guy was deeply in love with his faith. He was an intellectual.
Yet theses days even Merton isn’t safe in the pages of his own books. In 1998 Farrar Straus put out a new version of The Seven Storey Mountain with an introduction by Robert Giroux and William H. Shannon, the president of the International Thomas Merton Society. Giroux’s introduction is a fine one, a short reflection on Merton and the story of how Storey became a surprise bestseller. Shannon’s piece, not to put to fine a point on it, is an offensive, smug, anti-Catholic disaster. It is not too much to call it a calumny and defacement. "The Roman Catholic Church you encounter in this book," Shannon pronounces, " is almost light years removed from the church that we recognize as the Roman Catholic Church today. Today’s church is the product of the revolution (not to strong a term) set in motion by the Second Vatican Council."
There’s more: "The pre-Vatican II church into which Merton was baptized was a church still reacting – even three centuries later – to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Characterized by a siege mentality, wagons-circled around doctrinal and moral absolutes, it clung to its past with great tenacity. An institution apart, it showed little desire to open itself to the questions and needs of a world undergoing huge and unprecedented changes. The church prided itself on the stability and unchangeable character of its teaching in the context of a world in flux. At the time Merton wrote his book, Roman Catholic theology had become a set of prepackaged responses to any and all questions. Polemical and apologetic in tone, its aim was to prove Catholics were right and all others were wrong."
Hard to believe: The Catholic Church had the stunning gall to claim it stood for moral absolutes, unlike those open minded Protestant denominations. Worse, it insisted that it provided timeless answers – or wisdom ever ancient and ever new in Augustine’s phrase – that transcended the fads of the day.
The absolute worst, however, is Shannon’s attempt to secularize Merton’s very Catholic book. In his note Shannon offers this summation:
People continue to read The Seven Storey Mountain because the story of how Merton arrives at this certitude is so compelling. We are swept along with this young man as he seeks to make something out of his heretofore undisciplined life. Today, as we hover on the verge of a new millennium, we can identify with his searching, if not always with the specific direction it took. Merton’s personal magnetism, the enthusiasm of his convictions, the vivid narratives of this born writer, transcend the narrowness of his theology. His story contains perennial elements of our common human experience. This is what makes it profoundly universal.
So The Seven Storey Mountain is not a Catholic book. It is a New Age tale of self-discovery, easily adaptable to the culture of Oprah. It’s all about the imperial self and the search for, well, me. Forget the direction Merton’s search took – in fact, forget the point of the entire book. Pay no attention to Merton’s rhapsodies about Mary, Jesus, the saints and the Church that gave him his salvation and the salvation of the world. (The world!) Don’t even bother with the Latin. It’s all part of that narrow theology.
Chesteron once remarked that he loved the Catholic Church because it had prevented him from becoming a child of his age. William Shannon, sadly, is very much a child of his age. I daresay that in a hundred years his introduction to Merton’s masterpiece will seem far more dated than the text it introduces. Indeed, it is Merton who gets the last word on Shannon, not the other way around. It occurs when Merton realizes the error of his old life:
I saw clearly enough that I was the product of my times, my society, and my class. I was something that had been spawned by the selfishness and irresponsibility of the materialistic century in which I lived. However, what I did not see was that my own age and class only had an accidental part to play in this. They gave my egoism and pride and my other sins a peculiar character of weak and supercilious flippancy proper to this particularly century: but that was only on the surface. Underneath, it was the same old story of greed and lust and self-love, of the three concupiscences bred in the rich, rotted undergrowth of what is technically called "the world," in every age, in every class.
To which I would only add, no doubt over Shannon’s objections, amen. Mr. Sewell would understand.