Protecting Our Children From Catholic Schools

From New Oxford Review

By Charles James

Charles James is an Associate Professor of Philosophy, Academic Dean, and Provost at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California.

Little did we know that when we placed our children in Catholic schools the most momentous spiritual war in our family would commence. We were naïve and inexperienced. We had left the liberal Episcopal Church where I was a priest, and wanted our children to learn the solid teachings of historical Catholicism. However, what we found in the Catholic elementary schools was the same intellectually bankrupt and passé theological liberalism of the effete “mainline” Protestant churches. As former Episcopalians, we felt strangely at home in our new “Roman Episcopal Church” with its feminist leadership and its subjective pop theology.

We endured three years in Catholic schools. What was the purpose of leaving our three boys in these schools when all we experienced were battles with teachers and administrators? Why were we paying such a high tuition when our children were taught dissenting opinions which only confused them? When we eventually withdrew the boys, we immediately sensed a spiritual peace in our home and in them.

Let me tell the reader some specific horror stories which are unfortunately all too familiar to many Catholic families. My son Nicholas was in third grade at St. Elizabeth School in Oakland. Driving one Saturday on an errand, I heard Nicholas make this statement from the back seat: “My teacher told me to put a condor on the peanuts to protect myself from AIDS.” I hit the brakes and pulled over. What Nick heard as “condors and the peanuts” was actually about condoms and the penis. Well, the point was quite lost on him, but it grabbed his parents’ attention immediately. Nicholas was being taught about contraception — in third grade.

We confronted the teacher and the principal for two reasons. First, the teacher had not informed us that she intended to speak to our third grader about sex. Second, and perhaps more significantly, such teaching is in direct contradiction to the teaching of the Church. We complained about both these issues, and were shocked to receive a defensive response from both the principal (a Dominican nun) and the teacher (an ex-nun). Both of them explained, with a touch of racism, that the majority of the children attending St. Elizabeth’s are Hispanic and African American and that they (and their parents) do not understand the importance of practicing “safe sex.” My wife told the teacher that, as the parent of a third grader, the mother has the right to speak to her own children about sex when she feels the child is ready to hear it. The school had now pre-empted that right; it had assumed the authority of the parents. Adopting the public school attitude that “we are the experts,” this Catholic school convinced itself that it was the “great white hope” for the teeming and stupid masses of east Oakland. How sad, and how arrogant.

My attempt to enlighten the teacher and her principal went nowhere. And before I got to my car I decided to pull my kids out of the school as soon as possible.

Let me tell another true story. When my oldest son, Zachary, was attending St. Augustine School in Oakland, his religion teacher, who taught the Catechism of the Catholic Church, was a Jew. Now, I love and respect the rich intellectual Jewish tradition. I studied with many Jewish friends when doing my doctoral work in Berkeley. But a Jew teaching the Catholic catechism: Is there something wrong with this picture? I wondered if possibly the religion teacher were a “Messianic Jew,” that is, a Jewish convert to the Christian faith. No, he was a Jew who identified with his faith and its traditions. I had to wonder what kind of instruction my son would receive from a Jewish teacher on Jesus, the Cross, Pentecost, the scribes and Pharisees. It would be interesting, I’m sure; but Catholic, I doubt.

Here is another story, unfortunately true. Sometimes I would ask my kids what they were learning in religion class. This was interesting to me primarily because these were my kids, but also because I was preparing to teach Catholic theology and I wanted to know what was taught in Catholic grammar schools. But all I heard from my children was the gospel of social justice. They were getting nothing more than the vapid social moralisms of old-style liberal Protestantism. Catholics are typically tardy in spouting the latest trends in theology. Actually, the liberal Protestant agenda of today has moved beyond the social gospel to include “redefining the family,” “feminizing” the nature of God, and raising perverted forms of sexual expression to the neo-pagan heights of the sacred. Catholics, on the other hand, imagine they are with-it when they are simply behind the times. So what exactly were my kids hearing in their religion class? The old, stale Protestant liberalism that has nearly emptied the liberal Protestant churches in the U.S. But the Christian message is more than social amelioration.

When we took our children out of the Catholic schools we had two alternatives. We could place them in the public school system or we could teach them at home. (We had investigated other local Catholic schools, but encountered similar attitudes and problems.) My wife, Donna, is a labor and delivery nurse and I am a professor and dean at a Catholic seminary. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area requires two paychecks. We did not think home-schooling was possible for us. Yet a single year in the public schools revealed the incompetence and belligerence of the public educational system. We observed that public school teachers and administrators deliberately maintained an adversarial relationship with the families they “served.” The atmosphere is one of both conflict and indifference. Teachers fighting parents, systemic indifference throughout the school districts, children left uneducated — all in the name of the public trust. So my wife and I began to study the Catholic home-school phenomenon. This was a family emergency.

Meanwhile, we were learning other shocking things. We discovered that the Catholic elementary schools are not alone in their anemia. This “dying of the light” within the culture of Catholic education shows up everywhere. Catholic colleges, universities, and seminaries all pander to the surrounding culture. Most Catholic colleges accommodate Catholic culture to American secularism and thereby forfeit a distinctive Catholicism. Accurate and exhaustive studies are in print to prove this loss of soul in Catholic education: The Soul of the American University by George Marsden, Higher Learning and Catholic Traditions edited by Robert Sullivan, and the monumental Dying of the Light by James Turnstead Burtchaell.

While my wife was in her nursing training, attending St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga, she was not yet a Catholic. In theology classes at St. Mary’s she was shocked to hear religious studies professors advocating a purely subjectivist ethic and encouraging the students to experiment with their sexuality. Apparently, the students at St. Mary’s followed the professors’ advice. My wife was told that the most common illness reported at the college student clinic was sexually transmitted infections. My not-yet Catholic wife found herself in the awkward position of defending the Catholic Church on basic moral issues before a Catholic professor.

What about Catholic seminaries? Is it really true that there is now only one Catholic seminary in all of Ireland? An Irish student of mine confirms the fact. But what does he find in American seminaries? Tragically, he finds an elderly generation of professors trying to hang on to a bygone Church of the Sixties and Seventies. Trained in the years in and around Vatican II, these priest-professors and nuns sense the change coming in the Church. They dig in their heels, worried that the coming authentic renewal of full Catholicism will leave them spiritually homeless. They defensively malign the new generation of seminarians because of their orthodox views. These new seminarians seek spiritual discipline, the challenge of intellectually rigorous theology, and a liturgy that is manly, realistic, and faithful to Tradition. They want a priesthood that is pure and holy. They are simply unwilling to give up marriage and family, a well-paying job, and the freedom of lay life for what to them seems nothing more than a religious humanism with candles. They seek the challenge of the Cross, the challenge that once drew young men into religious orders that demanded unconditional commitment to Christ. The young want a call that challenges them to a life-or-death commitment. The tougher the Church, the more appealing it is to the young soul.

So, what do we do? We can complain, but that’s too easy. We can pull away from the Church, but that’s not faithful. We have to pray and plan for a Catholic spiritual awakening. And we prepare for an awakening by training up the children. To relinquish our children to the Catholic schools — at least as I have experienced them — is to guarantee failure for the American Church. Challenging the moral weakness of the Church, the lack of forthright leadership of the bishops, and the secular captivity of the Catholic schools will come only by way of spiritual and educational awakening. The (Anglican) Church of England once had an awakening, the British Methodist and Presbyterian churches have enjoyed historical awakenings. The Protestant churches in the U.S. have experienced powerful spiritual awakenings. These awakenings consistently resulted in the establishment of new colleges and centers of learning. But the Catholic Church has not undergone an awakening of such a magnitude. Perhaps our “awakenings” are of a less dramatic nature. We believe in the lifelong process of conversion rather than the instantaneous “born-again experience” of our Evangelical brethren. Yet our Blessed Mother has called us to just that — conversion. John Paul II speaks of a “New Evangelization.” Isn’t it possible for the Catholic Church to undergo a regional conversion by which tens of thousands of Catholics are spiritually awakened by the Holy Spirit to revive the Church?

Spiritually awakened Catholic parents will immediately discern the necessity of training their children in the Faith. Helping the children to see the true Catholic Faith grounded in sacred Scripture and Tradition will arm them for the battles ahead. They need the armor of Catholic apologetics and the sword of scriptural knowledge. Catholic schools do not train soldiers, but prepare POWs to surrender at the first sound of battle.

Alas, it now seems that spiritually awakened and well-trained youth will come neither from CCD programs nor Catholic schools, but from Catholic parents. If parents fail to teach their children the truth about God’s world and His law, their children will likely learn it nowhere else. The intellectual agenda in the American public schools — especially in California — is so anti-Catholic that no Catholic parent worthy of the name should allow his children to remain there. But many Catholic schools are even worse, if you consider the false hope they give to parents. Parents send their children off with the expectation that the kids will hear a faithful presentation of the Catholic faith, but they actually get dissent and the unexamined clichés of the social “gospel” and pop “spirituality.” This failure of nerve and intellectual bankruptcy starts in many Catholic elementary schools and extends all the way to many seminaries charged to prepare men to teach us. Should we really wonder why Catholics are confused about what their Church teaches?

So, for the sake of the minds and souls of our children, my wife and I decided to withdraw our trust from the Catholic schools. This was not an easy decision. We cut back on our work, took a cut in pay, and listened to the kids complain for about the first week of home-schooling. Soon, however, our boys grew to enjoy the academic freedom of home-schooling and the deeper relationship it creates between them and their parent-teacher. I teach the kids Latin and the history of ideas; my wife teaches math, science, and English. We make sure to relate Catholicism to every subject we teach, even math. The children learn about God’s world in a systematically Catholic manner. They see the coherence of their world rooted in the Author of Truth. They receive what the Catholic schools in the U.S. originally intended to give Catholic pupils — a consistent Catholic education. This is how my wife and I prepare for the great awakening in the Catholic Church. Of course we also pray, say the Rosary, and look for the enlivening of the Holy Spirit.