An interesting thing—somewhat alarming, always surprising—happens at Wyoming Catholic College and probably at other small, strongly Catholic colleges like ours. A number of students express dislike, even disdain, for politics. We have noticed it for years. They don’t see what contemporary events have to do with real education.

In a way, given the nature of our curriculum at Wyoming Catholic College, they have a point. Our mission has to do with the transformation of culture, to be sure, but it relies upon the deep acquaintance with the Western tradition, especially those timeless truths that give us a long perspective on the political controversies of the moment. We don’t allow students to have cell phones, because we want them to be present to the real flow of life as it exists in the living community at WCC. We don’t want constant intrusions, certainly not news flashes. We hope, for example, that they do not cut class to keep up with every minute of the impeachment trial of Pres. Trump.

But on the other hand, is there, deep in the best of this generation of young Catholics, an impulse to wash their hands of the contemporary world? Again, it might be understandable here. “The world is too much with us, late and soon,” writes Wordsworth in a sonnet they all memorize; “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” Without question, the toxic and divisive atmosphere of Washington is deeply unappealing, and politics, even on the local level, has an ineradicable messiness to it. Why not withdraw from this vanity and striving after wind, as Ecclesiastes has it? We love vocations, and we celebrate students who go into the priesthood or the religious life. What are monasteries and convents, after all, but places where prayer can go on without the interruptions of the worldly life? The Desert Fathers withdrew, did they not?

But even convents and monasteries no longer have the respect of many in the contemporary world, and the shift toward scorn of religion shows in the repeated lawsuits involving the Little Sisters of the Poor.[1] The 20th century gives us massive examples of where coercive secularism leads. In a recent article for the Catholic Herald, Archbishop Borys Gudziak recounts the long recovery of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church after the depredations of Stalin.[2]

Our son went to Cistercian Preparatory School in Dallas, an institution founded by monks who managed to escape after the Communist takeover of Hungary in 1956 closed their monastery. At the 50th anniversary of their harrowing escape as young men, the abbot said that, returning to Hungary after the fall of Communism, he and his fellow Hungarian monks saw that it would have been better to have died than to have remained alive under the Communist regime. Each person they met had had to betray a neighbor, a friend, and even a family member to save his or her own neck. Fr. Abbot said that it was like returning to a land of the soulless. Guilt and despair made life unbearable. Students today do not remember Communism—though contemporary China provides much to contemplate. They tend not to see what a man like Ryszard Legutko sees all too clearly about contemporary trends in Europe and America.[3]

Is an anti-political reaction characteristic just of a subgroup of our students, or is it indicative of something deeper going on in this Catholic generation? At many universities today, every “wrong” use of a pronoun is politicized and made a matter of absurd controversy. The temptation is to go the other direction and avoid politics altogether. More than ever, then, educators need to heed what Edmund Burke says in Reflections on the Revolution in France: “There ought to be a system of manners in every nation, which a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”

Forming those manners and helping to make our country beautiful—not cynically undercutting our institutions—is part of the task of an education like ours. Our students must know that we can never concede the fight to those who wish to undercut the understanding of shared responsibility and moral engagement that has characterized America. The point is openness to the best in the given situation, intelligent, principled, and engaged concern with right action, respect for the high duties of citizenship, love of liberty. By knowing, engaging in, and being attentive to our institutions of governance from the local to the national level, we grow as citizens who seek the common good and who protect those institutions from plunging into the abyss of ideological slavery that welcomes all who let it happen.

Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.

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Notes:

[1] Alexandra Desanctis, “The Little Sisters of the Poor Head Back to the Supreme Court,” National Review, January 29, 2020.

[2] Borys Gudziak, “The Catholic university rebuilding trust in a post-communist society,” Catholic Herald, 28 November 2019.

[3] Ryszard Legutko, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies (New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2016).

The featured image is “Rejtan – The Fall of Poland” and is in the Public Domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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