A traditional liberal arts curriculum elevates the tastes, ennobles the sentiments, and orders the mind to truth: Socratic questioning forces critical reflection on the content and coherency of one’s ideas; a vigorous and integrated life of grace and prayer keeps the mind and heart strong, pure, integrated, and focused on Jesus Christ. Yet to bring such an education into existence, we may have to accept worldly defeat.
The school that aspires to be integrally Catholic is susceptible to deformations in its identity, mission, and character if it ignores or underestimates the subtle yet architectonic soul-and-institution-shaping power of the political culture in which it resides. The liberty of any educational institution to profess a robust faith and truth-grounded worldview while under a liberal, pluralist, truth-indifferent regime, as well as its ability to act and autonomously govern itself according to this faith and worldview, is always precarious, notwithstanding the physical liberty apparently afforded it. Excessive confidence in this mere physical freedom, however, precludes a salutary wariness regarding the possible threats to a school’s moral liberty, the liberty that permits and fosters authentic, integral, uncompromised Catholic formation. The secular, liberal, pluralistic polis exerts considerable ideological influence on both the individual citizens and corporate institutions under its authority. Just the mere awareness of the existence and nature of this influence is a great threat to its ideological hegemony, and hence, an indispensable weapon for its eventual conversion to a Catholic-friendly culture and polity. As Aristotle and St. Thomas teach, the polis, what is badly translated today as state, is the primary locus for the proper ordering and securing of man’s temporal good. On the natural level, it is through the well-ordered political community, encompassing the family, the village, school, vocational group, parish, etc., that man can fulfill his nature precisely as man. (We set aside for now the necessity of the Church for even man’s natural fulfillment, let along his supernatural fulfillment; for nature is always already pervaded by and ordered to grace; strictly speaking, there is no pure nature). Unlike all other natural institutions, the polis is a perfect (in the natural sphere), self-sufficient society, architectonic in relation to all other natural institutions. It is most of all responsible for providing the milieu of order, peace, and incipient virtue that is indispensable for the perfection of man. St. Thomas Aquinas writes in his Commentary on the Politics of Aristotle:
The city is indeed the most important of the things that can be constituted by human reason, for all the other human societies are ordered to it. . . . Now it is clear that the city includes all the other societies, for households and villages are both comprised under the city; and so political society itself is the highest society. Therefore, it seeks the highest among all human goods, for it aims at the common good, which is better and more divine than the good of one individual.
Of course, the common good is secured not through the mere edicts of statesmen charged with the care of the polis. It comes into being through and depends upon the activity of both statesmen and citizens participating in social and cultural life through institutions, such as the family, workplace, school, and parish. Every person and institution is to some extent responsible for the perfection (or degradation) of the common good as a whole, of which the polis is the preeminent, but not exclusive, custodian.
Man is, as noted above, a political animal, and is not simply, pace Descartes, a spiritual mind in a material machine; he is an integral body-soul composite, dependent upon others for his very existence and conditioned by habituation and upbringing in his journey to attain perfection. Through his bodily habituation and intellectual formation in a particular political and cultural milieu, his affections, passions, thoughts, and actions are definitively shaped—and if his habituation is deficient—as it must be in this fallen world—both his body and mind suffer the consequences. As Aristotle writes in the Ethics: “Anyone who is to listen intelligently to lectures about what is noble and just and, generally, about the subjects of political science, must have been brought up in good habits.” As Plato also understood, the depth of knowledge about and purity of desire for the true, the good, and the beautiful of which a person is capable depends upon the character of his pre-intellectual moral and aesthetic habituation, which is itself dependent upon the laws, customs, and general ethos of his particular family, friends, town, school, parish, and, most decidedly, his polis. Thomas Aquinas College, an integrally Catholic school, makes this clear in its Founding Document: “The professional educator is surely a fool if he supposes he can lead a student to freedom regardless of whatever habitual formation the student has received and is receiving besides his scholastic instruction.”
Now, the best formation is one founded upon revealed wisdom, and, as we have noted, the character of one’s formation is intrinsically dependent upon the polis in which he lives. Thus, the attitude towards truth and religion of the polis as a whole, in its governing structures, cultural ethos, and overall spirit, would surely have a profound effect on the character of the citizens’ formation. What, then, would be the effect upon its citizens of living in a polis not founded upon revealed wisdom? A quote from the Founding Document of Thomas Aquinas College is suggestive: “Indeed, it would seem that the government of any institution by rules which prescind (or pretend to prescind) from all difference of belief, or which negate in principle the possibility of governing by the truth, must of necessity be tyrannical.”
It is enough to observe that a vehement secularism and practical atheism has triumphed today in the public square, and that government-sanctioned sex instruction, homosexual marriage, and abortion are promoted by law, to demonstrate our government’s “negation in principle of the possibility of governing by the truth.” As for “prescinding from all differences of belief,” the following example is illustrative. One of the “most listened to talk-radio stations in America” recently had as a guest host a self-professed, conservative Reform Jew, filling in for his good friend, a self-professed conservative Christian. As a “friend of religion,” in opposition to those awful secularist liberals, the guest host was promoting a hypothetical religion course to be used in public schools; it would be a survey of all the major religions whose purpose would be to combat the widespread ignorance of and lack of sensitivity in America towards the “other.” When a caller asked if the course would include a discussion of the radical differences between religions, such as the identity of Jesus of Nazareth in Rabbinic Judaism as opposed to Christianity, the guest-host proudly answered in the negative. He then repeatedly and adamantly claimed that in religious matters no one is wrong—neither Jews nor Christians are wrong about what they believe; for, whatever you believe is right for you—it’s a matter of “blind faith.” In short, religious indifferentism and relativism, once universally condemned by conservatives, has now become standard fare for even conservative religious pundits in America.
According to the principle that relativistic and truth-denying regimes are tyrannical, and noting the manifest absence of transcendent truth in the contemporary American cultural and political scene, it follows that there should exist some level of tyranny in the regime of the United States today. Now, genuine pluralism does provide some great boons to the freedom of institutions, such as the physical freedom of religious institutions and private associations to exist and function autonomously under their own jurisdiction. Moreover, a regime that celebrates, at least rhetorically, freedom of religious inquiry and expression, as well as the individual’s primary responsibility for his own moral and spiritual development, inculcates a healthy spirit of academic freedom and discovery. It is evident that these benefits of the American political and cultural milieu have helped many Catholic schools become the excellent institutions that they are today.
What, precisely, then, is the tyrannical danger to which we allude? What would be the danger to the “Catholic school in the pluralist polis”? It would not be one of overt physical force and outright coercion, although that is fast becoming a real issue; it would be something more like the “soft” totalitarianism diagnosed by DeTocqueville in his assessment of nineteenth-century American democracy, a kind of subtle, psychological and spiritual conditioning—tyrannical because unseen. Through the sum total its bureaucratic regulations, court decisions, media campaigns, advertising shibboleths, viewpoint discrimination, educational propaganda, economic policies, artistic subsidies, and the sundry other “soft” means of non-violent, non-coercive governance that the pluralist polis employs, an ideological atmosphere is created under which citizens and institutions feel immense pressure to reject absolute truth as a governing principle and dogmatic religious belief as integral to one’s public identity.
There are, of course, ways to avoid or mitigate the regime’s formation. Catholics have the powerful counteracting formative influence of the Church and Grace. And men are still free to pursue the good, true, and beautiful (at least in a private manner), even when living in a city publicly indifferent to or even contemptuous of these transcendentals. Yet, lest we subscribe to the enlightenment, social-contract, state-of-nature, atomized, individualist concept of the relation of man to society, we must recognize the inevitable influence of the city’s idols upon individual men, whether it is the true idol of the true religion, a false idol of a false religion, or the idol of pluralism, “the empty shrine.”
The nature and extent of the influence of the pluralist idol depends upon the nature and extent of one’s truth-commitments. Its specific effect on those with weak truth-commitments would be dogmatic relativism, traditionally a liberal pathology but now found among the conservative elite. The effect on those with strong truth-commitments would be much more subtle: not the compromising of the actual content of those commitments, as in heresy or apostasy, but a change in the mode of their possession and exercise. What we would see is the privatization of those commitments. And this would be the idol-worshipping temptation for the aspiring orthodox Catholic in the pluralist regime. It can not be called heresy or apostasy, because no Catholic truth is ever explicitly denied here, yet it is in some ways more pernicious. Heresy and apostasy can be discerned through contrasting it objectively with orthodoxy, but the pluralist error cannot be so easily objectively identified; things look the same on the outside.
In places like communist China and Islamic Iran, for example, where the governing “truth” is publicly explicit and recognizable, it is easier to observe its influence, and either consciously cooperate with it (and apostatize from the Catholic Faith) or repudiate it (and possibly be martyred for it). This stark consciousness of one’s spiritual situation in the explicitly anti-Christian regime is not so available in the implicitly anti-Christian, that is, in the ideologically pluralist regime, because physical martyrdom is not an issue (unless you’re an unborn baby, an elderly person who is a “drain” on the health-care system, or a fully alive but not fully functioning human being, i.e., Terri Schiavo), and the religion-friendly rhetoric and mythology militates against such consciousness. Is it not the upshot of the pluralistic polis’ propaganda that the “tyranny principle” could never apply here? This denial is the very essence of its tyranny—and of the danger it poses to the Christian soul.
The Catholic School, therefore, if it is to be faithful to the teaching of Christ, will differ from its secular counterpart in two essential respects. First, it will not define itself by academic freedom, but by the divinely revealed truth, and second, that truth will be the chief object of study as well as the governing principle of the whole institution.
Yes, this is the essential difference. But the danger is not in the integrally Catholic grammar school, secondary school, or college ever consciously and deliberately embracing the ideologies of religious indifferentism, scepticism, feminism, relativism, nihilism, hedonism, materialism, the privatization of truth, or any other intellectual, moral, or religious error, but in developing a distorted conception of the public role and practical implication of those natural and divine truths. The harm would manifest itself in students and teachers who, on the one hand, feel, think, and speak as if they were in possession of the true religious and philosophical worldview pertaining to all men and demanding universal acceptance, but, on the other hand, evince in their overall pattern of judgments and actions an implicit denial of the exclusive truth and public meaning of this worldview. It would appear to be a spiritual and intellectual schizophrenia, a disjoint between one’s private ideas and public acts, between theory and practice. One affirms the exclusivity of true religion, but denies that it should ever have an exclusive or even privileged place in the public life of citizens, in the heart of one’s polis, and in its official political and cultural governing apparati, even in the event of a vast majority of the citizens subscribing to Catholicism! The pluralist idol doesn’t command one to reject the true religion, for then it could be fought against openly and consciously, but only works underground, as it were, to ensure its practical sterility in the public square, and its compartmentalization in the consciences of Catholics.
What, then, are the effects of this peculiar idol worship on schools? One symptom is curriculum deformation. Catholic secondary schools and colleges tend to exclude from their history, economics, and theology syllabi those aspects of Catholic social teaching that condemn or contradict, or even just question, reigning ideologies; these teachings are deemed too “controversial” or “not appropriate for young people.” This, in fact, may be true to some extent, and perhaps they are better encountered in upper-level classes. Yet often the very controversial issues addressed in these teachings are brought up and dismissed anyway in the guise of “common sense” or “just the way things are,” that is, in a one-sided manner. For example, John Paul II, among other popes, has condemned the theological, anthropological, and ethical errors that inform the modern theory and practice of unrestricted, consumerist capitalism, yet this papal teaching tends to be censored from class; in its place, students might be given an article from the Wall Street Journal editorial page that addresses this “inappropriate” issue by supporting these very errors. Again, how many “orthodox” Catholic schools or colleges ever discuss in history, philosophy, or theology class even the existence let alone the goodness of the severe papal criticisms of the modern, liberal, secularist conception of political order? How many graduates of orthodox Catholic colleges have read Gregory XIV’s Mirari Vos of 1832, for example, wherein the Pope describes the modern interpretation of liberty of conscience and separation of Church and state as “insanity.” How many students are assigned to read the encyclicals that Leo XIII wrote before Rerum Novarum, encyclicals such as Immortale Dei, wherein the Pope teaches that the ideal political order—even in democracies—obtains when there is official recognition of and obedience to the moral and spiritual authority of the Catholic Church? Of course, we don’t have to mention the leftist bias of most Catholic schools, you know, the kind of schools that fire an orthodox Catholic teacher with six children to care for, such as Timothy Gordon, merely for stating the fact that Black Lives Matter is considered a terrorist organization by the FBI.
Leo XIII’s words below would certainly be deemed outside the pale by the majority of Catholics today, right or left-leaning, and either completely ignored or glibly interpreted as being the “old” or “outdated” Catholic teaching on the subject: Leo teaches:
It would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion that in America is to be sought the type of the most desirable status of the church, or that it would be universally lawful or expedient for state and church to be, as in America, dissevered and divorced. . . . she would bring forth more abundant fruits if, in addition to liberty, she enjoyed the favor of the laws and patronage of the public authority.
That Catholicism should ever gain “the favor of the laws and the patronage of public authority” would mean, of course, the dismantling of the pluralist idol. Censorship of the popes’ hopes for such a dismantling (by peaceful conversion, of course) from the curriculum of Catholic schools and colleges is one primary example of the subtle but devastating effects of the pluralistic zeitgeist, and represents the deformation of the sensus Catholicus of otherwise orthodox Catholics by the privatization of truth. The exclusion or misinterpretation of those uncomfortable but orthodox aspects of Catholic teaching from the curriculum deforms the student’s soul, but he has no reason to suspect it.
Another symptom of pluralist perversion is an attenuation of the Catholic moral and spiritual environment of the school. Catholic students first entering a school have been exposed to the secularist, pluralist culture for several years, a culture where “freedom” rules. And most Catholic families and parishes have unwittingly aped this culture: a father hesitates to get rid of the Internet in his child’s room, even though he suspects his teenager’s pornography watching, because his children “can’t live in a bubble”; a mother, perhaps against the father’s practically impotent wishes, delegates to her teenage daughter veto power over which high school she is to attend because “she has a right”; liturgical beauty and trenchant preaching are sacrificed and diluted to appease the inflated egos of liturgists and so as not to disturb the therapeutic well-being of the “people of God.”
When students who are formed in this culture first encounter life at an integrally Catholic school or college, with its pervasive atmosphere of robust Christian truth and demanding moral standards, they will have much difficulty in adjusting to it, and most likely will become a source of disorder and hostility. Sometimes, by the power of grace and truly loving teachers, a problem student may learn to adjust without causing undue damage to the school; however, for those who can’t adjust, the result of their continued presence could be serious corruption of the school’s Catholic atmosphere. Teachers and administration, fearing to offend the pluralist taboos of “inclusion” and “freedom” (or just because less students means less money) might be hesitant to conduct sufficiently in-depth interviews to disqualify those prospective students deemed incapable of adjustment; this is seen as either too “impractical” or “controversial.” To justify the non-expulsion of disorder-causing students, they might appeal to the pluralist spin-off ideology of “spiritual Darwinism”: If the good students get corrupted, well, it’s primarily their fault—they just weren’t strong enough to survive. We’re not a monastery, after all.
Therefore, instead of being more vigilant regarding the Christian quality of students (while always being ready, in charity, to accept some troubled students in the hope of the power of grace), the pluralist Catholic school deliberately tolerates intolerable corruptive influences and non-Catholic elements; for, such a milieu provides “more options,” making the students’ moral decisions more their own, more free, more heroic—after all, even a Catholic school should bear some resemblance to “the real world.” The result is that the more cunning, cynical, impure, and worldly students dominate the culture of the school, with the more innocent students surrounded by unnecessary temptation and hostility, left wondering why their Catholic school has to feel so much like the corrupt outside world.
Among those who consciously acknowledge the existence of objective truth, and who embrace the fullness of this truth in the Catholic Church, it is tragically the more honest, good-willed, and intelligent who are often the most susceptible to privatizing their truth claims, due to the powerful effects of pluralist formation. They attempt to embrace both political pluralism and religious truth in the same impossible hug, to offer incense to both Christ and the pluralist god. They begin to regard the Catholic confessional state, the perennial political ideal in Catholic political theology, as “all well and good in theory” but, of course, “practically impossible in the modern day—and not appropriate for America.”
A third symptom of worship at the pluralist altar is devotion to the Mother of Pluralism, Success. Since the freedom of any institution to exist and thrive is explicitly guaranteed by the pluralist state—as long as one “works hard enough”—any failure at survival and thriving would necessarily be the result of some “imprudence,” “overzealousness,” “inexperience,” “indolence,” “weakness,” “naiveté,” “rigidity,” “intolerance,” or “idealism,” that is, some moral or otherwise idiosyncratic failing on the part of the school’s teachers, administration, or advisors, a culpable failure to adapt to and successfully compete in a “free” environment. Since according to the mythos of the pluralist, “free-market” society, success is guaranteed for those with enough desire and effort, failure is a sign of not having a strong enough will, and ultimately, a sign of God’s disfavour—for God will help those who help themselves. Thus, worldly success, not divine fidelity, becomes the overriding spiritual concern and the infallible sign of holiness, and what might really be a combination of Machiavellian cunning, spiritual megalomania, Calvinist materialism, and Pelagian naturalism becomes, by some incantation, holy prudence and counsel, Christian realism, and supernatural fortitude. And thus the “success” that usually comes from wilful self-assertion and ruthless domination of others, or just from a “prudent” (read, disloyal and cowardly) compromise here or there, is seen as indubitable proof of God’s favor.
All this said, however, spending one’s formative years in an integrally Catholic school or college is as near a guarantee to preventing the pluralist deformation and schizophrenia as one could have. A traditional liberal arts curriculum elevates the tastes, ennobles the sentiments, and orders the mind to truth; Socratic questioning forces critical reflection on the content and coherency of one’s ideas; a vigorous and integrated life of grace and prayer keeps the mind and heart strong, pure, integrated, and focused on Jesus Christ. Moreover, an integrally Catholic high school or college offers a curriculum that includes the writings of thinkers who articulate an integrated form of Catholicism in which thought and action, in private and in public, are properly harmonized. Most decisively, students would be encouraged to treat such writings with the utmost reverence and seriousness, despite the uncomfortable repudiation of pluralist ideology they might contain. This kind of formation would serve as the best immunization from the disease of the privatization of truth.
The success of any true Christian school is ultimately based upon God’s permission and grace, not the sufficiency of our own efforts, no matter how diligent or good-willed. Sometimes God allows an institution, even one that is doing God’s will in a heroic manner, to fail for the sake of some greater good. In attempting to serve two gods, the Catholic school under the sway of the pluralist idol retains just enough Catholicism to maintain its allegiance to the “spiritual” God of Jesus Christ, but enough of the world to appease the “practical” god of pluralism. In the end, this means ultimately sacrificing the former to the latter to maintain its comfortable survival and worldly respect, the rewards eagerly offered by the prince of this world. The pluralist Catholic attempts to serve mammon along with God, in disobedience to Our Lord’s command. If Catholics are to succeed in conquering the culture for Christ, they must be detached enough to accept worldly defeat—if God so wills it—in imitation of Christ crucified.
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The featured image is “A School for Boys and Girls” (1670) by Jan Steen (1625/1626-1679) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.