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Parochial Schools Under Fire

Reply to Robert Gordis

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Catholics are used to attacks on their school systems from professional critics like the editors of The New Age or: Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Often bitter and seldom objective, these agencies are at least predictable and to that extent less dangerous. You know where you stand with Glenn Archer, P.O.A.U. director, when he says that “Clericalism is now present in America. A choice between clerical authoritarianism and Communistic totalitarianism is no choice at all for a world which desperately needs free minds and souls.”

Latest Pamphlet from Fund for the Republic

Things are different when the services of a respected organization like the Fund for the Republic are used for the same purpose. Supported by the Ford Foundation, the Fund is officially a non-profit educational corporation, established to promote the principles of individual liberty expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In practice, however, it has more than once been the unwitting tool for projecting a highly doctrinaire concept of libertarianism and state control that even persons with no sympathy for the Catholic Church have criticized.

The latest publication of the Fund for the Republic, Religion and the Schools, is more than a case in point. Published in May of this year, it has received national coverage and all the benefits of wide circulation at the disposal of a multi-million dollar foundation. There were four contributors to the study: Robert Gordis of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America: William Gorman, former Associate Director; Institute for Philosophical Research: F. Ernest Johnson of the National Council of Churches; and Robert Lekachman, professor at Barnard College of Columbia University.

William Gorman argued a scholarly defense of government “aid,” as he called it, for church-affiliated schools from the principle that “no price should be laid on religious liberty.” Johnson made a fair analysis of the place for parochial education in a pluralist society. Lekachman took the position of the village skeptic whose personal agnosticism still allows for exposure to religious values in the public school curriculum. But the most challenging contribution was Robert Gordis’ “Education for a Nation of Nations.” It synthesized with great clarity what I believe is a growing attitude toward Catholic and religious education in the United States. It therefore deserves more than passing attention on the premise that millions of Americans already have these ideas and before long, thanks to the Fund for the Republic, many others will be converted to the same cause. Yet if Gordis’ principles ever became national policy, the Catholic school system would be destroyed by civil authority.

Separation of Church and State

Gordis lays the groundwork for his position by a shrewd appraisal of the First Amendment in its original context. He believes that “both the specific utterances and writings of the Founding Fathers and the general intellectual climate of eighteenth-century America, in which deism and skepticism were widespread and church-affiliation was at a low ebb, suggest that the words ‘Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion’ must mean more than the prohibition of perferential aid to any one church.” Taking the personal bias of men like Jefferson and Franklin as the norm, Gordis concludes that the First Amendment even on historical grounds forbids government support of any organized religious enterprise.

But this is quite secondary to a more radical principle, drawn from legal positivism, which makes it irrelevant what meaning the Founding Fathers intended to give the First Amendment. What matters is the interpretation found in judiciary history, since “supplementary legislation by judges is not only inevitable but justifiable;” whether the law in question be a local statute or the Constitution of the United States.

Here the field becomes open. Since the Supreme Court in certain decisions, like the McCollum case, apparently favored a theory of absolute separation of Church and State, the latest opinion should be taken as normative. Exceptions in the general pattern to give free textbooks and bus transportation for parochial school children merely illustrate a normal inconsistency in law and life; they are, if you will; “vestigial remains of an older order, which is to be allowed to wither away.”

Gordis Tolerates Small Deviations from Securalistic Ideals

Before examining the juridical status of Catholic schools, Gordis confesses there are three areas in which the government does - and to some extent may - deviate from the secularist ideal he advocates.

  1. Such practices as the opening of Congress with prayer, the swearing in of government officials on the Bible or its use in court oaths, and references to the Deity in Thanksgiving proclamations are “so slight in scope as not to constitute a major infraction of the principle of separation.” The trouble is that Gordis considers these practices illegal and therefore, liable to withdrawal or suppression at the will of the State.

  2. “The establishment and support of chaplaincies in the armed forces and in government prisons flow out of the recognition that men who are in service or behind bars have been forcibly removed from their usual environment by the state.” Hence, along with entertainment, the State may furnish a degree of religious ministration. Again a bare concession which scarcely touches most people and says only that the government might replace what soldiers and prisoners enjoyed while at liberty in civilian society.

  3. “Tax exemption for houses of worship and religious schools presupposes a recognition of the beneficial character of religion in the life of the citizenry,” and may therefore be permitted. Substantially generous, this deviation from the ideal is less concessive than it seems. Catholic institutions of learning consider themselves entitled to tax-exemption not primarily for the blessings that religion confers on the people, but for the service they render to society in preparing intelligent, self-reliant and devoted subjects of the State. Viewed in the first light, tax-exemption appears as a violation, albeit tolerable, of the principle of Church and State separation; in the second it becomes a right in commutative justice demanded by the natural law.

Priority of the State in Education

Gordis is unalterably opposed to any subsidy from the government to parochial schools, and superficially this seems to be one of his main preoccupations. But his real concern runs more deeply. Through pages of closely-reasoned logic he defends the proposition that parents do not have prior right in the education of their children. They “share” this right with the civil authority and, in practice, must defer to the political power.

“The assumption,” he says, “of a primal and prior right to the parents in regard to education seems highly questionable on two grounds: the order of the alleged priorities and, consequently, the nature of the relationships involved. It is obvious that man is not merely a biological creature but a social being, and it is this second characteristic which sets him apart from the lower animals,” If we must speak of priority in education, it belongs to the State whose function is to develop the social side of man’s nature. Parents are left the biological nurture of their offspring, with corresponding rights in the limited area of private and domestic interests.

How does formal pedagogy fit into this picture? In Gordis’ philosophy “it may well be denied that the school is merely a surrogate (or deputee) for the parent, for its functions are both more and less extensive than the parental obligation.” They are less because certain elements like religious doctrine and standards of personal conduct properly belong to the home and the church. “They are more, because the school is concerned with the transmission of group values which society regards as essential for its survival and unity and which are not the primary concern of the parent.”

Political Despotism Suavely Proposed

It would be hard to find a more radical statement of political despotism in all the writings of Hitler and Marx. Everything which affects the social order - marriage and public relations, principles of justice and social morality - belong to the State. And the school under civil authority, not the parents, has a duty to form the children according to government standards.

Part of the logic behind this inversion of authority is an ill-disguised fear that if the child is too responsive to parental (or ecclesiastical) care, it may not develop the right sense of initiative and self-determination. While both parents and society must recognize the child as an independent personality, the prior task of cultivating, this autonomy belongs to the community. Although “procreated by the parents,” the child is “nurtured by society.” Therefore “safeguarding the child’s individuality and affording him the opportunity for free self-development constitute ethical imperatives of the highest order, of which a free society must always be aware,”

Here we have a new system of public morality. Whatever may be said of other societies, the American nation is built on a theory of maximal liberty and deliverance from wooden orthodoxies. Who can be trusted to foster this spirit of free enterprise? The parents with their domestic loyalties and sectarian interests, or the State whose very existence depends on giving the greatest possible freedom to the largest number of people? The answer is rhetorical.

Inferiority of Parochial Schools

Needless to say, parochial schools hardly correspond with this scale of Political values. Gordis makes no secret of where he believes the future hope of national prosperity lies. The past one hundred years have witnessed the emergence of the American nation as a living entity. During this time, the overwhelmingly white, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon complexion of the country underwent its most critical transformation. The small island of Anglo-Saxon Americans was flooded by successive waves of immigration from every nation of the world, notably the Irish, Scandinavian, German, Slavic and Italian, and including substantial numbers of Catholics and Jews. Their entrance subjected the American body politic to heavy strains which are still being felt today. Yet, in spite of these ethnic and religious differences, the nation has substantially fulfilled its original projected goal of E Pluribus Unum, so that now an almost mystic sense of union pervades the American people. The main contributing factor to this incredible solidarity, in fact, its creator, was public education. “Social cleavages, economic conflicts, political differences, and religious divergences were very much in evidence. But it was the public school that created the basis for American unity and loyalty, for here children of all backgrounds and levels of society met as equals, played and studied together, learning to live not merely as neighbors but as fellow-citizens of the Republic.” No Wonder Gordis shows a devotion on the subject that can only be compared with the fervor of religious faith.

If Catholics object that social virtues and patriotism need something more spiritual than rubbing elbows to cultivate, they are reminded of Martin Buber’s dictum that “personal confrontation of human beings is decisive in building their relationships, not the forensic or written word however elevated in sentiment.” Even the Ten Commandments are no substitute for the community spirit formed by cohabitation in the public schools.

The impress of unification comes not only from differences among the student body in the common schools; it is furnished also by the variety of background and outlook among the teachers with whom the children come into contact. Pupils are made to recognize that “intelligent and well-meaning men and women might well differ among themselves on many issues, cherishing their specific viewpoints, yet finding it entirely possible to live and function in cooperation, harmony and mutual respect with one another.” Consequently, “one need not exaggerate the merits of the public school to see in it a unique laboratory for the, democratic process.” We have so many diversities in America, cultural, ethnic and religious, that “if there is to be a maximum of freedom in American society, it must be counterbalanced by an equally powerful instrument for building unity and mutual fellowship. There is no other institution in American life that can rival the public school in fulfilling this indispensable function for the present and the future.”

When Catholics complain about double taxation, they show how little they appreciate government education. If they saw the light, they would see that as citizens they have a double obligation: one to the American people, of which they are a part; the other to their own religious family. “The nature of this obligation is often overlooked.”

Stripped of its rhetoric, the argument states with ingenuous boldness that Catholics should consider it a sacred duty to support what is, after all, the bulwark of American democracy. By their maintenance of parochial schools, only the sectarian interests of a religious minority are subserved. By supporting public education they are conserving the quintessential element of a free society.

Gordis' Unfounded Fright

The demand in some Catholic circles for a share in school-tax money as a right in equity provokes Gordis to express sentiments that are more extreme than any I have ever seen in modern print. I quote two as illustrations. The first makes parochial schools a rival and potential threat to public education, and reminds Catholics of their duty to consolidate the nation:

One can scarcely expect American society to help underwrite the cost of parochial education, the merits of which may be freely granted, but one of the results of which may well be the destruction of the public-school system. What is being suggested here is that parents whose loyalty to their church leads them to send their children to parochial schools are not on that account freed from the obligation to support the public schools as the basic agency for building mutuality of relationship among the citizens of various faiths and backgrounds. Nor is this duty obviated by attacks upon the “godlessness” of the public schools, which have always been friendly to religion and which have contributed to the character-building of at least four generations of Americans with gratifying success.

Then, on a stronger note, Catholics are told to beware of making their school system into a power trust that other Americans may consider a danger to national welfare and be forced, unwillingly, to assist even to liquidation:

The extraordinary success achieved by Catholics in America in establishing their educational system suggests the need of a special self-restraint that cannot perhaps be logically justified but is a very real necessity nonetheless. It is a truism in the social-economic order that large aggregations of power, be they corporations or labor unions, because of their very size, create special problems such as monopoly, price-fixing, and the exercise of pressure on government which do not arise for similar groups of smaller compass and lesser influence. In the face of phenomena such as these, society must impose effective safeguards of its over-all interests.
Conversely, where the unit is smaller, society can afford the luxury of greater latitude. American law thus offers considerable freedom to conscientious objectors to war, even in the case of aliens applying for citizenship. Were the day to arrive when most Americans, for whatever reason, become conscientious objectors, it is highly doubtful whether the state could afford to leave itself defenseless before a potential enemy. The need for the preservation of the state would limit, if not totally abrogate, the freedom of conscience of the citizen which is involved in the refusal to bear arms.

I have quoted these two passages at length to emphasize the gravity and moral tenor of a document which thousands of persons will read and sympathetically believe is a reflection of their own mind. Yet it bristles with unfounded assertions, errors of fact and especially an undertone of state absolutism that Catholic educators should know is current in America today. How can we deal with a man who seriously compares the parents’ right to educate their children with the grudging concessions made by the government to eccentric or fanatical pacifists?

It would be comforting if we could dismiss Gordis as an angry bigot or isolated crank whose judgment was affected by the fear of Rome. He is intelligent and most courteous in respecting the devotion that created a school system “which is unequalled elsewhere” in the world. I also believe he is representative of a larger section of non-Catholic America than most of us realize. Perhaps we have been too complacent in enjoying the benefits of religious freedom that has made Catholic education the mainstay of the Church in this country and the envy of those who are dedicated to American ideals, as they see them, but lack the clarity of vision and moral convictions which only the faith can give.

* Father Hardon is Professor of Sacramental Theology at West Baden College in Indiana. He is author of Protestant Churches in America (Newman Press), now in its fourth printing in less than two years, and of the new All My Liberty, also published by Newman.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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