The Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association Home Page
The Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association Home Page

Father John A. Hardon, S.J. Archives



Return to:  Home > Archives Index > Education Index

Catholics and Religion in Public Schools

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

In a recent issue of the American Mercury, under the title of “Fund for Whose Republic?” One of the editors critically examines the seven years’ record of the Fund for the Republic and finds it seriously wanting. He describes it as “the non-respectable left-wing of the wide-ranging Ford Foundation family.”

Certainly the variety of support given by the Fund to libertarian organizations and movements has made it suspect in many circles. In 1955 Henry Ford II was asked for an opinion. Replying to a large number of complaints, he stated that some of the Fund’s actions “have been dubious in character and have led to charges of bad judgment.”

Another Case in Point

The latest publication of the Fund, Religion in Public Schools, is an example of this “bad judgment” in giving free play and national publicity to the most radical philosophy of education. In a previous article we saw the ideas of Robert Gordis, feature contributor to the study, on the subject of parochial schools in a pluralist society. Our present concern is with a corollary of Gordis’ thesis. In his judgment, church-affiliated schools may be tolerated until they become a “threat” to the common welfare, like the sufferance of conscientious objectors in time of war. If this is true, what function have the public schools to promote the teaching of religious values, since the whole purpose of the Fund in this project was to examine the place of religion in American education?

Gordis dismisses religious observances in public schools as “survivals from an earlier era: when the schools were ill-disguised Protestant institutions. Particularly offensive to the Jewish community are Christmas programs. “The call to ‘put Christ back into Christmas’ has had a marked effect on the schools. Probably celebrations are already in the school system they might as well be really ‘Christian,’ pressures have been growing for giving them a more markedly sectarian character.” Jewish attempts to combine Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations have been less than successful. Most Jewish leaders oppose the programs, and now the laity is becoming “disenchanted with the idea.”

But this is not the real problem. The critical issue involves the teaching of religion in public schools by way of integration with the secular subjects in the curriculum. Responsible agencies like the American Council on Education, the National Education Association, and the National Council of Churches have been studying the question for about ten years and are producing a sizeable literature on the subject. Now the Fund for the Republic has entered the movement with three of the four contributors to Religion and the Schools dealing with the topic at great length. Gordis, of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, raises the question and elaborates the basic principles; Ernest Johnson, of the American Council on Education, offers an oblique solution but without touching on Gordis’ negative arguments; Robert Lekachman, of Columbia University, agrees with Gordis and goes beyond him in advocating a curious mixture of belief and infidelity in public education. For practical reasons we are interested here only in Gordis and Lekachman as models of radicalism projected on the American screen by the FFR.

Facts vs. Gordis

Gordis systematically classifies the different maturity levels likely to be affected by the teaching of religious values. He correctly observes that educators generally agree that whatever difficulties inherent in the teaching of religion they are minimal on the college level. His explanation is also typical. “Here the relative maturity of the students and the atmosphere of free intellectual inquiry offer assurance that not indoctrination but education will be the guiding principle, both in the discussion of the religious factor in history and in special courses in religion offered in the curriculum.” While admitting that the position of religion as an integral element in the college curriculum seems assured, Gordis does not say how widespread this position has become. It is now practically universal.

A survey made in 1958 showed that seventy state universities, including those of all states, except Wyoming, Louisiana, and New York, offered courses in religion to the students. In sixteen institutions these were available through formal departments of religion, in fifteen through departments of religion or philosophy, through affiliated schools or Bible courses in ten, and in the rest through various departments like English, History, Near East Studies, or Psychology. Among private institutions, whether church-affiliated or not, classes in religion or religion-content have been in the curriculum almost without exception.

At the other extreme, in the primary grades, Gordis runs ahead of his evidence. It is simply not true that the young and impressionable age of the children, their inability to react critically to material presented to them, and the fact that their own specific loyalties are still in the process of formation—factors such as these have persuaded most Americans that religion does not belong in the curriculum of the elementary school.” If anything, the existence of thousands of Catholic and Protestant parochial schools negatives this incredible assertion. Moreover, it is especially in the primary grades that earnest Christians urge the public schools to give their children at least the groundwork of religious ideals, built on the concept of a personal God and found in the precepts of the Decalogue. A typical statement is that of the twelve million member Methodist Church, as given in the latest Doctrines and Disciplines:

We believe that religion has a rightful place in the public school program, and that it is possible for public school teachers, without violating the traditional American principle of separation of church and state, to teach moral principles and spiritual values. We hold that it is possible, within this same principle of separation of church and state, to integrate religious instruction with the regular curriculum—for example, teaching religious classics in courses in literature, and in the social studies showing the influence of religion upon our society. Such teaching would afford a background for further and more specific instruction on the part of home and church. The home and the church must carry the chief responsibility for nurturing vital faith which motivates life, but the home and church must have the support of our public schools.
This demand for religious integration is perhaps surprising in the Methodist Church, the home of such liberals as G. Bromley Oxnam and the mainstay of Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State. At least it should erase the suspicion that “most Americans” believe religion has no place in the elementary schools.

More Gordis' Bogeys

However, Gordis rests his ease against religion on the level of secondary education on the level of secondary education where, he says, the problem is most acute. He admits it is not difficult to make out a convincing ease for objective teaching about religion. “Churches constitute an important part of the social scene, no less than the institutions of government, culture, education, and recreation. To ignore the religious life of the community means to create a vast lacuna in the children’s understanding of the society in which they live and function.”

So much for theory. But the difficulties foreseen in implementing such a plan are almost insurmountable. There are those, Gordis fears, who would regard teaching about religion merely as the entering wedge for teaching of religion along denominational lines, with the authority and prestige of the State behind it. From a less speculative viewpoint, study materials so far produced are anything but objective and, in fact, we may doubt “whether adequate material can be produced” to meet the hypothetical need. Equally grave is the shortage of personnel in the teaching profession that “would be aggravated by this new and delicate assignment.” Most serious are the legal problems, “how the introduction of such an arrangement could be prevented from leading to a ‘religious test’ for teachers in the school system, in fact if not in law, particularly in view of the mounting pressures by church groups for ‘positive’ religious values in the schools.” All of which adds up to a negative quantity in practice, no matter how attractive the conceptual idea may be.

Underlying these objections is an implicit confession that “the danger of the camel’s head in the tent,” in allowing any sort of religion in public schools, affects everyone but the Catholics. “The multiplicity of denominations in Protestantism, as well as the variety of viewpoints in Judaism, would necessarily mean the elimination of most sects and the favored treatment of a few”—which is Gordis’ euphemism for the Catholic Church. Although clearly stated and highly assuasive, this attitude betrays an inability to distinguish between the substratum of western religious culture, which is the natural law engraved on the human conscience, and sectarian divisions which plague all the religious bodies outside of Catholic Christianity.

Catholic educators insist upon this distinction. In a formal statement from the Office of the Secretary of Education of the Archdiocese of New York, the point was emphasized that fundamental truths like the existence of a personal God and man’s responsibility to the moral law are “not denominational in any sense of the word. These religious principles serve as the framework of the Character Guidance Programs of the Army and Air Force and are taught to men of all creeds who serve in these branches of the Service. Is it in accordance with the ideals of American culture to present moral and spiritual values in this light to men and women preparing to defend their country against the enemy and not to do so to the boys and girls in our public schools, described so often as the lifeline of American democracy?”

Agnostic Lekachman on Religious Neutrality

Lekachman is ostensibly more sympathetic than Gordis with Catholic parents who delegate their rights to the parochial school where the children acquire an education permeated by Christian ideals. He even asks, rhetorically, whether “at a time when most Americans pay at least lip service to the values of religion, is not Catholic education actually a means of insuring better instruction than non-religious schools can offer? And he suggests that “under these circumstances it seems doubly hard on Catholics to make them pay for their own schools and also for public schools inferior to them which offer services they cannot conscientiously accept.”

Superficially, no doubt, it does seem an injustice. But there is high equity, Lekachman believes, in a democratic community “overriding individual preferences” for the sake of a higher “social objective.” The heart of the ease for the public school is something more than a workshop for democracy; it is the claim that quite alone of American institutions it fosters “the free formation of many kinds of belief and many varieties of commitment.” To be stressed are the presence of freedom in this process and the benefit of variety in religious affiliation:

It is desirable for Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, and agnostic children to play and learn with each other. It is particularly important that they do so when the prevailing winds of doctrine emphasize religious affiliation. Since home and church will stress the differences among children it is appropriate at least, and possibly essential at most, that another influential agency emphasize their similarities. Clearly, this is an argument of degree. It does not imply that all children must go to public schools and none to religious schools or secular private schools. But it is an argument that most children should go to the public schools.

At this point Lekachman feels that he may have said too much. Implicit in his theory is that the public school remains a neutral agency. But can it? Is not the teaching of neutrality itself a view of what is valuable and, therefore, a dogmatic position? With perfect candor he admits that “as a matter of sheer logic, the answer is clearly affirmative. If one says in praise of the public school that it teaches an experimental attitude towards truth, even that it judges truth to be evolving and changing, unmistakably such precepts imply that there is no fixed body of truth to communicate about the subjects taught in the school at least, and, by extension, perhaps about other subjects as well.”

Lekachman's "Make-Believe" World

Without saying that all public schools are addicted to these opinions, Lekachman boldly asks, “Suppose that they were?” Would this justify concluding that “since the public schools cannot be truly neutral about life’s vital ends, then we should educate our children in schools which represent the truths we hold dear? By no means. Though formally a doctrine, the openness of neutrality forecloses no answers and prevents no commitments:

On ultimate matters, the school does not conceive that it must teach or preach. If it helps children label as ultimate only the ultimate, so much the better, for the hardest thing in the world is to avoid acquiring firm beliefs about individuals, doctrines, races, and nationalities before experience and reflection have justified them. Everything in life—family, friends, church, and innate laziness—conspires to abbreviate the child’s exploration of this world and to persuade him to adopt with a sigh of relief the faith of his fathers not only in religion but also in politics, friendship, and taste. At best, the public school postpones some of these choices until they can become the acts of adults rather than the reflexes of children.

Needless to say, this praise of public education when religiously neutral is make-believe. On his own premises Lekachman admits that neutrality as regards human ultimates is a form of sectarianism and when promoted by the schools becomes dogmatism. What he refuses to do is label the process by its right name. From the Catholic standpoint, as expressed by Pius XI, “the so-called ‘neutral’ or ‘lay’ school, from which religion is excluded, is contrary to the fundamental principles of education. Such a school cannot exist in practice; it is bound to become irreligious.”

Secularists, like Lekachman, know this. They make no secret of their own philosophy of life or of the function which, in their eyes, the public schools have in American society. “The public school is an ally of social tolerance, class fluidity, and the open mind”—especially the open mind in matters religious, where young pupils should be trained to withhold allegiance to the faith of their parents until such a time as they can make a rational decision of their own.

Basic Issues

Two major obstacles hinder the efforts of the American Council on Education and other bodies to guarantee some moral training in the public schools. Religious pluralism among the churches, with every shade of doctrinal and ritual emphasis, stands in the way of mutual agreement between church and school, parent and teacher, administration and the community, on what is licit and what prohibited in tax-supported classrooms. The complexities are manifold and progress is necessarily slow. But progress has been made to a surprising degree as the writer can testify from dealing with non-Catholic educators who are devoted to raising the religious literacy of their people.

However, this impediment is minor compared with the studied opposition of those whose judgment is blinded by fear or who have lost sound convictions on the moral law. The Fund for the Republic has brought their ideas into the open in a way that might not otherwise have been possible, at least not on so wide a scale or in so respectable a setting. Nothing could be clearer, for example, than Lekachman’s incisive statement that “properly conceived, the issue for Catholics and other believers is whether their conception of religion demands that secular education be permeated with a theistic ethic or whether separation between religions and secular instruction is best for both.”

A Very Serious Matter

This should be a challenge to Catholic educators and a spur to their apostolic zeal. Millions of American Catholic children are not receiving a Catholic education. One mid-western diocese reports that sixty percent of its elementary pupils and eighty percent of the high school students are in public schools. Future prospects are even less encouraging, with the rising cost of living, shortage of teachers and a growing Catholic population. Something can be done to supply for the deficiency through greater awareness of parental responsibility and through agencies like the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. But more should be done to meet the problem on the broad level of national consciousness, in the philosophy and policies of tax-supported education. Currently two forces are struggling for mastery of the public school system: high-minded religionists in every denomination who are deeply concerned for the spiritual welfare of the country, and straddling or confused secularists who place political and social interests before what they call “ethical theism” which derives from the acceptance of a personal God.

In the years to come it will make a world of difference whether Catholics are alert to this tension and place their influence on the side of Christian educators or allow naturalism to win by default. A naturalist philosophy is an assault on the faith of millions of Catholic children in public schools and, less obviously, a danger to Catholic education whose principles are said to be at variance with American democracy.

Homiletic and Pastoral Review
Oct - 1959

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

search tips advanced search

What's New    Site Index

Home | Directory | Eucharist | Divine Training | Testimonials | Visit Chapel | Hardon Archives

Adorers Society | PEA Manual | Essentials of Faith | Dictionary | Thesaurus | Catalog | Newsletters

Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association
718 Liberty Lane
Lombard, IL 60148
Phone: 815-254-4420
Contact Us

Copyright © 2000 by
All rights reserved worldwide.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior
written permission of