Richard Riordan, who was mayor of Los Angeles, California from 1993 to 2001, wrote a Wall Street Journal editorial in line with his role as the founding president of the city’s Catholic Education Foundation. While his advocacy for more funds to enable children from poor families to attend Catholic schools is salutary, given the poor condition of the city’s public schools, the former mayor ignores a potential downside to education provided by the Catholic Church.
Generally speaking, religion and education are two qualitatively different, although not disparate, domains. A sermon or homily, for example, is not instruction even if some teaching happens to go along with the preaching. Teaching is not preaching. Nor is education a type of religious ritual. Although religious institutions may offer religious education classes to their faithful, such classes are distinct from the institutions’ worship activities, or ritual. In other words, education has its own rituals, as does religion. Therefore, it can legitimately be asked whether a religious institution should be in the business of running schools.
I contend that the religious domain has a tendency, whether due to human caprice or innate to the phenomenon itself, to encroach on other domains—essentially dominating them illegitimately in what can be seen as a form of passive aggression. If so, having a religious institution take on schools is just asking for trouble. By analogy, it is perhaps like allowing the U.S. Government, which has evinced a tendency over decades to encroach on domains reserved to the state governments, to run some of those governments. Allowing the federal government to get its hands on the machinery could be expected to result in still more encroachment.
Richard Riordan states that Catholic schools “infuse beliefs, values and standards that children will carry all their lives.” The standard objection made by non-Catholic parents of students attending Catholic schools is that Catholicism itself will be infused—meaning Catholic theology such as transsubstantiation (i.e., the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist) and the four Marian miracles (e.g., the Immaculate Conception, which refers to Mary being conceived without original sin). To be sure, non-Catholic students may be exposed to such theological doctrines, but I suspect in a way in which they are not pushed on the students. The “pushing,” if there is apt to be any, is more likely, ironically, in domains in which religion tends to encroach.
Once while visiting my insipid hometown (where a pathological fear of change is ubiquitous), I spoke with a “pro-life” advocate who was attending a Catholic parish that had been taken over by what I would call a right-wing cult. For example, a priest at her parish more than once petitioned during Mass for God to have a “pro-life” (i.e., Republican) elected as U.S. President at the next election cycle. That any Democrats or even Independents might have been in attendance was doubtless of little concern to him. Such inconsiderateness can be taken as a red flag, particularly when ostensibly in a “religious” context. The unexpected brashness may even bespeak self-idolatry facilitated by ideology.
The parishioner-advocate with whom I spoke was obsessed with abortion, as if that moral-political issue were the core of her religious faith. She would not countenance any distinction between the morning-after pill (which kills cells) and a partial-birth abortion. Physically, a distinction can be made between a static clump of some cells and an organized fetus that reacts physiologically to stimuli. Ethically, a distinction can be made between killing a few cells that do not react in pain and a developed fetus that does. To overlay the theological concept of soul on the physical and ethical distinctions involves a category mistake. I suspect the root problem undergirding the assumed application (and its decisiveness) involves not understanding the distinctly theological concept in distinctly theological terms. The concept (and the “object” to which the idea refers) is simply assumed to carry over to physio-ethical matters. I should have asked the woman, “What, then, is a soul?” Do any of us really understand what a soul is?
I could sense from the woman that neither her theological ignorance nor my doctorate in ethics had any standing, so I did not pursue either avenue. That she was for capital punishment in some cases even as she was avowedly “pro-life” on human cells and fetuses made no matter to her single-minded pursuit. She could not be wrong, and consistency was extrinsic to her purpose. Within her tunnel vision, all that counted was outlawing abortion. This was religious reductionism with a few category mistakes tossed in for good measure (as religion is neither ethics nor politics).
After the woman bragged that she is a single-issue person (which is not a compliment, in my view), I decided to test it by bringing up the ethical issue of contraceptives being used in Africa to stop the spread of AIDS. At the time, the Catholic Church permitted it, but she would have none of that. “A misunderstanding of what the Pope said,” she dogmatically insisted. Suffice it to say that the woman felt that those African men who do not refrain from extra-marital sex deserve to die of the disease. I was stunned. Ideology apparently trumps compassion even under the auspices of Christianity. There was the parish’s right-wing cult, standing directly in front of me!
I should explain that I refer to her parish as having been taken over by an ideological (extremist) cult in part because its bias eclipses even fidelity to Church positions where they deviate from the cult’s ideology. For example, the woman blew right past the Church’s opposition to capital punishment and relaxation on condoms being used in Africa to prevent the spread of AIDS because these positions were not in line with her ideology. Even though she used the Church to enforce the hegemony of her positions where there was a match, she could just as easily ignore (or re-interpret) the Church’s positions when they deviated from her opinions. In other words, the Church was not really her default or basis. What might seem to a bystander as dogmatic or arbitrary deviations would appear to her as necessary from the perspective of her instinct for ideological purity—a line connecting her various right-wing opinions ultimately to her basis in self-idolatry. The reactionary cult that had captured her parish (which had been in favor of Vatican II in the 1970s and 1980s) was thus not isomorphic with the Catholic Church, even if the tone and political ideology were shared by the city’s bloated bishop.
Turning to the topic of homosexuality, I told the woman that a former girlfriend and I used to babysit the two infants of a lesbian couple (friends of my girlfriend at the time). I had enjoyed the babies and the couple seemed well-adjusted and good at parenting. Nevertheless, the ideologue would have none of that. “Those two women are not normal!,” the woman blurted out in spite of never having even met them. “Those babies will not grow up normal because they don’t have a mom and a dad.” Again, I was stunned; lots of people turn out bad even though they were raised by a mother and father. “When did you change to accept that?” the petulant woman demanded. “You had a mother and a father—when did you change?” I was not aware that I had changed my ideological position. It was odd that the oracle would simply presume it.
I then raised the related topic of the compromised (or discredited) credibility of her bishop interlarding himself in local politics to get foster kids yanked out of homes containing a gay person even as the “right-wing cult” parish had housed a pedophile priest just a few years before (hardly surprising, given the clerical arrogance associated with the reactionary position against Vatican II). True to form, she ignored the question of her bishop’s having any credible basis to impose himself locally on the matter of sexual ethics and children. She even went on the offensive, aggressively declaring without any hint of tolerating a rebuttal, “The bishop should pull those kids out. They need a normal upbringing!” I attempted to disagree, but she would not hear of it—so certain she was that she could not be wrong.
It occurred to me that the “devout” woman had absolutely no respect for me or my views. I was particularly concerned when she went on to use religion as a club of sorts to enforce her ideological stands and prevent any other view from seeing the light of day. “Homosexuality is against God’s law,” she insisted as though modern society were rightfully subject to ancient Hebrew norms in Deuteronomy. Never mind that we have nothing on Jesus commenting on the topic. What would he say of priests who take advantage of “the least of mine”? Ought not her bishop have been concentrating on this in his churches rather than venturing into foster homes? The ideologue simply ignored the possibility that I had a point. She presumed that her ideological opinion had taken the entire picture into account, and could thus not be wrong.
As if the woman had not been sufficiently supercilious concerning people she had never met, the presumptuous woman said in an air of arrogant dismissiveness mixed with fake compassion that she would pray for me. “Oh,” she said hastily as though she were worried because I faced some impending danger, “I’m going to have to REALLY PRAY for you! Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” There was no need for dialogue. No exchange of views. Mine was simply relegated and deemed invalid by an authority who selectively appropriated from Catholicism to back up her partisan ideology as if it were truth itself. Religious Republicanism was indeed a drug all too comfortable to her, and she was accustomed to going out from her base to impose her political stands on other people as though she were omniscient (i.e., all-knowing). This is the real danger that comes with the Catholic Church running schools: political-ideological indoctrination under the guise of “morality” and ultimately God. The operative axis here is not Protestant-Catholic; it is Democratic-Republican. The subtext is a category mistake enabled by an encroaching tendency and habit. Not exactly a religious habit, I might add.
Religion has come to be used all too often as a club by which people insist that their moral and political ideological (and thus partisan) positions are right and must be accepted under pain of going against God’s law. Given this practice, religious institutions (not just Catholic!) should not be in the business of running schools. I suspect that Catholic school teachers are not even aware of what they are doing when they are imposing their political agenda. They would undoubtedly not think twice about “reminding” students “off-handedly” that abortion is wrong and should be illegal because it is murder—period! Such an encroachment is simply too tempting and already too common for the Catholic Church to be in the business of education.
To be sure, a Unitarian-run school would face the same temptation—in that case pressuring students to accept gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose (abortion). A student objecting to either one would likely get a scowl and even perhaps be told that he or she is prejudiced and narrow-minded—even oppressive! In actuality, the teacher’s ideologically-based overreaching would constitute the oppression. Furthermore, the teacher’s attitude would surely impact how the contrarian student is taught. The student’s learning and self-esteem would likely suffer as a result, but this would be of little concern to the “teacher.
Unitarian ministers are told that they can believe virtually anything they want, but that they must agree to officiate at gay marriage ceremonies. Even though this ideological litmus test is extrinsic to Unitarian Universalist theology, the imposition is deemed legitimate nonetheless, rather than a dogmatic (i.e., arbitrary) ideological encroachment that can and should be stigmatized as impious and ultimately grounded in self-idolatry and bloated selfishness. Undoubtedly, the Catholic Church has similar ideological/political litmus tests for its potential clergy.
In my view, the passive aggression latent in self-idolatry can manifest whether from a right-wing or left-wing cult operating under the auspices of religion. In both cases, it is ironic that the native fauna of religion—religious experience and the associated sensitivity and compassion—suffer as a result of the encroachments that have become so commonplace they are taken as religion. Religion itself and its institutions would be the primary beneficiaries were the encroachments severed. But the “religious” are too greedy—wanting more. As a result, they get less even though they think they are extending their reach.
Even suggesting that religion ought to be delimited to its native fauna is apt to be rejected out of hand by those inured to the mentality and practice of encroachment. Scarcely any respect or toleration is apt to be given to anyone who attempts to prune the vines back to within the Church’s property lines. The gardener rather than the interloper is apt to be labeled the offender. This is akin to ignorance presuming that it can’t be wrong and fortifying itself by whatever authority it can aggressively muster. The hypocrisy concerning claims of humility and compassion amid the passive aggression, and the related denial on the encroachments onto ethics and politics make the tacit assumption of infallibility—especially on partisan issues!—look utterly absurd and even comical.
It is the utter rigidity and assumed infallibility of the ideological positions that makes the problem so insufferable and intransigent. That’s right, I can’t be wrong. It’s God’s law. End of discussion. No if’s, and’s, or buts. The oracle has spoken, and it turns out that God is a Republican (or Democrat). How, one might ask, can such a mentality be conducive to, or compatible with education anywhere outside a theocracy?
Richard Riordan, “Saving Catholic Education,” Wall Street Journal, September 30, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204138204576600660103642184.html