For the last few years we have sent our oldest child to our beautiful local parish school. The education there has given us and our child many blessings—frequent visits to the church, interaction with the priests, strengthened connection to the parish and diocese, as well as a sense of community. The list of wonderful things goes on. However, recent events have driven home to us how quickly and surely education can be compromised.
A woman civilly married to another woman began volunteering regularly at the school, in a public capacity. In other words, a lesbian openly living in defiance of Catholic moral teaching began acting as a representative of the school. From what I understand, she has never said anything to undermine the moral teachings of the Faith. Honestly, she doesn’t need to say anything. Simply by publically modeling her alternative lifestyle while serving as a volunteer at a Catholic school, she undermines the teachings of the Faith. We had to have a serious conversation with our little son regarding what makes a marriage in order to clear up confusion which had arisen in his mind because of this situation. Furthermore, I know that he is not the only child confused by this particular volunteer.
After our objections went up the line of command, through principle and priest all the way up to the bishop, we received news that the bishop will continue to allow civilly married lesbians to volunteer. We’ve decided to commence homeschooling in the fall.
This hot-button issue not only bears the unique scars of our culture, it also ushers in a great deal of emotional and intellectual confusion. Let us lay the foundation by turning to Christ. When calling his disciples, the Lord commands them to love—“Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). It sounds so simple, so straightforward. Nonetheless, even among the Apostles, personal examples caused confusion regarding what discipleship means. In Galatians 2:11-13, St. Paul rebukes St. Peter himself for his poor example, and the scandal it caused. The call to discipleship, to love, rests heavily upon good or bad examples, because the examples clarify, “What is love?” And, “How does Christ love?”
What does this mean for Catholic education? The essential nature of love must be understood without any confusion, in order for that truth to be conveyed with equal clarity to children. Since the conveyance of the truth rests in large part upon those modeling it before students, all adults in positions of leadership in a Catholic school need to be living witnesses of their Faith. Therefore, to have any adult—be it staff, teacher, or volunteer—working in a Catholic school and openly modeling a life which contradicts Catholic teaching undermines the integrity of the education as a whole.
According to Pope Paul VI in his Declaration on Christian Education, Gravissimum Educationis, “The specific purpose of a Catholic education is the formation of boys and girls who will be good citizens of this world, loving God and neighbor and enriching society with the leaven of the gospel, and who will also be citizens of the world to come, thus fulfilling their destiny to become saints.” Catholic education is primarily to form children so that they might more easily love God and their fellow men, and become saints. In other words, Catholic education exists for the purpose of making disciples, whose entire lives center on Christ. This type of formation requires not solely a solid course in religion, but also a formation of virtuous habits in both action and thought. Children learn virtues, both intellectual and moral, by first imitating what they see in adults who have charge over them. Pope St. John Paul II stressed this point in an address to U.S. bishops in 1998: “If students in Catholic schools are to gain a genuine experience of the Church, the example of teachers and others responsible for their formation is crucial: the witness of adults in the school community is a vital part of the school’s identity.” Only after imitation has become a firm habit does understanding truly sink in. For one cannot grasp the truth unless the habits necessary for understanding it have already been embraced. The desire for truth must be instilled by first establishing the habits necessary to receive it. Therefore those who surround children, especially when they represent Catholic education, must be models of Catholic behavior.
A situation in which the truth is verbally conveyed, even by excellent teachers, but meets with contradiction from others in a school setting inevitably compromises the integrity of the entire education. Faith by its nature cannot be isolated within religion class. Rather, it requires integration into all other subjects, and especially must be put into practice. Archbishop J. Michael Miller, in his book The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools, remarks: “(I)f teachers and administrators demonstrate the individualistic and competitive ethic that now marks so much public education, they will fail to inspire students with the values of solidarity and community, even if they praise those values verbally. The same can be said about a failure to give clear witness to the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of marriage and the inviolability of human life.” Children, struggling to understand the meaning of intellectual truths, look to see: what does this truth mean for me, what does it look like when lived? And to do this they watch how representative adults live. If adults in Catholic schools provide examples contrary to Catholic truths, children come, quite naturally, to the conclusion, “Ah, well, those things I have been taught must be something I can pick and choose from if I like, because so-and-so is Catholic and does such-and-such, and it all seems fine.”
Now, there may be a fair number of children who will complete their education in a confused environment without spiritual harm. Nevertheless, a confused school culture introduces an uphill battle to their education. Those whose parents carefully form them at home, constantly on the alert for error, will have the best odds. But it is an injustice to expect children to make arguments to their peers, or to spend their time of formation in a battle for the truth. Without proper formation, this approach is like a spiritual Gallipoli: sending children into violent battle without proper defense. A few brave souls may outrun the rest—still, the battleground will be strewn with the fallen, and many lost who should not have faced the guns.
In these times, issues of sexual morality and identity have come to the fore. Therefore, as the culture at large has become more hostile toward the truth, all the more must Catholic educators and institutions become bold beacons of truth about the human person. According to Archbishop Miller, “Catholic theology teaches that grace builds on nature. Because of this complementarity of the natural and the supernatural, Catholic educators should have a sound understanding of the human person that addresses the requirements of both the natural and the supernatural perfection of the children entrusted to their care.”
After my husband and I raised concerns to the school administration regarding civilly married lesbians volunteering, I witnessed a whole slew of arguments from other parents defending the situation. These defenses included slogans such as, “Love is love,” implying, “What harm can there be to tolerate perfectly nice, lovely people donating their time?”, or even, “Two great women loving each other—what’s the harm in that?” Here’s the harm: in a Catholic school, the entire purpose of education rests upon conveying a particular kind of love: one that is sacrificial, fruitful, and faithful. Anything that muddies the transmission of that truth cannot be tolerated as a representative of Catholic education. It would foolish for me to tell my children the importance of eating healthy, while loading up my own plate with chips and candy. I cannot expect them to take to heart my message, when my own example brings confusion. Nor does it make sense to say “food is food,” because the nature of my message is that some foods are healthy and some are not. Similarly, the notion “love is love” is unacceptable, because the whole purpose of Catholic education is to teach that all loves are not equal. Disciples are called to love as Christ loves us.
Bad examples of love will lead astray, as St. Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 15:33: “bad company, they say, can corrupt noble minds.” Those of us united in Christ are to be known by our love. Our Lord said, “The mark by which all men will know you for my disciples will be the love you bear one another” (John 13:35). Notice, our Lord doesn’t say we will be known because we’re awfully nice. “Nice” falls flat when it comes to being a disciple of the Lord. Most people are nice, at least to those whom they like. Nice people don’t necessarily lay down their lives for the Truth, nor are nice people necessarily filled with zeal for the kingdom. No, it takes a whole lot more than nice to win the kingdom. If the goal of Catholic education is to raise up disciples, inheritors of the Kingdom of God, what love is must be understood, taught, and exemplified.