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January 25, 2005

More Weights on the Tightrope

Embittering personal experience has kept a story that's already old by blog standards among my bookmarks. Patrick Sweeney quotes from the AP summary of the circumstances:

A group of parents and parishioners are accusing the Orange County diocese of violating church doctrine by allowing a gay couple to enroll their children in a Catholic school.

The group has demanded that Saint John the Baptist School in Costa Mesa accept only families that pledge to abide by Catholic teachings. That would likely bar the men's two adopted boys from attending the school's kindergarten because of church opposition to relationships and adoption by same-sex couples.

School officials have rejected the group's demands and issued a new policy stating that a family's background "does not constitute an absolute obstacle to enrollment in the school."

Commenter John B. makes the best argument in the boys' favor:

Has anyone stopped to think that a Catholic education might be a vehicle to convincing this child that the homosexual marriage of his/her parents is morally wrong? Maybe it will even convince the parents (but I doubt it). The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways.

Maybe a Catholic education and a set of morals might be just what this child needs now in his/her life.

I'll say, first of all, that this isn't one of those topics upon which people far removed from the situation can offer vehement conclusions. Inasmuch as the superintendent of diocese schools in this case is apparently a priest, the situation there seems to be somewhat better than my experience. In the system in which I taught for a brief time, the education wing of the diocese is more a loosely affiliated group, and as I painfully learned, the guiding principles are far more corporate than Christian.

Indeed, at least in the pre–high school grades, the teachers have no particular training in religion, often opting to fit in the religion lessons where they can, if they can. They've got no basis to answer any difficult questions that the children might have, and they have neither the background nor the diocese support versus the parents to be firm while teaching doctrines that might raise objections. (Lesson one for the unaware middle school teacher: divorce is a third rail.)

None of this is meant as an attack on the teachers, or even the administrators. The problem is that the schools are run more or less as public schools, but with prayer and far fewer resources. In this context, the question arises to rebut John B.: But are those boys, and their parents' apparent set of morals, what the other children need? The balance, as I've said, must be made at the more local level.

On the larger issue of Catholic schools' character, I'm probably not alone among blogosphere Catholics in thinking that they need to be stronger in their religious content. I'd go so far as to add the weight of market forces to this demand. High schools appear to be a different matter, but the lower schools — again, to my experience — lack the elite draw. Owing to a blend of Christian responsibility and a need to fill classrooms to the maximum, the children admitted are often those who've had difficulty in public schools, for one reason or another.

Without the strict codes of the parochial schools of yore, however, these students don't even come close to gaining in religious structure what they lost in taxpayer-funded services. Sometimes I've wondered whether the schools aren't continuing to subsist on the remembered impressions of parents and grandparents of what Catholic school was like when they were children. Neither the illusion nor the calculation can long remain.

Similarly the teachers. Pitiful pay is one thing within the context of a church community. The picture begins to change when they must keep pace with public procedures for certification and maintenance thereof that become law under at least the tacit assumption that public schools assist teachers in meeting the requirements. It changes further still when they are not treated as ends in themselves, but as potential sparks for lawsuits of one kind or another, to be cut loose at the first hint of trouble.

I'm drifting a bit — venting — but the point is that Catholic schools, at least in some cases, have traded away their character, whether absorbing the character of their well-to-do clients or emulating the better-financed public schools. If particular schools conduct themselves as fully Catholic institutions, take them or leave them, then I'd be persuaded that they can venture to admit those children who are in heightened, and sensitive, need of a Christian influence on their lives.

But in the environment that I describe, few teachers are going to present the Church's disagreement with the lifestyle of a given student's parents. Furthermore, schools that have faltered too far may find themselves, in seeking to accommodate such children, being pulled toward what the secular culture wishes they were, rather than what they ought to be.

(N.B. — Patrick posted follow-ups here and here.)

Posted by Justin Katz at January 25, 2005 1:56 AM

I would strongly recommend you take a look at Catholic Apologist Jimmy Akin's post on the subject.

Posted by: Jeff Miller at January 25, 2005 1:33 PM