Teaching Truth: A ‘Catholic Schools Week’ Reality Check

Charles Francis Potter was prescient.

In his 1930 book, Humanism: a New Religion, he wrote, “Education is thus a powerful ally of humanism. What can the theistic Sunday school, meeting for an hour a week with only a fraction of the children do to stem the tide of a five-day program of humanism?”

Half a century letter, John Dunphy’s words echoed Potter’s. In a 1983 Humanist magazine article, he wrote:

“The battle for humankind’s future must be fought and won in the public-school classrooms by teachers who correctly perceive their role as proselytizers of a new faith, a religion of humanity. … These teachers must embody the same selfless dedication as the most rabid fundamentalist preacher, for they will be ministers of another sort, utilizing a classroom instead of a pulpit to convey humanist values in whatever subject they teach. The classroom must and will become an arena of conflict between the old and the new — the rotting corpse of Christianity with all its adjacent evils and misery, and the new faith of humanism.”

Dunphy’s opinions are hardly unique in public education, and this means that Catholic families are not going to find an ally in the neighborhood public school in performing their important task of being their children’s first educators in the faith.

Obviously, this does not mean that there are no dedicated, practicing Christians teaching in these schools. But even if many — or most — public school teachers in the nation reject Dunphy’s view, public schools have rejected Christian answers to fundamental questions. What is man? What is the purpose of his existence? How is good and evil determined? The answers being given by American public schools to these questions are far more in accord with Dunphy’s idea of humanism than what he calls “the rotting corpse of Christianity.”

American educator Alex Molnar wrote in the January 1994 edition of Educational Leadership magazine, “to be sure, the American public education system embodies a humanistic tradition in which truth is not regarded as an absolute.”

In other words, American public schools are constantly asking the same question Pontius Pilate asked Christ 2,000 years ago, “What is truth?”

Now, unfortunately, they are creating students to whom you can apply the words Pope John Paul II applied to Pontius Pilate. “Pilate’s question reflects the distressing perplexity of a man who often no longer knows who he is, where he comes from and where he is going” (1993’s Veritatis Splendor, No. 84).

In his 1998 encyclical Fides and Ratio (Faith and Reason), Pope John Paul II scrutinized the philosophic nihilism that pervades not only American public education but also much of modern Western society. He called this rejection of truth “the common framework of many philosophies that have rejected the meaningfulness of being” (No. 46).

The pervasive philosophic nihilism that American public education, and to be fair, much of the modern media and entertainment industry have been propagating has led to the development of what Catholic theologian Joyce Little called the “imperial self.”

This “imperial self,” she said, is “intent on creating its own values and truths, indeed its own self, through the exercise of an absolute freedom of choice, [and] requires, as the very condition of possibility for being able to create such values and truths, the absence of any pre-existing objective order to which it might be required to conform itself. The imperial self literally cannot tolerate the idea that such an order already exists with God as its source or author.”

One thing overlooked by this “imperial self” appears to be one of philosophy’s basic tenets, the law of non-contradiction, which declares that something cannot be truthful for one person and not for another. “If something is true, then it must be true for all people and at all times” (Fides et Ratio, No. 27) is how Pope John Paul II described this essential characteristic of truth.

This essential characteristic of truth means that moral absolutes exist and there are certain human actions that are always wrong, regardless of whether an individual believes them to be so or not. Pope John Paul II made it very clear that “the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man, but to God alone” (Veritatis Splendor, No. 35). This basic fact, however, is not being taught to children enrolled in American public schools.

We all know of children who were educated in public schools who turned out to be solid practicing Catholics. To get there, however, those students had some pretty formidable obstacles to overcome. Catholic parents must take this into consideration when making decisions about their children’s education.

In making their final decisions about their children’s education, Catholic parents should remember Dunphy’s words. In Catholic Schools Week, they should also remember the Catechism’s. Particularly the Church’s teaching that “as far as possible, parents have the duty of choosing schools that will best help them in their task as Christian educators” (No. 2229).

James Coop writes

from San Carlos, California.

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