Who is teaching us about the ultimate questions... Really?

Yesterday’s moral sins and outrages seem so clear. How could good people hold others as slaves? How could our noble ancestors, men such as Washington and Jefferson, be slave-owners? And how could our near ancestors have thought it was correct to deny the vote to women and Black Americans? How could good people not be outraged by these practices? These questions provoke another: What are the moral outrages which surround us today that we are simply ignoring?

How about the idea of the state -- civil authorities with their own particular life agendas -- taking over parents’ function of educating their children? How about the idea that the state, which in a democracy is the tool of the victors in a political process, is deciding what ideas and moral values your children are being taught?

Getting an education is every person’s right and duty. We are called by our God to develop our talents and to serve him. The education we receive in school is one critical key to reaching that goal. In the modern era, this individual right and personal responsibility has largely been taken over by the state. In our country, historically a world leader in state-sponsored or public education, schooling was first offered as an opportunity. Then, in the 19th century, the state took a big step and demanded that children attend school, first for just a few years. Now until 16, the doorstep of adulthood.

While traditionally the compulsory school attendance laws allowed parents to send their children to the school of their choice, that aspect has gradually changed. 19th and early 20th century Catholics realized that the public schools were controlled by Protestants, many of whom saw their mission as weaning the new immigrants from their Roman Church. The King James Bible was taught and the role of the Catholic Church was slanted to fit the historical understandings of Protestants.

The reaction of Catholics, clerical and lay, was swift and strong. At considerable financial sacrifice, Catholic parents and religious made the education of our children their priority and built a parallel school system to the state schools. These schools turned out several generations of knowledgeable Catholics, committed both to their Church and to their country.

In 1965, there were 5 million students in our Catholic elementary and secondary schools. Just 45 years ago, fully half of all Catholic children attended 12,000 Catholic schools.

That was then. This is now. Today, only 15 out of 100 Catholic children attend our much reduced school system. Among Latinos the number is 3 in 100.

During the early years of the 20th century, the public schools shucked off the vestiges of a religious orientation. The so-called Progressive Era of schooling aimed quite consciously to have the scientific method replace the Bible in the minds and hearts of American students. Not only God, but any traces of the religious influences on our republic were suppressed. So, too, the spiritual beliefs of our Founding Fathers. Even the religious motivations of the largely Protestant Abolitionists are absent from text books. Progressive educators have portrayed the American story as simply the ever-evolving story of people of good will building a benevolent state. There can be little doubt that they have succeeded in projecting this one-sided understanding.

Today, a technologically oriented education, heavy on literacy, math and scientific skills, is a necessary prerequisite to get a good job. Providing this, along with music programs, football teams and technology skills, has become enormously expensive. This, in turn, has resulted in the collapse of so many Catholics schools and the hesitancy of many bishops and pastors to maintain, let alone start, parochial schools. So, while Americans, in theory, have school choice, for the great majority, this choice is out of reach.

The result is that Catholic youth, along with all the rest, are getting a wall-to-wall, state-sponsored, secular education, where the ultimate questions of “Who am I?” “What is the purpose of my life?” and “How should a person live his life?” get answered by the state’s licensed teachers and approved curriculum.

Increasingly, the state has marginalized parents’ role to answer these ultimate questions and, by default, supplied the facile answer to be a good and docile citizen. “We, the state, will give you the answers to these ultimate questions. We’ll tell you what a marriage is and is not. Your parents’ religiously-based understanding is unimportant. If you need to worship something, worship Mother Earth and give yourself to environmental causes. If you are uncomfortable with the homosexual lifestyle, you are a homophobe. If the state and its non-elected courts proclaims that a child in a mother’s womb is nothing more than protoplasm and can be scooped out and thrown away, that is it. You can have your opinion, but on these big issues the state decides.”

In actuality, however, the state’s indoctrination is much more subtle and gently presented. And sometimes by teachers who disagree with the state’s secularist message. The fact is, however, that the public schools have the megaphone. They command the time and attention of their students, Catholic or otherwise. All too often, their parents are working hard and seem to be unaware that the school is conveying social ideas with which they strongly disagree.

Unless we do something soon to give parents the funds (through vouchers, tax credits, or some other method) to purchase the education that they determine is right for their children, we should prepare of an even greater exodus from our Church than we have witnessed in recent decades. And, we should prepare for a radical expansion of what is already occurring, moves such as the state demanding that Catholic hospitals and medical professionals provide “abortion services” upon request, and forcing Catholic adoption agencies to place children with homosexual couples.

The state should not be the dominant force in forming our moral convictions, particular in schools. This is the role of church and family. When government -- national, state, local -- tries to answer ultimate questions, we should say, “Not for my children!”

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.