Begging the question

Fifty years ago this summer, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that is still inflaming tempers and broiling controversies. The court banned prayer in public schools. The case was School District v. Schempp, brought by young Mr. Schempp who believed that his constitutional rights were being violated by a Pennsylvania law allowing prayer and the reading of the King James Bible in his school. Schempp won and all hell broke loose. Ever since, fundamentalists of many stripes and civil libertarian groups had been warring. However, the war is dwindling down now to the occasional hand grenade in the form of an op-ed piece.

Such a grenade appeared earlier this summer in the Wall Street Journal, America's most widely circulated newspaper. It was a very cheery little column entitled "God is Still in the Classroom," and the author made two points.

The first, that the Supreme Court's ruling was correct. It overwhelming ruled (8-1) that as government sponsored schools, they must observe strict neutrality in matters of religion. As former public school teachers and parents, we fully support such a decision. Paying our tax money to a school that is promoting a different religion than ours is cause for "going to the mattresses."

The article's second point was a celebration of the fact that public school can and should teach about religion and that, indeed, much of it is going on in public schools today. Specifically, the public schools can and should teach comparative and world religions and the Holy Bible as literature and history.

In a letter to the editor a teacher wrote, "I found that Judeo-Christian traditions are treated with suspicion and outright hostility, while pagan and animistic belief systems are considered academically interesting, but aren't taken seriously as religious faiths." This echoes reports we have heard over and over that Christianity, and particularly the Catholic Church, is a regular target for snide comments and ridicule in our public schools.

"Teaching about religions" is one of those sparkling educational ideas that looks wonderful on paper, but, in fact, leads to dangerous madness. Take for instance the comparative or world religion courses. Who is equipped to convene the theological and historical underpinnings of the great faiths? When they get around to Catholicism, how will they explain the Eucharist, the central reality of our faith. When they get into the history of the Church, will they address the centuries of good works done around the world by nuns, priests and committed lay people? Or will they drag out the Inquisition and the history of the papacy? How about a "fair and balanced" treatment of the 14-century-old rift between Sunni and Shiite Muslims? And the three major branches of Judaism?

Where are these teachers to be trained? Have they taken one or two college courses in religion at the state university? At Boston College? Or are they self-trained? Can they be objective and fair, not favoring "the home team"?

And what about the students, the majority of whom have only the slimmest grasp of their own faith? Are they ready to "compare" Christianity and Zoroastrianism? What is their "take away" from these courses? "All religions are equally weird" or, "religion is just something men developed to explain the unexplainable and to keep us from being afraid of the dark"?

Religion isn't, like sociology or literature or even theology, a field of study. Nor should it be, in the secular environment of a public school. Religion is a personal belief system that directs the religious individual's answer to life's big questions, ultimate questions, such as: What is the meaning of my existence? What is a worthy way for me to spend my life? And how should I treat those around me? Currently, these essential human questions are ignored and not part of a child's schooling. As a result, we are reaping a harvest of pleasure-driven, self-focused young Americans.

We Catholics need to acknowledge that traditional Judeo-Christian values are under siege on multiple fronts and we are clearly losing the battle. We are losing in the courts. We are losing in the media. And we are losing in our schools and universities. The U.S. is undergoing a profound change of heart about religion. In the 1950s, when asked about their religious affiliation, 3 percent checked "none." Today, 20 percent check "none."

The "Nones," as sociologists are calling them, are a powerful group. They are heavily represented in elite culture, being over-represented in our universities, and important cultural institutions, like publishing and Hollywood. The former village atheist has morphed into a powerful group and they see our children as the prime audience for their anti-Christian message.

The government, which at one time was supportive of religion, then merely accommodating and is now increasingly hostile to religion, controls the education of our children. Ninety percent of American children go to public schools. Only 6 percent go to Catholic schools. With the government at all levels increasingly promoting its secular agenda through the schools, how can the Church compete?

One answer is for parents to demand school choice and the ability to control the education of their children.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline.

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