Project Canterbury

Liberal Catholicism and the Modern World

Edited by Frank Gavin

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1933.


Teachers' College, Columbia University

UNTIL RECENTLY American education like American politics--not to mention American religion--has been under the spell of romanticism. A generous optimism pervaded it. Not faith in God but faith in chance, and in the "unrealized possibilities of man" was its watchword. Its hopefulness was matched by its futility. The purposes of progressive education, finely expressed as "tolerant understanding" and "creative self-expression," were unable to give positive direction to educational procedures, and in many environments they were quite impossible of fulfillment. As a matter of fact, American schools have been at the mercy of whatever happened to be the ruling passion of the social group of which they were a part. Nationalism, the cult of social success, the exploitation of individual prowess, racial and religious superiority: these the schools served to foster, not because of any conscious purpose to do so on the part of teachers and officials but because the ideals of education itself were ambiguous, not closely related to the civilization in which they were to function, academic and anemic. In an age of universal self-deception, educators were perhaps the most self-deceived of people.

Many factors have operated to change the situation just described. Educators everywhere have waked up. And parents and the public in general are yawning and rubbing their eyes. We are beginning to see that the ideals of the schools and those of the supporting environment must be if not identical at least congenial enough so that they can work together. The "healthy school in the sick society" does not remain healthy long. We are also beginning to realize as never before the possibilities of the school and other educational agencies in directing the progress of events, if the social sentiment to support their program is strong enough even if it represents only a minority in the community. Schools of the progressive type especially, which stimulate and control the emotions of children as well as their powers of knowledge and judgment, can become powerful instruments in the hands of socially-minded educators, sufficiently supported by public opinion. Teachers and leaders everywhere are saying, "The schools have been manipulated for social purposes in spite of us. Let us now consciously use them for freedom and justice."

The directors of a new school in the Southern Mountains have recently expressed this in their prospectus:

"Our purpose is deliberately to use education for certain social and cultural values. We do not consider any other education any less propaganda because its teachers are ignorant of the fact that they are supporting an unethical status quo than our approach which consciously seeks to bring about a more just social order."

This, then, is the spirit of modern education. Public education is becoming religious; it is becoming conscious of a social mission. And this very fact constitutes a challenge of great importance to the Christian Church. Can the Church give direction to the educational forces of a community? Can we find from the Church answers to the baffling questions and uncertainties that modern education meets in its social mission? In the Church's dealings with its own youth, does it provide a demonstration of vigorous growth effective within and upon a cooperative cultural environment?

However definite the major objectives of the schools in Russia and Germany may be, in the English-speaking world the purposes of our schools are neither well defined nor generally accepted.

Certainly in the United States we lack woefully a vision of the cooperative commonwealth that our educational prophets are proclaiming. "The chief obstacle to moral progress," said an American professor not long ago, "is the absence of a Utopia to capture the imagination and loyalty of man"; and this in one form or another we are hearing constantly. For such a vision the schools must indeed look to the Church. Not to the Protestant Churches, torn by divisions, wasted by the disease of individualism, but to the Catholic Church where for centuries the dream of a Divine Society has persisted. A dream, yes, but a dream which is in continuous process of fulfillment in the life of the Church, the expression of an eternal Creative Energy, uniting all the members of the blessed company whether living or dead. The harmony of this society consists in a perfection of mutuality which insures the complete functioning of each part within the whole. Every doctrine and practice in the life of the Church has its place in the entire fabric. In the Christian community the prime function and the final purpose of its members is not social service, not propaganda, not defense, not enlightenment. It is artistic expression--worship.

The conception of a redeemed society, the goal of all human endeavor, is found over and over again in the Scriptures and in Catholic liturgy. Cramped and obscured as it has sometimes been by the rigidities of the Roman system, this vision is now being presented with renewed vigor in Anglican and Eastern Orthodox testimony. It is seizing the imagination of young people in the United States and England and, to a significant extent, in the "mission field." This is the great social objective that can bring health and sanity into modern education. This vision can do more than stimulate a passion for freedom and equality; it can sustain an unremitting persistence in the smallest details of a program to secure them.

But to have a comprehensive objective is not enough. In every conference where the social function of education is considered, discussion is almost sure to center around three issues which appear in one connection or another. They may be briefly described as three pairs of alternatives: the individual versus the group; conformity versus freedom; tradition versus self-expression. Anyone interested in education and in the Christian faith will naturally ask how the ideals of the Church are concerned with these important controversial points.

How shall we preserve individual initiative and freedom without danger to the group as a whole? Or, put in another way, must we sacrifice certain individuals to the group or the group to one or two dominant individuals within it? Every family as well as every schoolroom has felt the force of this problem. Although the tradition in America has been to protect and exalt the individual, our leaders in education are now moving rapidly in the other direction, influenced to a large degree by the success of mass education in Russia. Group loyalty and mass action have a tremendous appeal at the present time. We have already seen that the ideals of the Church are altogether congenial with this new social emphasis. At the same time they tend to preserve in an exceedingly significant way the full autonomy of the individual. To the Church each individual is supremely important in himself. However socially or physically handicapped he may be, he is potentially capable of the supreme experience accessible alike to all, union with God in the social fellowship of His family. The most ordinary Catholic moves normally in a social environment, the Church, where the value of the individual is constantly stressed. It is important that this is not a political or military society, but an ethical order universal in its scope. At regularly recurring periods and at pivotal points in his life, the sacraments bring home to him in exquisite balance the purely individual and the predominantly social aspects of his experience, always in relation to definite moral values.

In public education the ideal of personal freedom is much prized and seldom attained. Again and again freedom turns out in actual practice to be either confusion and anarchy or simply conformity to a different set of standards. There are plenty of instances of this in any modern school when the children in a classroom "run wild" or adopt the rigid code of the ruling gang on the street. Thoughtful teachers are continually beset with the problem of providing genuine freedom. In dealing with this problem the Catholic Church operates upon a curious paradox. According to its teachings freedom is attained only at the sacrifice of freedom. To put it in another way, the only completely moral and therefore ethically desirable freedom is the free access of divine energy in human spirits through the life of the divine-human society, the Church. Men can achieve their personal freedom only in cooperation with the life of the Church through submitting to the laws of its life, to its authority. In his obedience to a universal moral order the individual achieves a great emancipation from the petty tyranny of lesser enslavements--the tyranny of custom, self-gratification, local and party ambitions. He can move freely in all his relationships, giving to each its just due but with his first allegiance elsewhere, a citizen of a larger world, spiritually cosmopolitan. A practising Catholic wastes little of his creative energy in rebellion even at points where the teachings of the Church seem to him mistaken or perverse. The practise of humility at just these points--not of hypocrisy or self-deception--is encouraged by an active faith that the Church is growing out of error into a fuller witness of the truth. Each member of the Church is, of course, pledged to the furtherance of this witness but his part in it is to be done not in rebellious self-righteousness but always in loyalty and love.

There has been a great deal of talk in educational circles about the antagonism between reliance upon tradition and the encouragement of creative self-expression. Perhaps, after all, this antagonism is largely an illusion. Creative expression must, of course, have material upon which to work and this material is inevitably drawn from the inheritance of the race. Present life cannot be isolated from the larger life of which it is a part. Seize hold of it at any point and up comes a mass of fact, folklore, and fiction running far back into human and sub-human history. Tradition is valuable not for its own sake but as it enriches human experience in socially creative tasks--this is the position of modern education. This too is the position of Catholic Christianity, which has always emphasized the use of past treasures for human needs. The celebration of the Present has always been one of the great glories of the Catholic religion. Every morning of the year the life and death and resurrection of Christ are reenacted in the Mass for the growth and health of the whole Church and for the needs of the world. In the Church nothing is lost. Each day has its holy memories of saints and martyrs, a memory from the past but also a present companionship. So the past merges into the present and the present with its praise and prayer is continually thrust forward into the future. If it is true, as unhappily it seems to be, that creative art is at a low ebb in the Catholic Church, this is due to various causes, among them no doubt the separation in many countries of education and religion. Surely the Church is keeping alive a tradition in race experience, in literature and art, which the movement for creative education cannot neglect if it is to interpret present experience fairly.

If the Church has, as it surely has, much in common with the social purposes of modern education and if it has been able at least in theory to meet some of the salient problems in educational thought, where can we look for a demonstration of its effectiveness among children and young people? It does not behoove us to discuss here the situation in the Roman Church, although there are recent educational ventures in this country, notably in the Benedictine order, that have wide significance. We can say with conviction that the Anglican Church in America has done little to put into practice the great educational principles of Catholicism. A patter of catechism; drill on ritualism; long lectures in biblical history; and in many parishes an elaborate graded system under inefficient teachers using a hodge-podge of material that reflects the well meaning, spiritual confusion of liberal Protestantism. This is about what we actually find. It is almost if not quite as bad as this! Yet every parish where the sacramental life of the Church is observed and where men and women draw water with joy out of the wells of salvation is a potential center for religious education of the finest sort. In a few closely knit parishes, in Church boarding schools here and there, and in a handful of Church families, children are growing up in glad allegiance to the Catholic Church, finding freedom and creative expression within it. Let us thank God for this and let us go forward towards a more adequate program of Catholic education. This will surely mean more Catholic boarding schools and it may mean a widespread movement for parochial schools. It may conceivably involve the founding and development of whole communities where the entire social life of the community will support the ideals of Catholic education and give practical outlet for their expression.

Those upon whom rests the responsibility of education in the Church will need to see the task immediately before them in the three aspects that have been suggested: first, the sympathetic understanding of the social objectives of public education and their relation to religious education; second, the presentation to leaders, especially to parish priests and to parents, of the need and the general purposes of Catholic education so that a consciousness of its possibilities may permeate the community; and third, the raising of the level of religious education in those parishes where the teachings and practice of the Catholic faith provide a rich opportunity for educational experience. A wise and vigorous attack upon the problems of Christian education will have an influence far beyond the boundaries of our own communion. Indeed it is not too much to say that such an enterprise might be a tremendous factor just at this time in the conversion of our fellow citizens to the Catholic faith.

Project Canterbury