The ‘Catholic’ Thing and the Allegory of the Leggy Brunette

Two articles on the “value” of Catholic education got me thinking about my own recently.

Both pieces are nostalgic and mainly wrong.  One, from former LA mayor Richard Riordan spearheads a drive for $100,000,000 for Catholic schools in his region, thrumping the well-known fact that inner city public schools have failed, that charter schools are expensive and aren’t much better, while Catholic schools send most of their graduates on to college and provide “beliefs, values and standards that children will carry all their lives. They provide a safe learning environment for those from high-crime neighborhoods as well as structure and a faith-based education.”  Does anyone see a stop sign here?

What Riordan doesn’t want to stress is that in the last forty years, and in Los Angeles like everywhere else, Catholic schools lost all of their nuns (who, by the way, were indentured teachers), most of the curriculum that made their brand distinctive, fully half of their student population nationwide (in one Miami school, St Monica, from 368 students in 2004 to 196 in 2008 when closure was mandated), and much of the financial support of their parishes.  If there ever was a golden age of Catholic education, the age is long gone. New school closures, consolidations and transfers from parochial to charter school status are announced every month.

Rescuing parochial schools is not a way to rescue public education; it’s a way to sink both. My younger daughter, in fact, benefited from a “Catholic education” in the largely dysfunctional innards of Buffalo, New York, a few years ago.  That education set me back about $10,000 in a single year, not including loafers.  But this was not your average parochial parish school–the kind I  went to, virtually for pin money.  It was a private Catholic “convent” school for girls, a sister institution to the academically reputable Jesuit boys academy, Canisius  Prep. Even here, Catholic “identity” was a romantic notion: other than the school president and a confused and veilless retired nun  who showed up at special events, the convent was empty and Catholic consciousness was mainly limited to the school uniform and a graduation Mass.

The average downtown parochial school suffers from the same uncertainties, tensions, and personnel issues that most public city schools suffer from–underpaid faculty, multilingualism, economic distress, to which has to be added despair and increasing irrelevance.  Throwing gobs of money at the sinking ship won’t raise it. Throwing city kids into the remaining parish schools–a remedy that might have worked a generation or more ago–won’t work now.

But most of all, throwing Catholic values at the public system (without any discussion of what these values might be) is just a very bad idea–one which once upon a less desperate time would have met with stiff political resistance.

Better days?

Perhaps the cynicism of asking non-Catholics to entrust saving city schools to Catholic education is obvious.  Less obvious is the premise put forward by Paul Wallace in his reaction to comments made by Richard Dawkins concerning the religious “identity” imposed on children by parents.  Dawkins’s comments coincide with the founding in Britain of the first “atheist college” by A.C. Grayling and some of his associates (really an option for degree validation within the sprawling and often academically sketchy University of London) and, of course, the publication of his children’s book, The Magic of Reality.

The faith-values that Riordan thinks might benefit intellectual deadened and deadend “inner city youth” (and which Dawkins thinks amount to the imposition of magical thinking and indoctrination in unsupportable beliefs), Wallace says are essentially benign. Moreover, they are “values” that no child is going to avoid merely by receiving a  science-friendly education: the competition for attention and credence is intense in our culture, the argument runs, and “no child can stand above the fray of competing worldviews and let reason eliminate all but the best, like a cautious consumer.”

Recalling a classroom experience with a certain Father Kavanaugh who encouraged students to question the core premises of their belief, Wallace says,

Imagine it! Who are you? Do you disbelieve in God? Why? Do you disbelieve in God because your mother disbelieves in God? Do you believe there’s no God because smart people told you so? Precisely what God do you not believe in? Might there be another you could believe in?, etc.

What many Catholics know, and what Richard Dawkins appears not to, is that the idea of children moving through life without serious intellectual and moral direction—in this insane world, of all places—is a terrible joke and a recipe for social catastrophe.

In reality, Wallace’s argument is the intellectual equivalent of Riordan’s economic one: “Catholic education” offers students the tools for critical thinking: it begins from faith but does not ask people to stop with faith.  Catholicism, it’s argued, has a long history of asking questions about itself,  questions not substantially different, even if differently intoned, by atheists: Who are you? Do you believe in God? Why? Why do you believe God loves you? Do you believe God loves you because your priest told you so? As the destination is at least as important as the starting point, why should a student choose unbelief over belief as the only right road for getting there?

It’s a fair but I think fatally flawed question and since others are answering it with favorite stories from their days at St Ignatius School for Recalcitrant Youth, let me have a turn.


I escaped from the designs of Irish-born nuns and randy priests unmolested (knuckles intact, surplice unruffled) but not unaffected.  My Catholic training–like the sort described by Julian Baggini in his little Oxford introduction to Atheism–was basically benign. In primary school, I loved religion classes.  In high school, what we had begun to call “theology,” (and now, where it exists, is called religion) and in university, philosophy.  It seemed a natural progression.

I make no grandiose claims or  accusations about the role of the Church in education. Catholicism contrary to popular belief did not “cause” the dark ages and without the university system incumbent in the medieval monasteries, things would have been dark a lot longer.

Professional Catholic-haters–and there are many–point not just to a history of psychological and physical abuse during the worst episodes of church history–Jew-killing, inquisitions, Magdalene laundries, and predatory pastors for starters–but to the ongoing role of the church in opposing scientific research, women’s reproductive rights, and the intimidation of Catholic politicians who differ from their Church’s theology on a range of issues that have nothing to do with Rome’s vaunted magisterium: its teaching “authority” in matters of faith (relatively unimpactful) and morals (the bedroom).

The acceptable modern argument against Catholic education, however, really goes back only to Pope Pius IX and his campaign against “modernism” (read: modern scholarship and science) in the Syllabus of Errors, promulgated in 1864.  It was then that Catholic universities took a southward turn, failed to promote the natural sciences, and found themselves in thrall to a papacy whose greatest contribution was to pronounce itself infallible.  There is no doubt that the legacy of Pio Nono was the Church’s most shameful intellectual moment since the Inquisition.  By the same token, it corresponded to the death throes of a church that had lost power, prestige, land, and authority all over Europe–the beginning of the secular era. Not coincidentally, Catholic or “parochial” education as it came to exist, especially as an alternative school system in Britain and the United States, dates from the same unpromising period.

Pope Pius IX

And yet. In a world where Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Martha Coakley can be threatened by their Church with excommunication for their stand on abortion –but not Rick Santorum (who is renowned for having introduced a dead fetus to his living children as their brother), or Scott Brown, a good Catholic boy from a lapsed family that had turned divorce into a recreational activity–the very idea that Catholic education produces mono-opinionated troglodytes is clearly absurd.

But it does seem to produce an unusual number of intellectual apostates and satirists.  I submit that the reason the Church has produced comedians like George Carlin, Bob Newhart, Julia Sweeney and Bill Maher is that Catholic training is a survival lesson in enduring contradictions. Would you walk across the street to buy a ticket to see a “Christian” comedian?  Not likely.  Protestant comedy is inherent in the seriousness with which its practitioners take their dogmas.  A Muslim funny man? Pfffft. Remember Denmark?

Jewish? of course, fellow sufferers in being smart, guilty, alienated and irreverent.  In fact the only difference between a Catholic comedian and a Jewish comedian is that the Catholic is told he has to feel contrition for his abuse of the Church while the Jew is simply plunged into a perpetual state of unforgivable remorse for not being Jewish enough.

But the key thing (and why isn’t anybody getting this?) is living with contradiction.  Catholics perfected this more than a thousand years ago when they started talking about faith and reason being compatible means of getting to the same intellectual end: certainty about God.

It was never an even match: Ubi fides est ratio fallitur (“Where reason fails, faith prevails”), and there was always a penchant for mystery when reasons weren’t at hand for particular beliefs–like the Trinity.  But reason had a place at the table, and reason was an honorable way to get to God.  It would take until the Reformation for faith to take center position and stay there in a way that leads finally to Michele Bachmann.

Faith is what made this country what it is.

In my academic work, I never miss a chance these days not to re-read Aquinas on the subject of faith and reason, and you can bet on the fact that most Catholics, whenever they passed through the system, but especially those who went through after about 1975, have never read a paraphrased tiddle of his work.  Yet it’s Aquinas whose transformative work on Aristotle still forms the fundament of christian doctrine in the Roman tradition.  Try these on for size:

Because we cannot know what God is, but only what He is not, we cannot consider how He is but only how He is not.  God should not be called an individual substance, since the principal of individuation is matter.

or this:

Because philosophy arises from awe, a philosopher is bound in his way to be a lover of myths and poetic fables. Poets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonder.

–and especially this (are you reading Rick perry?)

Beware of the person of one book.

According to the most learned voices the church has produced, the human race is essentially ignorant of God’s attributes and the Bible is a book of poetry that cloaks his identity in allegory. Yet the Catholic faithful have had to wrestle with some of the most explicit images of God (and Jesus as his incarnation) ever manufactured–think Michelangelo, think Botticelli and a hundred others.  Catholic churches are stuffed with images ranging from the merely explicit to the grotesque–Jesuses hanging on the cross, weighed down with the sins of the world.  To complete the dramatis personae, there are images of his family (blessed, persevering mother, carpenter father) and an array of saints “who have done his will throughout the ages.”  Plenty to keep the eyes occupied and the mind numb.

This is an impressive explosion of love, though sadistic and highly invalued around the edges.  It is also highly specific.  Not taking account of regional variations and post-Vatican II injunctions about keeping things iconically simple, walking into a Catholic church is a little like taking out your family album.  You already know who’s in it because you’ve seen it all before.  But it’s nice to visit, nice to feed your memory.

God the father (1654) in papal attire with the whole world in his hands

Yet the official philosopher, that lover of wisdom and angelic doctor, Aquinas tells us that this God “is not even an individual substance.”  Not even knowable as an integer but only in terms of what cannot be said about him.  You see what I mean: contradiction–a long history of squirmy little boys and girls paying homage in the light of flickering candles to images and formulations that the church officially teaches have no greater relevance to the reality of the subject than the shadows in Plato’s cave to the world beyond.

Many of these children, with respect to what they think is the core of their religion, will remain children their whole life long.  The lucky ones will leave and become comedians. The unfortunate ones will become politicians and try to have their Church and leave it too.

It’s as if to say: Today class we are going to discuss Wisdom.  Wisdom is beauty in the mind. It is seductive.  It is desirable.  It is what we all long to possess, the object of all our intellectual drive and energy.  The only thing that will give us satisfaction.  Do you see this picture of a leggy brunette? Look closely.  Wisdom is nothing like that.


And that of course is just the problem;  Catholicism does not resolve the Platonic allegory for believers.  It preserves it.  It encourages it.  From the time of the church fathers, the founders of the church’s intellectual tradition, the church of the orthodox bishops was not the same church as the church of believers.  From time to time they would gently remind the flock (the word speaks volumes) that they were not to actually worship the images.  But in the same breath they would condemn to the pains of a nonfigurative hell anyone who refused to believe that a little bread and wine held aloft by a priest was, in actuality, the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

At the core of Catholicism is living with appearance and reality, with the contradiction between what our eyes and minds tell us and what we are told is true.

These contradictions are very old, and they have now become the familiar devotions of a billion people, more or less, around the world.  Their propagation does not render them harmless, and their historical success does not make them a recipe for educational practice.

Given that the educational goal set by Plato was for the prisoners to escape from the world of appearances into the world of knowledge where they would see the shadows for what they are, and the enforced darkness of an institution that still goads people to view the images as good enough, which model would you choose for your children?

12 thoughts on “The ‘Catholic’ Thing and the Allegory of the Leggy Brunette

  1. All of which begs the question, for me : when is someone going to assemble a (non-atheist) humanist curriculum or direction in education?

    Lots of (shared) evidence here that we can’t look back, or go there, but whither otherwise? Might humanism become a theme within charter schools?

  2. I’m pretty sure that humanism can become a theme about the same time that education becomes a theme. In a time when we aren’t even faintly clear on just what we mean by “educated,” how can any of this work?

    I had the good fortune to have my daughter go through a great public school. The mystery to me remains how so many intelligent humans come out of what is laughingly referred to as our educational system.

    If there are miracles…then that’s one!

  3. Gene sed “The mystery to me remains how so many intelligent humans come out of what is laughingly referred to as our educational system.”

    As RJoe maintains, the Catholic virus is benign.

    In the second installment, it comes alive as humanism, religion is a vein, and you have to find it. But when you do…

    • @Dwight: for many it’s benign, those who may have natural immunity or resistance. For many it isn’t. I recall a decade ago that scientists were working on the problem of why there were people out there with an immunity to HIV–something along those lines. However I don’t think the purpose of Catholic education is to impart immunity to the teaching of the Church; it’s to get people to accept and follow.

  4. @Joe “… for many it’s benign, those who may have natural immunity or resistance. For many it isn’t.”

    So we lighten ship.
    “To be an error and to be cast out is a part of God’s design.”
    – William Blake

  5. Perhaps Nietzche is right after all:”Christianity is Platonism for the masses”. Rightfully so, people prefer images to the real thing. Perhaps the full image is just too hard to bear?

  6. Pingback: representations of God, Images of God

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s