The other day we Americans were informed by National Public Radio that it was Easter Sunday, when Christians celebrate the fact that Jesus did not have to go to hell or purgatory, but rose straight into heaven. It is like saying that Christopher was named Columbus after the capital of Oklahoma, or that Joan of Arc sailed with Noah across the English Channel to fight against the Saxons.
This is what you get for your tax dollars. You also get schools in which nobody learns anything about Scripture or about the civilization built upon it, because that would involve what is called, as if it were the most shocking of indelicacies, “religion,” and, as we know, because National Public Radio would tell us, religion has no place in our public schools.
Now, nobody will say openly that Chaucer, Dante, Giotto, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Rembrandt, Milton, Bach, Handel, Dickens, T. S. Eliot, Hawthorne, Melville, Tennyson, Browning, and basically everyone else who breathed the air of western civilization and who was not a committed atheist have no place in our public schools. So you may hear that we should of course allow the study of Dante as a poet, but not as specifically a religious poet, or of Bach as a composer, but not specifically as a religious composer. That is like saying that it is all right to study the moon, so long as you keep geology and astronomy out of it, or that it is all right to play Bach’s Jesu, Meine Freude, so long as you don’t sing the words, or you may sing the words, so long as you keep to the German and nobody translates them for you.
Well, the obvious result of such thinking is that Bach and the rest are sent to the principal and then dismissed from school. I have seen it from my college freshmen over the last thirty-odd years. If you have to tiptoe through a mine-field to read the gospel-saturated novels of Dickens, you’ll find it a relief not to bother to teach Dickens at all. Since so much of the greatest English poetry written before 1900, and a good deal of it afterwards as well, is religious in its soul—The Canterbury Tales, The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, The Vanity of Human Wishes, The Idylls of the King, The Waste Land, Four Quartets—and since poetry is a little off-putting, and since schoolteachers and even college English professors don’t know a lot about it, it’s easy to just shrug it away. Don’t read In Memoriam. Read some miserable young adult fiction instead.
We are going to see, then, as a rule and not the exception, people of great native intelligence who know absolutely nothing about the Christian faith. Lilies of the field, the prodigal son, death shall have no dominion, the valley of the shadow of death, covering a multitude of sins, and the light shines in the darkness, a lamp unto my feet, I AM WHO AM—they will recognize none of these. A third walking beside us, blood and water flowing from his side, the Damascus road, the three-time crowing of the cock, chariots of fire, the fleshpots of Egypt, thirty pieces of silver, the stone which the builders rejected—none of these will move their hearts. They erect no statues of beautiful Apollo or Aphrodite. They are not pagans, ready for the revelation of the Unknown God. They are sub-pagan, sub-cultural. It is not that they remember Jupiter Best and Greatest rather than Jesus, the Crucified. They have no memory at all. They have not put down roots in the wrong place. They have no roots. They are spiritual tumbleweeds in a dust bowl of oblivion.
In this context, then, we ought to ask of our Catholic schools and colleges, “What are you going to do about it?” I will tell you what not to do. You do not put a rootless man on a cruise ship and send him to various ports of call across the world, so that he may pick up “culture” as thin and ephemeral as an overpriced meal in a tourist trap. You are already dealing with massive ignorance. You do not want to magnify the problem by making people superficial in five additional civilizations to boot. That would be like teaching people twenty words in Bengali, most of them having to do with what to order at a restaurant and asking where the bathrooms are, when those people are utterly lost in Shakespeare’s London or Hawthorne’s Salem. It would be like teaching them index-card platitudes about the Bhagavad-Gita when they have never heard the sentence, “In the beginning was the Word.” It is worse than pointless. It gives people the false impression that they actually know something.
Much of the work of reclaiming our Catholic schools must be done, I am persuaded, outside of the religion and theology classes. It is good to have such classes. But if they are not also seen as laying the foundation for a veritable cathedral of cultural and intellectual learning, then we have wasted a tremendous opportunity. The people in our public institutions will never understand Tennyson’s agony of faith and doubt, because they will not be reading Tennyson at all—religion, you see. But what does it profit us if we cordon the truth off in the safe space of a religion class, and do not allow it to leaven everything else we learn? We have the chance not to be ignorant.
Nor let us scorn the assistance that arts and letters lend to the faith itself. They embody the faith in story and song. It is one thing to learn that no man can show greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. It is another to learn it and to have it pierce to the heart when you hear the story of Father Marquette. It is one thing to learn that unless a man be born again and become as one of these little children, he shall not enter into the kingdom of Heaven. It is another to see the truth embodied in the proud and rich and practically godless Mr. Dombey, crushed, humiliated, and compelled to rely upon the daughter whose love he has ignored all of her life. It is one thing to learn that he who has Christ in him has all, and needs no earthly treasure. It is another to sing it out in Bach’s heart-piercing melodies.
We will know that Catholic schools have returned to the Faith, when we see that they have returned to imparting the cultural heritage that that faith has created over the last two thousand years. That will fall afoul of calls for the cruise-ship Diversity. Let it.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared April 10, 2018 on The Cardinal Newman Society website and is reprinted with permission.