Today we celebrate the commemoration of a French priest of the 17th century, Saint John Baptist de la Salle. He is justly famous because he was the founder of an important teaching congregation of brothers in the Church: the Brothers of the Christian Schools as they are officially called. In reviewing the account of his life, I was reminded of a conversation I had with one of my parishioners in New Orleans about the year 1971. He was a husband and father of several teenaged children. He and his wife were making sacrifices to send their children to Catholic schools. One day, one of their children—a boy about 17 years old—announced to the family that he would no longer attend Mass on Sunday. The reason? Because his religion teacher in the Catholic high school which he was attended told the students that if they didn’t “get anything out of” Mass, they didn’t have to attend it.
The man who reported this to me was so sad, so angry, and so frustrated by this turn of events that he cried while telling me of the religious struggle that was going on in his family. Instead of receiving the reinforcement of the religious training of their children at home from the religion teachers in the Catholic school, they were getting only moral error being preached to their children by the very people from whom they should have been able to expect help and endorsement.
That was many years ago. I wonder where that boy is now who refused to attend Mass when he was 17. I wonder what his religious practice is now—if any. And I wonder where the teacher is who told him that he didn’t have to attend Mass if he didn’t “get anything out of it.” That boy would now be about 54 years old; the teacher would probably be about my age: 78. I wonder if either of them is now a practicing Catholic and what are their morals like nowadays.
Apropos of this, the latest issue of a good Catholic periodical called the Homiletic and Pastoral Review has an editorial on this same subject: the quality of religious education now being given in our so-called Catholic colleges. The author of the article points out that presently there are 224 colleges and universities in our country that call themselves Catholic. But most of them are Catholic in name only. As a result of this unhappy situation, a group of people truly interested in authentic Catholic education founded, in 1993, an organization called the Cardinal Newman Society which examines and evaluates the religious education and atmosphere on the campuses of our “Catholic” colleges and universities. That society believes that only about 10% of Catholic schools beyond the high school level can be recommended. The society has published a book called “The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College.” All Catholic parents who are interested in providing a real Catholic college education for their children would be well advised to read and heed this book.
As far as I know, there is no similar organization for the religious evaluation of Catholic high schools in our country. But there should be. Each bishop has the responsibility to keep careful watch on what is taught in the Catholic schools of his diocese. Some years ago, when I was pastor of a parish in Houston, one of the influential pastors of a large parish there warned his parishioners from the pulpit: if you want to preserve and foster the Catholic faith of your daughters, don’t send them to Saint Agnes Academy—a high school conducted (I am sorry to admit) by our Dominican Sisters of Houston. In his estimation, what the students were getting in the religion classrooms there was not authentically Catholic. I don’t know if the situation has improved since then. One of the Sisters of that congregation told me one day that she wanted to show her concern for the alcoholics, street people, and drifters of the city by spending a night with them under one of the freeways where many of them sought shelter at night. I told her I hoped that she survived the experience without being killed, raped, or robbed.
Back to Saint John Baptist de la Salle: we have the duty to pray for good religious education in our country at all levels, and for all the victims—teachers and students alike—of the doctrinal and moral errors of the past half-century in our education endeavor, both religious and secular. Thank you for seeking God’s truth. God bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This message was composed some years ago.