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Some Pastoral & Labor Reflections
Regarding Catholic Education
National Association of Catholic School Teacher
October 9, 1999
Fr. Sinclair Oubre, J.C.L.
In 1964 I began a twenty-two year Catholic education journey. Beginning at my local parish school, I preceded to our town’s catholic high school, where I graduated in 1976. From there I matriculated to the University of St. Thomas in Houston, and after my sophomore year, I transferred to the Catholic University of America where I earned my bachelor’s degree in philosophy. After taking the year off, working as a religion teacher at my old Catholic high school, I returned to school for graduate theological studies at the Katholieke Universteit der Leuven, in Leuven, Belgium. After four years of studies, I finished with a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology and a bachelor’s degree in canon law.
Even at this point my journey in Catholic education was not finished. Ten years after my presbyteral ordination, my bishop asked me to return to my alma mater, the Catholic University of America, and complete a license in canon law. This I completed in 1997, and for the time being, has completed my journey in Catholic education.
My Catholic education journey has taken me to four cities, two states, two countries and two continents. I began my catholic studies at the threshold of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, but along the way, I attended the world’s oldest continuous Catholic University (Leuven) which had played a significant role in the condemnation of Luther, the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council.
In looking back over this history, I must say that Catholic education did me well. Though I did not have all the whistles and bells that were available in public schools, nor did I have the athletic programs that we in Texas so value (read high school football), nonetheless, I was given the tools to attend some of the best universities in the world, and I did an honorable and respectable job. My Catholic education opened me to a world of ideas, and an understanding of the classics which other members of my family, who attended the local state university, never experienced. It may sound as an oxymoron, but my Catholic education gave me an openness, and a tolerance for a multiplicity of perspectives. This is because within Catholic education and the Catholic intellectual tradition there is a multiplicity of perspectives. No one can possibly say that St. Augustine and St. Thomas viewed the world in the same way, nor can one say that St. Theresa of Avila and St. Ignatius of Loyola had similar perspectives on spirituality.
However, my Catholic education also gave me a sense of the truth, and the dangers that are inherent in falsehoods. Whether it is Adam Smith or Milton Friedman, the free hand of the market place crushes human beings, and shatters social relationships. Similarly, whether it is Karl Marx or a new leftist of the 1970's, class struggle kills people, and sets one segment of the community off against another, thereby replacing one totalitarianism with a new totalitarianism.
My Catholic education journey would not have been possible if it had not been for the special vocation of some men and women. They dedicate their lives with much personal sacrifice so that I could receive a Catholic education.
Growing up in a refining town is similar to growing up in a medium-sized steel mill or coal mining town. Gulf Oil, and Texaco were founded in Port Arthur, they ran the town, and most of its workers worked at the refineries, or in related industries. We were a working-class town with working-class people, and our Catholic schools were filled with working-class kids.
To these snot-nosed, working-class kids came women religious, lay women and a few lay men. They dedicated their lives, and by there dedication, I and so many of my classmates have gone to college, reaped the benefits of higher education, and, according to the ways the world, we have become very successful.
Who were these people? I never really pondered this question until a few years ago when I was preparing to preach on the national collection for retired religious. As I reflected what they did, I found myself humbled both by their sacrifices, their all-encompassing commitment to Jesus and his gospel, and their commitment to passing on that gospel to a group of working-class kids who by all accounts were destined to be another generation of workers exposed to carcinogens and explosions so that our country could have energy.
I would like to share with you a few of these people. History will not remember them, but history has been effected by them through the actions and lives of their students.
In fourth grade, I had Sister Columba. She was a member of the Incarnate Word Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. This community taught both at my parochial school and at our Catholic high school. Sr. Columba was the paradigmatic Irish sister, who seemed at least seventy-five years old when we began the school year. She had taught my mother many years before, and hundreds of other kids in Port Arthur.
Sr. Columba lived her whole life out in a vocation of serving Jesus by serving his little one’s. She did this by giving up husband, children, comfort and social status. If we judge her life according to contemporary values, she would not have been very successful. She did not have children who went to law school, or became doctors. She did not receive numerous graduate degrees, nor become the director of a large eccleisiological department in a prestigious diocese.
What she did do was pour her whole life out because of her love of Jesus and commitment to his call in a vocation that spanned sixty years. What she did do, and the hundreds of other Incarnate Word, and Dominican and Holy Family Sisters did was open the world to disposable, working-class kids. They gave these kids the tools to find work in the local industries, or for so many to leave the area to pursue careers. Certainly, for myself, the foundation they gave me has taken me all over the world.
However, women religious were not the only one’s who made profound sacrifices to serve Jesus and his Church through the education of its youth. There was Mrs. Margaret Ramsey. She was typical of the many lay women who taught side by side the women religious. Her commitment to Catholic education was certainly on par with that of the religious. For twenty five years, she taught third grade. Then, when the number of women religious began to decline, she stepped forward to became principal. In this position she confronted the problems associated with maintaining a Catholic school with a declining number of religious, and no plan as to how to make this transition, or even if the transition was possible. For many schools in our town, the transition was not possible, and when the sisters pulled out, the pastor closed the school.
She was able to carry out this vocation of teaching and service, because of the income that her husband supplied to the family. However, this should in no way be seen as lessening the sacrifice she made. She could have taught in the public school system. She would have made more money, had better benefits, and many fewer fundraisers. But the importance of the mission of Catholic schools could not be duplicated in a public school setting.
Finally, there was Mr. Ken Dugas. He taught government and sociology at the Catholic high school. He was a divorce, and Episcopal. For years he struggled with each junior and senior class to open their eyes to a world that was outside of the boundaries of Port Arthur. He taught me to question to the assumed economic principles and social structures. He is probably very responsible for me being here today.
Ken Dugas introduced me to social justice, and the many efforts made in western history to build more just societies. I truly believe that because he radicalized my spirit in high school, I was prepared to encounter the great encyclicals and social justice teaching of my Church. Because he showed me that there were other ways to think other than group-think, the vision and radical call of social justice that the popes, and more recently our U.S. bishops have given us took hold in my imagination and my life.
In January of 1998, then-Archbishop Francis George was addressing the National Center for the Laity at Old St. Patrick Church in Chicago. That evening, he told those gathered that Liberal Catholicism was a failed experiment because it had failed to pass on the faith to the next generation. To say the least, this statement was picked up in both the National Catholic Reporter and Commonweal, and it stimulated much discussion in those publications. For the purpose of this presentation I will leave to NCR and Commonweal the debate on Liberal Catholicism. However, Cardinal George’s observation regarding the failure to pass on the faith to the next generation, or more specifically, the failure to pass on the values that spurred men and women to make the sacrifice for the mission of Catholic education has radically effected our ability to continue that ministry. I believe that this sacrifice was most heavily carried by those who did the teaching.
As I survey what has happened in my own diocese, I see that where there had been three Catholic high schools and twenty-five parochial schools in 1970, there is just one Catholic high school and five parochial schools today. However, there are at least a third more Catholics than there was in 1970. As Catholics, we are more affluent, we have better jobs, and we occupy more leading positions in industry and government than thirty years ago. However, in the midst of this social rise, Catholic education has become unaffordable.
The loss of two high schools and nineteen parochial schools causes me to ask the question: “What happened?” The first thing that seemed to have happened is that once the real costs of Catholic education began to appear, many Catholics voted with their feet that Catholic education was “not that much of a value.”
As long as we had a continuous flow of Incarnate Word sisters to staff most of the teaching positions at my parochial school, and tuition was around fifty dollars for each kid, there was support for Catholic education. When the number of “Fifty-dollar-month-living-in-a-Spartan-convent” sisters began to decline, their positions began to be taken over by lay teachers. Though these lay teachers’ remuneration was significantly less than their public school counterparts, it was still significantly more than the sisters had been paid. The difference in pay could not be totally absorbed by the parish’s subsidy, and much of the additional cost was passed on in the form of higher tuition. Once tuition began to rise, parents began to bail out left and right.
It appears in retrospect, that as long as Catholic school was almost free, it was valuable to many Catholics. However, when the families of students began to have to sacrifice to maintain Catholic education, they so often went over to the public school system. Left behind was the hardcore committed families. They did the fundraisers, they took on second jobs, they did everything possible to maintain their schools, but time and time again, these families saw that despite all their efforts the downward spiral to closure could not be stopped.
This is the story of my own high school. It closed in 1983. Almost immediately, white, Catholic families who had left Port Arthur for the suburbs to attend the “better school district”, read “more white,” became aware that many of the supposed problems that they had left behind were present in their school system. These families began to mourn the passing of the Catholic high school, but when discussions were held between the diocese and these same families for the re-establishment of a catholic high school, their commitment to Catholic education immediately melted away once the diocese said that a viable plan for the financial success of a new high school must be developed by its supporters.
Sixteen years after the closure of my high school, there has been the nostalgic re-emergence of a number of its old institutions by its alumni. The most successful effort has been the reformation of the girls drum and bugle corp. Every time this group performs in a local parade, the members reminisce about old times, and how tragic it was that the high school was closed. However, the majority of those participating in the corp, when they became parents did not make the sacrifice necessary to send their own children to Catholic school. Today they mourn the loss of the school, but when they could have done something about it, they had their children in the “better” public school “where more was offered.”
The closing of religious based schools, though, is not the trend in our area. Over the last ten years we have seen the emergence of a number of major new school building projects sponsored by non-denominational, Southern Baptist and Assembly of God churches. In times where Catholic parents do not have the resources or the means to support their Catholic school system, and by-the-way was built and paid for by a previous generation, their Baptist and Assembly of God neighbors are building multi-million dollar campuses for their growing student populations. I cannot help but believe that the difference between the two groups is not financial resources, but commitment to the mission of religious education.
This lack of commitment on the part of our local Catholics to the mission of Catholic education was manifested at Synodal preparation meetings. But before I talk about that, I would like to do a quick review of what our Church teaches about the mission of Catholic education.
From the Declaration on Christian Education:
“The work of these (Catholic school ) teachers... is in the real sense of the word an apostolate most suited to and necessary for our times and at once a true service offered to society. The Council also reminds Catholic parents of the duty of entrusting their children to Catholic schools wherever and whenever it is possible and of supporting these schools to the best of their ability and of cooperating with them for the education of their children.” (Section 8, 1965)
From the apostolic exhortation, Catechesis in Our Times:
“The special character of the Catholic school, the underlying
reason for it, the reason why Catholic parents should prefer it, is precisely
the quality of the religious instruction integrated into the education
of the pupils.” (§69, 1979)
From the guidelines issued by the Congregation for Catholic Education: Education in Catholic Schools:
“(A Catholic school) would no longer deserve the title if, no
matter how good its reputation for teaching in other areas, there were
just grounds for a reproach of negligence or deviation in religious education
properly so-called. It is not true that such education is always given
implicitly or indirectly. The special character of the Catholic school
and the underlying reason for its existence, the reason why Catholic parents
should prefer it, is precisely the quality of the religious instruction
integrated into the overall education of the students."(§66, 1988)
From the Code of Canon Law:
Canon 796 §1 Among the means of advancing education, Christ’s
faithful are to consider schools as of great importance, since they are
the principal means of helping parents to fulfil their role in education.
Canon 798 Parents are to send their children to those schools
which will provide for their catholic education. If they cannot do this
they are bound to ensure the proper catholic education of their children
outside the school.
In reviewing these documents one can draw a number of conclusions:
This statement appears to be in line with conciliar teachings, and canon law. However, the delegates resoundingly and overwhelmingly rejected the statement.
At the second session of delegates, the statement: “Promote Catholic schools as premier means of evangelization.” was replaced with a new goal under the heading of Lifelong Education in Faith. This goal was:
“Work toward making quality Catholic school education more affordable and available to those who desire it.”
The changes between these statements are not semantics. They represent a rejection of the parental obligation to choose Catholic school education. Now, Catholic schools are just one option that parents have among many. Our Catholic parents no longer feel an obligation. Instead, they feel they can choose a public school education even though there is a Catholic school option, and they have the financial resources to enroll.
Sadly, in my diocese, those who profess the primacy of Catholic education as the reason for sending their children to Catholic schools are the minority. The primary reason for choosing Catholic schools are:
1. When the public school district went to more neighborhood based
schooling, the west end high school became more White, while the two high
schools in the African-American and Hispanic communities lost almost all
of their White students. The effect to the Catholic high school was a loss
of ten percent of its students to the now “more-white” west end high school.
Though our bishops and Catholic university administrators have been struggling to find common ground in response the Ex Corde Ecclessia and its call to protect the Catholic mission of our Catholic colleges and universities, the real battle for maintaining Catholic identity in education is being fought in the Catholic families, the parochial schools, and in the high schools. If this battle is lost, my local diocese, and its parishes will be supporting a few private schools, not Catholic schools, for those who have the financial ability to attend.
What must be done is to have a renewed focus among our clergy, religious and laity. This renewed focus must center on the absolute preeminence of Jesus Christ as the center of all we do. For the clergy, this means a new vision of our mission. Though we as clergy often state that our mission is to preach and sanctify, more often than not, our real mission is to maintain. We maintain buildings, we maintain programs, we maintain schedules. However, when we have a passionate fire in our belly for Jesus Christ, we can no longer be satisfied with just maintaining. There will grow a passion, and unquenchable fire to use every resource that is available to proclaim the good news of Jesus and the transforming power that takes place in our world, community and our very selves when we let His kingdom be alive and real.
With such a metanoia or spiritual revolution among our clergy, simply maintaining buildings and institutions becomes insufficient. Every resource of our church: preaching, liturgy, sacraments and schools become engines bring our Catholic message of Jesus Christ to ourselves and all those around us. No longer do these things exist because we have them, as though they are compete in themselves. Rather, they become the means, the spirit, by which the radical gospel of Jesus can take hold in each of our lives, renew the world and bring forth the kingdom He proclaimed.
However, this metanoia does not end with the clergy. It must also take hold among the laity and the religious. This means moving away from lifestyles of religious complacency or religious activism centered on making my Catholic religion conform to my personal lifestyle.
My understanding of religious complacency includes both the passiveness that one can see when a congregation goes through the motions of religious participation, yet not really entering into radical God-dance that is the heart of our Catholic faith, but also the religious complacency which exists in the desert space to which we confine our faith.
When Christ is the center of our lives, and His spirit sets us afire we no longer can be complacent. We become restless and challenging to the clergy. Our restlessness emerges not out of a rejection of what the Church teaches, but from a passion for the clergy to more deeply and profoundly bring Christ into our lives.
When Christ is the center of our lives, we can no longer segregate our religious life from our existential life. The two become co-mingled, and all our actions become defined by Christ. We worship because Christ is our center. We work because Christ is our center. We teach because Christ is our center. We live in communities and in neighborhoods because Christ is our center.
Once this refocusing takes place, this renewal, this new evangelization, this coming of the kingdom of God into the lives of the clergy, religious and laity, the question of the purpose and mission of Catholic schools answers itself. Catholic schools will once again be seen as the preeminent education form for Catholic children because there is no comparable way for the children to experience Christ thirty hours a week, in all areas of their education. Parents will then ponder not “if they desire” Catholic education, but “what must we do” to acquire that experience of Christ for our children.
Part II: Christ-Centered Trade Unionists
When we live with this passion for Christ, it not only affects how we participate in our churches, and how we develop our Catholic education institutions. It also affects the way we act and participate in our unions and act as trade unionists. With Christ as our center, when we organize, it is not only for ourselves. With Christ as our center, when we participate in collective bargaining it is not just so that we can have more.
At this time, I would like to share with you two disjointed tales for your reflection. They can help show how even as unionists, the need for metanoia and conversion are essential.
One of the first labor actions that I participated in was the Eastern Airline strike caused by the actions of Eastern Airlines owner, Frank Lorenzo. The pilots had been on strike for a while, and the union decided to hold a prayer service in the affluent neighborhood of River Oaks in Houston. This was Lorenzo’s neighborhood, and the intention was to bring his actions to the attention of his neighbors.
We gathered in the a small public park surrounded by beautiful, and very expensive homes. In the drive ways were parked luxury cars, both foreign and domestic. The rally was a traditional labor event, a few speeches, and a short prayer service.
At the end of the service, the participants decided to peacefully march around the corner to Lorenzo’s house. Standing in the street, and off his property, we sang “We shall Overcome” and “Solidarity Forever.”
As we marched along, a number of the residents watched us from their windows. However, a few brave women wandered down their walk, and enquired about what our event was all about. When we told them that we were there to protest Lorenzo’s actions against his workers, they expressed their distaste for him and his actions, and wished the strikers luck.
As the wealthy residents were expressing their support for the efforts of the pilots, stewardesses and machinists, who themselves were far from poor, disparaging comments were made among the strikers about the people in the neighborhood.
It struck me at that moment that while the affluent were coming from their homes, and expressing sympathy for the struggle of the workers, all that some of the workers could see was their wealth. These workers were unable see the persons who spoke with them and appreciate their support because they were filled with their own jealous desire to have what the local residents had.
In 1991, Ben Hamper, a UAW assembly line worker in Flint, Michigan, authored a book entitled Rivethead: Tales From the Assembly Line. Besides relating the pranks and the ongoing guerrilla war that was taking place between the rank-and-file and the G.M. management, Hamper also relates his own hopelessness as a riveter.
Hamper’s story should not be one of hopelessness. He was a member of the UAW. He had a great contract, made a lot of money, received unemployment every year while the plant was retooling for the new models, had great health care and, at least when the book was written, had a tremendous amount of job security. Yet with what all a union worker would want, he was spiritually dead. He was an alcoholic, had a nervous break down, was institutionalized, and was unable to have a full life.
At the end of the book, Hamper relates that one day he decided to visit some of his old friends on the assembly line. He walked by the gate guard as if he still worked there, then on to the assembly line looking for his old friends. He found that most of them were gone. He remarks to himself:
“The jobs all look unchanged, but the faces are entirely different.”
He eventually finds two of his friends who tell him that:
“(Paul) got laid off soon after you left. He works plumbing and heating now. (Jehan) got pulled over with a gun and a mess of dope. He’s been in jail for months. (Terry, Matt and Joe) have been out on the street for nearly a year now, ever since they shut down the Pickup Line, it’s been here today, gone tomorrow.”
Hamper talks one of his old friends into going to his car during the break to work on a twelve-pack of Budweiser. He then relates:
“We park it back by the barbed wire fence and the railroad tracks.
The stars mingle with the smokestacks and the sky whispers winter. I tell
Eddie all about my inglorious swan song. I tell him about the volleyball
wars out at the clinic.
What Ben Hamper describes in his own life is experienced over and over by union members. The spiritual death that so many union members live with cannot be healed no matter how good the contract is. They may have lots of money, good benefits, and a kick-butt grievance process, but they are broken by jealousy, greed, divorce, alcoholism, and drug addiction. They live in the fear that everyone is a threat, because anyone can take their job, destroy their lives, have more than them, live in better neighborhoods, and generally expose them for being who they really are.
In growing up in a union-family, and having been deeply involved in union activity for almost ten years, I believe that no matter how good one’s contract may be, without a spirituality to support it, and for those who are Catholic, a strong Catholic spirituality, at the end of the day one will have physical comfort, but as Hamper said: “The demons are you.”
Pope John Paul II reminded the Church of people’s emptiness when their spiritual and social needs are not met:
“When individuals and communities do not see a rigorous respect
for the moral, cultural and spiritual requirements, based on the dignity
of the person and on the proper identity of each community, beginning with
the family and religious societies, then all the rest - availability of
goods, abundance of technical resources applied to daily life, a certain
level of material well-being - will prove unsatisfying and in the end contemptible.
The Lord clearly says this in the Gospel, when he calls the attention of
all to the true hierarchy of values: ‘For what will it profit a man, if
he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?’ (Mt 16:26)” (On Social
Therefore, you, as unionists, and as Catholic unionists, have a mission that goes beyond yourself and the wages and working conditions of your contract. This mission is not a mission of getting more, but like the mission of the schools you teach in, it must be Christ-centered.
Being Christ-centered, one cannot be satisfied with just taking care of one’s self or one’s professional group. Rather, there is a mandate to take the blessings and graces that you have received through Jesus Christ to those whom you encounter. As the Pastoral Constitution on the Church reminds us:
"A person is more precious for what he is than for what he has. Similarly, all that people do to obtain greater justice, wider brotherhood, and a more humane ordering of social relationships has greater worth than technical advances. For these advances can supply the material for human progress, but of themselves alone they can never actually bring it about."(#35)
As Christ-centered unionists you cannot be satisfied with just taking care of yourself, getting a good contract, and protecting your rights. You have a higher standard to judge yourself by. This can take very concrete forms:
The striking Eastern employees in River Oaks knew their own pain, but had not undergone a spiritual conversion that would allow them to see the common humanity that existed between them and the affluent of the neighborhood. Instead of experiencing solidarity, they felt only jealousy.
Ben Hamper had all that he physically needed, yet tried to fill his spiritual emptiness with alcohol, agitation and pranks. However, this could not dispel the demons, and eventually he lost his mind.
A contract without Christ is like a glass that is only half full. Only when Christ is the beginning, the middle and the end of our life, our work, our contracts and our unions can we really be satisfied and fulfilled.
There is so much more that I had planned to speak about. I had hoped to reflect on the recent working paper from the United States Catholic Conference and Catholic Hospitals, and I wanted to do a little discussion about canonical procedures, but I realize that I have gone much to long. I would like to encourage you to check out the USCC working paper on Catholic hospitals. I believe that the principles that are developed there will have tremendous effect on future Catholic teacher union organizing drives.
I want to thank you for having me here. It has been an honor for me to see your enthusiasm in putting our Catholic social justice teachings into action. I will be keeping you all in my prayers that our Church will always act according to the Gospel of Christ, and not the law of the market place.
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