My 20th high school reunion is coming up in a few weeks. I look forward to seeing my buddies, the guys I spent four years with at Georgetown Prep, the prestigious all-boys Jesuit school in Maryland.
I also plan to ask for my money back.
My Catholic education failed. I didn't realize this until recently, when I discovered the Catholic Information Center in Washington D.C. The Center's head man, Father John McCloskey (he's on Meet the Press whenever the Church gets into trouble), has crafted what he calls "The Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan." It's 100 books that every education Catholic should have read.
I spent more than half my life in Catholic schools, starting with first grade and ending up at Catholic University in Washington. Despite this, I never read a word by G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Christopher Dawson, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, or, for that matter, John Paul II. I had gone to a Jesuit high schoolone of the best, at least according to its reputationyet never read a word by or about Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. I had read exactly two of the books on the Lifetime Reading Plan: The Lord of the Rings and Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain, and even then I didn't discover Merton until after I graduated from college.
I had, however, been assigned to read The Road Less Traveled, that dreadful piece of New Age, navel-gazing schlock by M. Scott Peck. It was required reading in the sex education class I took at Prep two decades ago. This was the class taught by Bernie Ward, who is now an ultra left-wing radio talk-show host in San Francisco, and who occasionally plays the foil to Sean Hannity on Fox News. Mr. Ward taught us the kind of soul-crushing stuff available in any public school, accompanied by the usual graphic, unromantic descriptions of the human body, orgasms and ejaculation. But I'll never forget the day we discovered that masturbation is not only not a sin, it's perfectly normal and acceptable even when you're married.
This was in 1983, mind you. As I just learned (thanks to the Lifetime Reading Plan), that same year Pope John Paul II was offering his own sexual education. He was in the middle of delivering what would be 129 general audience addresses on human sexualitywhat would become known as the Theology of the Body. This was revolutionary stuff, an update and elaboration of Humane Vitae, the 1968 papal encyclical that reaffirmed the Church's rejection of contraception and drove many Catholics to rebel. The Theology of the Body announced a central principle that the Bernie Wards of the world have never quite understood: sexuality is of far greater importance to Christians than it could ever be to the swinging modernist. Conjugal love between a man and his wife is nothing less than "an icon of the interior life of God." It is a holy form of self-giving not to be treated lightly.
At Prep, we never heard mention of this revolution going on in Rome. We were too busy learning about masturbation.
You wouldn't know that Catholic education had failed from the way people talk about it. After all, Catholic schools send a majority of their students to college. Non-Catholic parents line up to get their kids into Catholic schools. To paraphrase the old saying about the Holy Roman Empire, much of Catholic education today is neither Catholic nor education.
I actually would have been better off being taught my faith in those dark days before Vatican II. I was born in 1964, the son of two Catholic parents. My father went to Washington's best catholic schools: Blessed Sacrament, Gonzaga, and Catholic University. Dad always saved some of his grades and notebooks from those years, and it reveals a distinctly intellectual Catholic curriculum. At Blessed Sacrament they memorized the famous "Baltimore Catechism," which helped shape the lives and faith of several generations of American Catholics. The Baltimore Catechism was authorized in 1884 in the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, and drew heavily on a 1777 Irish Catechism, which itself had been inspired by the Council of Trent.
At Gonzaga, my dad was required to study Latin, Greek, Western History (although it was just known as history in those benighted times) and religion. They studied Thomas Aquinas, as well as Ignatius Loyola. They read The Iliad and The Odyssey. Mass was required, as was a prayer before every class. There were three hours of homework at night. By the time he was a senior dad could read Latin fluently. As editor of the newspaper at Catholic University he sprinkled his editorials with classical references that he knew the student body would understand. He understood the two cities of Western culture, Athens and Jerusalem. At Prep, I learned about the female body, found that I could create my own theological system in The Road Less Traveled, and learned about life in English class by reading Catcher in the Rye.
What went wrong? In Catechism and Controversies, Msgr. Michael Wrenn, traces the problem back to the aftermath of Vatican II in the mid-1960s. A new catechism movement was launched in 1964. Mary Perkins Ryan published the book Are Parochial Schools the Answer? Catholic Schools in Light of the Council. Ryan condemned Catholic school kids for being "uninterested in the problem of racial injustice, in society's caring for the sick and aged, in the desperate plight of people in other parts of the world." She urged a rejection of the old idea of education that taught students to "keep working hard and devotedly along the same lines as the past: providing Mass and the sacraments as conveniently as possible…inveighing against immoral modern practices such as birth control and indecent dress; and fostering the Catholic school system as the very heart of the Church's endeavor to keep its children true to the faith in the dangerous maelstrom of modern life."
Of course, Ryan was wrong about the Church being disengaged from modern lifeGonzaga desegregated in the early 1950s, well before Brown vs. Board of Education. My father's narrow, classic Catholic education also made him worldlier than anyone I ever saw graduate from Prep in the last 20 years. And a little inveighing against the way our Britney-inspired kids dress would be refreshing these days.
Ryan was soon dissenting openly from official Church teachings, and her spirit quickly infected the Catholic education establishment. At an International Catechetical Study Week held in 1968 in Medellin, Colombia, one of the General Conclusions declared that "Catechism today, in accordance with a more adequate theology of Revelation, realizes that the first place to look when seeking God's design for the contemporary man is the area of history and authentically human aspirations."
That's a sentence worthy of The Road Less Traveled. But now that I'm an adult I don't have to listen to it anymore. I can educate myself in what John Paul II calls the "Splendor of the Truth." Sure, it will cost a few hundred dollars to read all of the books in the Lifetime Reading Plan. But if Prep refunds the $50,000 my parents spent there, I can afford it.