September 30, 2010
On "government schools"
A few days ago, in a post that took notice of the recently announced education-funding collaboration between a great mayor (Cory Booker), a great governor (Chris Christie), and a really smart, young, entrepreneur (Mark Zuckerberg), I used the term "government schools" to refer to what are more often referred to as "public schools." Some of those who commented on the post were curious about, or critical of, my use of the term. And, I tried to say why I think it is appropriate.
Over at the "Distinctly Catholic" blog, Michael Sean Winters agrees with me "that the government is in the service of the public, that the society is bigger and broader than the government, that all of us, not just those in government, have a responsibility to improve schools." He worries, though, that my use of the term might be perceived as consonant with a simplistic (and, I think, un-Catholic) anti-government libertarianism.
The worry is a fair one. So, for what it's worth, I want to be clear about why I used the term "government schools", and why I think it is important to (now and then) use it. It is not because I regard government as evil or alien, or because I believe "government" is, necessarily, an epithet. I do feel strongly, though, that the schools-in-question ought not to be able to co-opt the term “public”. It is important -- now and again, anyway -- to deny to the public-education establishment the moral credibility that comes with the term “public”. The schools-in-question are (too often) badly serving the public, they are (to often) not meaningfully operated or controlled by, or accountable to, the public, and those for whose benefit they are (too often) being run currently do not really care all that much about the public. In my view, "private" schools -- and I'm thinking particularly of Catholic schools -- are doing a better job at what the public should (and, for the most part, does) want education to do. This is (one reason) why I think that it is entirely appropriate for the work of Catholic schools to be supported with public funds.
My view is not, and does not reflect, a knee-jerk anti-government-ism. I believe in the res publica, and understand the importance of political authority and of the work of the political community. The schools-in-question, though, have (too often) become a beast, a "blob." They do not (generally speaking) deserve the term “public” – a term that, for me, is not an epithet. The term is used by the public-education establishment for rhetorical advantage, as if Catholic and other private schools were not, in fact, serving the “public” (for less money, and better).
Herberg's review of Blanshard
Here (thanks to Francis Beckwith) is Will Herberg's 1949 review of Paul Blanshard's anti-Catholic (and hugely popular) screed, American Freedom and Catholic Power. An interesting (and strikingly timely) read:
Mr. Blanshard's prejudices make it impossible for him to appreciate the deep concern that many religious people feel about an allegedly “neutral” school system that in fact indoctrinates the child and young person with an outlook on life in which man is held to be sufficient unto himself and God is treated as an outmoded irrelevance. This secularism, linked to an exaltation of the “social-welfare state” as an omnicompetent agency for the total control of social life, prevents Mr. Blanshard from understanding how people may seriously insist that since social, family, and educational problems are at bottom moral, they cannot be separated from one's religious faith, and if that faith is institutionalized in that form, from one's church.His perfervid nationalism and statism make it hard for him to grasp how any person genuinely devoted to democracy can nevertheless contend that there is a higher law in the name of which the dictates of the state may be disallowed if these dictates are felt to come into conflict with obedience to God. Mr. Blanshard excoriates (pages 52-53) the Catholics for affirming that they would disobey a law outlawing parochial schools and compelling parents to send their children to the public schools. He thinks such an attitude outrageously undemocratic and a menace to American freedom. To me, on the contrary, this attitude seems not only intelligible but thoroughly in line with the best of democratic tradition, which has always rejected the pretensions of the state to a monopoly of social and cultural life.I am not asserting that the Catholic answer to any of these questions is the right one. In fact, I think it is often seriously wrong. But Mr. Blanshard, by his bias, has rendered himself incapable of understanding what is really involved in the vital problems he himself raises. That is why his book, for all its information and documentation, is ultimately so unsatisfactory.
September 28, 2010
Human Rights Campaign gets nasty
Human Rights Campaign has launched a new website called "NOM Exposed" dedicated to uncovering the "truth, lies, and connections about the so-called National Organization for Marriage." I'm all in favor of providing the public with information about important political issues, but one look at this website makes clear that the primary motivation is not to provide information, but to paint opponents of same-sex marriage in the most sinister light possible, a sort of public shaming targeting anyone with the gall to stake out a position in support of traditional marriage. Consider the "Rogues' Gallery" of various people involved with NOM, complete with unflattering photos. Or the scarlet and black color scheme for the entire site. Or the ominous revelation that "NOM's deep pocket" is filled by "Mormon Church, Catholic Church, Opus Dei," and . . . [insert blood-curdling scream here] Evangelical Christians!" Or the news that NOM associates with groups like the Knights of Columbus and people like Carrie Prejean!
As someone who is sympathetic with some of the concerns aired by the LGBT rights movement, I consider this website to be a huge step in the wrong direction. Reasonable people can disagree in good faith about the wisdom of same-sex marriage. One argument against SSM has been the fear that, once SSM becomes the law of the land, opponents of SSM will be driven from the public square and relegated to the margins of society currently reserved for unabashed racists. Those fears find fertile ground in this website. The push for SSM has seen some remarkable successes in recent months. It is especially troubling that, in the wake of this success, one of the largest and most influential pro-SSM organizations decides to ratchet up the nastiness of their advocacy. It does not bode well for the climate that HRC intends to foster once their victory is complete.
For what will future generations condemn us?Ask Kwame Anthony Appiah and Frank Pasquale. Feel free to weigh in. I wrote, in a comment to Frank's post, that "it was, for me, sad to note that industrial farming, and the cruelty-to-animals (that I agree) it involves, seemed to Appiah (and, I suspect, to most of us) more likely to result in downstream moral condemnation than, say, the fact that we identify and abort nearly all unborn children who have Down’s Syndrome."
The Pope (and More) in Westminster Hall
I hope it is not too late to pass on this link to the Pope's September 17 address in Westminster Hall. His remarks might be of interest to lawyers, legal scholars, and law students, given that he shared them
conscious of the privilege afforded me to speak to the British people and their representatives in Westminster Hall, a building of unique significance in the civil and political history of the people of these islands. Allow me also to express my esteem for the Parliament which has existed on this site for centuries and which has had such a profound influence on the development of participative government among the nations, especially in the Commonwealth and the English-speaking world at large. Your common law tradition serves as the basis of legal systems in many parts of the world, and your particular vision of the respective rights and duties of the state and the individual, and of the separation of powers, remains an inspiration to many across the globe. . . .
After noting that he was speaking in the very room in which Thomas More was tried and condemned, he observed that
The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God, allows me the opportunity to reflect with you briefly on the proper place of religious belief within the political process. . . .
This matter -- i.e., the "proper place of religious belief within the political process" -- is, of course, of great interest to many of us, and I'd welcome any thoughts on the Pope's short reflection. Are his thoughts and his proposal consonant with our understanding of how this matter should be treated in American law?
Perry on the Florida gay adoption case
Michael Perry has posted a new paper based on his recent book. Here's an excerpt from the abstract:
On September 22, 2010, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal – an intermediate appellate court – affirmed a ruling by a Florida trial court that a Florida statute banning adoption by homosexuals violates the Florida constitution. As it happens, the ruling by the Florida trial court was the principal subject of the Conclusion to my recent book, The Political Morality of Liberal Democracy (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010). In the Conclusion, I wrote:
The Florida law not only violates the political morality of liberal democracy. The law – according to which, again, no one otherwise eligible to adopt under Florida law ‘may adopt if that person is a homosexual’ – is unconstitutional. The law is unconstitutional even from the perspective of Thayerian deference: Given the robust social-scientific consensus that has emerged to the effect that parenting by homosexuals is no less healthy for children – no less in the ‘best interests’ of children – than parenting by heterosexuals, Judge Lederman was right to conclude that no lawmaker could any longer plausibly think that the Florida law serves a legitimate governmental interest.
I cannot personally vouch for the "robust social-scientific consensus" regarding parenting by homosexuals, but I believe that bans on adoption by same-sex couples are problematic for an additional reason: in many cases, they amount to a refusal to recognize parent-child relationships that already exist. Second-parent adoptions by the partner of a child's biological (and legal) parent are increasingly common. Banning these adoptions does not end the caregiving relationship between the parent's partner and the child, but it does foreclose the stabilizing and protective role that the law can play within the relationship.
Rowan Williams, Gay Bishops, and Pronouncing on Serious Moral Questions
I agree that Pope Benedict would have no difficulty answering the easy question for him and the Church leadership (not so easy for Anglicans) that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury ducked. But I hope that the Pope would not immediately answer all serious moral questions. There is a lot to be said (and I think Patrick would agree) for consultation within the Church before a Papal pronouncement on a serious moral question. Leadership is sometimes best when it takes a more deliberative and collegial approach.
As to Williams, his interview is being widely understood as accepting of gay bishops, but insisting on celebacy for them. Within the Anglican Communion, this will arouse orthodox fury and trigger liberal criticism (for not being prophetic enough). For more on the Williams interview, see http://www.episcopalcafe.com/lead/archbishop_of_canterbury/rowan_williams_no_problem_with.html, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/sep/25/rowan-williams-backs-gay-bishops, http://www.episcopalchurch.org/81808_124764_ENG_HTM.htm
September 27, 2010
religion as a game show
In the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, (Dei Verbum), the fathers of the Second Vatican Council taught that "insight grows into what has been handed down" (no. 8) or, as another translation has it, "there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down." The phenomenon under discussion, when it occurs, is what is sometimes referred to as "doctrinal development." Whatever we call the phenomenon, it occurs, as the Council continues (no. 8), "through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their heart (cf. Lk. 2:19, 51), through the intimate understanding of spiritual things they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succcession the sure gift of truth."
I mention this because of this piece of moral theology and church (of England) teaching by Rowan Williams. Damian Thompson asks the right question: Would Pope Benedict ever -- think especially about his candor in the press conferences on the airplanes -- reply to a most important question, concerning what some regard as gay rights, with a "pass"? Williams has an impossibly hard job, a fact that is underscored yet again by this serious man's dodging a serious doctrinal question with a "pass."
Authority is made of sterner -- and subtler -- stuff, as John Noonan's work on "doctrinal development" has shown.
Zuckerberg's well-meaning mistake
On the "Oprah" show the other day, it was announced that Mark Zuckerberg (the founder of Facebook) is going to spend $100 million to try to improve -- in partnership with Mayor Cory Booker (D) and Gov. Chris Christie (R) -- Newark's really, really bad government schools.
So, on the one hand: Great. Booker is a first-rate mayor, and Christie is one of my favorite politicians around. Hats off to Zuckerberg for his generosity. This kind of cooperation puts to shame those members of Congress who bray about their desire for "bipartisanship."
On the other hand: This is a huge waste of money. The focus should be on the welfare and opportunity of the children in Newark, and not so much on the ability (or not) of the (pathological) government schools to (mis)serve those children. A scholarship fund for poor kids to attend parochial schools would improve more lives, I suspect.
Martin Marty on declining church attendance
In yesterday's edition of Sightings, Martin Marty discusses the decline, in America and elsewhere, in church-attendance. He writes:
Some readers may wonder why in columns like this, which are to be about “public religion,” we talk about church and synagogue (etc.) attendance and participation--aren’t their institutions part of “private religion?” Emphatically no. They are the bearers of traditions, the living expositors of sacred texts, the tellers of stories, the troop-suppliers for voluntary activities, the shapers of values fought over in the political realms.
Why are they declining? Certainly not because a few atheists write best-sellers. I always look for the simplest causes, such as rejection of drab and conflicted congregations and denominations. Or changes in habits. I watch the ten thousands running past in Sunday marathons or heading to the kids’ soccer games and recall that their grandparents and parents kept the key weekend times and places open for sacred encounters. Oh, and “being spiritual” is not going to help keep the stories, the language of ethics, and the pool of volunteers thriving. Their disappearance has consequences. . . .