You may remember the news headlines about Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. They focused on the bristling of some archdiocesan school teachers at the prospect of having to sign a statement affirming their support of the Catholic faith. As a former Catholic high school teacher myself, I thought it was much ado about nothing. I signed a similar statement when I was teaching. It was made clear to all us faculty that, as part of the mission of our Catholic school, we were expected not to do anything to publicly contradict Church teaching. Furthermore, the Catholics among us were expected to be examples of adult faith, and all of us were there to educate the whole person.
That was true when I was a teacher by profession, and it remains true now that I am only a teacher at heart.
The bottom line is that Catholic education ought to be about more than just testing, numbers, and classrooms. As I learned in ed school, we teach students subjects, so we teach students first. Do you realize that, as an adult (or even a member of your parish’s youth group mentoring younger kids), you are a teacher, too?
I recently read the full text of an address that Archbishop Cordileone gave at a convocation of Catholic high school teachers, titled “Knowledge, Virtue, and Holiness”, just over a year ago. I found it inspiring. It spoke to my heart as a lifelong educator and as a Christian. I hope to share some of the archbishop’s inspiration with you.
As I read, I realized that this is not just a speech about classroom teaching. It’s about how to educate ordinary teenagers so that they can become vibrant members of the Church. They’re not the future of the Church; they are the Church.
[Teens] want to understand life. Teachers enjoy the challenge of teaching students and getting them to think on their own, to think critically about the human condition, and to think carefully about the role their Catholic faith actually plays and ought to play in their lives. A crucial challenge for Catholic high schools is striking the correct balance between fostering careful reasoning and promoting Catholic faith and practice. A Catholic school should also offer students clear ideas of what constitutes human excellence and success.
That is a fundamental life question: What is worth doing with my one precious life? A good Catholic school is more than just a private school with Mass and Hail Marys. Catholic education seeks to educate the whole person, to acknowledge the complexity of human identity, “the whole person redeemed by the Incarnation, Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Catholic schools exist, the archbishop says, to bring about “the full flourishing of the human person.” I want to flourish! I want everyone to flourish; don’t you?
Not everyone in the world seeks to help young people grow into flourishing disciples of Christ, though. The archbishop continues, “Our Catholic schools exist to serve the Church’s mission of sanctification and evangelization. This mission indicates that some widely esteemed achievements in secular society are inadequate goals—not in themselves contrary, but inadequate—for Catholic youth.” Furthermore, those goals (things like wealth, power, and fame) are inadequate goals for any of us. Outside of Catholic education, where will youth learn this critical reality?
The first few sections of the archbishop’s speech focus mostly on the role of Catholic schools in raising up men and women to know, love, and serve God, but then it takes a different turn. His advice becomes so broad that it can apply to all of us, even outside of the classroom. Teenagers—and all Christians, especially those who lacked great educators while growing up—need an education in virtue, particularly the virtues of humility and chastity.
Humility counteracts the popular maxim to put yourself first, believe in yourself, and not be the nice guy who finishes last. Archbishop Cordileone writes, “The virtue of humility is the regular disposition and practice by which a person acknowledges his or her true defects and gifts, and in light of those, submits to God’s will and to the good of others for God’s sake. That is, the person accepts the fundamental reality of both imperfection and God inviting the person to use his or her gifts to praise God and serve others.” I am not perfect, and I am not God, yet God has made me and put me here on Earth. How can I, imperfect and sinful human, serve God and his people? These are more fundamentals, and they are questions that can only be answered through education in the truth.
The lack of ability to focus on the Other (especially God) leaves young people without the foundation of humility that they need for chastity. “While many people do not value humility as a virtue, they will at least respect someone who is humble even if they don’t aspire to emulate the person. When it comes to chastity, though, most people see it as a purely a negative thing, a deprivation, giving up something they intensely desire for no payback at all, nothing more than a suppression of the sexual appetite.” That could not be further from the truth.
I have read and written extensively about chastity (most recently concerning Arleen Spenceley’s book Chastity Is for Lovers), so I won’t go on again here. I do like the archbishop’s connection of a lack of chastity to a lack of humility, though. What does humility teach us but that we are not God yet should seek to follow him? What does chastity teach us but that we are made to integrate our bodies and sexuality into our lifelong call to love others purely, as God has demanded?
Chastity, then, together with humility (without which chastity—and all other virtues—is impossible) is what enables a person to live beyond a mere superficial, banal existence to one which is other-centered and open to the transcendent; it enables one to look beyond the surface, beyond the physical, to the other’s interior life. And it lives these deep human goods in very concrete ways, in the body.
Chastity and humility together help us to understand who we are in relation to God, who we are in relation to one another, and how to love both God and others appropriately. Adolescence is all about identity formation. Virtue offers us identification as disciples of our Lord.
So yes, the Catholic schools of the Archdiocese of San Francisco now have an explicit focus on affirming Catholic teaching. And yes, that means teachers who publicly contradict those teachings stand against their schools. But since Catholic schools are in the business of forming young disciples of Jesus Christ, they must stand for Christ. And we’re all in that business, so we all must stand for Christ.
I’m not a teacher by trade anymore, but I will always be a teacher at heart. I’ve long been a disciple of real, free, chaste love. Appropriately, Archbishop Cordileone’s speech has been my wake-up call to start living and teaching humility, too. How will you teach the Truth? How will you answer the call?