(What follows is adapted from a letter of a parish priest, Father Scott Murray, to a Catholic school teacher, in the publicly-funded, separate system, outlining some of the systemic difficulties that priests – and the Church in general – face. We will follow up on some of those difficulties, and propose what solutions we might. Editor).
At one of my previous parishes about half of the students at the Catholic school weren’t Catholic, so when we did our penance service, I mentioned that they were still welcome to come have a chat with me and say a prayer, if they wanted, but it was clear that I was only hearing the confessions of children who had been prepared for confession and whose parents had agreed to them going to confession.
This is not an easy situation for anyone. There is a growing tension between priests and the Ontario Catholic schools, one that has been increasing for a long time and it’s pretty well at the breaking point; in many cases it’s already broken and there is a relationship of indifference or even hostility, with blame to be shared on both sides. The crux of it is that priests, in general, can no longer trust teachers at Catholic schools to faithfully teach what the Church teaches. Of course, there are many amazing and faithful teachers scattered about, but the general state of affairs in our schools is not one of wholehearted adherence to authentic doctrine and practice. As previously stated, there’s plenty of blame to be shared. Many priests have failed terribly in their responsibilities as pastors and many teachers don’t know or practice the Catholic faith. In defence of teachers, parents are supposed to be the primary educators of their children, so it’s unfair to expect that teachers can make up for all of the deficiencies of parents, nor should that be their goal. In defence of priests, the faithful priests who are left trying to pull some semblance of orthodoxy back together in parishes, schools, and communities are overwhelmed by the challenges they have inherited.
So, one of the practical considerations that should be taken into account is the priest’s time. It would be great if he had time to talk to all of the children in his schools, but that is often not possible. For example, one of my classmates from the seminary in a city parish has five Catholic schools amounting to over 4000 students! Another has 3000 in his confirmation program! Those are extreme examples, but it’s fairly ordinary for a priest to have several hundred children in Catholic schools within his parish boundaries. I don’t know what your priest’s situation is, but it just might be that he doesn’t have time to sit down with every child, so he has decided to focus on those who are truly prepared for the Sacraments. His primary responsibility is to his parishioners, and maybe he has to make some difficult decisions based on the amount of time he has. There may also be other reasons or excuses, good and bad, for his decisions, but that’s part of living in a fallen world, so we must be patient with each other.
The more important thing, and it’s more what your emails are directed at, is the theological question of who should be admitted to the Sacraments. You referenced the parable of the banquet from Luke, 14, which emphasizes the generosity of the rich man. It is, of course, an important truth of our faith that God is superabundant in His generosity and He invites every person to the banquet. It is, however, necessary to read this in context. In the very next verse after that parable, Jesus says to the multitudes following him, If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (Lk 14:26) There is a cost to discipleship and we can’t enter the banquet without leaving behind what is contrary to the banquet. This point is emphasized in the parallel text from Matthew’s Gospel, in which there is a bit more added to the end of the parable of the banquet: But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen (Mt 22:11-14). It is necessary for those who desire to enter the feast to be prepared for the feast.
You emphasize that all people are created in the image of God, which is true and essential to Christian morality. All human beings are made in the image of God, which means that each has an invaluable innate dignity – from conception to natural death, every person of every ethnicity, creed, no matter what sins they have committed! It’s only through baptism, however, that we become sons and daughters of God. Becoming sons and daughters of God is an incredible gift, but it comes with responsibilities: we must in turn live as sons and daughters of God, we must seek to know Our Father, and to love Him and our neighbours according to His commandments. If we try to hand someone the rights that go along with being Catholic without first teaching him the responsibilities of being Catholic, then we are setting them up for the situation faced by the poorly dressed man in Mt 22.
With this in mind, I am concerned by some of your statements that seem to lean toward religious pluralism – a mindset very common in our culture and within our schools. There are truths present in all religions, but that doesn’t mean all religions are true. Jesus said, I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the father, but by me (Jn 14:6). Yes, we should treat everyone with “respect”, but that doesn’t mean we should ever compromise our own beliefs. (I put “respect” in quotation marks because it is a word often used today, but it is ambiguous. As Catholics, justice and charity express more clearly how we should treat others.)
There’s an analogy I heard recently that I like regarding our relationship with non-Catholics. It’s from Jonathan Pageau in a discussion of postmodernism. One of the goals of postmodernism is to break down all barriers; however, this goal is self-destructive. Pageau uses the analogy of a house. Walls are necessary to a house, and within the house there are standard norms for where certain people can go. We have a front door at which we meet people. Some people aren’t even allowed into the house (people you don’t trust). Some people can come into the entry way, but you don’t invite them any farther (perhaps a sales person). Some people you invite in for a cup of tea or a meal and they can go into your kitchen or living room. Close friends might be invited into the den, but only family goes into bedrooms. These customs of where certain people are allowed to go exist for good reasons – to protect the inhabitants of the house and the guests. When these barriers are broken down and bedrooms are no longer considered sacred (set apart), all sorts of evils follow.
So, as you say, the Church does need to be welcoming and hospitable, but in such a way that she protects her own integrity and the integrity of those who are not members of the Church. Re-establishing clear boundaries and procedures is to everyone’s benefit. Doing so isn’t always easy, and our intentions will often be misinterpreted, but it is out of love for the Church and non-Catholics that I say boundaries and procedures are necessary.
One final thought regarding the difficulty of the situation in which we (priests, teachers, parents, the Church) find ourselves, is in regard to the principle of subsidiarity. This is an important aspect of Catholic social teaching. Subsidiarity means that a higher authority or society shouldn’t take over the responsibilities of a lower one. For example, it would be wrong for your principal to come into your classroom and take over your class without your permission. Parents are the primary educators of their children, not just in regard to faith, but in everything. Parents, however, have handed over that responsibility to schools in regard to many, if not most, aspects of their children’s lives. They expect teachers to educate their children in everything from math to religion, personal discipline to history, morality to geography, sex to spelling. This situation is unjust to teachers and parents. In many cases it leads teachers to believe that they now have the right and responsibility to teach children everything. In some cases this has led to parents pulling their children from school because they need to save their children from overzealous ideologues who want to teach their children all the “ideals” of the LGBTQ. In our case, as Catholic educators, we want to do everything we can to bring children to Christ; however, it’s also wrong for us to take over the responsibility of parents. Yes, of course, we must teach the Catholic faith without compromise, but we can’t go the next step of making children practice a faith that they don’t have and their parents aren’t encouraging. It’s difficult to let people exercise their free will and allow them to take responsibility for their own lives and the lives of their children. Believe me, I feel the pain of seeing thousands of children in Catholic schools that never darken the door of a church, but ushering them all into the church to receive Sacraments they aren’t properly disposed to receive doesn’t help the situation, because it’s an injustice to them and it’s an abuse of the Sacraments.
All of that said, I do want to encourage you in your good intentions. It sounds like you have a great love for Jesus and your students; I don’t doubt that. There are no quick solutions to these challenges, and trying to improve the situation takes courage and patience. If I may offer one piece of practical advice, it would be to build a good relationship with the priest who is pastor over your school. In general, priests do want to spend more time in their schools, but they are often met with indifference from teachers. Or, they might be welcomed, but then there isn’t a plan for how to effectively use his time in the classroom. Priests are busy, so they want to know that their time is going to be used well when they go into a school. The road also goes the other way, and teachers should take initiative in bringing their students over to the church. Take the kids to weekday Masses that aren’t “school Masses”. Those who aren’t properly prepared to receive Communion should not do so, but even just being present is a great way for them to learn about Mass, and an opportunity for them to get to know the priest. I know you’re also teaching the children the truths of the faith and how to pray, which is essential. The Rosary is a powerful weapon in this battle! Trust that God is working with your faithfulness, and keep praying.
Know of my prayers for you. Keep fighting the good fight!