Faith in the Public Arena

The need for breaking the state’s monopoly on hearts and minds

By Jason Adkins/Executive Director, Minnesota Catholic Conference

The well-being of Minnesota students took a hit during this year’s legislative session, as the Opportunity Scholarship Program was left by the wayside during final negotiations. Despite the fact that similar programs have been successful in several others states and could have played an important role in closing Minnesota’s unacceptable achievement gap, it was scrapped after an all-out revolt from the public school establishment.

The public school establishment’s condemnation of Opportunity Scholarships had little to do with concerns over student success, or even the impact on public schools (after all, 31 studies show that public school student performance improves when choice programs are introduced).

The real fear is the loss of a monopoly – a monopoly over the hearts and minds of students and thus the shape of America’s future.

An Irreligious Education

Public education and public schooling are different. Everyone should support the former, but public schools can either be a help or a hindrance to the education of the public.

And it’s no secret that public schools are being used to promote harmful ideas to our young people. From dangerous and unscientific gender ideology to an implicitly relativistic, skeptical, and utilitarian worldview, state-sponsored education is not merely “not Catholic” – increasingly, it is in direct opposition to reason and the truths of our faith.

We may hope that public schools are a value-neutral environment that focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic, but this is a fantasy. As Pope Pius XI declared: “[T]he so-called ‘neutral’ or ‘lay’ school, from which religion is excluded, is contrary to the fundamental principles of education. Such a school, moreover, cannot exist in practice; it is bound to become irreligious.”

Clearly, not everyone involved in our public schools is an active and onboard participant in the irreligious indoctrination of the public education establishment. There are Catholics and others of good-will who are public school teachers and administrators, and many faithful parents who don’t have access to Catholic school are able to supplement the public school education their children receive with religious instruction.

But one must wonder how long this can continue to be the case, especially with proponents of the new “orthodoxy” leveraging the state’s monopoly on education to enforce conformity, and doing everything in their power to maintain the public school establishment’s grip upon our children.

Restoring the Role of Parents

One of the defining dynamics of the Catholic Church’s relationship to the modern state is its work to prevent a state monopoly on education. According to the Church, when the state lays claim to an educational monopoly, it oversteps its rights and offends justice.

As the domestic Church, the education of children is the prerogative of the family, not the state. Parents are the first educators of their children. Though the state can subsidize parents in this role, it cannot subsume that responsibility entirely.

As Pope Leo XIII stated over a century ago in words that are just as relevant today: “[I]t is the duty of parents to make every effort to prevent any invasion of their rights in this matter, and to make absolutely sure that the education of their children remain under their own control in keeping with their Christian duty, and above all to refuse to send them to those schools in which there is danger of imbibing the deadly poison of impiety.”

And according to the Second Vatican Council, “[t]he public power, which has the obligation to protect and defend the rights of citizens, must see to it, in its concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children.”

A one-size-fits-all model of education that subsumes the role of parents by inculcating its own values does not work, and must not be tolerated.

New Opportunity

The push goes on to expose more young people to so-called “progressive values” espoused by the modern state: free college at the federal level; the expansion of pre-K programs that pull children out of the home unnecessarily; and the Minnesota Department of Education’s aggressive new transgender/gender non-conforming toolkit and directives.

Therefore, in the same way that the Church called for the creation of a parallel Catholic school system in the late nineteenth century, today we need to consider renewing this Church-wide sense of purpose: fighting for school choice and creating access to affordable, rigorous, and faith-filled Catholic schools for all kids. Not to close ourselves off from the world, but so that we can be leaven. Souls and the soul of the nation are at stake.