The Heresy of the Parochial School

[IT may aid the understanding of this paper if we quote the opening paragraphs of the writer’s first article in the January Atlantic:

‘The series of papers of which this is the first is designed to constitute constructive criticism. In preparing them I have not been animated by any sense of bitterness or resentment. Contrariwise, I am prompted by love for the dear old Church to which I owe allegiance. She has been a tender Mother, not only to me, but to my ancestors; to them in a land where fealty to her often entailed the throes of persecution. Had I loved the Church less, my pen might have remained listless.

‘In fact, I have written not one word against my Church. The abuses which I attempt to delineate refer no more to the Church than they do to Christ. They are the barnacles which have grown on the bark of Peter through long centuries. I am writing, therefore, in the hope that those constituted in authority may come to see the necessity of dry-docking.

‘For obvious reasons I am constrained to take shelter behind the screen of anonymity. To reveal my identity would not aid the cause which I have at heart. With no name attached, the articles will necessarily be judged by their content alone. The issue will not be confused by the intrusion of a personality.’]


HER private schools are probably the most destructive influence the Catholic Church has ever experienced. If the Ku-Kluxers and other enemies of Rome knew the truth, they would begin to spend their surplus energies in the construction of parochial schools. It is not generally known that the church school is, par excellence, an American invention. Nowhere else in the whole world is ecclesiastical education pursued so relentlessly. Zeal for religious education in this country is unbounded. The fiery young archbishop of a venerable see declared in his inaugural sermon, ‘The Catholic school is the salvation of the Church in America. The policy in this diocese will be school first, church second.' Though the expression of our ‘fighting’ prelate is typically exaggerated, it reveals the attitude of most bishops.

Eagerness for more schools, bigger schools, better schools, has become a veritable craze in the American hierarchy. Since the third plenary council of Baltimore, in 1884, parochial-school building has proceeded at an amazing pace. At that synod, as at the two preceding, the bishops were urged to establish a school in every parish. The faithful were obliged to send their children to these religious schools. In some dioceses parents are still not admitted to Communion if they refuse to send their children to the parochial school. Nevertheless, a learned bishop could write: ‘By natural law, the obligation lies primarily with the parents of a child to provide for his education, as well as for his physical support. This is part of the purpose and aim of the family as an institution. If no provision is made by any other institution, the parents must provide education either by their own effort or that of others whom they employ.’ This would seem to recognize the right of parents to provide for the education of their offspring.

It is assumed, then, that the Church by her educational programme is responding to the will of parents. It is impossible to estimate how widespread this demand might be. Certain it is that many serious clashes occur between the authorities and the people over the question of establishing a parochial school. But a campaign of fifty years’ preaching has done much to train the faithful in the idea of ecclesiastical education. No other pulpit topic is more trite than the godlessness of the public schools. Parents are often threatened with eternal perdition if they fail to send their children to God’s schools.

Copyright 1927, The Atlantic Monthly Company

God demands, through His representatives, that they support the parish school. They are urged to make sacrifices, monetary sacrifices, for this holy cause. God alone knows how abjectly they have responded to the insistent demands of priests and bishops. Appeal is made to that which is lowest in them and that which is highest. Pride, vanity, religion, love of God, love of their children, are the usual arguments.

' We shall build a magnificent school,’says the zealous pastor. ‘It will cost a hundred thousand, two hundred thousand, mayhap. Show them what you can do. Manifest your love for education to the world. God wills it. It is for His honor and glory.

‘We shall now take up a subscription for the new school.’ he proceeds. ‘You will be expected to cover the whole cost by your assessments. Each of you will be informed by the committee how much you are to give. The list of subscriptions will be published so that all may see and know who are doing their part and who are slackers.’

It is an effective system, the system of intense money-collecting. The people are caught in a net of human respect. They are not morally free. They must give what is required of them or be stigmatized publicly.

Yet the multiplication of schools and the collection of millions annually are proudly designated to mark the marvelous faith of our people. The country at large is led to believe that their giving is spontaneous. But the outside world knows little of this story. The truth is, the Church in America has become commercialized. The school is a financial sea anchor chained to the bark of Peter. The good priest of the people is not to blame. He must get the money or get out. He is in the treadmill of commercial rivalry. He is rated, primarily, by his ability to build and to collect.

To be successful, the priest must be a ‘go-getter,’a campaign manager, a veritable clerical Babbitt. For the financial projects of the Church grow increasingly heavy. The parochial school itself is almost an unbearable burden to many. Yet in these later years bishops are rivaling one another in the construction and maintenance of high schools. A million dollars is now considered a conservative sum for the establishment of an up-to-date high school. But these too, they tell us, are necessary for the preservation of the faith. Eight years of daily catechism in the parochial school do not suffice to make our youth safe from the seductions of modern life. They might; be contaminated if allowed to attend public high schools. It is a confession of weakness.

How intricate, how complex, how unconvincing, must be the faith that cannot be instilled by eight years of intensive teaching! Now the high school is necessary. After the Catholic high school come the Catholic college and university. If some fifty or sixty thousand recreant youths insist upon attending the materialistic state schools, we must follow them. There we must have our Newman clubs or other such safeguards. There lectures, instructions, and devotions will be given as an antidote to the poisonous teaching of the non-Catholic professors.

All this costs money. But it costs more. It costs the best energies of those who were sent to preach the Gospel. The truth is, the activities of the Catholic Church in America have been diverted from their proper aim. Education has supplanted religion in its own sphere. The Church has become so institutionalized that it has been commercialized. It is already topheavy. The financial burden is becoming almost unbearable to many. To support the ever-increasing number of institutions the martyr spirit is developed in the people. Poor souls, who must pay the public-school tax and at the same time meet the private-school assessment!

It is unjust, they are told, yet they must bear it manfully. The excellence of the Catholic school is dinned into their ears continually. Nevertheless, many are growing skeptical. They are beginning to apply Christ’s test: ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ They are beginning to ask wherein these children who are nursed in the lap of Mother Church excel. None can maintain that they are more pious, more religious, than the children of generations which attended the public schools. There are just as many criminals, pro rata, emanating from the Catholic schools as from the public schools. There is as much per capita illicit drink consumed by Catholic alumni as by the unorthodoxly educated. There are proportionately as many moral scandals among those piously reared as among others.

It is altogether probable that the American Catholic is paying double for an inferior result. In the old régime, religious training belonged preëminently to the home. Parents felt that they were responsible for the upbringing of their children. The children attended Catholic Sunday school, where they received some solid instruction from a man priest. They were taught their prayers at home and there they studied their catechism. Now, however, all is changed. The training has passed from the home and the instruction from the Church. The good sisters now fulfill the twofold function of parent and pastor to the little ones in the matter of religious training.


The passing of religious training from the Catholic home has been gradual. Busy mothers found it easy to let the sisters teach the little ones to pray. In their devotion, too, they sometimes assumed that these pious religious were better fitted to teach their children morality.

Indeed the sisters, who are ninety per cent of the Catholic teachers, are devoted and zealous in their work. There is nothing else but goodness and virtue in their penitential lives. Freely and gladly they expend themselves for the little ones of Christ. The more the pity, since they are unfitted for the work.

The tenor of their lives incapacitates them for the mission to which they dedicate themselves. They have renounced the world to live in the seclusion of a convent. They would prepare the children for a life which, because of their profession, is unknown to themselves. Those who have renounced all family ties would teach the young to become the fathers and mothers of future generations. These good souls spend their lives in following the routine of a rule, bound by blind obedience to the will of a superior. It is not strange, then, that the Catholic school is conducted on the routine system. All is drill. This is particularly true of the religious training.

School opens with singsong prayers. The pupils have already been to their daily Mass. There, perhaps, they had their group prayers and their hymns. The first and most important lesson is catechism — the dogmas of the Church done in ready-made questions and answers. Word for word the poor little memory must repeat the unintelligible words that correspond to the set question. ‘What is a venial sin?’ asks the pious woman. ‘Venial sin is a slight offense, committed against the law of God, in matters of less importance or in matters of great importance; it is an offense committed without due reflection or full consent of the will.’ ‘What do you mean by Transubstantiation?’ ‘By Transubstantiation,’ says the youthful theologian, ‘I mean that by the words of the Consecration of the Mass the substance of the bread and wine is changed into the substance of our Lord’s body and blood,’

Thus the lesson proceeds. Tender little minds arE confused by sin and theological terminology. Over and over again, for eight years, they learn the dry formularies of their religious text. Their religious practice is of the same type. They are marched in procession to church, under the supervision of their teachers. Obedient to the same watchful eyes, they genuflect, fold the hands piously, and kneel devoutly. They are led out after the services under the same strict surveillance. Their confession days are appointed for them. Here, too, their good guides lead them in and watch over them.

All is group training—the suppression of individuality. During the school term there is full attendance at Mass and reception of the Sacraments. But during the vacation months all is changed. The per cent of attendance often drops to a low ebb. During this time the children have not to fear that they will be called out before the class to answer for missing Mass or for failing to go to Communion. The reaction comes with freedom. They are surfeited with overmuch piety, thrust upon them. Their pious teachers spend two or three hours daily at their devotions. Surely, then, an hour each day is not too much for the children.

The system is pathetically inefficient. It tends to depersonize the pupils — to create revulsion for religion within them. Many are the heartaches of the devoted souls who strive to mould them after their own ideal. They are in good faith and cannot understand the failures that follow their efforts. They do not realize that in their imprudent zeal they are doing violence to young lives. They are attempting to apply an old, discarded philosophy. They think that frequent repetition of an external act will engender a mental habit.

These devout teachers sin by excess. The children present an outlet for their own repressed lives. In their overzeal they become intellect and will to their pupils. They tell them what to do and what not to do, thinking that, by some miracle, the pupils will eventually learn to decide for themselves. Fine, overgrown boys must submit to this pious mothering. In fact, we arE on the road to an American Catholic Church composed entirely of female-trained members.

Female piety is too sweet for manly youths. We are already reaping the whirlwind of our schools. Many thoughtful priests are disturbed by the evident failure of the system, but they are the victims of circumstances. They may not, unscathed, voice their fears and doubts. They see the new generation drifting away from the practice of religion. The same spirit of revolt prevails among the parochial-schoolbred as among others. Generally they end by putting the whole blame on this materialistic age, and letting it go at that.

Some of those older in the service have their own private opinions. They never attended a parochial school in boyhood. They grew up side by side with the sons of other religionists. In all their public-school days they never heard the word ‘bigotry’ — its meaning would have been unknown. It was never suggested to them that there was a difference between Catholic and non-Catholic teachers. There was no religious animosity in the schools of those days. Religion was sacred; it belonged to the inner sphere of life. Education was intellectual training. Religion was not yet a classroom subject, as the erudite bishop describes it.

Now the reversal has come. We are a people self-ostracized. Our children may not sit in the same classroom with the children of the unorthodox. We must have our own schools, our own charities, our own graveyards. We are the modern Pharisees who will not sit with publicans. Bitterly we complain of the prejudice that has risen against us. We may thank our own aloofness for it. The spirit of segregation is diametrically opposed to the spirit of Christ. It was His aim to eliminate that narrowness from His people.

The hypocrites of His day were shocked when He dined with sinners and publicans. His disciples were amazed that He held converse with the Samaritan woman. In the end, He sent forth His disciples to preach the Gospel to every creature — Jew and Gentile. But the seclusiveness of the Hebrews seems to have come back. We fear contamination, moral contamination, from those about us. This is true in general, but particularly so in the field of education.

This fear of moral contamination involves a contradiction. We believe that our faith is ‘the victory that overcometh the world.’ In God’s name, then, let the world feel it. If we have the true faith, we should not hide its light under a basket. If we alone profess Christianity, why deprive the world of our example? Why deprive nonCatholic children of that saving contact with Catholic children? But, the learned prelate will say, children are irresponsible. They are not able to defend their faith. Later they may go forth and let their light shine among men.

This is the essence of the matter. The children are taught a controversial faith. In the higher classes they are sometimes given courses in apologetics. This is the study of arguments for the defense of the faith. Like the answers in the catechism, these arguments are ready-made. The children are supposed to memorize them and thus be enabled to defend their faith against the onslaughts of the unbelieving. This attitude has prevailed since the rise of Protestantism. At that time the Christian religion became controversial in all its forms. It has ever since remained so.


The Catholic Church is ever on the defensive against the Protestant movement. This is manifest especially in her educational effort. Her schools abound somewhat in mathematical ratio to the prevalence of Protestantism. She is not so zealous for schools in Catholic countries.

Where are the parochial schools of Spain and the South American countries? No Mexican Indian ever received eight years’ daily instruction in the catechism. There is also the land of the Popes. There are no parochial schools in Italy. What is to become of the poor Italians? But perhaps we American Catholics are more Catholic than the Pope.

The reverse is more likely true. The American Catholic Church seems to be tending toward the heresy of religious intellectualism. It is an elusive heresy, the mother of rationalism. America has ever been a wayward child of the Church.

The spirit of the New World impels her to do things on a bigger and better scale than the rest of the world. The American hierarchy is not famous for its theological lore. But it has built more churches in a decade than the old-fashioned hierarchy of Italy has built in two centuries. Coming from a youthful country, American bishops are prone to be prankish. They like to confuse the Pope’s mind by the number of new schools on their list when they make their quinquennial report to him. They will show him how to run the Church on a business basis.

The insidious suggestion is patent. Holy Father, you should learn from us how to care for your people. Why, of the two and a half million Italian Catholics in America not more than a half million practise their religion! See what your lack of schools has done for your people! But look at us — we are spending twenty millions a year on our schools and we have just begun. Wait until we get all our high schools built. We shall have the first intellectualized faith in the world — in fact, we probably have it now.

How that saintly old man of the centuries must smile at this pathetic enthusiasm. In his inherited wisdom he knows the danger of this movement, He knows that religion is not a mere item in a scholastic curriculum. He knows that the world will never be converted to Christ by syllogisms alone. He knows that Saint Peter and the other apostles received less intellectual training than that afforded by the first grade in an American parochial school.

Rome has been consistently silent on the question of parochial schools. They are, at best, a modern institution. That they are a faiture must eventually dawn upon the minds of the faithful. It was not so from the beginning. For fifteen centuries the Apostles’ Creed was the only intellectual expression of faith known to the faithful. Until the Council of Trent the vital idea prevailed. The people knew little or nothing about dogma. They were taught to lead good lives. Theological questions were left to the Scholastics.

The ordinary priest, before the Reformation, was less familiar with intellectualistic teaching, with polemical doctrine, than the eighth-grade pupil of the parochial school is to-day. The Roman catechism, decreed in the middle of the sixteenth century by the Council of Trent, is a textbook intended for the instruction of pastors in doctrine. The Reformation movement was proposing doctrinal questions that had been, theretofore, of little interest to parochial priests. To repeat, they had been content to teach the people to lead virtuous lives.

Since that time zeal for dogmatism has grown great in the so-called Protestant countries. Among the Catholic nations there remains a popular indifference to dogma that is striking. In this particular, America is the direct antithesis to the old Catholic countries. Obviously American Catholic doctrinalism is not based on ancient tradition. Such intellectualistic teaching was not considered necessary for salvation by the historic Church. We must not forget that for fifteen centuries there was no popular instruction such as is given in America to-day. If then, this intense instruction is not necessary for salvation, it must be demanded for other reasons.

It seems evident that we are formulating a new idea of Catholic faith, a rationalizing faith. It is the popularization of theology. Our people are receiving a theologistic training. It is the new ‘Americanism’ in the Catholic Church. Its fault is that it fails to develop the intellect which it crams. It makes parrotlike Christians. It trains the youth in stereotyped arguments. It stunts the religious growth of its victims.

The argumentation of our religious textbooks has changed but little since the sixteenth century. Doctrines are treated as though the world had not progressed these last three hundred years. This craze for doctrinal knowledge has perverted the historic Christian standard. Doctrinal knowledge — not virtuous living — is the norm of to-day. The test for the first reception of the Sacraments is similar to that required for promotion to a higher grade in school. The fallacy is current that familiarity with the formularies of the faith will sanctify life.

These formulated truths, these cutand-dried conclusions, can never become vital to the children. They clog the mind and tend to bring about religious nausea. This is the hidden destructivity of the parochial-school system. ‘A surfeit of the sweetest things the deepest loathing to the stomach brings,’ says Shakespeare. Among those who know, it is proverbial that catechism is the most distasteful study of the Catholic school. There is no other task to which the children must be so insistently driven. It is the pupils’ bugbear. From this revulsion undoubtedly grows the well-known indifference of Catholics to religious literature.


The humdrum religious teaching and practice of our schools are the rocks upon which many spiritual lives are shipwrecked. The inordinate zeal to keep religious formalism and pietism constantly before youth too often produces a reaction that is disastrous. Many are therefore led to say later, ‘I got enough religion in my childhood to do me the rest of my life.’

There is no reasonable argument against the theorem that religion is an everyday concern. But Christ never intended that His followers should spend five or six hours a day reviewing the mechanics of religion. In fact, He seems to have had no plans for a formulistic and theologistic religion such as is taught in these latter times. Not only are the minds of the children overburdened with religious teaching, but their eyes are surfeited with pietistic images. Holy pictures and statues are kept constantly before them. Hour after hour they must gaze morbidly on the bleeding figure of an agonized Christ on the Cross. The same monotonous strain is pressed into their ears. They must listen to doggerel hymns filled with sentimental piety. Their readers are composed of pious stories, too, which they hear over and over again.

It is easy for those who are free to think to realize the effect of all this on young minds. Ecclesiastics and other teachers are blinded by their own zeal for religion. Yet many there are who are beginning to reflect on these matters. The leakage of the Church is undoubtedly greater proportionately to-day than it was a generation ago. This estimate cannot be verified, because the number of the fallen away is not recorded by the ecclesiastical authorities. If, however, statistics were at hand, it would undoubtedly be found that the losses of the Catholic Church in America increase in direct ratio to the multiplication of Catholic schools.

The Catholic religion in America, particularly, has become too burdensome for the youth of our day. They have become enslaved religiously by the prevalent fanaticism for religious education, so called. They are exploited for the glory of the Church and the exaltation of its dignitaries. This explains the alarming defection of the younger generation. ‘The spirit of the times’ is almost always blamed for the religious inconstancy that is so apparent to-day. This, as we have said before, is the much-used alibi of ecclesiastics.

The Catholic Church in America thwarts her own purpose by her educational system. Like the Pharisees of old, the ecclesiastical authorities impose burdens on the people which they themselves will not touch with a finger. These burdens are psychologically unbearable for the young. They may be held in submission for a time, but eventually the reaction comes for many.

The reason is obvious. Human nature cannot bear all this religious formalism. It is like trying to develop a healthy appetite in a child by giving him thrice daily a one-piece diet of baked beans. It is a nutritious diet, but after a while the sight of beans would sicken the child.

Indeed the enemies, real or imagined, of the Catholic Church in America may take heart as long as the Catholic school system flourishes. This system is doing more to make the old religion obnoxious than all its calumniators and opponents. When the Catholic child is six years old, he is taken to an inquisition as relentless as that over which presided the notorious Torquemada. More violence is done to tender souls by the intellectual rack of the parochial schoolroom than was done to the bodies of other victims in the past.

The artificial religious life which Catholic education develops will not stand the test of modern conditions. If ecclesiastics would pause to consider the situation, they might readily see the facts. They are striving to stem the rapids of modern unbelief by polemics; they have made dogmatic doctrine the sole safeguard of the people against modern intellectualism; they could not, if they would, meet the requirements of this method. Every day brings new intellectual problems which demand solution. They could not keep the pace if they tried. But they are not trying. They are pooh-poohing the speculations of unbelieving intellects, and by this they think to make the young faithful to their religion. There is none so blind as he who will not see. The Christian religion was not doctrinally propagated in the beginning.

Christ taught a philosophy of life which the whole world admires. We believe that doctrine is necessary. Very well. But we must not flatter ourselves that the outside world is fretting about our doctrinalism. Ecclesiastics are inclined, deprecatingly, to call modern life pagan civilization. Saint Peter went into the heart of a pagan civilization that was proud, intellectual, and imperious. When that footsore, unlettered Galilean fisherman walked along the Appian Way he was not considering an intellectual onslaught on the glorious city of Rome. He gathered a few fearful Jews about him and told them of the Christ. He described for them the gospel of love. Meanwhile the great scholars and statesmen of Rome were discoursing learnedly on their gods and goddesses. Yet in three short centuries Rome and her emperor were Christian. How did it happen? Josephus tells us the secret. Says he: ’Behold those Christians, how they live, how they love one another.’

If the bishops are to ‘convert America to the faith,’ they must first return to this ancient policy. They must rear a people distinguished by the virtue of their lives. Attendance at Mass and reception of the Sacraments are salutary practices, according to our belief. Yet they do not impress the outside world. Men to-day are not deceived by the crowds that frequent our churches. There is but one quality that proves the excellence of a religion. It is the excellence of the lives lived by its devotees. When the American bishops cease their school-building crusade and begin the work of developing Christian character, there will be hope for the Church in America.

(We shall be very glad to publish representative letters in comment on or criticism of this article and shall invite more extended replies from members of the Roman Catholic Church competent to speak in her behalf)