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On the Inside: Catholic Schools and the Common Good

This winter, Kathleen Porter-Magee wrote “Catholic on the Inside,” in which she explored the idea that charter schools who adopt “Catholic on the outside” practices, such as uniforms and old-school Catholic discipline measures, are missing something that only faith-based schools can provide. In a periodic series of Posts this summer, we’ll remind ourselves about some of the Catholic “stuff” that we have the privilege of offering to our students, so that amid all the challenges of this fall, we remain energized by those ideas and practices that make our work worthwhile.

“They are just being so selfish.” No matter where you fall on the political spectrum in the U.S. this summer, it’s possible you’ve thought or said that about some group.

The common good is having a moment right now, in part because many of us are concerned that someone else may not be caring about it as much as they should. Theologians and ethicists are holding panels on it; news outlets are running articles and editorials. Petitions are circulating to advance it.

Perhaps this renewed conversation about the common good suggests more of us may be coming around to what Jesuit ethicist Bryan Massingale has asserted about the challenges of systemic racism: that while legal and systemic responses are necessary, they “will be limited and even ineffective without a deeper conversion, without a healing of the soul, without what Martin Luther King Jr. called a profound ‘revolution of values.’ That is, we must attend to the deeper recesses of the human spirit that are the realms of religious faith and spirituality.” 

Evidence suggests Catholic school graduates perform better at some of the civic engagement that is part of advancing the common good; we must never, though, grow complacent. Despite the many challenges faced by Catholic educators this fall, all of us have a key advantage: we are free to openly advocate for ethical precepts like the common good–and to anchor our teaching of ethics not just in abstract ideas but in truth of God’s love available to all and comprehensible even to young children. Shame on us if we do not take that freedom out for a particularly vigorous spin this year, through clearly and unequivocally teaching about the common good–rather than letting it be implicit, as it so often is, in our religion lessons.

It is also more important this year than ever that our teaching of the common good transcends much common discourse and relies on the rich nuance our faith gives to this concept. In many a conversation and quite a few shouting matches this summer–particularly around mask-wearing and social distancing–the common good is seen as the antithesis of individual liberty; protection of life as the antithesis of protection of the economy. These are false choices that Catholics with even a rudimentary understanding of our faith (or our economy) can confidently reject.

Beth Haile elaborates: “as any athlete could tell you, the common good is not exalting the team at the expense of the individual. Rather it is the realization that both the individual and the team’s success depend on one another. For the common good to be achieved, no one on the team may be sacrificed or disregarded.” The common good does not negate the individual; it is only in the context of the common good that all individuals can flourish.

For Christians, the common good–like every other element of our faith–springs from one fact: each of us is loved by God, and our lives are a gift from God. Because God also loves the person in line behind me in the grocery store, and the elderly parent he will go home to, and the unborn child in the womb of the person behind him, and her uncle in prison, my own salvation is bound up in the care I take of them. As my colleague Christian Dallavis reflected, all the extra efforts we are called on to make right now become a blessing rather than a burden when we understand them as anchored in our deepest beliefs, like this one.

Care for others is frequently a component of lessons in our religion classes. Our very youngest Pre-K students learn in religion class about doing good deeds. But our students–particularly in middle school–are perhaps more ready than we give them credit for to move beyond understanding the merit of periodically helping mom with chores to clear, age-appropriate consideration of how constellations of individual actions and systems create a value beyond what any of us alone could produce. So I hope we spend time this year exploring with our students “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (Pope John XXIII).

At the same time, we teach the common good in Catholic schools as much through our actions than our explicit instruction. As Sr. Helen Prejean notes, “I watch what I’m doing to see what I believe.”

During World War II, the U.S. government’s Writers’ War Board asked author E.B. White to write an essay on democracy. He delivered a short, vivid paragraph: “Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove…the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth…”

The common good in our schools shows up in equally mundane, profound ways. It is the line in the hall to go to the bathroom; it is eighth graders taking Kindergarteners to Mass; it is the rich silence in prayer to which every student contributes and which hangs over the whole group like scentless incense. If we do it right, the common good is as much a set of instincts for our students as a principle they can defend. As a network, we’re spending more time these days asking ourselves how well we are doing at establishing the cultures that make these instincts widespread and palpable in our schools.

The common good isn’t always easy. And our sense of how to bring it about is always evolving. Everything from hair policies to decisions about distance and in-person learning challenge us to think in new ways about how to honor the God-given dignity of each member of our community. Aligning our capacity with our principles can be exhausting. And yet in difficult times, there is a peace that can come from pursuing our ideals–a peace as wondrous as a church or a gym full of children, silent in the presence of each other and, for a moment, in contact with the transcendent, loving force that binds us to each other.