Catholic schools have made great contributions

By  Michael Higgins
  • September 18, 2008
{mosimage}It is both predictable and tiresome. And it is never, to my mind at least, entirely honest. What I am talking about is the political hot potato that is publicly funded Catholic education in the province of Ontario and the pseudo-debate that revolves around it.

In his Aug. 11 column, Jim Coyle of The Toronto Star spoke of the courage of NDP leader-wannabe Michael Prue’s invitation to the membership to enter into “a grand dialogue” regarding the economic effectiveness and justice of a policy/convention/tradition that continues to fund a separate Catholic school system. Why are we surprised? Especially, given the often furious and polemical debates surrounding the last provincial election and John Tory’s advocacy of “faith schools.”
The call to a grand dialogue is often not that at all; more like a grand harangue, in fact.  The existence of Catholic schools as publicly funded entities is often seen as an historical anomaly, a constitutional exception whose legitimacy is no longer tenable, a political solution to a longstanding problem.

But when we allow the debate to be framed in this way we abdicate our strategic advantage, an advantage that positions us to use empirical data, success stories, the argument for meaningful inclusion in a genuinely respectful multicultural and multi-faith society, and data drawn from comparative constituencies that support the qualitative value attached to Catholic schools specifically, and faith schools, generally.

We have information that confirms the competitive value of Catholic schools, their unique contribution to the larger community and the socio-economic sensitivities that characterize their mission.

Catholic schools are not flawless. They are prey to the same kinds of self-serving politics, chicanery, venality and spiritual torpor that define other like institutions. But the Christian witness of the vast majority of those who work within their walls — irrespective of their own personal struggles and professional crises — remind us that the absence of such a system as exists in Ontario will weaken not strengthen the precious “covenantal” chords that bind us together

It is not Mr. Prue or Mr. Coyle who should be setting the terms of the debate. It should be us and sooner rather than later.

I was reminded of how important it is for the larger community outside Catholicism to  appreciate rather than fear the Catholic Church and its myriad institutions and traditions when I visited Catholics in New York: 1808-1946, a showing at the Museum of the City of New York (May 16-Dec. 31).

This exhibit is bold and unprecedented. Many years past there was an initiative to found a Catholic Museum in NYC, in the way that there is a Jewish Museum of impressive vintage and scope.

I don’t know whether the project has been abandoned, funds deemed scarce or other priorities supplanted it, but I hear nothing about the project now. There are many pressing problems facing Catholic institutional life in New York City over the last couple of decades to easily eclipse the proposed museum. The exhibit will have to suffice. And it does. Very nicely.

Highlights of the exhibit include a narrative that is informative without being defensive, a story arch that takes you from the founding of the diocese of New York in 1808 to the passing of the G.I. Bill in 1946, a reader-friendly script with a strong emphasis on the deep ethnicity of the Catholic parish structure, all supporting a visual and artifact exposition that allows the visitor to see and touch the diversity of cultures that shaped the New York Catholic world.

One of the features of the exhibit that was most illuminating for me was the care taken by the curators, historical consultants and writers to show that the history of the persecuted Catholic minorities eventually blossomed into full acceptance and assimilation.

We have seen this pattern before. The important thing to sustain in right balance is the critical sense of Catholic identity and public obligation, minus parochialism.

An exhibit called Catholics in Toronto would make a grand counter argument to those who fail to appreciate the complex, sometimes tortured and sometimes resplendent, history of the immigrant Catholic communities that have shaped Hogtown.

For sure, Toronto is not the province of Ontario. But wouldn’t the Art Gallery of Ontario make a good start? And before the next provincial election?

After all, as the New York exhibit ably demonstrated, Catholic education, from primary to post-secondary, is the jewel in the institutional crown.

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