Note: Love In the Ruins is an apocalyptic novel by Walker Percy. I love the subtitle too: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. Here’s a quote I somehow find highly relevant to this post – in an oblique, literary way:
“Comes again the longing, the desire that has no name. Is it for Mrs. Prouty, for a drink, for both: for a party, for youth, for the good times, for dear good drinking and fighting comrades, for football-game girls in the fall with faces like flowers? Comes the longing and it has to do with being fifteen and fifty and with the winter sun striking down into a brick-yard and on clapboard walls rounded off with old hard blistered paint and across a doorsill onto linoleum. Desire has a smell: of cold linoleum and gas heat and the sour piebald bark of crepe myrtle. A good-humored thirty-five-year-old lady takes the air in a back lot in a small town.”
― Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins
In the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court’s recent decision on gay marriage, I was thinking about my students and my job.
This post isn’t a summary of my views on the court’s decision (nor even an explication about Percy’s novel); it’s a meandering reflection on how this decision, and other major cultural-political events, affect life in a Catholic high school classroom.
Being a Catholic school teacher has always been challenging, but it is increasingly becoming more so. During my teacher training at Notre Dame, we had spent some time addressing controversial Church teachings and how to handle their inevitable appearances in the high school classroom. Since a significant number of my peers do not personally support key Catholic teachings on human sexuality, this is always a pretty tough conversation. We were encouraged to support Catholic moral teachings – but in my conversations with other young teachers, this usually looks like simply trying not to contradict them.
Hopefully all good teachers realize it is highly unprofessional to impose your own personal political views on your students – that’s not what real teaching is – but in a Catholic school you do have the responsibility as a teacher to promote and explain Catholic doctrine.
For many of my peers, verbally supporting doctrines you find intolerant, antiquated, and bigoted to your students is clearly problematic.
However, I’m coming from the perspective of a young teacher who does believe what the Church teaches, so I guess the situation is a lot easier for me there. At the same time, I’m looking at classrooms full of high school kids who are living and breathing a very different cultural message. Some of them are gay; almost all of them have gay friends or family members or at least acquaintances.
In the past, when a student has come out to me as gay, I have found Pope Benedict’s approach to be the most helpful:
If in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be ‘devout’ and to perform my ‘religious duties’, then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely ‘proper’, but loveless.
― Pope Benedict XVI, God Is Love–Deus Caritas Est: Encyclical Letter
It is only when life has been accepted and is perceived as accepted that it becomes also acceptable. Man is that strange creature that needs not just physical birth but also appreciation if he is to subsist . . . If an individual is to accept himself, someone must say to him: “It is good that you exist” – must say it, not with words, but with that act of the entire being that we call love. – Principles of Catholic Theology
(As quoted by The Anchoress, here)
Students come to me all the time with all sorts of struggles besides this one. Some situations have direct bearing on Catholic moral theology – some do not. (Although I suppose one could argue ALL situations have SOME connection to Catholic moral theology….) The point is, the person must come first. The person must always come first, no matter what the “issue” is that he presents.
Students come to their teachers with such questions and concerns often because they feel like they cannot go to their own parents. And although parents are the “primary educators of their children,” as we Catholic education people are so fond of saying, the fact of the matter is some parents do not know how to educate their children or even at times abdicate that responsibility.
Therefore, some of my kids do not find at home the full “acceptance” with “that act of the entire being that we call love” Pope Benedict describes. And so they must look for it elsewhere.
Often the hardest conversations about Catholic moral doctrines are not the private ones but the public ones, in front of the entire classroom where everything you say can be misinterpreted by Bill who isn’t really paying attention or by Susan and Jamie who are giving each other knowing looks across the aisle.
All the different classes of students I have ever taught – sophomores mostly, but juniors and seniors as well – have largely operated as a group under the banner of cliches. And they will often interpret whatever you say according to cliches, even if what you said has nothing to do with If you love the other person, that’s all that matters or Hate the sin, love the sinner or Gay is okay because of science or Agree to disagree etc.
And then one is always tempted to flee to the refuge of the “real lesson plan” – let’s get back on track here, people – which has its place but is often just a cowardly tactic on my part.
After the Supreme Court decision this week, I have a feeling the same-sex marriage discussion will become an even more frequent topic in the classroom. And it is very important that we Catholic teachers 1) educate ourselves on what the Church really says and 2) accept the responsibility of guiding such discussions with our students as best we can, even if we make mistakes, even if we do not always have all the answers to their questions.
For me, the important thing with my kids during discussions like these is to emphasize that the truth matters. And even if you don’t agree with the Church on what that truth is, you still need to go searching for it. You can’t just sit back and accept whatever your peers tell you or what the culture tells you… or even what Fr. Mike tells you. You have to be relentless in your pursuit for the truth. And none of this “well this is my truth” crap. That’s a cop out too.
All this talk of “truth,” however, is very difficult in our culture. High schoolers are particularly sensitive to this fact.
Pope Benedict says,
Intolerance and cruelty have occurred in the name of truth. To that extent people are afraid when someone says, “This is the truth”, or even “I have the truth”. We never have it, at best is has us. No one will dispute that one must be careful and cautious in claiming the truth. But simply to dismiss it as unattainable is really destructive.
And this, of course, is what all too many teachers do. We say, or we imply, that truth is unattainable – it’s just not on the lesson plan. We are afraid of proclaiming that truth is knowable and pursuable, and so we neglect our primary job – which actually is to help our students to seek the truth for themselves. We cannot impose truth upon them; instead, we need to give them the tools to seek it out.
Benedict continues, as if speaking directly to Catholic school teachers:
(…) We must have the courage to dare to say: Yes, man must seek the truth; he is capable of truth. It goes without saying that truth requires criteria for verification and falsification. It must always be accompanied by tolerance, also. But then truth also points out to us those constant values which have made mankind great. That is why the humility to recognize the truth and to accept it as a standard has to be relearned and practiced again.
The truth comes to rule, not through violence, but rather through its own power; this is the central theme of John’s Gospel: When brought before Pilate, Jesus professes that he himself is The Truth and the witness to the truth. He does not defend the truth with legions but rather makes it visible through his Passion and thereby also implements it.”
― Pope Benedict XVI, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Sign of the Times – A Conversation with Peter Seewald
Jesus “does not defend the truth with legions” but rather witnesses to it “through his Passion.”
I really do not have all the answers. I do not always know what to say to my students – especially when it comes to things like the gay lifestyle or simply sexual issues in general, since so many of them take sex for granted as being necessary for a full and happy life – but I do know my twofold responsibility is to love and to the truth.
And the truth is they are loved. God’s love is the real #lovewins, and if in the way I approach ALL of my students I can show them that, then I will have done my job.