Guest Column: The Crisis of Spirit

The real crisis of our times is not a crisis of economics or fiscal policy — it is a crisis of the spirit, and its impact on education is profound.

The election sweep of November 1994 was not triggered by that concern for the economy that is usually the wheel horse for political change. The President was rightfully able to boast that the economy was in remarkably healthy shape. The Fed was raising rates to check our burgeoning economic strength, inflation was under control, and unemployment rates were low.

Certainly we were not being threatened by a foreign enemy, given the implosion of the Soviet Empire under the relentless pressure of a Polish labor leader, a farsighted American president, and a pope whose legions were more than celestial.

While there was reason for concern about smaller foreign potentates whose animus toward the U.S. might someday reach lethal proportions, those dangers were not stirring the electorate last November.

So what went wrong with the wonderful reign of American liberalism which had dominated our core institutions since the end of the Hoover administration? There can be little doubt that a cultural change of seismic proportions occurred in America, a change which has smoldered longer and burnt more deeply than most people have recognized, a change driven in large measure by a crisis of the American spirit.

The pervasive immorality of our times had not, as recently as November 1992, prevented the election of either a liberal president or like Congress. But that very election soon set off alarms in that God-fearing majority of Americans who had long and patiently tolerated liberal nostrums which were much against the grain of their conscience. The President’s precipitous moves into federally funded abortions, gays in the military, the public utterances of the Surgeon General, and the general anti-family tone of the executive branch were simply more than the electorate would bear. The liberal state had finally gone over the edge and is today as irreparably broken as the Soviet Empire. If there is any phoenix potential left in liberaldom, it could only be the product of the conservatives’ failure to recognize and deal with the dark cultural despondency of the nation.

All of this bears mightily on Catholic education. Public secondary education is increasingly unfocussed, value-poor, crime-ridden, and has much too little to recommend it to the average American parent who has any choice at all. Sadly, however, many do not.

The essence of education is truth; and truth matters. The source of truth is God. The Pilates of public education sneer at truth and reject God. Doestoyevsky said that without God, all is permissible. As Pope John Paul II notes in his most recent encyclical, Evangelium vitae, the door is opened to a cultural climate of an “even more sinister character.”

Little wonder that liberal dominated education has descended into the politically correct abyss of multiculturalism, in which all points of view are equally worthy and acceptable. Having crossed that boundary of nonsense, it is an easy step then to teach gay literature or the techniques of sex as if they were serious academic subjects.

Permissive society certainly does not teach that morality is the foundation of a well-ordered government, a truth that our founding fathers clearly understood. As to the “fathers” — our society is more apt to teach that the “pursuit of happiness” really means the pursuit of pleasure, oblivious as it is to any understanding that the only happiness worth having is a by-product of the pursuit of God.

We are living in an era of educational elites who give more credence to the Reverend Al Sharpton than to Mother Teresa. Or, as Thomas Sowell put it, “in an era when sanity is controversial; insanity is just another viewpoint — and degeneracy only another lifestyle.”

Enrollment in private schools, including Catholic and other Christian schools, has been growing significantly in recent years. Interestingly enough, Catholic school enrollment has often been more non-Catholic than Catholic — which suggests that there is a need and a craving for traditional schooling which includes the truths of God presented in an orderly environment. The movement toward religious schools, and the significant and growing movement toward home education, are evidence of a cultural shift in America that presaged the political upheaval of last November.

Now is, most certainly, the Catholic moment in education. In order to seize the opportunity, two things are needed. First, the institutional church and the laity must move forcefully into the political arena to advance the Catholic agenda, including its agenda on education. Secondly, at every level of the Church from the parish on up, heroic efforts need to be made to preserve, strengthen, and expand Catholic schools and Catholic teaching. Both initiatives are logical responses to our spiritual crisis.

Within the political arena, American Catholics have never been much of a factor on the national stage. Our enormous numbers notwithstanding, our political clout has been more theoretical than real, falling far short of other minority groups in effectiveness. A dramatic example was the recent announcement of Ralph Reed, the executive director of the Christian Coalition, that “pro-life and pro-family voters, a third of the electorate, will not support a party that retreats from its noble and historic defense of traditional values and which has a national ticket or platform that does not share Ronald Reagan’s belief in the sanctity of human life.” The Wall Street Journal described this statement as provoking an uproar. While there were no obedient salutes from either the media or the frontrunning GOP candidates, I wouldn’t bet much on the likelihood of a pro-choice candidate showing up on the final Republican ticket in 1996, given the almost universal success of pro-life candidates last November.

The time is now for Catholics to lay aside their traditional timidity in the public arena. We are no longer immigrant people searching for our place in the American culture. We are very much a part of that culture and rightful heirs to the heritage that comes down to all of us from the Declaration of Independence onward. We are not only a part of that culture but we are, in my judgment, the very best part, because of the infinitely wonderful deposit of faith which we have carried from hand to hand over two millennia to the present time.

There should be no reservation or hesitation among Catholics in speaking out on the great moral issues of our society. Listen to the words of the Holy Father from Veritatis splendor:

The Church in her life and teaching is thus revealed as the pillar and bulwark of the truth, including the truth regarding moral action. Indeed, the Church has the right always and everywhere to proclaim moral principles, even in respect of the social order, and to make judgments about any human matter in so far as this is required by fundamental human rights or the salvation of souls.

So long as government at any level provides support for education, it should in all fairness provide support for private education insofar as it suitably substitutes for public education. Since this standard is readily met by parochial and diocesan schools and since there is no genuine Constitutional impediment, we should fight on this issue until we have achieved a fair solution which, among other things, must protect the moral integrity of Catholic schools.

One victory might even beget another and so inspire a host of painfully silent Catholics to move into the public arena and have their say. It is said that the last respectable bigotry in America is anti-Catholicism. This is true in part but it fails to note other respectable bigotries, none of which is more virulent than that against conservative Protestants and pro-lifers of any denomination, be they Jewish, Catholic, Protestant or whatever. How long will our too supine laity tolerate such a state of affairs?

Everyone of us has a platform — some greater than others. Maybe it is our household, or a neighbor or the corner store. For some, the platform is bigger. A politician or business leader may have a state-wide or even national audience. However large or small our audience, we have an obligation to address moral issues within our sphere of influence.

During the sixteen years I was Commissioner of Baseball, I had a unique opportunity to scramble onto the moral ramparts. From the time of the Black Sox scandal of 1919, the game has positioned itself as a model of integrity to the American public — never mind that it would sometimes fall short of its self-proclaimed standard of probity. I believed in that standard and in the moral bedrock on which it stood. When two of the most beloved former players, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, took positions with gambling casinos, they had for my purposes thrown themselves out of baseball. Players using illegal drugs and owners breaking League rules followed them out. I fought against any involvement of our game with gambling, and, when Canada adopted a baseball lottery over my objection, I took Canada to court and the lottery was dropped. I precluded women sportswriters from entering our clubhouses for reasons of decency. I lost in court on this issue, but no court could take away the correctness of my judgment. On most of these decisions, I took a considerable pounding in the media for what was seen as my “arrogance,” but I have no doubt that the great majority of the public understood better than the media.

The second initiative which is imperative is the preservation, strengthening and expansion of Catholic schools and Catholic teaching. The essence of the concept is that while Catholic schools are adequate, even excellent, as regards the three R’s, they are usually weak in conveying the truths of the Church. If they are to make a significant contribution to the alleviation of our moral crisis, then they must be strengthened in their grasp of these truths, so that through them we may develop, over time, a better formed laity. A better formed laity in turn becomes both more effective and more courageous in advancing Catholic issues in the public arena and, more importantly, in evangelization. Fundamentally we are here to save our souls and to spread the Word.

In my concern for the role of the Catholic laity in the world, a world that is increasingly falling into paganism, I can do no better than to quote Cardinal Newman on the laity: “I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent well-instructed laity, [because] in all times the laity have been the measure of the Catholic spirit.”


  • Bowie Kuhn

    Bowie Kuhn served as the fifth commissioner of Major League Baseball, from 1969 to 1984. He passed away in 2007.

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