There's No Neutral for Catholics

There is a way of thinking not uncommon today that would have us believe that a clear and rooted cultural or religious identity somehow limits our ability to be open to others who are not like us. According to this way of thinking, the way to be welcoming, open, and hospitable is to downplay or ignore one’s own convictions, values, and highest ideals. Social harmony requires, we are told, that such things be kept private. Strong convictions are to be avoided in polite company. And so we are warned, for example, not to discuss matters like religion or politics in case our views offend those with other convictions. It is better to aim for the lowest common denominator and emphasize what we share. No one is likely to win any arguments about such contentious matters in any case. Should we not avoid them for the sake of keeping the peace? Isn’t the really important thing, after all, just being nice?

According to some voices, Pope Francis seems to have accepted this notion. And so, while many hail Francis’s openness, his “culture of encounter,” his emphasis on dialogue, others believe that such openness comes at the cost of a strongly affirmed Catholic identity. To this group, Francis has abandoned the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for a stripped down version of Catholicism that is little more than secular humanism with some religious trappings. And so we see, among many of Francis’s loudest critics, a kind of doubling down on traditional markers of Catholic identity paired with suspicion or even outright rejection of notions like dialogue and encounter. If the secular world thinks that openness and hospitality to others is in a zero-sum game with a strongly rooted identity, Francis’s Catholic critics heartily agree. The only difference is that, while the secular world asks us to choose openness and reject identity, this group opts for identity and rejects openness.

Why does this matter for Catholic schools and Catholic teachers? Because teachers are on the frontlines of the Church’s encounter with the broader culture. Catholic schools are not little Catholic bubbles where everyone thinks alike, feels alike, and believes alike, where everyone agrees, where everyone’s sense of identity perfectly overlaps with everyone else’s. Even if everyone in the school were Catholic, there would still be a healthy and fruitful diversity. The history of the Church is, in many ways, a history of diversity in unity—diversity of cultures, languages, social classes, even diversity of religious charisms and theological styles, all under one Lord, with one faith, and one baptism. But the diversity of Catholic schools is, in a way, even broader because Catholic schools have rarely been limited to Catholics alone.

When Mother Theresa first arrived in Calcutta, she started teaching school, informally, in the streets. She did not do this because the Catholic children of Calcutta needed an education. There were not any Catholic children in Calcutta to speak of! She did it because it is an act of charity to teach. She did not teach them because they were Catholic, but because she was Catholic. Indeed, in India to this day, Catholic schools educate far more non-Catholic students than Catholic ones. The same is true in Japan and a handful of other countries where Catholics make up a small minority of the population.

In Red Deer, like in other publicly-funded Catholic schools across Canada, most of the students and teachers will be Catholic. But a sizable minority will not be. This means that the question of the relationship between hospitality and Catholic identity is a question that is being answered day in and day out, whether you realize it or not. It would not be surprising if differing approaches to this question showed up in staffroom discussions, or in debates, or in arguments. If we have unwittingly accepted the idea that hospitality and openness to others needs to be balanced against Catholic identity, such debates are a near certainty.

In his latest encyclical—an encyclical is just a letter to the wider public—Fratelli Tutti, on human fraternity and social friendship, Pope Francis is teaching us something very important about the relationship between our Catholic identity and our openness to encountering others. We will return to this. But first, in order to help us understand what he has to say and to apply it very concretely to our work as Catholic educators, I want us to look more deeply at one place where the question of openness and identity is unavoidable: faith permeation across the curriculum.

According to this idea, it is not only religion class where we try to convey the Catholic worldview to our students. Rather, every class should be taught from a Catholic point of view. Music class, language arts, health, social studies, science, history, physical education—yes, even math. Now, this raises some questions.

First, of all, does this even make sense? What can it mean to teach every subject from a Catholic point of view? We can imagine, perhaps, adding some Catholic content to classes like language arts or music. We can read Catholic novels and poems, sing Catholic chorales and cantatas. But can we teach non-Catholic literature from a Catholic point of view? Or grammar? We can imagine, I suppose, teaching a little about important Catholic scientists, like Father Georges Lemaître, the Belgian priest who first theorized what we know today as “the Big Bang.” But can we teach science itself from a Catholic point of view? And, surely, math is just math, right?

We cannot answer each of these questions here—I am writing a book right now, Making Every Class Catholic, to really give these questions the time they deserve. But can I say a word or two about math on the premise that, if even math can be taught from a Catholic point of view, anything can be taught from a Catholic point of view?

OK. Have you ever thought about what kind of thing a number is? In a way, it is not really a “thing” at all. The number 6, for instance, is not a thing like an orange or a puppy dog. You cannot ever point to it or put it in your pocket. You cannot smell it or taste it. There are not tall sixes and short sixes, yellow sixes and blue sixes. A 6 is not made of matter. We can represent it with a shape—written on paper or carved in stone—that we all agree means “six,” but we know that that shape is not itself 6; we know that another shape might have suited just as well.

But if a number is not a material thing, what does that say about reality? Is a number real? And I do not mean this in terms of the mathematical definitions of real and unreal numbers, but in the plainer, more everyday way of speaking: that is, “Do numbers really exist?” If they do, then immaterial things exist, even if it is obvious that they exist in a different way than material things.

Now, there are at least a couple of ways we could answer this question. We could say, on the one hand, that numbers are not real. We could say that they are just something we made up in our heads in order to be able to do useful things with material reality, which is, in fact, the only real thing. On the other hand, we could say that numbers are built into reality, that we did not make them up, but rather that, by carefully observing reality, we discovered numbers. That is, by paying attention to material reality with our senses, we could discern a deeper truth about a reality beyond the material with our minds.

I hope it is clear that one of these attitudes towards numbers is Catholic and one is not. Moreover, I hope this example prompts you to think about how your own understanding of the subjects you teach has been fully informed by our Catholic faith. But there is, in fact, a third way to answer this question. And it is a slippery beast because it is an answer pretending not to be an answer. It goes like this: some people believe that numbers are just something humans made up and other people believe that numbers are something humans discovered in the nature of reality. But none of that matters either way. People can believe whatever they like about reality in their own hearts and minds as long as they keep it to themselves and do not make trouble about it. The only important thing is that students learn how to do things like balance the books or calculate the weight that a given bridge can support.

In its way, this answer is more dangerous than the other non-Catholic answer we saw above. That first answer—that numbers are something we just made up in our heads—at least is honest about what it claims. And so we can evaluate it honestly and then agree or disagree with it. But this third answer tries to avoid our rational inquiry altogether by camouflaging itself as a non-answer.

This answer that is pretending not to be an answer imagines itself to be neutral. But saying that a question is irrelevant is not actually a neutral thing to say. And saying that what some people believe is not really important is, in fact, a very strong claim about what matters and what does not. And anyone who has ever had a serious conviction dismissed as irrelevant knows very well that the person doing the dismissing is far from neutral. I want us to pause to remember this basic idea, because it will be important when we look at what Pope Francis has to say about identity and hospitality in Fratelli Tutti: there is no neutral. There is no neutral, and anyone pretending to be neutral is making a dishonest move to neutralize your position while surreptitiously asserting that their position is beyond question.

But let’s finish with math, shall we? A Catholic math class does not start from the premise that humans made up numbers because they are useful. And it does not start from the premise that it doesn’t matter what you think about the reality of numbers, as long as you can make them work properly. No, it starts from the premise that, as we hear in the Old Testament book of Wisdom, God has “arranged all thing by measure and number and weight.” Or, as Galileo who, despite his troubles, remained a faithful Catholic his whole life, is reported to have said, “Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe.” These quotes, and you could find others as well, should be on the wall of every Catholic math teacher’s classroom.

More could be said, but I hope this has been enough to demonstrate that it is possible to teach every subject from a Catholic point of view and to encourage you to think about how you teach each subject. But now a second question arises: is what we described not a kind of brainwashing?

To answer this, let us consider that, not only is it possible to teach every subject from a Catholic point of view—it is impossible to teach any subject from a neutral point of view. There is no neutral. We will teach from a given perspective whether we are aware of this or not, whether it is the result of a conscious decision, or simply the unconscious replication of the perspective we ourselves have learned from others. And, as Catholic teachers, we should be very intentional about recognizing just what perspective we are teaching from.

But to say, as we do in Catholic schools, that, “here we are Catholic and we teach from a Catholic point of view, and you are not required to agree with everything we say, but you are required to engage seriously and honestly and to try to understand in good faith even if you don’t agree,” is not brainwashing, but its opposite. Brainwashing does not openly admit the perspective from which it works, but deliberately disguises it. It seeks to make it impossible for its objects to imagine any other point of view is even possible. In Catholic schools, we are free to say who we are and what we believe without pretense or disguise. If there is a school system anywhere that pretends to be neutral, it is not the Catholic one.

Which brings us back to Pope Francis and Fratelli Tutti. Those who imagine that Catholic identity needs watering down in order for Catholic schools to be places of welcome, openness, dialogue, and encounter, might expect to find support for such watering down from Pope Francis. Some might think this way because the secular media portrays Catholicism as rigid and closed, and Francis as a long hoped-for revolutionary. Others might think this way because Francis’s Catholic critics portray Catholicism as certain and secure, and Francis as a dangerous revolutionary. But, whether one is inclined to think that watering down identity in order to be more open is good or bad, an attentive read of the document itself shows just how contrary to the thought of Pope Francis this notion actually is.

Early on in Fratelli Tutti, Francis quotes from advice he gave to the young in his Apostolic Exhortation following the synod on youth. Listen to what he says:

If someone tells young people to ignore their history, to reject the experiences of their elders, to look down on the past and to look forward to a future that he himself holds out, doesn’t it then become easy to draw them along so that they only do what he tells them? He needs the young to be shallow, uprooted and distrustful, so that they can trust only in his promises and act according to his plans. That is how various ideologies operate: they destroy (or deconstruct) all difference so that they can reign unopposed. To do so, however, they need young people who have no use for history, who spurn the spiritual and human riches inherited from past generations, and are ignorant of everything that came before them (§13).

According to Francis, downplaying your own heritage does not serve to make you open to others. Rather, it opens you to manipulation by the powerful. Losing track of your roots means that you lose any place to stand from which to resist, critique, or even recognize those who seek to control you for their own ends. And so we might ask ourselves, “Who benefits if our young people become, as Francis says, “shallow, uprooted, and distrustful”?” We might even ask ourselves if we have lost track of our own roots and to what degree we ourselves may have become “shallow, uprooted, and distrustful”? If we want to pass our heritage on to our students, we need to get a firm hold on it for ourselves. We will either be agents of giving our students their heritage or of withholding it from them.

Ideologies, says Francis, deconstruct everything “so that they can reign unopposed.” Have you ever noticed that much of what passes for “critical thinking” today—in schools or in society at large—is basically deconstruction? Even if some Catholic schools are a happy exception here, as a culture, we rarely teach logic or philosophy that can build up; but a bright teenager learns very quickly to play the academic game of tearing down. We have all become experts at deconstructing and dismissing almost any claims we do not like. If you do not learn how to do this in high school, you will in university. And if you do not learn it in either of those places, then life on social media will teach you.

We are paying the price for this right now. Teaching people the skills they need to deconstruct any claim they dislike without teaching them how to recognize and make reasoned claims and rational arguments is like basic training for conspiracy theorists. Deconstruction strips us of our heritage and leaves us ripe for radicalization, reaction, polarization, and extremism.

Far from advocating that we abandon or ignore our heritage and identity, Francis insists that we need them more than ever, to resist what he calls “attempts . . . to reduce persons to isolated individuals easily manipulated by powers pursuing spurious interests” (§182). Far from making us unable to relate to others, our heritage keeps us from being isolated and exposed.

For those who imagine Francis supports a kind of cultural or religious relativism, he writes, “The solution is not relativism. Under the guise of tolerance, relativism ultimately leaves the interpretation of moral values to those in power, to be defined as they see fit.” (§206) and that, “Relativism always brings the risk that some or other alleged truth will be imposed by the powerful and the clever” (§209).

In other words, relativism is never a consistent worldview in itself. It is, rather, a tool used to displace one worldview with another. Someone promoting relativism might be happy to say that your Catholic faith is merely “true for you.” But they are quite unlikely to agree that their relativism is only true for them. And they often have more zeal for imposing their relativism on the rest of us than many Catholics have for sharing the Gospel. If we have become relativists about our own faith, it is, in significant part, because the relativists have been successful evangelists of theirs! We might need to ask ourselves whether we have not accepted this false gospel, which disguises itself as openness and tolerance, but which easily becomes absolutist and intolerant when challenged.

But, if we need a strongly-rooted identity to not be swept away by the ideological currents of relativism and deconstruction, to not become blind and isolated pawns of the powerful, does this not condemn us to the kind of fortress mentality of Catholics versus the world that Francis never tires of critiquing? How, then, are we to welcome the stranger, to promote a “culture of encounter,” to engage in genuine dialogue? Francis writes,

The solution is not an openness that spurns its own richness . . . there can be no dialogue with “others” without a sense of our own identity . . . I cannot truly encounter another unless I stand on firm foundations, for it is on the basis of these that I can accept the gift the other brings and in turn offer an authentic gift of my own. I can welcome others who are different, and value the unique contribution they have to make, only if I am firmly rooted in my own people and culture (§143).

Our identity is not the opposite of our openness to others, but the basis of any possibility for it. The funny thing is that we already know this about those who are not like us. We do not ask our Muslim or our Evangelical or our secular neighbors to be less themselves in order to be in relationship with us. We know that any relationship built on such dissembling and self-censure would be less solid, and more superficial. So why should we believe that we need to hide our true selves to be in relation with those who are different from us?

What Francis is saying here about cultural and religious identity applies to all of life. I cannot be a good husband to my wife, I cannot open myself to her and receive who she is, if I do not have any solid sense of my own self. I cannot be a good parent to my child, or child to my parent, or employee to my boss or boss to my employee, or teacher to my students, if I do not know who I am. If we are in a relationship where we cannot be ourselves, that relationship is not healthy. It might even be abusive. Quoting his exhortation from the Amazon Synod, Francis writes that speaking and acting together,

Has nothing to do with watering down or concealing our deepest convictions when we encounter others who think differently from ourselves . . . For the deeper, stronger, and richer our own identity is, the more we will be capable of enriching others with our own proper contribution (§282).

There is no neutral. If our Catholic schools are to contribute to the common good in our society, and if they are to welcome, encounter, and dialogue with those who seek to join us, they will not do so by watering down Catholic identity. That would only weaken our impact and trivialize our relationships. Teachers, we need you to know and value your Catholic identity if our schools are be places of genuine encounter and hospitality and not one more outpost of a relativistic culture that welcomes all only if they agree to water down their own heritage and deepest convictions. Jesus told his followers that we are the light of the world. True hospitality is not putting that light under a bushel basket, but letting it shine for all to see.

Featured Image: medieval miniature of St. Michael the Archangel battling Satan, c. 15th century, presumed to be in the Public Domain. 


Brett Salkeld

Brett Salkeld is Archdiocesan Theologian for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina and is the co-host of the Thinking Faith podcast. His latest book is Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity.

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