I spent all but three years of my primary and high school education in Catholic schools and it left a mark as indelible as they claim baptism does, particularly in terms of homophobia, sexism, white supremacy, and their soft glove discussions of imperialism. I was totally skeptical of the new Pope and frankly remain critical when he expresses opinions about identity issues.
Nevertheless, I’ll give credit where credit is due.
Recently a Catholic policy think tank in Massachusetts called the Pioneer Institute issued a study with the Miltonian title After the Fall: Catholic Education Beyond the Common Core and it is a doozy. In sixty double-columned pages that vividly reminded me of a New American Bible I used in religion class, they rip Obama’s education policy to shreds and take no prisoners. What is particularly impressive for me is how they cut to the rotten heart of it and identify exactly how awful this behemoth is. They spell out that, because the curriculum rejects a liberal arts paradigm in the name of “a corrupting workforce-development” orientation, it is absolutely unacceptable for the standards of traditional parochial education. And to do this they make reference to a part of last century’s Progressive political movement that is truly despicable.
Most will read the word “Progressive” and think back in political terms to the glories of when Henry Wallace ran as a Progressive Party candidate against Harry Truman or about the Progressive Democrats today who hoist Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren high. But there is an entirely different element that flew under the banner of Progressivism that was vomitous.
These Progressives thought the progress of man might be advanced through a pseudo-scientific breeding program known as eugenics. They thought that segregation of the “races” (another pseudo-science) was a way to prevent social unrest and help with the progression of society. Woodrow Wilson, the president of Princeton, was a major figurehead of this wing of the Progressives and said “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”
Dr. Eli Cook of Haifa University has pointed out in a recent paper The Neoclassical Club: Irving Fisher and the Progressive Origins of Neoliberalism that the Progressive impulse to quantify and price everything, something Irving Fisher did quite well, was in fact one of the major building blocks of the neoclassical economic movement that defines the thinking of neoliberal Democrats and neoconservative Republicans. This is the element of historic Progressivism that Barack Obama has relied on throughout his term busting teacher unions. His anti-labor, pro-banking orientation is quite similar to Wilson’s. The fact that over his tenure we have seen the expansion of charter schools lead to a new era of school segregation is just icing on the cake.
The Catholic Church, despite its own massive flaws, is definitely opposed to Progressivism in this instance. The left wing cousins of Progressivism, Second International Socialism and Communism, were also not favorites of the Church and so they offered as a substitute Christian Democracy. But with no Christian Democratic party in America, they now find themselves tacitly aligning with pro-labor Progressives, creating a resistance to neoliberalism that would generate some interesting alliances.
This is further buttressed by two other news stories from the past year.
Last spring, the Vatican hosted a summit between Catholics and European Marxists. They sat down to talk about common challenges and solutions they could agree on. This was just a year after the Papal encyclical Laudato Si made Rush Limbaugh call Pope Francis a Marxist for blaming capitalism for climate change. That encyclical came under three years after his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium repudiated not just “the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose” but “trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world”. Francis went on to say that the neoclassical supply-side trickle-down idea “has never been confirmed by the facts [and] expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”
The other story, made by the headline-grabbing Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, was equally impressive. I quite honestly have never liked Tobin, he was a major reason I stopped bothering with Mass years ago. In the name of some delusion of grandeur about being a moral figurehead like Cardinal Spellman circa 1950, he is prone to outbursts of the most absurd and reactionary sort. This was perhaps best exemplified when he made a grand show about registering as a Republican over abortion and same sex marriage a few years ago that entailed the most obvious “wink wink nudge nudge” invitation to his flock. Yet here he is at the end of January 2016:
Bishop Thomas Tobin of Rhode Island has left no doubt about where he stands on charter schools renting, leasing, or purchasing Diocesan-owned school buildings that are no longer bustling with the same numbers of children. And he lays the blame for the plummeting enrollment numbers, at least in part, at the feet of the charter sector. “We don’t want to be in the position of compromising 150 years of diocesan education by making charter schools available in direct competition,” said Daniel Ferris, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Ocean State.
There are a number of public school teachers who are still filling the pews these days. The Providence Diocese took a hit 15 years ago when the clergy pedophilia scandal disgusted many to the point they stopped worrying about Sunday Mass. But in this southern New England enclave of historic European migrant communities, combined with growing Latinx, Asian, and post-colonial African demographics, the Roman Catholic Church is statistically the largest religion in the state by virtue of baptismal records. Is there a ton of historic racism between the Portuguese and the Cape Verdeans? Oh yeah. Has Catholic education over the past 65 years been a non-secular separate and not equal to public education alternative that did not have the “problems” that seemed to crop up in public schools after Brown v. Board? For previous generations, yes. But the growth of Latinx and post-colonial African demographics in the middle class who have historic ties to the Church has impacted this dynamic in a noticeable fashion over the past few decades. One recent fact sheet indicates that 19.8% of the Catholic school student body nationally is composed of minorities that break down into 15% Latino, 8% Black/African American, 5% Asian American, and 5.6% multiethnic.
Furthermore, neoliberalism as a type of class warfare does not target on the basis of ethnicity as Woodrow Wilson’s Progressivism did a century ago. In fact, it utilizes identity in a way that can elect war-mongering imperialists like Obama or Hillary Clinton to further the onslaught.
The current coordinates of our socio-political paradigm are disturbing. Half of the 99% is beholden to a Tea Party/Libertarian delusion about neoliberalism that misconstrues its “big government” norms with Communism. The other half is unable to totally unlatch from the stranglehold of the Democratic Party due to the fact they misconstrue neoliberal identity politics with Communist anti-racism.
The Catholic Church, along with other faith groups in America, would be perhaps the only moderator that might overcome these divides. One activist who faced a similar situation over a century ago said something that might prove to be useful:
Even they are joining in the demand for freedom, are protesting against bureaucratic practices and officialism, against the spying for the police imposed on the “servants of God”. We socialists must lend this movement our support, carrying the demands of honest and sincere members of the clergy to their conclusion, making them stick to their words about freedom… Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.
The fact his nom de plume was Lenin is besides the point in my mind.