Following are excerpts from u.s. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett’s speech last week to the convention of the National Catholic Educational Association in Anaheim, Calif. It was entitled, “Rocks of Constancy: Catholic Schools in American Cities.”
... Today we recognize Catholic schools for their effectiveness in education. They have, in many ways, become examples of the schools envisioned not just by their Catholic founders, but by the founders of the public, or common-school, movement as well. They are, as we see, remarkably pluralistic; they are permeated by an ethos that values the moral as well as the intellectual growth of their students. Today, when there is no more important task before American educators than the improvement of our public schools, we may look to Catholic schools for an example. They are a living reminder of the moral and intellectual vision behind our public system itself.
But in addition to their educational effectiveness, I think there is another important lesson that Catholic schools provide us today. Speaking before the Knights of Columbus last August, I called for a national conversation and debate on the role of religion in our society. I suggested, and I suggest again today, that religion is fundamental to the vitality of our republic, and to our very vision of a democratic society. I would recall, for one, the farewell address of George Washington, in which he admonished us that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” I would remember also Abraham Lincoln, whose ancient faith and trust in a just God helped remind a nation of its best, its noblest ends in the task of binding its wounds. And I would recall Martin Luther King, who carried forward the mission of Lincoln and Washington, and who said:
"[W]hen [the] disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
Today, I would point also to the history of the Catholic Church, of Catholic education in particular, as an example of the harmony of religious and civic values, and of the necessity that we cherish both. As the Church has so courageously shown—and as we are reminded daily in Poland, in the Ukraine, and in Nicaragua—our religious freedom is dependent upon democratic values, and, likewise, our political freedom is dependent upon religious values. And just as religious faith is, in Archbishop Spalding’s words, cause to appreciate this country as “God’s best earthly gift to his children,” so our hope for American democracy should remind us, as Washington said, that religion and morality are the “great pillars of human happiness, the firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.”
The history of the Catholic Church in America is a great one; and as I have said, Catholic schools today stand as an example of effective education. But contemporary Catholic education is not without its challenges. Within Catholic schools, one of the great challenges of the day is to teach the truth about the Catholic faith, and the truth about our country. Catholic-school students should be helped to see the mutual dependence that exists between the Church and our free society. They should be able to recognize that there are differences among nations, with respect to the ability to practice one’s faith, and to live in freedom. And Catholic students, like all students, should be taught the responsibilities of citizenship and know that sacrifices are sometimes required to preserve the blessings that we, as a people, enjoy. To keep faith with the great heritage of the Catholic Church in America, we must avoid what is merely trendy, what is merely popular in certain circles in matters as consequential as moral and civic education.
Throughout the last century, and occasionally in this, Catholic schools have been charged with “un-Americanism,” with separatism, divisiveness, and with promoting a vision fundamentally at odds with the ideals and goals of this country. It has been their triumph, the triumph of the Church, and the triumph of American democracy, to prove otherwise. That the Church should be, can be, must be at times a critic of the political and social order-yes, surely. But that it should do so conscientiously, fairly, and bearing in mind its own enormous debt and dependence upon our free country—this, too, is without doubt. As we move ahead in the great enterprise of Catholic education, let us stand firmly anchored in the great achievements of the past. Let us remind ourselves of all that American Catholic education has done, for God and for country—for this country, this last best hope on earth.
A version of this article appeared in the April 09, 1986 edition of Education Week