Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Supreme Court, Samuel Alito and "Public School Catholics."

In this Monday post, Susan at Musings of a Discerning Woman wondered what the prospect of a Catholic majority on the Supreme Court says about American Catholic assimilation in general and the role of parochial schools in particular. Over the past week or so, I've thought a lot about these issues in light of President Bush's nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito, Jr. to replace retiring Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court. Reading newspaper profiles of the nominee, one fact inevitably caught my attention: a lifelong Catholic, Alito has never attended a Catholic school. Educated in public schools in New Jersey from kindergarten through the twelve grade, Alito went on to Princeton and Yale Law School. Among current Catholic justices, three - John Roberts, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas - were at least partly educated in Catholic institutions while one - Anthony Kennedy - mirrors Alito in having attended public elementary and secondary schools and two prestigious nonsectarian universities (Stanford and Harvard, to be precise). In terms of educational background, the only common bond shared by all the current Catholic justices and the man who may soon join them is that they all attended Ivy League law schools.

Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy are representatives of a group I like to call "Public School Catholics." As the moniker itself implies, Public School Catholics are lifelong Catholics who completed their primary and secondary education entirely in the public school system. I'm a member of this group myself, and as it happens so are a majority of American Catholics. Before I say more about this, some historical background may be in order.

The divide between Catholics who attended parochial schools and those who did not goes back many decades. Long a source of justifiable pride among American Catholics, this country's vast Catholic school system has played roles that are cultural and social as well as educational. For more than a century, attending a parochial school has been an important part of Catholic identity formation for many. The parochial school system was long seen by many as a critically important means of transmitting the Catholic faith and culture to the next generation, but throughout its history the system has served a minority of American Catholic schoolchildren. In other words, it has always been the case that a majority of American Catholics were educated in non-Catholic - and mainly public - schools. Unfortunately, Public School Catholics have taken more than a few knocks over the years - from bishops and pastors who viewed the public schools with suspicion and admonished the faithful to avoid them, and from contemporaries who had gone through the parochial schools and in some cases came away with a disdain for the "publics." As Catholics have moved more and more into the mainstream of American life and lost the sense of separation that in some sense contributed to a kind of parochial school elitism, much of the stigma that formerly attached to being a Public School Catholic has disappeared.

My own sense as a Public School Catholic is that the old parochial vs. public school divide still persists in some quarters of the American Catholic community, albeit in muted ways. Every now and then, I still run into Catholics who view their public school-educated coreligionists as somehow less than up to snuff. Then again, I've also run into graduates of secular private schools who regarded both parochial and public schools with equal disdain. In my own experience attending public schools from kindergarten through twelfth grade, I also encountered people who unfairly viewed Catholic parochial schools as backward and inferior institutions. It's important that I mention this to place my earlier comments in a broader context; I'm basically trying to say that no one is perfect.

Regardless of how I might feel about Alito's record as a judge or his potential impact on the Supreme Court, I enjoy seeing an accomplished Public School Catholic in the spotlight. After all, we don't often get our due. AMDG.


At November 11, 2005 12:53 PM, Blogger Lisa said...

Joe, I don't know if you saw my reply to your comment on Susan Rose's blog the other day. But in any case, I really found your question to be astute and look forward to more along these lines.

At November 11, 2005 2:13 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Lisa -

I did see your comment, and it helped motivate me to post some of my thoughts! Perhaps I'll have more to say in a few days, because my views on the topic are continuing to develop. I'm also interested in your opinion on the topic, so feel free to chime in. Pax,


At November 11, 2005 9:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd be interested in knowing more about these public school Catholics' formation - did they attend CCD, were they involved in parish life & ministries, have they been on retreats, have they been involved with lay apostolates or groups like Opus Dei? But isn't the question here really, what makes a Catholic...Catholic? I don't think that going to a Catholic school is the factor in passing on the faith as much as the traditions that are observed within the family. My sense is that the Catholicity of the family is the determining factor here, rather than whether a Catholic school was attended, and I think the focus on the schools is misplaced and most likely, irrelevant.

At November 11, 2005 10:59 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Milagro -
I think you may have missed a key premise that underlies my post. Catholicism isn't simply a religious faith, but has profound cultural aspects as well. American Catholics are a cultural as well as a religious group, and Catholic institutions play a role in cultural identity formation. In a broader way, schools of any type are a vehicle of socialization and identity formation. The rituals and practices we observe in our education help shape who we are. For example, every day of my twelve years of public education began with the Pledge of Allegiance, which among other things marks the school as a place in which children are inculcated with a particular sense of their national identity.

Apart from the religious formation they do or do not receive at home, American Catholics are formed by their experience of schooling. My hunch is that Parochial School Catholics and Public School Catholics have been socialized differently based on their different experiences of education. Thus, independent of whatever explicitly religious training they've received as Catholics, American Catholics who attended public schools and those who attended parochial schools grow up with different perceptions of what it means to be Catholic in the United States.

At November 12, 2005 11:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joe - I didn't miss your premise; I disagree with it. The Pledge didn't make you an American or give you your American patriotism - these are learned experiences that begin at and are reinforced through familial traditions and customs. The same is true of one's Ethnic, racial, and religious identity. You are no more or less Catholic because of where you were schooled - and let's make no mistake here, Catholic schools (at least in my experience having attended them through grad school) and Parishes do a terrible job of extending Catholic culture to children.

At November 15, 2005 11:20 AM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Milagro -
It's clear we have very different ideas about the nature of Catholic identity. Your focus seems to mainly on doctrine, while mine incorporates a few other factors as well as doctrine. That said, it seems like you're making a somewhat different argument in your second post than in your first - the first seems to deny that the larger social environment plays a role in transmitting culture, while the second acknowledges that role and suggests that Catholic schools have done a poor job as transmitters of culture. I suspect we'll just have to agree to disagree and leave it at that. Pax,


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