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When a teacher calls Christianity a fairy tale, it’s time to consider Catholic school

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Father Donato Infante - published on 05/20/22

There's a double standard in schools that all of us should address.

Growing up and attending public school, I remember being in a European history course and being told that the Middle Ages were a time of darkness. Finally, with the Renaissance, and more importantly, the Reformation, it was said that “Reason” (written many times on the board with a capital letter) prevailed.  

Of course, something seemed a bit off about this historical narrative. I was aware of the medieval university system which featured giants like Saint Albert and Saint Thomas Aquinas. I was also aware that Luther’s 95 Theses were not so much about “reason” but about a theological dispute over scriptural interpretation.  

When trying to question the narrative that was being fed to us as simple truth, it became clear to me that the teacher was not interested in a different version of interpretation. At the time, I chalked the incident up to his own ignorance of certain historical facts – perhaps based upon an overly simplistic and biased interpretation of events that was sadly fed to him – and not an intentional misrepresentation. 

That was two decades ago. Now, as a priest who works as vocation director, I am asked to speak at a lot of parishes to youth groups. Recently, I was invited to speak at a parish as part of a three-part series to the youth group in a sort of “ask Father anything” format, including topics like why God permits evil, what evidence exists for whether Jesus rose from the dead, and other topics. 

At one of these nights, several of the high school students in attendance mentioned that their public high school teacher regularly makes arguments for why the Resurrection is not an historical fact. I hear these and similar stories with some regularity these days.  

History, because it contains both elements of fact and also interpretive analysis, is a subject that can end up being taught in several different ways.  

Obviously, it goes without saying that there are many good and hard-working public school teachers. At the same time, it struck me as odd, reflecting both on my own experience, and also listening to these students, that there seems to be a certain double standard. There might exist teachers who would want to give a triumphalist reading of Church history to students, papering over human shortcomings of the Church down the ages. If a teacher tried to give such an overly simplistic reading of history, it would most likely not be tolerated, nor should it be.  If that is true, then why would overly simplistic and sometimes emphatically anti-Christian analysis of otherwise very complex historical events seem to be an acceptable common theme in these settings?  

Historians’ duty

History, because it contains both elements of fact and also interpretive analysis, is a subject that can end up being taught in several different ways.  

Historians have to consider multiple, sometimes inconsistent sources. They have to choose how to weigh the evidence, and consider whether certain events are connected or unrelated. They must make historical judgments. At the bare minimum, good scholarship should distinguish between those facts which are viewed as uncontested and those which are up to historical query. It should also raise for discussion the multiple interpretive narratives which pertain to each historical subject area. Not every unreasonable opinion detached from the facts need be taught; but when there are various versions of the story that can be reasonably inferred from the historical data, those versions should be taught.  My best history teachers did this.

The challenge becomes what to do with situations in which the atheist teacher tries to disprove to his students the historicity of the Resurrection of Christ. In this particular instance, the students told me that their teacher had argued that there was “no evidence” for the Resurrection. On the other hand, one must realize that it is an historical fact that a band of 11 apostles and numerous other followers of Jesus claimed that they saw Jesus executed by the Romans and then raised from the dead about 2,000 years ago. Some of them wrote it down in accounts that became the New Testament. Some of their accounts are essentially eyewitness testimony to events they experienced. Historians can decide what to do with their statements about their experiences and the sudden conversion of thousands of others based upon it. Christianity exists because believers have faith in that testimony which exists as an historical fact; and that faith has resulted in the conversion of much of the world.  

The historical facts remain the same, which some people of faith find convincing, and others do not. That is the evidence, and to claim that such evidence does not exist is inaccurate.

Just as a teacher claiming it “did” happen would be inserting their faith into the classroom – the Resurrection is the central claim of the Christian faith – so claiming “it did not happen” is an assertion of faith in the contrary.

Just as a teacher claiming it “did” happen would be inserting their faith into the classroom – the Resurrection is the central claim of the Christian faith – so claiming “it did not happen” is an assertion of faith in the contrary. It is to tell the students not to be Christian. The faithful view would not be tolerated in a public school, whereas the other one seems to be. Hence the double standard.

Asking self-restraint

When I first noted this double-standard, various secular friends asked me, “What should a teacher do? Lie if asked their own opinion? Merely say, ‘I can’t talk about that?’” It would seem that once again, the teacher should acknowledge that down the centuries people have presented arguments both in favor and against faith in the Resurrection of Christ based upon the historical data. Whether that faith is well-placed – i.e., whether one should become a Christian –  would be beyond the scope of the curriculum of that particular history course. The historical data, however, did happen; and that data is the testimony of those who experienced whatever it is they experienced which they identified as the Resurrection. And that did happen, so it should be presented without a bias towards or against religious faith. This would require a type of self-restraint in speech, but we expect similar self-restraint of teachers in other ways. 

When I noted the double-standard in a recent Facebook post, one person replied it was not a double standard at all, as public schools cannot promote religion. The implication was that to promote anti-religion (which is itself a form of religion) is acceptable. I see this a lot, but this is problematic for the obvious reason that to deny the Resurrection requires in itself a kind of faith in one’s interpretation of history. “Value-neutral” education is itself a type of value. To be clear, the students never gave any indication that the administration is aware of the situation, and maybe they would act to rectify the double standard.  

The type of education I am advocating for in schools is perfectly allowed by legal standards, but based on my own experience, and that of the teens with whom I spoke, I wonder how rare it is. The very fact that the responses to my initial Facebook post was that public schools should be allowed to be hostile to faith indicates that, despite current legal protections saying otherwise, the battle will be ongoing. Recent years have seen many public debates, between parents and technocratic educational experts regarding what public schools are being taught regarding sexuality or race. The problem of a secular worldview runs far deeper. The 19th century saw an enormous explosion in Catholic schooling to provide an environment to Catholics that was not hostile to the faith. Maybe it is time for a revival of Catholic education.

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