Catholic Values in a Turbulent World

Irene lmpellizzeri, Ph.D.

The title of this brief address reminds me of an old schoolteacher joke, about a little girl who announced that the title of her composition would be “The Universe”; and when it was suggested to her that perhaps she should define her subject a bit more precisely, she changed it to “The Universe and Other Things.”

I will do my best.

Catholic values …the first two words of our assigned subject put me in an unfamiliar, if not uncomfort- able, position. I suppose I have been invited here for my notoriety, because I have served as Vice President of the New York City Board of Education throughout a whole series of seismic events-external pressures, internal frictions – which have provided the metropolitan newspapers with some of the best opportunities they have had in years for missing the point; and in the course of these all-too-human events I have somehow acquired the reputation of being a Public Catholic – a spokesperson, or point-person, or someone used by the Diocese of Brooklyn and the Archdiocese of New York.

Now, I am a Catholic. I will not deny it. I have frequently been seen entering churches. and even cathedrals; and since the school convulsions, I have been very graciously treated by His Eminence and Their Excellencies. I deeply appreciate the support I have received from Bishop Daily, the Clergy of the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens and its people. Yet all this time, I have tried not to deal with public school issues in specifically Catholic terms. I do not think I have referred very often to morality, using the term “morality,” and almost never to religion.

There are politicians who fmd it easy to say that the imperatives of private conscience do not extend to public issues. I would not find that easy to say. A Catholic should not find it easy. Even Pontius Pilate, who I understand was a practicing Stoic, did not fmd it easy.

But in the issues before the Board, it has never been necessary to refer to particular creeds or behavioral criteria flowing from creeds; all the issues have been decidable on quite simple and compelling secular grounds: in the civil rights of parents, on the safety of children, on the emotional health of children, on the limitations of government, on the honest treatment of citizens. There is no wall of separation needed here at all.

When we return to that subject in a few moments, however, we shall see that this admirably secular state of affairs might not last.

Turbulent World… the second operative pair of words in our title invites our attention to a large, strange fact. There really are – not only in Teheran and Cairo, Beijing and Tegucigalpa, not only within the United States, but within this metropolitan area – conflicts over values, fundamental values, bitter conflicts.

We used to be taught – and not very long ago, either – that the real conflicts were about economics: economic systems, economic classes. Oh, nationality might cause a little trouble; ethnicity might complicate things; episodes like prohibition might afford some comic relief for a time; and there were certainly some ideological aspects of the Bolshevik experiment.

But few educated people believed there could be such a thing as a war, or even a political struggle, over things like the Meaning of Life, or the Sanctity of Life, or the Protection of Innocence, or the Nature and Importance of the Family. Explicitly religious wars were a thing of the distant past and (we were told) had probably been about markets and trade routes anyway. Lincoln may have thought the American Civil War was about slavery or, that is to say, about human freedom – but a few generations of professors discovered that it was really about rival economic institutions based on chattel-slavery and wage-slavery. It’s as if there was a sign on the History Department door like the sign on the door of Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Little Rock reading, “The economy, stupid.”

We have learned better.

Economics now is more a problem than an issue. It should be plain that the historic issue now is not how the human beings will earn a livelihood but what they will do with their lives; what they will be allowed to do, what they will be forced to do, and what they will be made to think they are doing.

Slowly, slowly, in a series of cultural skirmishes, we approach the great questions: What is a human life? What are its defining boundaries? When does it begin? When does it end? Does it end? What is it for? And, in the words of a contemporary playwright, whose life is it, anyway?

These questions have always been there for the philosopher and the theologian – though I believe some of the existentialists did try to take a holiday from them. But in our own increasingly…I will not use the word “permissive”…in our increasingly polymorphous society, these philosophic questions are thrust before us in the most urgent, practical forms. They have become, in the everyday sense of the phrase, matters of life and death.

Your own professional concerns are practical forms of those questions. Let us take an example at random. Life ends more gradually than it used to. The aged cease by gradations imperceptible to themselves to be heads of families. Some cease to be members of families, losing their autonomy and becoming residents of nursing homes. They go from a household to a nursing home where their life can seldom be replenished but is stretched out, further and further. Then, perhaps, they are taken to other facilities and placed in machines plugged into the wall behind an adjustable bed. And there they are, instances of a fundamental question. We used to talk about “making a good death,” and poets wrote about “not going gentle into that good night.” This seems quite different, somehow.

Again, what can be done for a young girl about to bear a child, but who herself has never experienced a family?

There are innumerable claims, some advanced reasonably, some with satanic obstinacy. There are endlessly reworked and re-offered proposals, some of them humane, others flawed by the little fluent brutalities of Management Science. There are the strangest new feasibilities. All these together are forcing us to think deeply about the great Human Life questions.

If these Human Life questions are so fundamental, why were there no great public struggles over them? How could they lie dormant for so long?

In my opinion, the answer is that there used to be, at least throughout what we call Western Civilization, a sort of loose or lazy consensus. There were quite a lot of things that no one was required to do. And there was actually so little variation in views that there were comparatively few things which everyone was required to do, but which the tenets of this or that particular group forbade.

There were even fewer things which were generally held to be criminal or immoral but which one group believed it had a duty or an absolute right to do. Mormon polygamy was such an issue, but the Latter Day Saints solved it by a compromise; there was a change in church law (the Mormons gave up polygamy) and in 1896, Utah became a state. Little by little, however more and more of the prohibited behavior was demanded as of right by various self-appointed groups; and it is notable that these were impelled not in the first instance by philosophic considerations – beliefs about human life – but by appetites and impulses.

And so the old Consensus broke apart and in its place was left – a Compromise.

It is also notable that the old Consensus included most of what are now called “Catholic values,” and that those who subscribed to it included not only Christians and Jews but all sorts of philosophers and scientific materialists.

The Consenus was replaced by the Compromise, that uncertain nexus of a pluralistic society. A pluralistic society is not a society composed of lukewarm pluralistic people; it is a variegated society of hot monists, so to speak. The model of the Compromise is the Mormon compromise of 100 years ago; the passionately committed group will abridge its claims and moderate its practices just so far as will enable it to co-exist with the other groups.

There is one crucial rule in which practicality must yield to justice: NO ONE MAY COMPROMISE THE RIGHTS OF OTHERS. That is why abortion is so terrible a test for the pluralist society: no one may give away the right to life of the voiceless infant in the womb.

Already we see signs that the American compromise is endangered, as it must be endangered by any depreciation of conscientious belief. To withhold respect for any religion, or to reduce the importance of religion itself, is to threaten all safety of belief. And I want to read you 25 words from the middle of a thick volume called New York City Public Schools HIVIAIDS Education Training Design for High School HIV/AIDS Education Teams. These 25 words constitute the entire instruction given to these teams which might conceivably remind them of their duty to respect the religious sensibilities of children and their parents. They occur in the middle of a long list of questions to be discussed – with the “Facilitator” writing the responses “by categories on chalkboard or newsprint. “

“What situations arise for people within the context of sexual decision making, e.g. violence in relationships, political or cultural barriers – genocide, religious belief ?”

Violence, genocide and religion. These are problems the children may have to solve in picking sex partners. It seems we must help the fourteen year old girl to make an intelligent choice: should she bed down with the old SS guard from Auschwitz or the young Catholic wife-beater? That reference to “religious belief’ is the only mention of religion I can find in the book.

I am not confident that the compromise, in which secular bodies refrain from mutually destructive aggression against the spiritual, will last.

What Survival Skills can I recommend for Catholics in the 90s?

(1) Stand up and be counted; they’ll find you anyway, but be very vigilant for opportunities to make common cause on specific issues with people who may fight you on other issues. Remember, in a pluralistic society, every majority is a coalition.

(2) Never placate anyone who says, “Why don’t we put this behind us and get on with it?” What you put behind you will catch up with you. But you should learn how to put things aside – where you can reach them again. Retrieve your wounded.

(3) Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves:

Whatever skills Catholics must have to survive in the 90s – and I must say, even if we get through 2000, I don’t think things are going to be much safer – whatever skills we have, we will have two preeminent spiritual duties. We have always had them, but they will become even more important. One is the duty of Christian Charity; the other is the duty of Catholic Realism,

When I speak of Charity, I do not mean the old practice of giving to the poor. That was a work of charity, not charity itself. Still less do I mean that sort of large-scale betterment, in which the work of charity has been turned over to what that confused old anarchist Dwight Macdonald used to call philanthropoids. And as for giving money to “change-agents”…

Charity, I take it, is the love of God that enables us to love His creatures, even the most unlovable ones. The present cultural turbulence offers us some particularly appropriate occasions for Christian Charity.

As we watch certain activists packing public meetings to jeer at anxious parents, and to hiss down rabbis and priests – and indeed anyone who uses the word “family” with respect, as we watch them intimidating public servants and assert – in!! a special ad hoc jurisdiction over public schools, so as to make sure their relationships are accorded at least the same status as traditional marriage; as we see certain groups invading public high schools to distribute leaflets that explain, in street and cult-language, how to practice eight kinds of ” alternative” lifestyle sex, along with instructive multicultural pictures. and a list of seven additional “hot” activities, and the concluding exhortation, “Use your imagination!” (all, of course, under the rubric of “safer sex”); as we find gender activists litigating in this or that state to ban sex-education materials that they think show a subtle bias in favor of traditional sex, or that recommend confming sex to marriage, or that stress abstinence too much – on the grounds that these are covert “hate literature” – as we observe such things, we are I think, entitled to our indignation, but it is nonetheless our duty to remember these are human beings in pain.

Tragically, some are dying. Equally tragic, others are HIV-positive but are waiting out the 10 or 15 years before the virus commences its inexorable work.

These people – many so talented, so daring, so aesthetic – who once enjoyed a pansexual fantasy, recognizing no institutional or instinctual restrictions on erotic pleasure must now deal with the potential of a deadly illness. For they know that condoms (which the public authorities are offering to school children) are unsafe, with a failure-rate of 15%. They know that only abstinence is safe.

Then why is abstinence unacceptable to so many of them – even in theory – even to the dying?

Why do they persist in dangerous behavior, when the dangers are so horrible?

And for that matter, why do intravenous drug users, the major group of heterosexual HIV victims, persist in sharing needles?

These kinds of behavior may, in their very wildness, hint at some inchoate realization, some inkling, that what is in question is not the mere will of a parent, or of society, or of some other authority that can be bullied or manipulated, but rather something related to what the great physicist Warner Heisenberg called (in one of his more religious moments) “the central order of the universe.” In other words, there may just be the beginnings of a sense of sin.

But remember: first, that this may not be the explanation at all: second, that an explanation is not necessarily an excuse; and third, that even if it is the explanation, a sense of sin (in adults, I mean) can be the beginning of penitence or can be the beginning of the final, damnable defiance.

So, in charity, it is the duty of a Catholic to love the sinner but not the sin. We cannot always do that duty; many of us are too weak. We institutionalize the love. We devise routines and we set up “Centers.” We call on professionals to care for the sinners, and it is the professionals like yourselves who have to have the strength to practice both Christian Charity and Catholic Realism.

Strong or weak, we must never he distracted by the semantic maneuvers that typically accompany sin nowadays.

To go back to our bewildered and frightened young girl who finds herself pregnant and has never experienced a functioning family; we must not let our pity seduce us into thinking that it is all right – much less right – for that girl to get a doctor to kill her baby. Have you seen the bumper stickers that say, “It’s not a choice. It’s a child!”? Abortion is the termination of a human life. That is what it is, and we have no moral right to climb to some higher level of abstraction from which we cannot see the gory details.

I have called this requisite steadiness and accuracy of gaze “Catholic Realism” because the Church has always believed that there is objective truth. Of course Catholicism has wavered at times, but unofficially and only in spots. The mind of the Church is that whatever is, is. There are primitive tribes who, when a child is sick, give it a new name and change its clothes, presumably to confuse the demons: but they only confuse the issue. Catholic teaching does not encourage the bizarre modem notion of plastic ontology – that you must call the disabled “differently abled.”

That is why one is freer, on the whole, to teach the truth in a Catholic school than in public schools. I do not mean what are called “the truths of Catholicism”: I mean the facts that a Mohammedan or a Buddhist could see. In most Catholic schools, at any rate, the facts are not yet subject to political editing or wishful euphemism.

A sin is a sin, it is not a different way of looking at things. I am appalled to see people who call themselves Catholics leafing through the Doctors of the Church to find disagreements about the precise moment of ensoulment. Ensoulment has nothing to do with infanticide. A rosebush is a rosebush before there are any roses on it. If you rip it out of the earth in April, before the first buds appear – but when no action is needed to make them appear in May – you are killing roses, as surely as if you waited till the blossoms opened.

Recently a substantial segment of the population has been induced to regard the ‘fetus’ as a sort of foreign body, with no more moral significance than a tumor. Yet they are extraordinarily squeamish about looking at that body; and when an anti-abortion demonstrator holds up an aborted fetus, they are quick to call the police and have the offensive sight removed. Just as if it was a human corpse!

An unborn child is not merely aberrant tissue. All other tissue in a woman’s body has her chromosomes, though some of them may be damaged. The tissue of an unborn child is the only tissue in a woman’s body that has its own distinct set of chromosomes – half from her, but half from another human individual, the father.

Obviously the courage to see the objective truth and to tell it and to act on it does not belong exclusively to Catholics. As everyone knows who knows The Beggar’s Opera, in the bad old days in England when one could be hanged for theft, gangs retained “child-getters” to impregnate girls accused of stealing, because a pregnant woman could not be hanged: harsh as it was, the law in Protestant England was clearheaded: it would not kill the fetus with the mother because the fetus was a distinct, innocent human life – not separate, but quite distinct.

They knew nothing about chromosomes, but they knew what they saw. (Ah, Anglicans were Anglicans in those days!) so the woman “pleaded her belly”, as the phrase then went, and was transported to America.

Before I close, may I say a word or two about my own war experiences?

They have surprised me. They have not been the experiences an American is supposed to have. I did not expect my independence of the political authorities in New York City to cost me so dear. I did not think a reasoned professional disagreement, based on my 50 years of work in the schools, would elicit such battering fury. Sometimes it seemed to me that 110 Livingston Street had been picked up and transported into Orwell’s 1984.

I am not comparing myself to the protagonist of 1984, Winston Smith, however. For one thing, I have not been alone. I have three admirable colleagues on the Board and a host of fellow professionals and other fellow citizens who are loyal to the rights of parents and the protection of children.

And for another thing, I shall not end as Winston Smith did, by loving Big Brother.

Nor am I comparing myself to the apostles. Still, since the apostles are (to use a modem term) the role models chosen for us by God, I will end this talk on Catholic values by telling you what I think is the one thing necessary for survival in the 90s – and I will use the words of a rather sentimental Protestant hymn:

They cast their nets in Galilee Just off the hills of brown;
Such happy, simple fisher folk, Before the Lord came down.

Contented peaceful fishermen Before they ever knew
The peace of God that  filled their hearts Brimful, and broke them too.

Young John, who trimmed the flapping sail,
Homeless in Patmos died. Peter, who hauled the teeming
net, Head down was crucified.

The peace of God, it is no peace, But strife closed in the sod.
Yet, brothers, pray for but one thing
The marvelous peace of God.

Irene Impellizzeri, Ph.D. is a member of the New York City Board of Education and an astute commentator on these troubled times. These remarks, condensed with her permission, were made to the Sanctity of Life Convocation, December 5, 1992. A biographical sketch appears on page 6.


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Written by Bill