Mary Valle: I recently voted in my state’s primary election, because I like voting. Where I vote is in the gym of my local Catholic school, which, since the last election, has closed. Been consolidated. I noticed the cornerstone as I walked in: 1957. Boom times in America; boom times for Catholics. It seems that most of your less-endowed (public and parish schools) date from this era, unreconstructed: chipped linoleum floors, scuffed stairwells, the walls themselves weary with decades of cleaning and children. Usually I’d see colorful bulletin boards and statues and crucifixes and maybe even some students, in uniform, selling baked goods to voters, but this time the walls were bare, the icons removed. I felt a twinge of sadness: this school reminds me a lot of the one I attended, which was of the same vintage, and even though I’d never send my daughter to Catholic school, I like knowing they’re around. I feel that they’re holding a piece of my past, which is no role for actual living humans: that of acting out old rituals for people who don’t want participate themselves.
It reminds me of Sister Hermann Marie in the Germantown hospital at the end of White Noise. She says that the nuns pretend to believe in heaven, saints and angels, because the world would collapse if they didn’t. “As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe . . . Nuns in black. . . . fools, children. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. . . . There is no truth without fools.”
Ross Douthat, writing about the Pope’s recent visit to England, notes the crowds that showed up to see him: “They weren’t there to voice agreement with Benedict, necessarily. They were there to show their respect — for the pontiff, for his office, and for the role it has played in sustaining Catholicism for 2,000 years.” I think it’s actually a little more melancholy than that. I think they might have turned out to honor the idea of the Pope, and possibly to experience what the Japanese call mono no aware: observing a moment of beauty while being aware of its passing.
The New York Times recently reported on Archbishop Dolan’s plan to save his own parochial schools by consolidating and distributing the revenue amongst the archdiocese. The basic American Catholic paradigm of parish/school is crumbling, and with it, the great American Catholic experiment, as well as the only reasonably-priced “private” school option for many people. Because: without Catholic schools, where will they grow new Catholics? I don’t think that CCD has quite the same soul-burning effect as the day-in, day-out prayers, rituals, and singing. I remember a sense of CCD kids being only slightly better than the average “public school puke.” A friend asked me recently: “Are you one of the last people to go to Catholic school?” Maybe I am.
But, then again, the schools wouldn’t be closing if they were bustling as in ages past. By the time I got to my parochial school the nuns were gone and each grade had only one class; perhaps, like cancer, the disease has been growly slowly, in plain sight. Garrett Matthew Simmons Baer recently discussed America’s great tradition of racism in Killing the Buddha. I was most amused by a cartoon from Harpers depicting mitered alligators emerging from the “American River Ganges,” with the Vatican looming in the background, and a father protecting his entire family from their toothy attack. Guess what? The official numbers may tell a different story, but I think we no longer have to worry about Papists taking over the country. Protestants: I think that, perhaps, the ball is in your court.