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Terence SweeneyMarch 30, 2023
Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

Lent is a season for considering Jesus’ wisdom: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt 6:21). We examine ourselves to see where our treasure is. We pray, fast and give so that we can invest our heart with God and neighbor. Unexpectedly, Catholics have an excellent examen in a Wall Street Journal-NORC poll on where Americans are putting their hearts these days. The news is not good. In 1998, 70 percent of Americans deemed patriotism important to their own lives; now it is 38 percent. Sixty-two percent deemed religion important, now 37 percent do. Fifty-nine percent thought having children was important; today 30 percent share that value. In 1998, 47 percent of Americans highly valued community involvement; now it’s 27 percent. One value has increased in importance: Money has gone up from 31 percent to 43 percent.

One poll can only tell us so much about a society as large and complex as the United States, and it is true that the outlook of Americans is often tied to external factors like the economy. But even if our values are in a sense cyclical, these numbers should inspire some Lenten soul searching for all of us, especially Catholic educators.

Catholics have “the duty to scrutinize the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel.” When we do so, we should keep in mind St. Augustine’s admonition that “We are the times. Such as we are, such are the times.” To scrutinize the times is to scrutinize ourselves. The Wall Street Journal’s poll spurs us to a shared scrutinizing of our times and of ourselves. Are we putting money before God, self-interest before the common good, partisan ideology before the task of building a more perfect union?

Are we putting money before God, self-interest before the common good, partisan ideology before the task of building a more perfect union?

In light of these trends, Catholic educators need an examen of our own. Do our schools lead people to drift from religion to money, from community engagement to private enrichment? Are we maintaining our core courses so they shape the whole person to give greater glory to God and greater service to our communities? Are social justice and Catholic identity marketing slogans or the heart of what we do? The Second Vatican Council taught that “true education aims to give people a formation directed towards their final end and the good of society to which they belong.” When we put religion at the center of our lives, we are putting communion with God, our final end, at the center of our lives. When we value community engagement, having children and our country, what we are valuing is the common good. Our society isn’t doing either very well at the moment.

Catholic education is fundamentally about ordering our loves rightly. In Augustine’s account of ordering our loves, sin means that our loves turn inward and downward, away from others and toward things, from the common to the private, down from the Creator toward creatures. A society that increasingly devalues community and religion and increasingly values money is one that needs educating. True education should form our loves, liberating us from the passing and the paltry to the lasting and the lovely. Catholic schools need to ensure that they are teaching the lasting and the lovely such that any career or technical training can be ordered to give greater glory to God and greater service to neighbor. The best way to do this is to commit (or recommit) to a robust core of courses centered on the fundamental questions of life and the proposal that our lives are really about truth, community and love.

This isn’t a lesson in personal fulfillment; it is essential to social and political life. Communities exist because they have shared objects of love, centers of meaning and value that unite us. But some loves cannot really unite us and can instead wear away at the connecting links of a society. What so enchanted Augustine about God was that loving God never diminished or divided God. This is true of any real good in education or society; I don’t have less truth or wisdom when you have more. This is true of loving others, too. That generations of Catholics, especially mothers, have loved Monica has never lessened Augustine’s love for his mother.

Education should lead us from isolating love toward shared loves. Such shared loves seem harder and harder to find these days.

Education should lead us from isolating love toward shared loves. Such shared loves seem harder and harder to find these days. We have too often replaced them with love of money, which is always an isolating love. It cannot make a community, nor can it see the dignity of others. It is a strange Lenten irony that it is The Wall Street Journal that is reminding us that you cannot serve God and mammon. Pope Francis has warned of the “new idolatry of money” and “the deified market.” For him, this is a crisis of communal commitment because the idolatry of money cannot unite us. The decline of community commitment runs parallel to the rising importance of money precisely because the latter fills in for and undermines the former.

Our needed social conversion is not just a task for educators. It is for all of us. A nation that increasingly devalues the loves that hold us together is one that can’t hold together. The confluence of recent news revealing declining life expectancy, endless gun violence and the exploitation of refugee children speaks to a society that needs a reorientation of our loves.

We may be able to find such a reorientation in two hopes for revivals in the church that can, perhaps, act as a leavening agent in our society. Pope Francis is calling us to a conversion to synodality, toward a way of being a community that lives a common journey. This past week has reminded us of just how much we are suffering from a profound failure of social synodality. To commit to community, to welcome children, to have a measured patriotism, are all forms of synodal living. The Wall Street Journal reveals a society enslaved to money. But the wages of money are death. We find life in the bread we break and the chalice we share. Sharing Christ’s body, we are called to share ourselves with others. Both synodality and the Eucharist are ways of expressing an ordered love. In our times of disordered loves, let’s commit ourselves to putting our treasures, our hearts and our loves not with money but with each other as we travel toward the highest love of all.

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