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The Confederate Lawyer
February 16, 2012

The Golden Age of Parochial Education
by Charles G. Mills
fitzgerald griffin foundation

GLEN COVE, NY — The golden age of the American parochial school system (from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 until the end of World War I in 1918) was a period of true heroism by America’s Catholics.

Prior to the War Between the States, the United States was a very diverse country. There was virtually no federal interference in state laws. Religious freedom was common, but not in Massachusetts, Connecticut, or New Hampshire, where government discrimination against Catholics, Quakers, and sometimes Episcopalians lasted for two generations after Independence.

The old South was one of the most religiously diverse parts of the country. President Jefferson Davis was an Episcopalian who attended a Catholic school. Judah P. Benjamin was a Jewish Secretary of State of the Confederacy. Several of the best chaplains in the Confederate Army were Catholics. In contrast, New England was the most religiously intolerant area.

When the United States Army stopped rigging the elections in Louisiana and South Carolina in 1877, the last military remnant of the War Between the States emergency ended. The country emerged from the war, and Reconstruction radically changed. Not only did the federal government become dominant over the states, but a sense of national conformity largely replaced the local sense of pride. The New England model of a nearly universal public school system spread across the country.

New England’s attitude of religious intolerance infected the Republican Party. In 1875, Rutherford B. Hayes was elected Governor of Ohio on a platform that warned that the Pope was plotting to take over the state. The following year, he was elected President in a disputed election. In 1880, a speaker at the Republican Convention described the Democratic Party as the Party of rum, Romanism, and rebellion.

A few Catholics, such as Archbishop Ireland of Saint Paul, sought accommodation with the new America. Most, however, resisted heroically. The greatest problem was with the school systems. Catholic education had existed in America since Independence, but it was not as widespread as the new public school systems.

The public schools were a threat to the faith of young people for a number of reasons. The reasons most widely discussed were their practice of ending the Lord’s Prayer with words not found in the earliest manuscripts and their rejection of the Greek texts of the Old Testament. The real dangers, however, were more serious. The public schools exaggerated and emphasized every minor persecution of Protestants by a Catholic king or queen while ignoring the truly bloody persecution of Catholics in England.

The most serious dangers of the public school systems were their denial of five of the seven sacraments, their denial that man’s good works could assist in his salvation, their denial that man could freely choose to be saved or damned, their denial of the authority of the Church, and their insistence on a sort of civic religion.

The response of the American bishops was not, in any way, to seek accommodation, but to create a Catholic school in almost every parish. This was accomplished by great sacrifices on the part of the faithful and by hundreds of thousands of teaching sisters who dedicated their lives to teaching in these schools.

The response of the Church’s enemies was furious. Under the leadership of James G. Blaine, Speaker of the House of Representatives, senator, and unsuccessful candidate for President in 1880, amendments to 39 state constitutions were passed prohibiting the use of government money for religious education. Although it was arguably unjust to make Catholics pay for two school systems, the policy was a blessing in disguise. The parochial schools took nothing from the government, and so they remained free to teach the whole truth without restraint from it.

The parochial schools did not turn away non-Catholic children. Many Lutherans and Episcopalians who shared Catholic concerns about the public schools set up their own schools or sent their children to the Catholic ones.

The 1920s saw America change again. Oregon attempted to outlaw private education. The Supreme Court overturned this attempt on the grounds of economic freedom. The quality of American education began to deteriorate under the influence of progressive educational theories.

Catholic schools were a few years behind the public schools in the deterioration. They became more admired for quality than for orthodoxy. As they became more involved in new things like school busing, school lunches, and extracurricular activities, they began to lose their distinctive character. Today, American Catholic education is a mere shadow of the system that stood up defiantly and without compromise or accommodation against the most anti-Catholic period in American history — and preserved the faith.

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The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2012 by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved.

Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles about the law.

See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.

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