Like many, I was disgusted by the incident that occurred during the Indigenous People’s March just a few weeks ago; a group of Trump supporting teenagers surrounded and mocked a Native American elder. As someone whose entire education prior to attending NYU was at a Catholic school, I was particularly enraged to learn that fellow Catholic students were responsible.
In the aftermath of the incident “#ExposeChristianSchools” went viral, revealing widespread cases of bigotry in Christian schools across the country. While reading all the various accounts from students, I couldn’t help but think of my own experience in a Catholic school, which also had problems with bigotry. Nevertheless, some of the most positive experiences I’ve ever had took place during my Catholic education, particularly my Jesuit high school, which emphasized social justice and service in the community. As a result, my own experience in Catholic school is one of profound contradiction.
Similarly, the Covington Catholic incident is reflective of the contradiction present within all Catholic education: a curriculum of social justice with a culture of oppression. This is also reflective of the greater contradictions within both the Catholic Church as an institution and Catholicism as a theological doctrine. While some of my personal experiences were negative, I believe that Catholic education, much like the Catholic Church and Catholicism, can be a force for good in the world. However, in order for that to occur, it needs to step away from a conservative approach to theology and it must embrace a progressive approach, one that is bent towards justice.
Looking at the video, it’s not difficult to get a sense of what these kids represent: smugness and disrespect rooted in white supremacy and anti-indigenous sentiment — which is not only ingrained in the history of this country but has also been bolstered by President Donald Trump’s campaign, election and administration. Despite the perpetrators attempts to gaslight and misdirect blame, it is hard to feel anything but disrespect from the main student in the video, as well as the surrounding mob of young bigots. Ultimately, this situation was a complete failure of Catholic education and contradicts everything essential to Catholic doctrine. Furthermore, as a former Catholic student, it feels necessary to apologize to the indigenous community for the actions of my peers and to say that I firmly stand against everything that they stand for.
From kindergarten to eighth grade, I attended Our Lady of Pompeii School — just a few blocks away from Washington Square Park. Afterward, I went to Saint Peter’s Preparatory School, a Jesuit high school in New Jersey. Both of these institutions had a profound effect on my worldview, and some of that had to do with my negative experiences as a student. When reflecting on my time at Our Lady of Pompeii, it is difficult to forget the culture of homophobia and toxic masculinity. There is no doubt in my mind that this contributed to the difficulty I had in coming to terms with my bisexuality as I would come to understand it later on. My high school experience wasn’t much better. During my time there, a close friend and fellow student, Lyandro Zuñiga, created an art piece depicting various bigoted statements written in black ink on a large American flag. The statements were all xenophobic, misogynistic, racist and homophobic things Lyandro had overheard during our time at Saint Peter’s.
Ultimately, bigoted actions aren’t limited to Catholic education, as they infest all Catholic institutions. I remember vividly the Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s decree regarding same-sex marriage, firmly rejecting it and codifying that rejection in the Archdiocese policy. Even at a young age I couldn’t help but feel extremely conflicted by the idea of a faith which centers itself around love, while simultaneously rejecting the notion of love for some people. There is also no doubt in my mind that these experiences contributed to me distancing myself from the faith.
With that being said, the difficult task becomes reconciling these experiences with some of the overwhelmingly positive ones I had during my time in Catholic school. At Our Lady of Pompeii, I received an opportunity to explore theological questions in a manner that allowed me to ponder the mystery of God and then engage with that idea more critically later on. That open-mindedness was crucial for the development of my worldview. My time at Saint Peter’s gave me some of my most important passions and motivations. In particular, the school forced me to reconcile my responsibility to the world while guiding me to find my place within it. As an institution, it facilitated many different events and dialogues about social justice issues, which encouraged further development of my worldview. And finally, through the ascension of Pope Francis to the papacy — his humility, concern for the poor and focus on interfaith dialogue — I have begun to reconcile my relationship with my Catholic identity — something I struggled with beforehand.
Still, one of the biggest flaws of the Catholic Church is its inability to self-correct. At my high school, they placed Zuñiga’s flag in a room where very few people could see it. Ultimately, despite their successes, I view this action as a failure of my Catholic education. The Catholic faith is declining in terms of popularity and importance in people’s lives. The two most important contributing factors in this decline are a lack of trust in wake of the sexual abuse scandal and a disagreement over some of the more conservative political stances of the Church.
Refocusing on Covington Catholic, this incident took place during the annual March for Life, whose conservative stance on abortion has created a direct connection between the Church, its various smaller communities and the far-right of this country. Pope Francis himself still has conservative views with regards to abortion, the ordination of women and LGBTQ issues. As progressive as he may be, he falls short of what many consider to be radically necessary change. Because ultimately, if Catholic education is to mean anything in the 21st century and the rise of secularism, then it must have an emphasis on social justice. Furthermore, it must rid itself of any and all oppressive elements while reconciling its past.
The Catholic Church is one of the oldest continuously functioning institutions in the history of the world. It is also the largest non-state provider of education and health care around the world. If the Church wants to remain a force for change in the world then it must reorient itself around love and humility as opposed to rigidity and conservatism. Through this, perhaps it can help create a Heaven on Earth.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 4 print edition. Email Cole Stallone at [email protected]