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In Defense of Catholic School

I have become extremely tired of the dinner-party trend in which the conversation gets around to how dreadful Catholic priests are, how oppressive the Church is, and—most popular of all—how oppressive life was at a Catholic school and how cruel the nuns were.

You know the sort of thing: It begins with a jokey reference to “Catholic guilt,” perhaps in a trivial way by someone exclaiming about how he is feeling bad about having abandoned a diet or failed to complete some repair job around the house. “I get a conscience about this stuff—all goes back to the Catholic guilt thing!” More generally, it can be triggered off by any conversation where the topic is social trends, childhood reminiscences, or something about schools and education.

“The nuns at school totally destroyed our self-esteem. It was just consistent, gross, psychological abuse.” “Of course, I went to a Catholic school. Need I say more?” “I was brought up on the whole Catholic guilt thing—it has taken me years to learn to love myself.” These are all samples of the sort of thing to which we are meant to nod assent and respond not only with sympathy to the speaker but smug denunciations of the Church’s policies.

It’s all the more absurd because (in Britain at any rate) Catholic schools are popular and oversubscribed with parents struggling to have their children accepted, often fibbing about Mass attendance or giving false addresses (grandparents’ homes or houses belonging to other relatives) in order to fall within the attachment areas of a popular parish school. Prime Minister Tony Blair was following a general trend when he chose the London Oratory School—a highly popular London Catholic boys’ school—for his sons, and almost every Catholic parish priest has stories of parents accosting him after Mass or even sending expensive gifts to the presbytery in attempts to wheedle a place for their children at an oversubscribed school.

Perhaps we all should remain quiet and allow the Church’s good work to do its own task of silencing those who attack the heritage of achievement in Catholic education. But I do not think this is enough. We have to speak up. It is time for us all to make a serious decision to defend and uphold what we know to be fair and just whenever we hear nonsense being talked about our Church.

British author Alice Thomas Ellis takes a robust attitude in her latest book (God Has Not Changed, Burns and Oates, 2004) in which she refers to “the nunbashers: endless whining about the Marquis de Sade–like sisters who ruined their childhoods and bent their self-esteem all out of shape. I heard a woman describing what a naughty little thing she’d been, and how, at her confirmation, she had elected to add Mary Magdalene to her name and how the nuns had drawn in their breath and how the bishop had blushed scarlet and wasn’t that daring and amusing and original, to which one can only respond that if the convent did not already harbor a Sister Mary Magdalene that it was unusual, for this friend of our Lord was accorded great affection and respect when I was a child and in the company of nuns.” Ellis goes on, “Why, one wonders, did the lady bother to invent this tale? Perhaps to make herself more interesting.”

Well, yes. And there is more. I have seen women who are successful in their careers, owners of big houses, cars and luxuries, who have comfortable lives and the benefit of an excellent education bemoaning their fate at having attended a top Catholic school and solemnly intoning how the nuns who educated them had “not taught us to love ourselves.” Of course they always want to add, with arch coyness, how at school their own naughty little ways and bright talent showed up the nuns’ innate cruelty and narrow-mindedness.

In the midst of all this, honest memories need to come as a fresh dynamism, with humor and honesty of their own that will catch the listener and turn the conversation in a new direction. I believe that an honest, humorous, reflective comment or two, delivered in the right tone, can help to turn a conversation and set the sneering, anti-Church conversation in a different direction.

My own memories come from a very traditional convent school: white veils for Corpus Christi processions, great baskets of flowers for May ceremonies around a statue on the front lawn, strict adherence to an old-fashioned uniform with brown skirts and big velour hats, elaborate traditions governing many aspects of our lives—all this in a set of buildings centered on a beautiful eighteenth-century house in its own lovely grounds.

Was I miserable? Certainly not. The meals were simply horrible, but then this was Britain in the 1960s, and frankly most food was fairly nasty. (I remember my first visit to America in 1973 and the discovery of my country’s reputation of having the most inedible food in the civilized world!) In any case, the lunches were provided not by the nuns but by the local Education Authority, because there were a number of girls who were on scholarships paid for out of public funds and thus the school qualified for meals produced by the Borough Council.

Discipline was fairly strict. I remember as a little girl being punished for climbing onto the grand piano in the assembly hall as a dare from a friend and doing a tap dance there. (I should have known that Sister Aloysius Mary would be passing in the corridor.) Our games and conversations, hobbies and obsessions, were exactly the same as those of all the other girls in the London suburbs. In our teens we smoked cigarettes with glee, one girl on “watch out” duty to spy out any teacher who might loom in sight. We shrieked our passion for the Beatles and other pop groups, and we spent much time messing with our clothes to get our skirts to the required micro-mini length—it was social death to have the hem anywhere near your knees—and our eyes covered with thick sticky mascara and eye shadow.

I look back with pleasure on the special things that marked out our school from all the other local educational establishments. As small First Communicants, we strewed flowers in front of the Blessed Sacrament in procession and lined up in formation to crown a statue of Mary. There were blissful mornings when dull arithmetic lessons were interrupted by a self-important little girl coming with a message: “Would all the strewers please come to Sister’s room, as we’re all going out for a practice?”

On feast days, after a morning assembly a beaming nun held out a tin of chocolates and toffees, and each child made a careful choice of two to enjoy at morning break. Our school choirs were the most successful for miles around and we scooped all the prizes at local festivals. For big processions and outdoor Masses, loudspeakers carried the sound out to large crowds, while beautiful floral displays depicting various images—doves, a chalice, our Lady, even our own school badge all created in petals—transformed the lawns.

Oh, yes, there were days when people snapped at you or there was trouble because you hadn’t done your homework or had been caught skipping a math lesson. Some nuns and lay teachers were peevish or unkind. Not infrequently, there was injustice. I remember our whole class being banned from swimming for an entire term because some of us shrieked and misbehaved with a new young teacher who failed to keep order, and the noise attracted the attention of a passing nun. But on the whole, in a century that saw the gulag and Auschwitz, the horrors of a convent school were pretty minimal.

The only resentments I have actually focus on the final two years of school, 1968–70, when the Church seemed to be going mad. Morning assembly suddenly turned sideways from being a formal gathering of girls in ranks singing stirring hymns and was reshaped as a muddled gathering around a nun with a guitar. We didn’t much like it. We didn’t care for silly, unsingable ditties that replaced well-loved hymns, and our religious education lessons became dull, consisting of nuns telling us to oppose nuclear war (which we all opposed anyway) or to support various (often American) political causes.

Our own concerns—relationships with parents, tussles of conscience about sex, and all that this involved—were largely ignored except for a vague message that “things had changed” and the “old ideas” were now somehow to be ignored. No wonder so many of my contemporaries got into a complete mess. Probably we would have responded well to a clear and well-explained message along the lines of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, but we were twenty years too early for that.

I am, of course, aware of the fact that many women had joined religious orders in the very different world of the 1930s and 40s and were unprepared for the huge upheavals that hit the Western world in that extraordinary era around 1968. There is a lot that needs to be written about all this as the subject becomes a legitimate one for historians. But my concern is to empower Catholics into setting the human record straight about the actual achievements of old-style convent schools and the benefits they gave to the girls they educated.

So when the conversation drifts into talk of a Catholic upbringing, I tell it like it was. Heavens, in so many ways a convent school of the old sort was a feminist’s dream: a largely all-female community, rich in its own unique traditions, comfortable with a female leadership, setting high standards of academic excellence, and surrounding girls with images and role models of female endeavor stretching back centuries and covering all the major events of European history. Teresa of Avila, Elizabeth of Hungary, and Bernadette of Lourdes were all familiar to us and seemed to soar spiritually high above the duller male apostles and martyrs whose stories we also learned.

And this raises the wider point: For centuries, long before the secular world bothered itself about female education, convents were centers of learning, with real achievements in a whole range of things from land management to music, from political influence to Church history, producing abbesses who negotiated on even terms with great landowners and sisters whose knowledge and refinement placed them among the most respected people in any community.

In England, the Reformation, with its savage closure of religious houses under Henry VIII, meant the denial of a whole way of life for women and undoubtedly left the female sex at a massive social and educational disadvantage. Not until the Catholic revival of the nineteenth century did it become the norm for women to be regarded as having real academic worth, and, while we can hail the secular educators of Queen Victoria’s reign for many achievements, we must place them in the context of a massive religious enthusiasm that influenced their work and undoubtedly was a major source of inspiration.

Finally, I think we need a word about priests. I am tired of being told how we were bullied and oppressed by a male-dominated Church. My childhood memories of clergy are pleasant ones: the kindly, dignified elderly parish priest who gave me my First Communion, the energetic young curate who led us in high-spirited games in the sunshine after our Communion breakfast. I recall no ranting sermons, no lugubrious dwelling on unpleasant sins or threats of hellfire. At school, the chapel was a place of beauty and quiet retreat, and we liked going there. A dear elderly monsignor who lived at the school used to walk around the grounds reading his breviary, accompanied by his dog, Malachi, and was a great favorite with us all.

Next time someone tells you about how nuns wrecked her self-esteem, humiliated dozens of pupils beyond endurance, or beat her to a pulp for minor misdeeds, think honestly and truthfully about the reality of what Catholic religious orders have achieved in education. I recall the nuns and lay teachers of my convent school with affection and gratitude. My hope for the future is that a revived Church may one day take the lead in restoring the educational standards in modern paganized Britain that are reducing daily much of our population to illiteracy and ignorance.

I am proud and glad to belong to a Catholic Church that has contributed so many good to so many generations. In particular, I salute the nuns. I suggest we all do the same. No one suggests that they were all saints, and there may have been many sinners among them. But as dedicated women they offered an example of service and solicitude that deserves recognition. And it is part of a modern lay apostolate to say so and set the record straight.

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