Friday, September 17, 2010

Homeschooling, sola skirtura, and moral absolutes--generally speaking

A commenter on a recent post asked me whether, in light of all that I've written this week about the sola skirtura controversy, I ought to rethink my post here which suggested that given the realities of the present age, generally speaking, homeschooling was the best option for the serious Christian family. Am I not making the same mistake as the sola skirtura crowd, and insisting that something is virtuous when it's really not, or that something else is immoral when the Church doesn't say it is?

The short answer is: no, I'm not going to rethink that post. The whole point of phrasing things in a "generally speaking" framework is to acknowledge, as I did in the post itself, that particular circumstances and particular people and families vary, and always trump any notion of what might be best generally speaking.

But you didn't think you were going to get a short answer, now, did you? :)

If a sola skirtura type were to say to me that generally speaking, skirts are more recognizably and traditionally feminine than pants, and that therefore generally speaking a woman might be led to behave in a more recognizably and traditionally feminine manner by wearing skirts than by wearing pants, I might still disagree--but my disagreement would then be with the idea that skirts lead to feminine behavior and that what the skirt-wearer means by feminine behavior is something to strive for, both of which are iffy at best to me. I mean, I wear skirts frequently because I am short and round, and it's harder to find pants that fit comfortably. Skirts don't make me modulate my voice, find my inner Martha Stewart (who is either comatose or long-dead, I'm afraid, killed back when I committed attempted home economics back in high school), or otherwise alter my behavior in any good way--what they actually do is encourage my laziness, since it's very easy and comfortable to sit in a nice draping skirt and read a good book all afternoon, but not any easier to scrub a toilet or cook dinner or fold laundry while wearing one.

But you notice I'm debating here with the substance of my fictional skirtura-gal's argument. If she sincerely believes that generally speaking more women will notice some improvement from exclusively wearing skirts and dresses, she is welcome to make her best case for that--and if some of us remain unconvinced, we can agree cheerfully to disagree, and move on.

It's not the same when someone poses a "sola skirtura" argument that goes as follows:

--Catholics must cultivate modesty in dress.
--Pants are immodest on women.
--Therefore, Catholic women must not wear pants.

That argument doesn't leave room for cheerful (or even crabby) disagreement. Catholics certainly share the first principal, but we disagree strongly on the second, and thus can't agree on the third. And there's not really a good way to debate the second: one side simply says, "No, pants are not immodest on women," and the other says, "Yes, they are, and this quote from a pope proves it!" though the pope in question lived anywhere from ninety to three hundred years ago.

Now, if I had said, instead of what I did say about homeschooling, the following:

--Catholic parents are obligated to raise their children in the faith, preserve their virtue, and protect them from immorality.
--All schools in today's culture, even so-called "Catholic" ones, are so irrevocably tainted by the hideous immorality of our culture such that they are a grave danger to faith, to virtue, and to morality.
--Therefore, all Catholic parents have an obligation to homeschool...

...then I'd expect to be treated like a nut or an idiot, because that second principle isn't even remotely tenable, and is so blatantly overstating the case as to be a falsehood. Such a position isn't defensible because I would essentially be saying "Schools are immoral!" and the other side would be saying, "No, they're not!" and all conversation would then cease, because we'd have no common ground.

What I'm actually saying breaks down to the following:

--Catholic parents are obligated to raise their children in the faith, preserve their virtue, and protect them from immorality. (This one's still true. I've cobbled together a few of the Catechism's notions about Christian parenthood; it might be, and probably is, capable of being said better than this, but the essentials are there, I think.)
--In fulfilling this duty, Catholic parents must carefully choose a school which will ideally support and reinforce, rather than undermine and tear down, what their children are being taught about the faith, morality, and virtue.
--It is my strongly-held opinion that public schools in America in the year 2010 generally support and reinforce only a handful of notions consistent with Christian ideas (good stewardship is one example, but anti-human-population environmentalism corrupts a lot of this, sadly). It is also my strongly-held opinion that public schools in America in the year 2010 have an underlying philosophy of radical militant atheistic secular humanism, which is diametrically opposed and actively hostile to Christian thought and teaching. These facts may very well, generally speaking, make public school a poor choice for many Catholic parents.
--My strongly-held opinions about diocesan Catholic schools are here; also, there is the reality that in many parts of the country, such as mine, diocesan Catholic schools are not financially possible for many Catholic parents.
--While tiny Catholic independent co-ops or similar schools may exist in small areas, few parents have this option, either.
--Given all of the above, generally speaking the serious Christian family who wants to raise their children in the faith and protect them while they are young and impressionable from the destructive poisons of our dysfunctional culture may well find that homeschooling is the best option.

Plenty of people visited my comment boxes to disagree with me. I discussed their disagreements without changing my original opinion; I have still not changed it. Some people will argue that public schools are not really pushing a philosophy informed by radical militant atheistic secular humanism, or that first and second-graders don't really care if they are and won't be influenced by these ideas anyway, or that it's really better to send our little Christian soldiers out to combat this radical militant atheistic secular humanism on the ground, instead of keeping them from it until some time after they've mastered shoe-tying and cut-and-paste, at least.

And some will argue that my undeniably harsh view of Catholic schools comes from enduring them during the worst generation ever to run Catholic education, that things are already so much better that I could walk into any classroom at St. Hildegard's Elementary School and quiz the little tykes on the hypostatic union, and they'd rattle off key points with ease and a little boredom, waiting for me to get to the hard stuff--and that these little tykes have parents as strict as I am about excessive consumption of cultural dysfunction, that not one of them has a burning desire to watch R-rated films or listen to Lady Gaga, and that they're all so charmingly innocent that it would bring tears to my eyes.

And, of course, they're perfectly free to argue these and many other things, because the way I frame my own argument allows for the possibility of discussion. Like I said, thus far I've seen no reason to change my mind. I think most of the reasons people throw out there for not homeschooling are particular reasons, not general ones; and as I also think that people live in the world of the particular and not the general this doesn't bother me in the least--we must all do what works best for our families, and there are people who would, in all honesty, be so terrible at homeschooling for so many reasons that a little light dose of felt-banner hippy-dippy Catholicism at the local diocesan school, or even a small sampling of radical militant atheistic secular humanism, might theoretically be the preferable option for a particular family.

If you've stuck with me all the way through this, you can now see that what bothered me all along about the sola skirtura arguments was not the idea that some women find skirt-wearing somehow beneficial, or even that they'd like to argue that generally speaking it's a good thing to do--so long as they're prepared to listen to disagreement and accept from the get-go that not everybody will agree. That, after all, is how I approached the homeschooling post: given our obligation as Christian parents to raise and educate our children in faith and virtue, I think our options these days are pretty depressing, and that few parents are going to find schools that reflect their values the way homeschooling quite obviously does. But I never expected everyone to agree; I do wish, though, that we could all discuss ways to improve the situation so that parents aren't left with gnawing worry when they visit their children's schools and see how terribly far some of the teaching is from Christian values.

No, what bothered me about the sola skirtura arguments was the presumption right from the start that women who wear pants and who wish to keep doing so are de facto guilty of some immodesty or immorality, even if they're not personally culpable out of ignorance or some such mitigating factor. This then devolved even further into some people saying that women who wear pants are wearing men's clothing, are feminists, are selfishly demanding rights just like those who favor abortion, and the like. There's simply no room in Christian conversation for that sort of thing, presuming that the wearing of a perfectly innocuous article of clothing is somehow indicative of a Jezebel, and that women who fail to see the supreme rightness and goodness of the pro-skirts arguments have simply hardened their hearts to the truth.

I may continue to believe what I do about homeschooling, but unless there were ever some Vatican pronouncement about the whole thing--highly unlikely, in my view--I will continue to couch my arguments in its favor with full respect for the freedom of those who disagree. There are more important issues on which the Church does teach in moral absolutes, and I'll save any rigid inflexibility for those issues which by their nature allow for no dissent. Even then, even when I argue against contraception or abortion or gay marriage or torture or direct, intentional attacks on civilian populations in war or any other similar issue, I will always insist that the Church is right--but I may or may not be, and any weakness in my arguments should be imputed to me, alone, and not to the Church.

The sola skirtura crowd needs to do the same, in my opinion. Because, generally speaking, the effect of couching everything in terms that ought to be reserved for moral absolutes is that it becomes easier for those who disagree with legitimate freedom on non-essential matters to fall into the grave error of thinking they have the right to disagree on the essential ones.


Kim said...

Great post--thanks!

Anonymous said...

"the effect of couching everything in terms that ought to be reserved for moral absolutes is that it becomes easier for those who disagree with legitimate freedom on non-essential matters to fall into the grave error of thinking they have the right to disagree on the essential ones."

Thank you!

Rebecca in CA said...

Red, this is kind of off-topic; it doesn't relate to the homeschooling question but just the pants/modesty issue. I would like to see someone address more in-depth the little factoids about Popes and saints and such giving certain outlines for modest dress. So far all I've really heard is "well they're not infallible are they", which is true enough, but in my own ponderings, I'm looking for something more satisfactory. I've been thinking along the lines that modesty as it pertains to fashion is really pretty relative to the time and place. It has a lot to do with what people are used to and what they associate with coverage or lack of coverage. For example, at the beginning of the last century in our country, a lady wouldn't show her ankles in dress, and purposely baring your ankles in public would have been considered immodest. I've been told that because of the widespread TB, and women's skirts dragging on the ground people spat on, the Seventh-Day Adventist women began raising hemlines to above the ankle and encouraged others to do so. In order not to scandalize folks, they sort of made up for it by the severity of the dress in other respects, severity of hairstyle, etc. So in that instance, you can see how something which might have been immodest in one context was brought to a context of practicality. Maybe some fashions began in less innocent or practical ways, such as maybe the motivations for raising the hemline above the knee, but it is possible even then for the context to change such that a skirt above the knee can be modest. Given that, I'm wondering if we could think about the possibility that the Popes or saints mentioned were talking about trends in fashions which were based on a motivation to push limits of modesty, and what they stated was for that time good sense. I know it's not completely relative--there are some types of dress which you can see can never be modest in any setting--but I'm just thinking aloud and I'd like to see this addressed in a more thorough way.

David said...

Erin - beautifully written post. I liked even more your recent one regarding Grandma Grace. Quite lovely.

I wonder if it is true that we will be unable to come to a general consensus about the moral importance of pants. I mention this because if we really cannot agree about this matter, as you say, Erin, then in the interest of unity, sooner or later one side must stand down. Gradually, this is happening. Since all three bloggers involved share the same position, the sola skirtura crowd is slowly dropping the matter. That's how it looks to me, anyway.

Still, it seems sad to me that we cannot agree. And our quietly letting the issue go suggests to me that the TNT (potential for future explosive arguments on the Catholic blogosphere) is still there. I guess what I am saying is that the resolution seems unsatisfactory. Does anyone have any thoughts about this?

Another dynamic is that the sola skirtura people believe this is an issue they shouldn't let go. I don't agree with them, personally, but that is what they think. So eventually they will bring it up again. When they do, the other side will get really angry again. The recipe for a nasty, explosive argument is still there.

It's a strange quandary. And just look at it! What a decisive and apparently irreconcilable division has resulted over skirts and pants! I would suspect the Evil One is laughing triumphantly over all this. Too bad we can't.

We need a focal point. How about Mary, Mother of the Church? I am sure she knows how to manage her children's scuffles. I vote we each pray a Hail Mary, right now, as we're reading this, for the unity of the Church and the triumph of love. I'll do that now.

God bless Holy Mother Church. What a gift He has given us in her.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I find no quandary at all. As a female, I continue to promote a rather modest appearance, but if the occasion warrants, I will wear a swimming suit at the beach, a skirt and blouse to Mass--and long underwear underneath, and sweatpants for outdoor recreation, and assess the situation for any other time for appropriateness in attire based on level of activity, modesty, respect requirements, my age, whether the said garment(s) pack well (and are clean!) and yes, the embarrassment factor for my teen-age sons, and any other consideration at my disposal---but not the mantra 'always a skirt'.

Mercury said...

Rebecca, I think Pope John Paul II wrote on the issue in Love and Responsibility back when he was Cardinal Wojtyla. I want to read it, but I haven't gotten around to buying it. He goes into depth about several things, like the difference between being attractive and beautiful and bing immodest, modesty in context, the difference between attraction and lust, etc.

Truth be told, any standard of hard and fast rules will be invalid for the next generation, and was probably invalid for the one before it as well, and is invalid for other cultures. A famous example is Pius IX's rules for Catholic schoolteachers, which seem Puritanical to us, but would have themselves been scandalous to the Victorians. The Pope also knew that women in Africa and other mission territories wore a lot less clothing than Italian schoolteachers.

That's where the virtue of prudence comes in

Mercury said...

Also, I had to laugh about this issue when I heard about Catherine of Aragon's cause for canonization, and saw her picture: Some people would be *absolutely scandalized* by her "low-cut" dresses, ... I would have never noticed it had I not discovered the existence of Catholic Puritans in the last few months ...

David said...

Anonymous - that was not the quandary I was describing.

Beth said...

Matilda--thanks for the link--I did read it. I don't fit into any of the 4 groups--public school is NOT my default option because I am burn out, don't want to be with my kids or lack availability of holy Cahtolic schools etc. Public school is the best education for our kids. Yes, there can be challenges to our faith in the world. I think sometimes homeschoolers forget that other families prayfully and faithfully seek God's guidance and choose public school to educate their children not because it is their default setting if things don't go well homeschooling.

I read your article but I still don't get the need for the "generally speaking" clause. Do you have other ideas to which you apply this (that are not moral absolutes)? For example, "generally speaking" all Catholic families should have more than 4 kids?

Erin, I am under the impression that you have no meaningful connections to other families who are deeply rooted in our faith and attend public school. Your vision is shaped by your personal experience and the evil things you read about public schools (and yes some of those things are evil and yes the world is evil and we need to live in it)

I admit my vision is shaped by my personal experience too--I live in a conservative town, pray often with the moms of other public schooled kids and participate in a home based Catholic curriculum with many families that my kids go to public school with. I witness virtue and character in many of these kids.

Please, please please--don't pass on sterotypes such as, " not letting them experience the industrial smell of a classroom, the joy of endless candy-bar sales and other fundraisers, or the challenge to scheduling brought about by six hours of classroom instruction, two hours of extra-curricular activities, and three more hours of homework, which is unparalleled in its ability to condition a child to endure a corporate job." (from your previous post)

This is not my experience--fundraising is not required and I don't do it, the classrooms don't smell and I have never had my kids carry that kind of schedule--are you kidding? Sure some kids have these schedules and by saying that it helps to reinforce your commitment to homeschooling but keep your vision open--many of us do not live like that. I make a big effort not to sterotype homeschoolings.

I know I am not going to change your mind but in the end we both are working towards the same goals--bringing our kids up in Truth, training them to live in the world and witness to the love and mercy of God and giving them the best education -academically, emotionally and spiritually.

m.z. said...

Why are you so shocked that a person that has invested the time, been ostracized, sacrificed financially, and had other burdens to conform their dress to what they believe to be proper would think that their choice wasn't trivial? It is little solace to be told, "Well, that's your business." It is merely the other side of the arrogant condescension coin. And the plain truth is that for the average Catholic women and modesty, it goes way, way beyond jeans. We aren't talking just "a little" compromise with the culture. I ain't necessarily condemning anyone, but let's at least get the point of debate right.

Anonymous said...

David, more to the point, the issue seems to be examining navel lint. Most reasonable people find this human world is a finite mathematical equation; much is based on interpretation in the light of the times.

One may invoke one's own special ammunition, but by pressing a male point as a male one is merely stating that a male point is more valid than mine.

As long as one is modest, not attracting unwanted attention to debase the meaningfulness of God's creation, there is no point in debating whether a man would prefer a woman to wear a particular garment, or a woman would prefer another item of clothing. We are all God's children, not anyone of us higher than the other in the order of life. Bring on every reason in the world, our dear Lord, did not set up a complex system of obedience to His will, and Christ did not mention specific items of clothing at all.

I think in the end what He did say in the letter to the Corinthians was, "...And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love..." cross-referenced by the letter to the Galations and several other passages.

Some people have an issue with literal interpretation versus meaningfulness and spirit of intention. God is not a black and white mathematical equation. He came to us as a human, with human emotions.

I would like to know if David believes Catholics believe in a Trinity all at the same time, not some schizophrenic division of divinity.


David said...

Blast - sorry, my comment is obviously missing a couple of words here and there!

David said...

What!?!! Never mind - my comment never got posted at all! ARRRGGHHH... Good thing I had cut and paste it into Notepad.

David said...

Hi, Zircon,

No, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Well said. You're right: God didn't give us detailed instructions about pants or skirts or kilts or any other article of clothing. We must interpret these matters for ourselves as our circumstances change. No, I don't disagree with you here at all - I'm not sure why you think I do.

That said, I don't see any conflict between your point and mine. All I was trying to say, Zircon, albeit imperfectly, was that I was saddened by the way this debate went down - and personally hurt in some cases. Granted, it's inevitable nerves will get frayed in discussions like this. I have no problem there - that's just human nature. What did bother me was that some people apparently believed they could justify treating others like garbage merely because they disagreed with them. But it's never okay to treat others badly, even when we think their arguments are stupid, or that they themselves are stupid. As I'm sure you agree, charity is never optional. In fact, it's our calling card, right?


David said...

Look, I'll be on the level with you all and admit that I'm still feeling pretty burned that I was treated the way I was. My views were completely distorted with the sole intention of abusing me publicly. Hey, maybe I'm just oversensitive; maybe I need a thicker skin. No, I'll go further and own up to it: I do need to grow up in this regard. It's true. And I know my challenge is simply to bring these feelings to Christ and ask for His help letting go of them.

At the same time, I find it disturbing that what we got out of all our arguing was that it's okay to wear pants, but failed to take issue with the miserable way some of us treated each other. And if there's anything we should have noticed, that's it.


David said...

MY RANT! MY BEAUTIFUL RANT HAS BEEN RUINED!!! :: Cut to scene of man sobbing on his knees in the middle of the street during a heavy rainstorm, arms outstretched to Heaven :: WHY!?!! WHY HAVE YOU DONE THIS TO ME?!!

Woe is me. My beautiful rant. There were three parts - the second part was completely eliminated. That was the best part... there is nothing left to do now but drink. Heavily.

David said...

By the way, anyone who's about to argue with me again that - Hey! It's okay to wear pants! - please either

a) Go back and read what I said, rather than relying on what you imagine I said


b) Leave me alone

Thank you.