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.