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Question 158: How can Catholics in a secularized school avoid being of their world?

We are twins, a sister and brother, and are writing this letter not just for ourselves, but for six friends of ours, too. We all went through St. Philomena’s together, and all of us are now in the first year at the local public high school. It has its good points, but it also has a lot of problems, and I want to tell you about the problems.

They don’t try to teach the kids why they should not do bad things, like use drugs, but they try really hard to catch and punish anybody who breaks the rules. They take it for granted that all the kids are “sexually active” and seem to have no problem with that. They give out condoms to anybody who asks for them. There is a lot of violence, and they don’t do much to protect smaller kids from the bigger ones. A lot of kids are afraid all the time. But a friend of ours who had seen two older girls beat up another first year girl brought along a hunting knife to defend herself just in case, and they expelled her. She never used it on anybody or even took it out of her book bag, and they only found it because they were searching for drugs, which she’s not into. But they said carrying a concealed weapon is against the law and there is a rule, which they had never said anything about, that a student caught breaking that law has to be expelled.

Even so, we can handle all those things pretty well. Mostly, it’s just a matter of behaving ourselves, not being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and sticking together. It is harder to deal with what the teachers are trying to get us to believe. You get a poor grade from some teachers if you say something in class that lets them know you don’t go along with them. Some of the teachers are really anti-Christian. They made fun of some Protestant kids who were eating lunch and reading the Bible together, and they keep going after the Catholic Church—about the Inquisition, priests who misbehave, and the Church’s teaching on sex, among other things. Those teachers are in favor of abortion. Our English teacher talks about having three of them herself, like she deserved a medal or something.

The school organizes all sorts of activities, and the counselors put a lot of pressure on everybody to get involved. Most kids get into the activities, so that you are practically an outsider if you don’t. But if you do, the school becomes your whole life. We are not sure whether to get involved.

Another thing is that, in the academic courses, they want everybody to be a high achiever who will make a lot of money and get ahead of others. They never talk about what a person shouldn’t do to get ahead, as if nothing mattered but success. We don’t think that can be right.

Our six friends and the two of us have talked with our parents about these things. They listened but didn’t seem to know what to do. We all go to the religion class our parish provides for students going to public high school, and the priest takes our class once each month. We brought this up with him. He listened too, but in the end just said we have to be “in the world but not of it,” and need to figure out for ourselves how to do that. We sure could use some help!


This question calls for the application of several norms, especially those regarding cultivating and protecting faith, bearing witness, practicing ecumenism, and seeking and accepting one’s personal vocation. Living in the secularist world of their public school, these young people must reject unbelief, keep and grow in their faith, and bear witness to it when appropriate. They should work together and cooperate with their believing classmates when possible. They should continue to talk with their parents and try to get them to collaborate with other parents in dealing with specific problems at the school. They may have good reason for participating in some activities organized by the school, but also should organize activities of their own and spend some time in solitude. While rightly questioning the false ideal of high achievement proposed to them, they should work hard to develop their God-given talents and prepare themselves for service to others and authentic self-fulfillment in good work.

The reply could be along the following lines:

By saying you must be in the world but not of it, the priest meant you must live your faith by doing what it calls for in your situation. That truly is very difficult. Since there is no formula for it, he was right to say you must figure it out for yourselves. You already have made a great deal of progress. You see clearly what you are up against, you are judging what you see by the light of faith, and you are asking what to do about it. I wish all young people in your place were doing as well. Without the right questions, you would never find sound answers, and very likely you would begin to believe what your teachers want you to believe.

Do not suppose that all the bad things you face are problems you should be able to solve. Perhaps you have heard the so-called serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” That prayer seems to assume one always ought to change what can be changed, whereas doing that sometimes destroys or damages good things or makes bad things even worse. But you do need, and should pray for, something like the attitude expressed by the serenity prayer: patience to put up with some bad things, courage to resist and oppose others, and wisdom to tell which to put up with and which to resist and oppose.

To a great extent, what you are encountering is the “world” that Jesus talks about in St. John’s Gospel: people living in the fallen human condition who reject faith and live as though God did not exist. Today this way of thinking and living takes the form of secularism. It has become dominant in our society: in government, in business, in the mass media, and, not least, in education. Secularists claim to value pluralism and promote liberty, but they really value only secularist alternatives to the traditional Judeo-Christian world view and they are interested in promoting liberty for ways of living shaped by some secularist alternative to that traditional world view. Despite constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, many laws and public policies in so-called liberal democratic countries today favor secularism.

In the United States and some other nations, many public school systems have become increasingly secularistic and systematically propagate that world view. Of course, in some public schools the majority of administrators and teachers are believing Jews or Christians. Even in schools where secularism dominates, some administrators and teachers may not be secularists, but some who are not, go with the trend out of weakness and/or because they have uncritically accepted slogans about pluralistic democracy, separation of church and state, and so on.356 Thus, in many public schools, some or all of the teachers, as you have discovered, imagine that education must reshape the minds and hearts of believing young people to fit into the secularist mould.

Jesus predicted that the nonbelieving world would hate those faithful to him: “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you” (Jn 15.19). Still, Jesus explains that he wants his followers to live in the world. Just as the Father sent him into the world, so he sends his followers (see Jn 17.18). Carrying on Jesus’ mission, his followers are not alone. When they ask the Father in Jesus’ name for anything they need, the Father will give them what they ask (see Jn 16.23–24), and Jesus himself asks the Father to protect them (see Jn 17.15). Moreover, Jesus assures his followers that, in enduring the world’s hatred and standing against it, they are not fighting a losing battle: “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (Jn 16.33).

Christians undergoing persecution must be clearheaded. Nonbelieving authorities, even wicked ones, must be respected and, in general, obeyed: “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish” (1 Pt 2.13–15). But if the person in authority abuses it and demands that something wrong be done, the Christian must refuse: “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5.29). Respect and obey your nonbelieving teachers, but always ask yourself whether what they are telling you to do is wrong. If you believe it is, do not do as they tell you in that particular matter.

Sometimes, you should plan and work together to challenge your teachers’ views—for example, on abortion. From a local prolife organization you might obtain pictures of unborn babies (not ones that obviously have been aborted) at twelve to sixteen weeks of development, show these to other students, and tell them it is as bad to allow these people to be killed, just because they are very small, as it was to allow Africans to be captured and enslaved, just because they happened to be black. You even can and should challenge your teachers openly. They can suppress and retaliate against one or two students, but they cannot deal so easily with a group of ten or twelve who share a common view and speak up in support of one another.

Still, in general, you need not challenge your teachers and risk getting a poor grade by letting them know you do not agree with what they want you to believe. Of course, you must never deny your faith or lie. Moreover, Jesus has sent you into the world—into this school—to carry on his mission. He told people the truth about God and themselves, poked holes in their attempts to evade it, and showed he meant what he said by the way he acted. You and your friends can and must do that too, especially when you are with other students. Try to help them get at the truth by telling them what you believe and showing you mean it by the way you act. This will make some of them begin to think, and the seed you plant may bear fruit—if not now, later, perhaps even many years later.

When teachers say something (or have you read or watch something) that seems at odds with faith or against the Church, discuss the problem with your friends after class and tell others what you think. Most high school students will be receptive to fellow students’ disagreement with a teacher, and so many will listen to what you have to say. If you are not sure what to think, talk about the problem with your parents and, if necessary, with your religion teacher or the priest, then discuss it with your friends. If the religion teacher and priest are not helpful or do not seem able to clear up problems, try to find another priest or other well-informed Catholic adult who can help.

Unfortunately, not all intelligent and well-educated Catholics are entirely faithful to the Church’s teaching, and you need help from someone entirely faithful. You can find out whether a priest or other possible source of help is faithful by posing some of the questions raised by what your teachers are saying about sexual activity. Is it ever okay to have intercourse before marriage? The answer should be no, without hesitation. How far may I go on a date? The answer to this should make it clear that it is wrong to do anything in order sexually to excite oneself or the other party. A helpful person may mention some specific things to avoid: uncovering or touching parts of the body that usually remain covered even in a swimming pool, hugging and kissing repeatedly or at length, spending time alone together where nobody else is likely to interrupt, and so on. Why is it wrong to go farther? A good answer is likely to be complicated, but it should include the point that to go farther is to prepare for or lead up to intercourse, and so is appropriate only for a married couple. If a priest or other intelligent and well-educated Catholic gives sound answers to such questions, his or her further explanations are likely to be reliable.357

It would be good for you and your Catholic friends regularly to pray together for the Holy Spirit’s help in dealing with your common problems. When the eight of you pray together, Jesus will be among you, and with him as the ninth, you can be sure your prayers will be heard. It also would be good, with the help of a faithful priest or other adult Catholic, to try to do more than can be done in the religion class to improve your knowledge of the faith and the history of the Church, and to learn how to defend both against misunderstandings and unfair criticisms. One way to do this is by reading together and discussing good books.358

Don’t limit yourselves to Catholic friends though. Be as friendly as you can with all your classmates. Try especially to get to know the Protestants whose Bible reading provoked ridicule, and talk with them about problems that come up in class. You will find that in many cases all of you will agree, and you will be able to work together in sharing your Christian view with other students.

Though your parents have not been too helpful up to now, tell them when there is a specific problem they might be able to help with and ask for their help. For instance, the violence you describe should get parents’ attention. Police, school officials, and teachers never can prevent all forms of physical mistreatment of some students by others, but students should not have to worry constantly about their safety, and those in charge should be able to prevent persistent bullying and almost all violence likely to result in serious injury. All of you should talk about this problem with your parents, and ask them to get together and go to the principal. Since not only Christians are threatened, talk it over not only with your Catholic and Protestant friends, but with other students anxious about their safety. If some parents already have discussed the situation with the principal and it has not improved, as many parents as possible should contact the school authorities and local public officials (the mayor and city council or the people with similar responsibilities where you live), and demand appropriate action.

Inept as they may be, the school’s efforts to catch and punish students who break rules no doubt are meant to deal with some of the other problems that concern you. You are right that it is more important for a school to teach all its students why it is wrong to do bad things than to catch and punish a few who break rules. But secularists find it hard to explain such matters, since they do not agree on any solid grounds for the set of rules by which a society tries to control behavior. So, the school is handicapped when it comes to explaining why anything is wrong.

Your friend should not have been carrying a hunting knife. If she had tried to use it, she might have killed or seriously injured someone, or the weapon might have been used on her. Still, unless there is more to the story than you have told, her bad judgment hardly warranted expulsion. In trying to get action against violence at the school, parents might consider making an issue of this case. They could argue that it was not fair to impose such a drastic penalty for violating a rule not previously made known and that the girl would never have provided so unwisely for her self-defense if those in charge had been fulfilling their responsibility to prevent violence and maintain peace in the school. Such arguments, in my judgment, would impress many secularists, and also might appeal to the local newspaper or other media. Unfavorable publicity might motivate public officials to take more vigorous action to deal with the violence.

The school’s multiplicity of organized activities and the pressure to participate in them are part of its project of moulding young people. The activities very likely are set up so that virtually everyone can seem to excel in something. If the organizers give plenty of rewards for this sort of success, participation easily becomes the norm, and most students are virtually compelled to take part. The organizers probably are aided and abetted by parents who prefer that their children not come home after school and/or who look for psychological gratification in their children’s successes.

In my judgment, you and your friends will do well to limit your involvement in activities organized by the school. In the first place, not all your time should be spent in activities. You should save some time to spend by yourselves—reading, praying, thinking things through, planning for the future. In the second place, you often will get more out of an activity if you organize it. In doing that, you can build up closer friendship among participants and develop more of your gifts, not least those involved in organizing and managing something yourselves. Of course, you will need a place to gather and other facilities; perhaps the priest will make parish facilities available.

Still, if one or another activity organized by the school offers an opportunity to do something worthwhile, do not rule out participating. When you do participate, try to excel, not for personal glory but in order to strengthen your position for bearing witness to your faith. A star athlete, for example, is likely to influence many other students and unlikely to be suppressed by school authorities.

Also, joining with Protestant and believing non-Christian classmates in some activities, such as hobbies and sports organized independently of the school, probably would be mutually beneficial. But even though you should be friendly with your Protestant classmates and should work together with them whenever possible, you and other Catholics probably should not participate in any study, prayer, or social group connected with a Protestant church. Protestants and believing non-Christians have much in common with us—especially by contrast with secularists—but important differences remain, and you need to mature in your Catholic faith, prayer, and sacramental life, and develop Catholic boy-girl friendships, which later might lead to good marriages for some of you.

You are quite right to reject the goal of becoming a high achiever, when that is taken to mean making a great deal of money and doing anything and everything to get ahead. Money is necessary but not good in itself. It is not something to take as one’s goal in life. Likewise, getting ahead of others is not important in itself, and nobody should use questionable means of doing it, nor even aim at it except in competitive sports and games—and even then, athletes and players should focus more on performing well than on defeating their opponents.

But you should take your studies very seriously and do your best in them, though for a different reason—to develop the talents God has given you, so that you can serve others and fulfill yourself: “For we are what [God] has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph 2.10; cf. LCL, 113–29). In living such a good life, working well with others almost certainly will be very important, and you should aim at that. It also is worthwhile in itself. People who work together in doing what God asks of them can look forward to the highest possible achievement: reaching heaven and sharing in the joy of the wedding feast that will never end (see Rv 19.6–9).

356. For evidence and arguments showing that to a very considerable extent public school textbooks and curricula are not religiously neutral but shaped by secularist assumptions, see Warren A. Nord, Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 138–91; Charles L. Glenn, “Religion, Textbooks, and the Common School,” Public Interest, 88 (Summer 1987): 28–47. John Stuart Mill, one of the most important nineteenth century secularist thinkers, strongly insisted on pluralism and public neutrality on the differences among religious and secular world views. He held that political society should require all parents to educate their children, and should pay part or even all the cost of educating the poor. But he argued—On Liberty, V, in Essential Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. Max Lerner (New York: Bantam, 1961), 351–52—that the state should not provide education: “That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands, I go as far as any one in deprecating. All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body.” Today, many public school systems are doing precisely what Mill said such a system would do. But since secularists are in control, they no longer object.

357. A book on sex and marriage that might be helpful to these young people: Mary Beth Bonacci, Real Love (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996).

358. E.g., three books by Edward J. Hayes, Paul J. Hayes, and James J. Drummey: Catholicism and Reason: The Creed and Apologetics; Catholicism and Life: Commandments and Sacraments; and Catholicism and Society: Marriage, Family, and Social Issues (Norwood, Mass.: C. R. Publications, 1996–97). Both the books and Leader’s/Catechist’s manuals for them may be ordered from the publisher: 345 Prospect Street; Norwood, MA 02062.