01-02-2006 - Traces, n.2


For a true liberation,
a true education

On January 14th, a public meeting was held on the topic, “Society? Church?
A Question of Education,” with a diverse panel of speakers

by Marco Bardazzi

The location had been the venue of the heated discussions of Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty in the years preceding the American Revolution; the Boston Tea Party, the revolt marking the true beginning of opposition to British oppression, was conceived here.
Faneuil Hall, the building in the heart of Boston where pages and pages of American history have been written–the most recent one in 2004, when John Kerry came here to announce he had lost his run for the White House against George W. Bush–once again echoed with talk of freedom, and the setting couldn’t have been more suitable. The participants of the Annual Diaconia for the United States and Canada met here in this eighteenth-century building for an afternoon of public debate on education, and the word representing the roots of America, freedom, resounded often in the conversation on the dais and in the audience’s questions.

Chains and liberation
Today, unlike the eighteenth century, the issue is not liberation from the impositions and taxes of the British crown. The chains of the twenty-first century are more subtle and difficult to see, because they are hidden behind a false concept of liberation as absence of bonds and rejection of any proposal that has to do with the word truth.
“Even the historic development that began here over two centuries ago,” warned Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, opening the dialogue, “is at risk. The pursuit of happiness upheld by the Founding Fathers will be stopped, derailed, and will fail, unless it is promoted, supported, and guided by education.” These words were spoken before an evocative backdrop, the giant painting by George A. Haley, portraying Daniel Webster addressing the Senate, with the words Liberty and Union, Now and Forever immortalized on the frame, which prompted one of Albacete’s ubiquitous quips, “Liberty and Union: you could paraphrase it as Communion and Liberation.”
An unusual trio had been invited to this debate on education, Archbishop Sean O’Malley of Boston; Fr. José Medina, a teacher at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington, D.C.; and Hendrich Hertzberg, a historic name in liberal American journalism, a senior editor of the prestigious The New Yorker, and former speech writer for President Jimmy Carter.

Forgetting God
Archbishop O’Malley started with a quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature, explaining that all the disasters of his Russia came down to just one: “The people had forgotten God.”
Educating means leading to the truth, explained O’Malley, drawing from Benedict XVI’s words in his last homily as Cardinal before becoming Pope, now famous for his accusation of the dictatorship of relativism, as opposed to the “clear faith” that is summarily dismissed as fundamentalism by today’s dominant thought. Education has been the Church’s task, added the Archbishop, ever since the moment of Pentecost, marking the impulse to evangelize that still continues today.
For O’Malley, the risk to overcome in the American reality, in this journey of education, above all of young people, is the growing individualism that infects society with its Lone Ranger mentality. Thus, first of all, it is necessary to educate to a real relationship with Christ. “We’ve reduced all the virtues to one: bourgeois respectability,” said the Archbishop, quoting the writer and philosopher Peter Kreeft, who in his book immediately followed this sentence with another: “And we measure Jesus according to our standards, instead of letting our standards be measured by Him.”

Contact point
Hertzberg found himself in an uncomfortable position, as a “non-Christian, non-Jew” with Judeo-Christian roots, a secular humanist who grew up in a family of anti-Communist Socialists, seated for an afternoon with an archbishop, a monsignor, and a priest. But he calmly described the background to a famous 1979 speech in which President Carter drew a sincere picture, full of admissions of guilt, describing the “crisis of faith” afflicting Americans at the time, a moment, for Hertzberg, in which there emerged “the image of the President as national educator.” This anecdote has bitter conclusions for the journalist, who acknowledged how this sincerity cost Carter politically, opening the road to the Reagan years of “false optimism” which Hertzberg implicitly sees as similar to the current era of the Bush presidency. “There is a certain ugliness in our society and culture,” he said, “and I don’t have an answer for how to come out of it, except a bit of politeness”–a position that, in the end, seemed just like the one whose risks O’Malley had highlighted: reducing everything to bourgeois respectability.
But even though the roads and approaches of the audience and the journalist of America’s most sophisticated magazine seemed so far apart, actually a contact point did clearly emerge from the Boston event, and Hertzberg did not fail to note it, reflecting with Traces after the meeting. No matter how many reservations he might have had about participating in a “Catholic” debate that wasn’t centered on the usual “Catholic” topics (abortion, contraception, married priests, etc.), Hertzberg noted how, in the end, what made the difference was his very presence, the yes offered in response to an invitation from his friend Albacete. “The meaning I see in an event of this kind,” he explained, “was the implicit affirmation that companionship is a good in and of itself, whether or not it is ‘a companionship in Christ.’”
“For a true education,” said Fr. Medina, “I need someone who walks with me, toward the same point. What I desire is the introduction to reality that Fr. Giussani indicated as the definition of education. But I need someone to introduce me. I need someone to follow, not so much because he gives me all the right answers, but because he opens me to reality.”
In order for this journey not to be in vain, we need a goal, added Fr. José. “For me, education is a risk for teachers, parents, and for anyone who intends to stay within reality. It implies looking together for the answer to the questions that are burning inside us.”