He saw Catholic schools as good for both church, U.S.


During the last couple of years, many people, from cable news pundits to Facebook opponents, have been quoting Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was the first to say, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.”

Fittingly, facts about the late scholar and politician are easy to ascertain and, naturally, people hold differing opinions about him.

However, the popular four-term Catholic senator from New York often won praise for his work on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised.

Criticized by some as being a political maverick, for his patrician manner and alleged heavy drinking, Moynihan was respected by others for his independence, intellect and accomplishments. (A 1990 New York Times Magazine profile quoted a former aide who said, “I tend to share his overblown view of himself.” The writer also noted that Moynihan “appears to have a stronger mind after three drinks than most people do when they’re sober.”)

Moynihan retired in 2001 and died in 2003, but some of the issues he struggled with most passionately are more important than ever. They include the lasting and devastating legacy of slavery, political partisanship, dangers posed by soviet communism, and — above all — poverty, the importance of family, and the welfare of children. One can only imagine his reaction to parents, who crossed the border in an attempt to escape poverty, being separated from their children.

He was a Democrat who never shied from being labeled a liberal. (A pro-lifers’ nightmare, he supported abortion rights, leading some U.S. cardinals publicly to criticize Notre Dame University’s decision to honor him with prestigious Laetare medal).

Moynihan was a strong advocate of non-public schools, at one point introducing (with Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood) a bill that would provide tax credits to help pay tuition costs. The bill had 50 co-sponsors: 26 Republicans, including conservative icon Barry Goldwater, and 24 Democrats, including liberal standard-bearer George McGovern. It failed to become law — as the senator said in a different context, “To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart” — but what Moynihan’s believed about non-public schools is timely.

In his book “American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan,” Greg Weiner argues that Moynihan was profoundly influenced by Catholic social teaching, especially the principle of subsidiarity that holds decisions or actions should not be made on a higher level when a lower level of competence would suffice.

“In the contest between public and private education, the national government feigns neutrality, but in fact it is anything but neutral,” Moynihan wrote in his 1978 essay “Government and the Ruin of Private Education.” “For governments inherently, routinely, automatically favor creatures of governments.”

Simply because public schools “are public,” he observed, they “must embody generalized values.”

“Diversity. Pluralism. Variety. These are values, too,” he wrote, “and perhaps nowhere more valuable than in the experiences that our children have in their early years, when their values and attitudes are formed, their minds awakened, and their friendships formed.”

Of course, many involved in Catholic education make a similar argument. Speaking to an Italian association of Catholic educators in 2014, Pope Francis said young people must find positive guidance from teachers, who “are able to give meaning to school, studying and culture, without reducing it all just to passing on practical knowledge.”

“You have to teach not just about a subject, but also life’s values and habits” because when it comes to learning about a subject, “a computer is sufficient, but to understand how to love, to understand what the values and habits are that create harmony in the world, you need a good teacher,” he said.

Moynihan was the author of 18 books. His first, with co-author Nathan Glazer, was “Beyond the Melting Pot,” which argued that ethnic groups maintain their ethnic identities through successive generations. In his defense of non-public schools, Moynihan noted that both ethnic consciousness and assimilation have been part of America’s culture from the beginning. “German Protestant and Italian Catholic and Polish Jew have all recognizably American progeny, enough to calm the fear and perhaps even to arouse the patriotic fervor of the most nervous nativist of generations past,” he wrote.

Moynihan believed that parochial schools are good not just for the Catholic Church in America, but for America itself. In the decades since he made his arguments, Catholic schools have continued to succeed; parents — both Catholic and non-Catholic — continue to take on the financial responsibility of sending their children to Catholic schools. Simply put, they have confidence in the schools’ proven ability to provide excellent values-centered education. 

In other words, both facts and opinions about Catholic schools are overwhelmingly positive — and arguably far more positive than those regarding today’s federal government.

Carl Peters is the managing editor of the Catholic Star Herald.