On The Clear Understanding

In the late 1950s my mom managed to pull enough money from the family budget to send my brother and then me to cotillion — the name she gave to dance school. It was a sort of "Arthur Murray" for kids with the added benefit of learning how to ask a young lady if she would like to dance and to escort her off the floor when the dance had ended. With the positive memory of those days in my mind, my wife and I inquired into what was passing for cotillion as our girls grew older. Unfortunately, the changes already occurring in our culture had passed us by and cotillion was a far cry from what we were looking for: manners and instruction for ballroom dancing.

When our youngest daughter was in the ninth or tenth grade, a group of youngsters from the surrounding coastal neighborhood held their annual summer dance at the community center. The party was chaperoned by some of the "adult" mothers of those attending and because I had done the same task when her older sister was that age, I decided to wander over and see how things were going.

It didn’t take long for me as I watched the kids at the community center to get pretty heated up and terribly disappointed at what I was watching our girl perform with a local boy. Their bodies were slithering together, his crotch rubbing up and down the side of her leg — you get the picture. It’s what I was eventually to know as grinding .

I interrupted her evening and as we walked home explained in measured terms, but not leaving out colorful adjectives, what I thought of her behavior and how it reflected on her. I was blunt and direct. Maybe I had failed previously and hadn’t made it clear how she was to act — the high school father-daughter dances had not been sufficient primers for what I was now witnessing as learned behavior. But certainly after that evening’s walk home she knew exactly what I thought of that kind of dancing and what was acceptable to me, her mother and the company we keep.

This past summer at a wedding reception I noticed the 11th-grade daughter of some friends "dancing" with a boy in the fading light of the afternoon. Her parents had gone home leaving her to get a ride with the boy. The scene reminded me in a negative way of that dance my daughter had briefly attended, but I said nothing to the young couple. Neither did anyone else.

Bewilderment and Push Back

This past November following a school sponsored dance, a letter was sent to students’ parents from a Catholic high school in a southern California bedroom community over the signature of the school’s rector, a Catholic priest acting in his capacity as a member of the school’s management team. The "team" includes a president and a principal. The president/principal duo is a management structure seen more and more in larger Catholic high schools throughout the country; but with most schools the line to the rector is dotted dotted and his input in broad school policy decisions minimal. Not so here.

It’s an important distinction and important in understanding why this letter was written and the impact of what the letter contained; and gets to the crux of what more and more parents expect from a parochial school to which they, at some expense, send their children. This school is exceptionally serious about maintaining Catholic identity.

You see, parents of today’s Catholic school children are often the adult alumnus of yesterday’s Catholic schools and colleges. And in the recent past they’ve had lots of reasons to shake their heads in bewilderment at what grabs headlines throughout the country at many Catholic institutions of "high learning" like The University of Notre Dame, Georgetown University and others. Places where many parents went to school or might consider sending their kids.

That bewilderment was no doubt amplified last summer when Notre Dame invited Barack Obama to speak to a graduating class knowing full well that the politician favored abortion. That invitation followed Georgetown’s compliance with a White House request to shroud a religious icon for the same man’s televised speech on a foreign relations topic for which the politician wanted the prestigious backdrop of the university but not its religious symbols. It’s also been commonplace for "Catholic" politicians to receive communion on Sunday in public view and in their next breath promote social policies like abortion that are contradictory to fundamental church teachings. But don’t think for a moment that these scandals are anything other than nationwide .

In reaction to these events, a November meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops addressed the topic of accountability on Catholic campuses with Cardinal George’s observation that "[s]ince everything and everyone in Catholic communion is truly inter-related, and the visible nexus of these relations is the bishop, an insistence on complete independence from the bishop renders a person or institution sectarian, less than fully Catholic." This was nothing less than a warning to the schools to take the directives of the bishops seriously.

And it complies with the predicament Dr. Charles Rice writes about in his book What Happened to Notre Dame? in which he shows how the abandonment of principle at the college level spills over to the general culture, with devastating effect, as religious standards get pushed out of the public square.

What happened at the southern California high school with the rector’s letter may be part of the push back we are seeing in other venues throughout the country from the excess noted above. And just imagine, this particular push back started at a school dance.

Welcome Support for Parents

There’s a lot of varied examples in the culture for girls to observe — but not a lot of good ones, as you may have noticed.  Many children — including Catholic kids — don’t have fathers at home.  Many mothers indicate by their own wardrobe choices that they don’t grasp the concept of modesty.  How can we expect children to know what’s appropriate to wear, or for that matter, how to behave at a social event if they don’t have good examples in their parents?

My wife uses the word modesty to "cover all the bases" with our two and it works. A recent issue of a journal titled In Character – funded by The Templeton Foundation — examines that virtue: modesty. You can checkout a survey they printed in an archived issue. Next to family and "your religion" the most influential group affecting modesty for young adults is their friends. But for younger kids — high school for instance — friends can trump family and religion and often do. 

In the priest’s letter to the student’s parents, his observations and reflections on the dance for which he had been a chaparone were evenly split between what the girls were wearing and the freak dance and mosh pit moral fracas . But his language and intention was clear. Things were going to be different at future school functions like dances. There would be a fresh look at accountability. The school met with parents this week to clarify the rules and "reacquaint" parents and students with the school’s expectations of behavior.

Lots of us long for support in the promotion of our roles as the primary educators of our children. When I was young it was not uncommon for parents or an uncle or aunt to scold the children of friends or relatives. It was the way we all supported one of the four loves that C.S. Lewis describes: where you’re looking in the same direction.

I’m sorry that I didn’t reproach that young couple on the dance floor at the wedding reception. I’m sorry that some parents may greet the letter from the high school’s rector with indignation instead of seeing it as a lighthouse beacon that offers them confidence and reassurance that they have the authority to push back on their own.

Sailors can attest that beacons not only warn of rocky shores but provide points from which you navigate a coastal course. And that image should remind us that in our Christian lives, light is the illuminator of an absolute truth found in God almighty. When we deny that truth or disallow the good that accompanies it, our subjective behavior takes the form of anything we want.

The Rector is helping this school’s students and their parents to get their bearings. Good for him.

Next month I’ll follow up on this story with a report about the recent meeting.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage