All things to all men: Pope Francis on the Gypsies, but what of the Gypsy Church?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 02, 2015

The news a few days ago that Pope Francis had come under attack by Gypsy activists is in some way humorous. While the Pope has been a strong supporter of the rights of Gypsies, he said in an audience in October 26th that they themselves could help repair their public image if they are “good Christians”, avoiding “lies, frauds, swindles, [and] altercations.” But activists accused the Pope of blaming the victim!

In the Pope’s defense, we could all improve our public image by avoiding lies, frauds, swindles and altercations. Surely this is particularly important for groups of people who are, justly or unjustly identified with such practices. The Pope’s remarks do not appear to me to make any universal judgment. But then activists in any cause tend to be hyper-sensitive to the point of absurdity.

Perhaps myself included: As it turns out, I am something of an activist in resistance to public education. I see that Pope Francis also urged Gypsy parents to allow their children to go to school, rather than resisting public education. Of course, context is everything, and it is certainly true that lack of education hampers Gypsies in their efforts to overcome poverty and to play a constructive role in the larger social order. But one does wonder whether, in this case, the cure will be worse than the disease.

I have no doubt that much of the Gypsy opposition to regular schooling arises from a nomadic way of life and a desire to maintain their own social traditions. But as a Catholic, I would be hard-pressed to allow my own children to be educated in public schools, because those schools will continually undermine both faith in God and the Christian understanding of a moral life. This raises a real question: Is turning one’s children over to the public schools really preferable to not educating them in a consistent academic way at all?

A Teaching Moment

There is no easy answer to this question. Too many moral and spiritual factors are unknown, and too many vary from child to child. Certainly many good Christian families, unable to afford private education for their children, have sent them to the public schools without losing their souls. All I can say is that I would not do it under any circumstances. In the absence of any alternative, I would home-school—and that is not because I regard home-schooling as a universal ideal. I am confident that there are many perfectly valid ways to educate one’s children. But entrusting them essentially to pagans for this purpose is a desperate decision indeed.

Of course, I am neither poor nor undereducated myself; I have options that Gypsies (and many others) do not have. It would be far too facile a judgment to condemn public education in cases where the only other choice is no education at all. But is it too facile to condemn ourselves for not taking the problem seriously enough to provide workable solutions on a broader scale?

The obvious point—as with nearly any secular problem one can name—is that Catholics need to do it themselves. It is in the nature of the Christian Faith to produce a Christian culture, and education is one of the great keys to the transmission of culture. The Church herself ought to be committed to supplying this need. The Church ought not to take for granted that it is acceptable to leave anyone to a public education.

Where are the hedge schools for those who cannot support an entire educational complex? Where are the programs similar to English as a Second Language—call them “Christianity as a First Language”—which should be operating in every community with a reasonably robust Catholic presence? Where indeed are the itinerant teachers, called to a life of educational service on the road?

Our age cries out for concrete Catholic solutions to the distortions created by modern secular values. Secular education is the purveyor of these values, and secular education depends firmly on the myth that immense resources are the determinants of success. Only when we break the stranglehold of that falsehood will the world begin to change. The alternative, then, and very nearly the first priority, is the provision to all who will accept it of a competent education—or at least a competent corrective—in the light of Christ.

This will require a Church that is light on her feet, a Church which can be present anywhere almost instantly. Such a development may be reminiscent of the early mendicant orders, but I grant that its modern shape is neither perfectly clear nor easy to describe.

But does’t the word “Gypsy” come to mind?

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Nov. 04, 2015 5:41 PM ET USA

    alexanderh167577: I too had a public school education, though at a time more favorable to Faith. Even in the best circumstances, however, this involves a great loss in terms of education in philosophy and theology. Experiences of parents vary, of course, with familial strengths and weaknesses, and with the prevailing prejudices in various regions. Some people can overcome the deficiencies; most cannot. Most, indeed, may recognize the goods they have received without realizing what they have missed. Nowadays, however, we must view public schools in the West as very similar to those in the Soviet Union. There are too many true things that teachers are not allowed to say; and too many false things that they are required to say. I fear you have lost your sense of the spiritual cost of public education.

  • Posted by: space15796 - Nov. 04, 2015 1:51 AM ET USA

    My husband and I managed to homeschool our kids while we both worked fulltime - I had to work "oddball" hours - often the overnight shift. Initially, we did not homeschool out of religious conviction per se, but because of the serious character development gaps in our oldest child who had only attended school a couple of years - we felt we were losing her. After we started homeschooling we saw the tremendous advantages of this method of teaching, and continued thru h.s. with religious conviction

  • Posted by: FrPhillips1125 - Nov. 03, 2015 10:25 PM ET USA

    Frequently I hear Catholics claim that they could "never afford" a Catholic education for their children. I'm sure our parish school is not unique in offering a very generous family cap (no charge after two children), and for those who cannot afford even that, financial aid is available. No parish child is kept out of the parish school because of financial need. But parents do need to ask. No pastor who is truly dedicated to Catholic education will turn a child away.

  • Posted by: alexanderh167577 - Nov. 03, 2015 7:31 PM ET USA

    I really respect you Dr. Mirus, but your opinions on education seem very extreme and unrealistic. I was actually quite taken aback by this post of yours. I have spent my whole life in public school and I’ll have you know that my “pagan” teachers have taught me many valuable things and shown me as much unconditional love as anyone. I see no reason why Catholics cannot be the leaven in the bread of the public education system.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Nov. 03, 2015 7:10 PM ET USA

    It's indeed sad that many must utilize the public school system for there are two fundamental reasons that it isn't the best environment anymore. 1) The teaching of secular values is only getting more problematical as those "values" deteriorate more and more; 2) The lack of teaching about the foundations of this country and why, despite not being perfect, it is (was) way ahead of whatever was in second place. Thank goodness for scholarships that help reduce costs of the Catholic school.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Nov. 03, 2015 10:12 AM ET USA

    It must be nice. We could never afford to send 5 kids to Catholic schools, and since we both have to work full time, homeschooling is not an option. Catholic schools are not cheap anymore; the local high school looks like a country club for rich Catholics. We'd move to a cheaper part of the country, but grave family obligations keep us here. Public schools aren't great, but they've worked for us so far.