Without Knowing It, New York’s Bishop John Hughes Described Twenty-First Century Schools in 1840

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Without Knowing It, New York’s Bishop John Hughes Described Twenty-First Century Schools in 1840
Without Knowing It, New York’s Bishop John Hughes Described Twenty-First Century Schools in 1840

On October 29-30, 1840, a remarkable debate took place in New York City. On one side were the representatives of the Public School Society—the predecessor of the current New York City Public School Board. On the other side was Bishop John Hughes, a great lion of American Catholicism.

The most striking element of Bishop Hughes’s arguments is that they relate to the problems with public education in the twenty-first century.

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Fortunately, Bishop Hughes’s words were transcribed and later published as a two-volume set in 1866. Those volumes are available in reprint today and are accessible on the Internet Archive.

The subject of the debate was education. Bishop Hughes was arguing that the State of New York should share in the support of Catholic schools.

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At the time, Bishop Hughes was the assistant to the aging Bishop John Dubois. When Bishop DuBois died in 1842, he took over the Diocese. Blessed Pope Pius IX raised him to the title of Archbishop on July 19, 1850.

Bishop Hughes was later known as “Dagger John” because many thought the cross he drew in front of his signature resembled a small knife. The name fit his personality. He was not one to mince words.

The Bishop’s arguments can be boiled down to four points. The Bishop’s own words will be in italics.

Banish Religion and Infidelity Alone Remains.

First and foremost, John Hughes rejected any attempt to separate religion from education.

To make an infidel, what is it necessary to do? Cage him up in a room, give him a secular education from the age of five years to twenty-one, and I ask you what he will come out, if not an infidel?

Could anyone provide a better description of the modern public school classroom? Students and teachers alike separate religion, the root of all truth, from its branches. The result is that all of the students, even those raised in religious homes, are forced to practice a sort of practical infidelity.

They say their instruction is not sectarianism; but it is; and of what kind? The sectarianism of infidelity in its every feature. But because it is of a negative kind, and they do not admit the doctrines of any particular denomination, because they do not profess to teach religion, therefore it is suited for all!

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If the infidel can send his children to these schools because no religion is taught there, and who, therefore, has to make no sacrifices of conscience, why cannot the Christian enjoy equal advantages?

You may as well think to build an edifice without a foundation, as to pretend to produce moral effects without religious belief.

It is My Duty to Warn Them When There is Danger of Imbibing Poison.

Even when prayer and Bible reading were allowed in public schools at that time, the result was a watered-down lowest common denominator form of Protestant Christianity. Bishop Hughes was emphatic about the need to resist presenting that form to Catholic children.

Why, this Bible which they say is the foundation of all truth…. But that is not the pointthe point is the uses we see men make of it, and this is the sum of our reason that we wish our children not to be taught in the manner in which Protestant children are taught about the Bible.

They proclaim, then, that theirs is a Christianity of reason; of this they boast, and let them glory. Ours is a Christianity of faith; ours descends by the teaching of the Church; we are never authorized to introduce new doctrines, because we contend that no new doctrine is true, from the time of the apostles, unless it has come from the mind of God by a special revelation, and to us that is not manifest among the reformers.

The Schools Are no Benefit to Catholics Now; We Have no Confidence in Them.

We want that the public money shall not be employed to sap religion in the minds of our children—that they may have the advantages of education without the intermixture of religious views with their common knowledge which goes to destroy that which we believe to be the true religion.

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They would venture to come and stand by the mother’s side, and say, in effect, “Give me the darling which you have nourished at your breast—give it to me, a stranger, and I will direct its mind. True, you are its parent; but you are not fit to guide its youthful progress, and to implant true principles in its mind; therefore give it to me, and give me also the means wherewith to instruct it.”

In addition to stripping children of religious fervor, the public schools of New York also tried to make children ashamed of their parentage. This was especially acute with Irish children. Bishop Hughes made an example of a story from a reading book called “The Irish Heart.” Its main character was called Phelim Maghee.

“When Phelim had laid up a good stock of sins, he now and then went over to Killarney, of a Sabbath morning, and got relaaf [relief] by confining them out o’ the way, as he used to express it, and sealed up his soul with a wafer and return quite invigorated for the perpetration of new offences.”

Why is “Phelim Maghee” represented as “sealing his soul with a wafer,”—in contempt to the holiest mystery known to Catholics, the Sacred Eucharist? Why are intemperance and vice set forth as the necessary and natural effects of the Catholic Religion? All this put in the hands of Catholic children, by this society, claiming to deserve the confidence of Catholic parents!

Now, suppose Catholic children hear this in the company of their Protestant associates! They will be subject to the ridicule of their companions, and the consequence will be that their domestic and religious attachments will become weakened, they become ashamed of their religion, and they will grow up Nothingarians. (Emphasis in the original.)

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Among the flocks that Bishop Hughes shepherded were some of the poorest children in the Metropolis. Although he could not have known it in 1840, worse was to come. Throughout that decade, the Potato Famine would force millions to leave the Emerald Isle to make new homes in an unwelcoming New York City.

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Again, they say that the New York Free School (that was their own Society) has “one single object, the education of the poor.”… And yet now I could point out thousands of our poor who are destitute of education, and who have no means to provide it.

Yet, the Catholics of New York were forced to create their own schools because the public schools were morally unacceptable.

We do not receive benefit from these schools: do not, then, take from Catholics their portion of the fund, by taxation, and hand it over to those who do not give them an equivalent in return. Let those who can, receive the advantages of these schools; but as Catholics cannot, do not tie them to a system which is intended for the advantage of a class of society of which they form one-third, but from which system they can receive no benefit.

Will you compel us to pay a tax from which we can receive no benefit, and to frequent schools which injure and destroy our religious rights in the minds of our children, and of which in our consciences we cannot approve?

Do you suppose we should have paid for our bread a second time, if that which these schools offered had not, in our opinion, been turned to a stone?

Bishops Hughes’s Issues Still Exist

These are only a few choice nuggets from this crucial debate. Despite his eloquence and his well-hewn arguments, Bishop John Hughes lost the debate. The Public School Society voted fifteen-to-one that they would not support Catholic education.

Hopefully by this point, most readers will recognize that the issues that Bishop Hughes presented are still present over one-hundred-eighty years later. Even the lukewarm Protestantism that the Bishop described has been excised from America’s classrooms.

Indeed, too many modern children have become, to use the Bishop’s term, Nothingarians. Students are forced to imbibe the poisons of the ever-increasing sexual revolution and radical secularism. Critical Race Theory deliberately makes too many children ashamed of their own heritages. Catholic children are still neglected as the State forces parents who want their children to go to schools that respect their beliefs to pay for two separate school systems.

Unfortunately, the modern Church lacks bishops with the iron will of “Dagger John.” Just as they were needed then, they are needed even more now.

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