Saturday, May 11, 2019

A Canadian Catholic Educator's Quarterly Review of the Covington Catholic Story: "Get Serious About Living Your Faith"

Near the start of February, I posted commentary from a Canadian Catholic educator, Paul2port, regarding the story of the young men from Covington (Kentucky) Catholic high school and the controversy that ensued due to video coverage of their actions as they left the March for Life in Washington, D.C., this year, sporting MAGA hats. Paul2port has continued to think about this story as a Catholic educator, and has sent me a "quarterly review" updating his commentary of early February. 

In Paul's commentary, I'm struck by the difference in perspective a seasoned Catholic educator in Canada keeps applying to the Covington Catholic story, and the perspective many American Catholics want to apply to it. Much of the commentary in the Catholic community in the U.S. seems to proceed from assumptions about American exceptionalism and the glorious tradition of upholding religious freedom in the U.S. The Covington Catholic boys have been lionized in some sectors of the American Catholic commentariat as religious freedom heroes (never mind the defense of white supremacy implied by their MAGA hats, their misogynistic comments captured on videotape in D.C., their use of native American slurs as they confronted Elder Nathan Phillips).

Paul's Canadian Catholic perspective is, in contrast, globalistic. It stresses core elements of Catholic teaching that should, one would think, apply to American Catholics as well as to Catholics anywhere else in the world — but elements many American Catholics seem willing to ignore or slough off today, in this era of MAGA. This perspective of a seasoned Canadian Catholic educator demands attention. 

Paul writes:

On February 4th I wrote about the incident involving a number of Covington Catholic students, Elder Nathan Phillips, and the Black Hebrew Israelites at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Let's revisit the case in the spirit of a quarterly review based upon further evidence. We have more information about the incident, the responses to the incident, media coverage, and libel lawsuits to consider in addition to a review of my own first reaction.

Context: MAGA Hats and Provocation of Violence:

Before the events involving the Covington Catholic students took place, there had been plenty of incidents that would tip off any Trump supporter to know how the MAGA hats could be perceived. This list —"Here Is a List of Far-Right Attackers Trump Inspired" — was known, for instance, before the incident took place in D.C., and it should surely have been the responsibility of teachers and parents to brief the students with such a list before they attended the pro-life march. Every single one of the students should have been aware of the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school by a MAGA fan.

In a dozen instances, MAGA-inspired men have attacked and killed many as they were gathered in schools, synagogues, churches, and mosques. Journalists, senators, and Congress people have been threatened and attacked. It is clear to many of those concerned to monitor what has been happening with the Trump presidency that the current U.S. president inspires hate and stochastic violence. A few weeks after Covington a MAGA-inspired man killed 49 and wounded 20 in New Zealand. His manifesto praised Trump as "a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose."

My analysis of February 4th was correct: some do see the MAGA hat in a way that is similar to a Nazi symbol.

White Supremacy, Segregation, and Racism:

Covington Catholic has now restored its official website. I've reviewed many of its pages, but not all, looking to see how the school represents itself. On the index page the school's objective is noted as "Building Minds, Living Faith."

But really?

There isn't any statement I can find on the school's website about the January incident. No responsibility; no acknowledgement. It didn't happen. Let's compare and contrast that with a boys' private school in Toronto that had hazing incidents where students were charged with sex assault a month before Covington's problems.

Prominent on the index page of St. Michael's College School in Toronto is a link to the St. Michael's Respect and Culture action plan. There, we find press releases that clearly acknowledge the incidents of hazing that occurred at this school, the resignations of the president and the principal of the school, the people responsible for culture change, and the steps being made to address the problems.

Incidentally, the school photos used by Covington Catholic's website show, almost exclusively, a white student population. If Covington had racial diversity in its student body, then about 12% of the student population would be of African descent based upon national and state statistics. I would expect many of the Covington students to cross the river from Ohio each day to attend. The racial make-up of Cincinnati is about 49% African American. Why doesn't the school reflect the demographic of its community?

Covington Catholic says in its Mission Statement,

We foster an environment of educational excellence and equip young men with a set of spiritual and moral values to become strong Christian leaders and models of our Catholic faith.

Systemic racism is unacknowledged racism. The parents, teachers, chaplains, diocese, board of directors, and others in positions of authority seem unaware they have a problem. The world has seen the evidence that leadership allowed students to wear blackface as part of officially sanctioned events on their own property for years.

On the D.C. field trip, the student interaction with others did not model Christ-like behavior. It did not seem to meet the expectations of the Covington Mission Statement, which reads, "We encourage respect for others and service to the community." 

The best video summary of the confrontation of cultures with Elder Nathan Phillips is here. Watch the video provided at this link, and note the following facts that need to be taken into account as we assess what happened in D.C. with the Covington Catholic students.

First, there was a priest, or a person dressed in a clerical collar, standing on the steps behind the Covington students. A woman attempts to get the students to move away to get the group photo taken, and when asked if she was responsible for the students, she says (video 3 at 2:40), "I'm responsible for myself and my life and I lead a good life." A guide to private schools in the USA notes that Covington has a 14:1 student teacher ratio. There were Covington adults present as the boys interacted with Elder Phillips.

Second, the incident forever memorialized was over in less than 3 minutes. As the crowd dispersed Elder Phillips attempted to address the students by calling to them, addressing them as "Relatives": "Relatives, relatives, I too want to make America great again." Perception, even camera placement, is crucial to understanding the incident. In the videotaped footage taken over the Covington Catholic boys' shoulders, the drumming seems to conform to Phillips' description of the encounter and why he was drumming: he wanted to intervene on behalf of peace. The view over Phillips' shoulder, however, captures what seems like a more menacing encounter and it is the view that became famous.

Third, the students are using cultural misappropriation in their "cheers." When more than 80 young men gather as a group to loudly proclaim themselves, as they did that day, they aim to intimidate. They became a mob. They used their version of the Maori Haka, a war chant, to intimidate everyone in the area. The chant leader stripped off his clothes. Some used the tomahawk chop. Their intention was clear. Look at the body language. Students also attempted to argue with the people from the American Indian Movement. In video 4 at 0:50 a youth with an Owensboro Catholic sweatshirt says about the land , "You all stole it from the aboriginals. All of history, land gets stolen. That's how it works, the way of the world."

Women, Misogyny, the March for Life:

Why were the Covington students in Washington? Were they supporting respect for life? What sort of life? The catcalls were caught on video and quickly forgotten by the media. Not long after the march the students were provoked and forgot every principle that should have guided them. Well, so too did Peter when he cut off the ear of Malchus. Not one Catholic from Covington said, as Jesus did, "No more of this."

In the 100+ days since these events occurred, there have been 100+ thousand excuses offered for the behavior of the Covington Catholic boys, their families, and school officials. A well-connected mother thinks she should sue for millions. Everyone else was to blame.

There are precedents. There will be change.  Sometimes it takes a change of personnel to change a culture.

In the meantime I suggest Covington Catholic needs to review its problems, as St. Michael's in Toronto is doing in a transparent manner. If it was my school, I'd insist that the words of Jesus, starting with the Beatitudes, could be used to plan next year's activities. No school trip to the March for Life. Get the boys on food drives and working at St. Vincent de Paul kitchens. Have Christmas clothing drives for the poor. Clean up the environment. Have guest speakers to address the student body. The first should be from the American Indian Movement. Use reconciliation, meditation, and retreats. Work to reduce maternal and infant mortality in Kentucky. (The USA has a horrible record on these measures. Most of the improvement comes from improving perinatal care. Fundraise!) Ask the students to help develop a plan on how the school can serve the community better by creating more opportunities for all. Encourage and support diversity. Build a house for Habitat for Humanity. Completely revise the school cheering culture. Dig latrines for the poor so they don't suffer a lifetime of misery from hookworms due to third-world sanitation.

Get serious about living your faith.

Bear with me for a second as I remind you of the 1989 "Montreal Massacre." Americans may not recall, or be aware of, the "Montreal Massacre," when 14 women were murdered on the campus of École Polytechnique. Twelve of the women were engineers. In the 1970s, when I was an undergraduate, the engineering students were the most reactionary, racist, homophobic misogynists on campus. It was rare for a woman to enter engineering. Engineers had created a culture hostile to women. What woman would want to work with those who would not have them? After 1989, Canadian Faculties of Engineering have addressed their former horrible culture. The University of Toronto, for example, now enrolls women as 40% of its first-year class, up from 10% thirty years ago.

In 2010 the Frosh (Canadian non-sexist term for students formerly known as "Freshmen") Week at Queen's University had a fatality, not the first, and many on campus simply pleaded the tradition of excessive binge drinking could not be changed. It was a tradition! We've always done it this way. As though there was no other way. Administration saw it differently. The culture needed to change. It didn't take long for an incident to occur the following year. The marching bands, not at all like American marching bands, were put under scrutiny for the hateful, misogynistic, racist lyrics in their songbook. Alcohol consumption made all sorts of bad behavior acceptable. The bands attempted a cover-up trying to destroy the evidence.

You don't have to read all 600+ comments in this report to see how similar they are to the response Bill when he commented in response to a Religion News Service story on Covington.

And so we have the usual excuses. Again, and again, and again. 

But we continue because we must. Eventually hearts are changed, eventually, gradually, slowly...

One day society will realize that hate and hurt are not judged by the intention but by the reception.

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