Ryan N.S. Topping: Do Your Students March?

“Hey, Obama, your mama chose life!” That was our favorite chant. We were ‘first-timers’ this year. Sure, we’ve marched before, but this was the first year any of our family had slipped away for the big one, in D.C. This past weekend I, along with our two eldest boys (aged 10 and 8), joined a happy throng of Thomas More College students, as we together made the eight hour run south through Boston and New York to the capital. After coming home I read that The New York Times reported that “hundreds” had braved the weather. Hundreds? Perhaps they meant to say that, out of the tens of thousands, only “hundreds” managed to avoid being grounded at Union Station; or that “hundreds” were likely to be stranded along the highways that fanned west and south from Washington. Oh, well. Others of our students only made it back last night. As it happened, our bus was among the “billions” that did escape the storm.

So, first, who came? At 38, I was among the “old” folks. Who came were the same sorts of young people and their parents and their pastors and their teachers that travel every year along all-night coach rides, camping at inexpensive hotels and friends’ homes, and eating carrots and peanut-butter sandwiches, so they can walk during the coldest week in Washington for a politically incorrect cause that the good folks at The New York Times can’t be bothered to touch without maligning. And yet these young people don’t seem to be bothered.

Will they keep coming? Sure bet. As of 2012, 1 out of 2 Americans now self-identify as “pro-life,” and just about any university across the country has its own club to promote the cause. One reason for this shift is that word is getting out. As the gory pictures keep flashing across our screens, it becomes increasingly difficult to convince your average American that the life that is being snuffed out is not, in fact, human. Another reason is the revitalization among the churches. Young Christians have grasped that no political cause matters more. Jesus calls us to minister to the “least of these”. The coach busses are going to keep rumbling into D.C. – as this weekend showed – because believers everywhere have begun to realize that no one is smaller, more helpless, more in need of care, than the least of our brothers and sisters, in utero. For scores of Catholics and Evangelicals, being pro-life is now something these young people simply “are”. It’s become what sociologists call an “identity marker”.

And so it should be. No graver social crisis threatens. The right to life rests at the bottom floor of any conceivable system of rights. Consider: my right to drive does not trump your right to safety once I see that you have fallen off of your bicycle in front of my car. That’s true even if the light above me flashes “Green”; that’s true because your prior right trumps my lesser freedom to travel through the intersection: your right to life translates into my duty to protect. And it is no different with the child in the womb. A lot of babies are getting run over in our hospitals. Mercy calls us. So does the defense of the rule of law. Once the government can take your right to life, or allow the strong to steal it, what is property and free speech?

I am fortunate to teach at a proudly Catholic college. Still, the past few years I’ve been thinking more about Catholic education. What is it? What are the signs of its presence? Because of my belief in the principle of subsidiarity, I regard the practical imposition of the common core a disaster. I’ll say this for it, though. It’s forced Catholic parents and teachers to think again; it’s led many of us to consider the kinds of markers that express our identity as “Christian educators” and as “Catholic schools”. As one instance of this, the Cardinal Newman Society will soon make public, I am told, some of their efforts to offer an alternative model to the common core for Catholic schools. We have no choice. Given an increasingly hostile and anti-intellectual educational establishment, soul-searching among Catholic teachers will only intensify.

All this effort to uncover the core of a Catholic educational identity is laudable. And yet after joining in the March for Life this year, I was left to wonder whether schools and colleges might not find a simpler test. How about this one: Do your students march? Does your school haul its kids to the local pro-life parade? Does your twenty-something’s Catholic college carry a banner in D.C.? Nurturing Catholic identity requires more than actively joining the fight for life; but it can ask of us nothing less. See you next January along with the other “dozens”!




Dr. Ryan Topping teaches at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts. His most recent books are The Case for Catholic Education (Angelico Press) and Renewing the Mind: A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education (CUA Press).

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