Catholic and Jewish Leaders Urge Return of Morality to the Schools

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Synagogue Council of America have teamed up on a campaign to bring morality and ethics back into the American classroom.

In an unprecedented joint statement issued Tuesday in Baltimore, Catholic and Jewish religious leaders call for a national mobilization of teachers, parents, lay leaders and government officials to make morality and human values crucial elements of the American public school education.

“We are losing our children,” the statement says, citing a host of problems plaguing today’s youth, including drug addiction, depression, suicide, promiscuity, crime, AIDS, teen pregnancy and alcoholism.

“From our perspective as religious leaders, these maladies are only symptoms of a deeper and more basic problem: a lack of fundamental values,” the statement says. “Yet we persist in cheating our children of this critically important education.”

Values such as honesty, compassion, integrity, tolerance and loyalty are not being stressed in the public school system, says the statement, which is titled “A Lesson of Value.”

The statement was developed over an 18month period in the course of regular meetings between the Bishops Conference and the Synagogue Council, an umbrella group representing the rabbinic and congregational bodies of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism.

The document itself was drafted by Auxiliary Bishop William Newman of Baltimore and Rabbi Joel Zaiman, president of the Synagogue Council.

WRONG VALUES BEING TAUGHT

According to Zaiman, the reluctance of American educators to instill moral and ethical teachings into their courses stems from sensitivity to the issue of the separation of church and state.

“But we’re not advocating sectarian values,” he said in an interview. “America is built on shared values like patriotism, compassion, respect for persons and property, and the notion of individual freedom. These are values that all Americans share in common, and yet they’re not being taught.”

In fact, the statement says that by excluding such shared moral values from the curriculum, the educational system actually undermines them.

The problem, says Archbishop William Keeler of Baltimore, who co-chairs the ongoing dialogue between the Bishops Conference and the Synagogue Council, is that the wrong values are being taught.

“Values are being taught, but they are values not rooted in a more ancient tradition of individual human dignity and worth,” he said in an interview.

To illustrate his point, Keeler cited the example of sex education classes. He complained that children are being taught about contraception and disease prevention, but not about the mutuality of a sexual relationship, marriage and love.

“We would like to see the components of great civic virtues specifically folded into the teaching process,” he said.

To accomplish this, the Synagogue Council’s Interreligious Affairs Committee and the Bishops Conference’s Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs have proposed a number of recommendations:

* the establishment of state committees to create new morality-conscious curricula;

* the convening of conferences of teachers, administrators, parents and students at the state and local levels;

* the creation of educational programming in the media to complement school curricula; and

* the underwriting of special school programs by foundations.

REGULAR MEETINGS PLANNED

The two groups also hope to formalize their partnership with the establishment of a joint commission that would meet regularly to evaluate matters in Congress and the courts that relate to the promotion of values in America.

“If this effort gets buried, it’s because no one will take up our call. If it can be demonstrated that there is no risk to the school bodies and the notion of church and state, then I think it can be implemented,” Zaiman said.

Both Zaiman and Keeler agree that “A Lesson of Value” is not the answer to all of the various social ills facing American youth, but they say it is a step in the right direction.

“We don’t say this solves everything. But what we do say is that a child with a poor self image who doesn’t have a sense of deeper values is going to be more likely to tumble into drugs,” said Keeler.

But others will have to join in, Zaiman said. “It has to be a broad effort.” The statement is calling on all faith groups to help create enough pressure to put the issue on the national agenda.

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