Grammar Rules, Catholic Schools, and Truth


What is the relationship of grammar to the truth?

People hate the truth for the sake of whatever it is they love in place of the truth. They love truth when she shines on them and hate her when she rebukes them. (St. Augustine)

“After a lifetime of being at war with my gender, I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out.”  Sam Smith, a popular singer and a biological male, asks now to be referred to as “they.” The editors of Merriam-Webster dictionary have recently added an additional definition of “they” to include “a single person whose gender identity is non-binary.”

Reasons for Rules

Ironically, before I read this in the paper, I was made aware of this kerfuffle in our 7th-grade Grammar class while discussing proper pronoun usage. A student asked about a person who may want to use a pronoun different from his or her biological sex, or even use a plural. While people are free to call themselves whatever they wish, I stated, such practices are not only confusing and untrue, but grammatically incorrect, and would be marked wrong on his or her paper. God bless Catholic schools.

There are reasons for grammatical rules, just as there are reasons for traffic rules and the rule of due process. First and foremost, all legitimate rules are based in truth (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1951) and if the truth is denied, chaos ensues. As any child can tell you, it is true that, in order for people to be safe and for traffic to flow, we must have an agreed-upon time for going and a time for stopping. If someone decided that, for them, green would now mean stop and red would now mean go, Heaven help us if you and I happened to be driving near that person.

The same applies, on a more complex level, to our laws of due process. Through centuries of criminal jurisprudence, the tenet that a person is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt has been a touchstone of the law of civilized nations. One is not guilty merely because another feels that one might be, or because another heard rumors about one’s alleged actions, or because still another believes it would be politically good for society. Imagine the chaos and injustice which ensue when mere feelings, rumors, or political beliefs are enough to deny a person their freedom, civil liberties, or livelihood.

Grammar and Freedom

Grammar rules do not seem, at first blush, to have the same gravitas as traffic rules or the rule of law, yet they do. Through the centuries, civilizations have flourished because of a shared, common language with clearly understood and upheld rules for communication. Trade, growth, legal systems, engineering, safety, and all governance depend upon accurate and agreed-upon language norms.  Imagine if you will, just as George Orwell first asserted, the dangers if one is forced to believe that 2 + 2 = 5. In a similar vein of St. Pope John Paul II’s quotation, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought,” Orwell famously contended that “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

In his seminal book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, author Thomas Cahill writes about the era after the destruction of the Roman Empire and the ensuing barbarization of Europe when a small group of Irish monks feverishly copied and shared the writings of the Bible and classical civilizations. It was one of these grace-filled “hinges of history,” as he calls it, which saved the great truths of Western civilization. This came to mind when I recently read an article about Professor Camille Paglia, a well-known feminist who teaches at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

She recalls a “horrifying” example from her classroom a few years ago. She was teaching “Go Down, Moses,” the famous Negro spiritual. “The whole thing is about antiquity,” she says, “but obviously it has contemporary political references.” She passed out the lyrics and played the music, “and it suddenly hit me with horror—none of them recognized the name ‘Moses.’ And I thought: Oh my God, when Moses is erased from the West, what is left of Western civilization?”

Freedom Within the Rules

The events of this week in Grammar class are just one of many which lead me to believe that American history and civilization are going to be protected, if not saved, by orthodox Catholic education. It is primarily in these Catholic schools where students are learning Latin, in-depth American and World history, the philosophical underpinnings of the U.S. Constitution, and, yes, the significance of Moses and the rules of grammar. In our Catholic schools, we can still teach the importance of Tom Sawyer, the Psalms, cursive handwriting, sentence diagramming, and the pros and cons of the Oxford comma.

Similarly, it is the Catholic school system, begun by Catholic religious women, arguably the first “feminists,” and primarily carried on by women, that provides truly liberating and leadership-building educations for boys and girls, especially in traditional Catholic single-sex schools throughout the nation. With God-given biology as the sole determinant of male and female in Catholic schools, both boys and girls are freer to become the men and women they were created by God to be.

Rather than limiting gender-roles, the Catholic focus upon the person as a unique and ineffable creation of God serves to expand and celebrate the wide range of gifts, talents, and interests of each person, who is not limited by his or her biological sex. A boy who loves to dance, arrange flowers, care for babies, bake cookies, or perform on stage does not have to believe that he is somehow in the wrong body. He is the male that God created him to be. And a girl who craves competition, engineering, short hair, playing Army, and kicking a ball does not have to deny any of that to be a girl. She is the female that God created her to be.

Conclusion: “All One in Christ Jesus”

It is a blessing to teach in a Catholic school where a child is not limited by race, color, ethnicity, or biology. Rather, each one is truly a child of God with limitless potential.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

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