My recent dealings with the PCORI (Parents’ Council for Optional Religious Instruction) have brought to the fore a need to revisit the school’s policy in dealing with support groups. I have noticed that the school’s laissez faire attitude towards these groups has allowed some of them to develop their own sense of autonomy. I opine that perhaps, the term interest group would be more accurate in describing groups such as the PCORI, although that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Let me explain why.
I. Devil in the Details
One of the PCORI’s yearly projects is the recollection which they administer to the first and second years. It is often adopted as a batch activity, but all batch activities are under the auspices of the Batch Adviser. However, when the PCORI presented their proposed program, I wasn’t too enthusiastic. I have received feedback over the years and gathered requests from my current batch on what they look for in a recollection. To summarize: they want a recollection that brings a class together, does not heighten religious differences, and is more spiritual than religious.
The PCORI recollection however, fails to meet these criteria. But to be fair, it is because they have different goals. In their program, they divide the group into Catholics and Evangelicals and focus on their mandate of religious instruction. However, it is not the program that my students want. Therefore, I had to be upfront with them and turn them down. I could not, in honest graces, endorse their activity as my batch’s recollection.
What exemplifies that the PCORI has gone beyond a mere support group would be two things. First, in their negotiations with me to earn my endorsement of the activity, they would not listen to the requests of the batch. Designing an ecumenical activity would have been fair and amicable to all parties. However, they felt that minors were not ready for ecumenism, and there was a pervasive fear of their children “being confused” and “converting to another faith”. There were clear interests at play, putting their commitment of complying with my requests at clear odds with the actual output they produced. Students often allude to the infamous “Opus Dei agenda” behind the PCORI, which actually may or may not be a bad way to put it.
Second, it is clear that the PCORI will do fine without me. Negotiation insiders would often report that the more requests I made for the recollection, the more the PCORI would discuss of how they could execute the recollection without me. I was a rubber stamp — an expendable rubber stamp. Thus when I sent my rejection letter today, the sense of relief on their end was palpable. In none too many words, they thanked me for my candor and fortrightness, and said that they will continue on with their plans.
This is not how a support group behaves. This is how an interest group behaves. A support group’s main thrust is to enhance the facility and delivery of services for key stakeholders. An interest group’s main thrust is to pursue their agenda in the system by rallying support for it and building a constituency.
There are two possible directions the management could take this to.
First, we reinforce what we mean by support groups. We clearly deliniate lines of accountability and provide guidelines for the development and implementation of activities with these groups. They can still initiate and propose projects, but with a sterner emphasis on propose. They must be accountable to the stakeholders they seek to work with (a whole batch, for instance) and should be bound by the regulations and requests set by the administration.
Or second, we call a spade a spade and recognize interest groups. Doing so will free groups such as the PCORI to pursue their own agenda, but in coordination and supervision by another office under the Campus Director. This will allow the recollection, for instance, to be approved and instituted outside of the auspices of the batch adviser. The only catch is that such a recollection cannot be considered a batch activity (unless the adviser decides to sponsor or adopt it, which should be an option) meaning that it can’t be required or credited to the students.
But I would like to make it clear right now: the second direction is not an option. Adopting interest groups into our system is opening a Pandora’s Box.
II. Towards A Unified Vision
We are a school. We have a clear vision, mission and purpose, and support groups in this school should adhere to that. Support groups can fill in the gaps, but they cannot dictate policy. Dictating policy means setting the direction, and that is the job of the administration. In my recent dealing with the PCORI, they essentially overruled me. They continue on with their recollection despite my arguments to the contrary, and I represent the administration. To be frank, they were out of line.
We cannot institute interest groups because that will dilute the institution. We are not a state, where the proliferation of interest groups and organizations reflect the plurality in our society and politics. We are a school with a single purpose. A multiplicity of groups with their own competing interests will be counterproductive to working in a unified direction. There is no comfort in monitoring the interest groups we allow by “making sure” they adhere to our goals. These groups will essentially become lobby groups with their own sponsors, and they will rise and fall with every administration. Soon enough, all these groups will want their cake and eat it too. Interest groups in a school is a tempest in a teapot. It can only get ugly.
When it comes to religious instruction — the goal of the PCORI — the position of the institution is clear: as a government school, we adhere to the separation of Church and State. We cannot sponsor religious instruction and we cannot favor any single religion over the others in our instruction. Nonetheless, the PCORI exists as a support group to provide this need to those who seek it, hence the word “optional” in their name (and which they have curiously omitted as of late). But even when it comes to their optional activities, they must adhere to the mission of the school. To wit,
The PSHS offers an education that is humanistic in spirit, global in perspective, and patriotic in orientation. It is based on a curriculum that emphasizes science and mathematics and the development of well-rounded individuals.
This excerpt from the mission statement has several implications for the PCORI since education neither begins nor ends in the classroom. They will have to be consistent with the mission of the school in working with our scholars. A recollection that separates Catholics and Evangelicals is neither humanistic nor global in orientation. In our knowledge-based global society, such a notion is becoming increasingly parochial. It portrays religion as a wedge rather than a bridge, a notion that is not helpful in our time. Moreover, the position that our scholars are not discerning and capable of walking their own path to truth belittles their intelligence. Echoing their position: ecumenism is espoused in Vatican II, but these are minors and thus should not be exposed to other faiths. I find that rather arrogant, and to be frank, blatantly misguided.
And yet we return to our mission of forming well-rounded individuals. It can be argued that religion is one such path to this. Fair enough. But it is not the only one. This is why we offer the Humanities (and why I have a job). This is why we have the guidance office. And this is why we tolerate support groups such as the PCORI. All these efforts should work in concert towards this unified vision, for creating well-rounded individuals means that we are well-rounded in our efforts.
That has been my goal in dealing with the PCORI: to design a program that reconciles their goal of religious instruction with the requests of my batch and with the mission of the school. It is with these considerations that I encourage ecumenism, and in so doing promoting fairness to all. However, it seems that they are intent in taking the recollection in another direction, a direction I simply cannot endorse and support.
I believe that they will be pushing through with the recollection, only that it won’t be a batch activity. Thus, they do so at their own risk. I can’t require or endorse my students to attend in any way, and their participation will be a personal choice they have to make. As one of the PCORI said, “a recollection isn’t for everyone.” I wish them the best in reaching out to those they seek.
I agree with the sentiments of one of the PCORI parents: that their exercise with me has underscored the need for the PCORI to revisit and rethink their role as a support group. This is long overdue. I am glad to contribute to that discussion, and I hope this piece gets them started.
UPDATE 9/22: I’ve written a rejoinder after a dialogue with Fr. Mon Nadres. You may read the full text here.