As I have loved you, so you should love one another. This is how I will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35)
Although bullying has been around for generations, and affects nearly all children, solutions have been evasive.
No school is immune to the bullying behavior, nor can any school completely inoculate itself from this type of virus. Since the advent of Internet and social networking, cyberbullying is a pervasive strain of bullying that can have devastating consequences.
Unfortunately, society, perhaps unwittingly, encourages and perpetuates inappropriate behavior toward others. We are inundated by media filled with “humor” that belittles a person’s God-given personality traits or appearance; we are subjected to political campaigning that attempts to disparage oppositional viewpoints; we are exposed to news that aims to capitalize on rude remarks that are degrading and promote prejudice.
Catholics and Catholic schools, however, have advantages in terms of both preventive and prescriptive measures in dealing with how members of our community treat one another. We’re fortunate that — because of the Catholic identity of our schools — we have access to moral teaching that can help us create environments where harassment is not tolerated.
In “Gaudium et Spes,” the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Pope Paul VI enjoined Catholics to respect the dignity of all human persons by reminding us that “by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man. He worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, He has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin.”
Our challenge, today, is to continue to instruct and model a fundamental belief in the dignity of every human person because God created and loves that person.
Locally, special interest groups are attempting to hijack the conversation about bullying in schools and the halls of government. The groups promote a narrow agenda aimed at creating protected classes of citizens, using the schools to propagate their ideology.
Over the past several months, we have witnessed this scenario play out in the Anoka-Hennepin School District. There, under the guise of promoting tolerance, various groups are demanding that the school system implement policies and educational initiatives that generate acceptance for “alternative lifestyles” contrary to both human flourishing and the universal moral law.
The “good news” is that we as Catholics are called to be countercultural. We must resist and not condone such practices, which are aimed at re-shaping society. At the same time, we must vigorously combat the root cause of bullying — a lack of respect for the dignity of each human person based on their beliefs or lifestyle.
Christ’s redemptive message and requirement for Christians to love one another has taken on a sense of urgency in a society filled with contradictory messages.
Civility, motivated by Christ’s message to love our neighbor, must be the expected behavior of everyone in the Catholic school community — teachers, administrators, parents, volunteers and students.
Nevertheless, a culture of incivility permeates contemporary society. Educators in both public and private schools have a formidable task in combating the bullying epidemic. To that end, many of our educational institutions have adopted specific anti-bullying programs. The National Catholic Educational Association’s Department of Boards and Councils has developed a framework to design a school anti-bullying plan.
Central to a Catholic response to bullying is the recognition of the family as the primary social institution and respect for the primacy of parents as the first educators of their children. The principle of respect for all human persons should be instilled in children beginning at an early age through teaching and modeling within the home. To assist parents in this awesome responsibility, Catholic elementary and secondary schools should augment and support the family in a complementary fashion.
There are no panaceas for preventing bullying behavior from infiltrating our Catholic schools. Still, the best antidote is developing a plan — in the home, in our churches and in schools — centered on recognizing the face of Christ in all people.
The plan should incorporate the core principles and assets of our Catholic faith and our Catholic communities: the fundamental beliefs and traditions of our faith, respect for the dignity of all human persons, and trust in the wisdom and competence of servant leaders in our local communities of faith.
All that must be permeated with the healing power of Christ’s clarion call to love one another as he has loved us.
Peter Noll is the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s education director.