Throughout his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI sought to draw attention to what he called an "educational emergency" – a reduction of education from the formation of the human person in light of his or her transcendent vocation to the mere passing on of skills that make the modern economy hum.
What makes this an emergency is that children and youth are being treated as beings whose fulfillment comes through consumerism and other forms of self-gratification. Gone is the belief that true human fulfillment comes through dialogue and relationship with God and others.
When children and youth are being treated as things, as consumer units, whose primary function is to produce and absorb the products of the economic machine, we are indeed in dire straits. It is an emergency.
The ideal of the human person in the consumer society is one who develops on his own without interference from others. Of course, there is interference – interference from major corporations peddling their wares through lifestyle advertising. Society does not seek to free people from interference from those salesmen of the consumer society, only from those who would promote true human values.
The promotion of values that contradict or challenge consumerism is seen as an unwarranted imposition from outside, a relic of antiquated religion which holds people in bondage. What bunk! Religious values of reverence for God, solidarity with other humans and simple lifestyles are the only real challenge to the society of consumption.
To take an obvious example, the increasing incidence of obesity is a sign of the human person being treated as a consumption machine. Food is no longer a simple necessity of life, but a product which humans must be convinced to consume in greater and greater amounts.
The ideology of personal autonomy seeks to separate children from parental and educational influence so they stand alone against the power of forces that treat consumption as humanity's highest end.
On Catholic Education Sunday we should reflect on the need for Catholic schools to show a better way, a way that respects the dignity of the human person as God's finest creation. Catholic schools should be firefighters in the educational emergency, the ones who reveal to students the pit of degradation into which they fall if they accept the ideology of individual independence.
"The personal encounter with Jesus is the key to understanding the importance of God in our daily existence, the secret of how to live in brotherly love, the condition that makes it possible to pick ourselves up after a fall and move towards constant conversion," Pope Benedict said in one of his talks on the educational emergency.
The human person is not a pleasure machine, but a being called to live in communion with God. Self-renunciation is not a form of slavery, but a path to liberation. Christian discipleship is the only adequate response to today's educational emergency.