Lady Bird: A Love Letter to Catholic Schools

By John Zmirak Published on January 28, 2018

The new movie Lady Bird is a genuine “indie” picture, with a very modest budget and zero big name stars. There are no action sequences, torrid love scenes, or stretches of suspense. (There’s a single sex scene, with no nudity, and it serves as a warning, not a temptation.) It’s a modest, real-life story of a teenage girl coming of age. And yet it has garnered a long list of Oscar nominations.

Deservedly so. After seeing this film, I set out to write a complex essay about the deep issues of life and love which it portrays with bittersweet truthfulness. But then my plan hit the rocks : Molly Brigid McGrath, a professor at Assumption College, wrote a far better piece than I ever could have. By all means, go read it. McGrath delves deep into the nuances of the mother-daughter connection. She speaks of the self-emptying entailed in the act of parenting. As McGrath writes:

The delightful and insightful Lady Bird catalogs the misadventures of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) as she completes her senior year at Immaculate Heart, an all-girl high school in Sacramento. The audience starts out laughing at the rebellious follies that precede maturity, but by the end viewers are drawn into reflection on the tense relationship between gratitude and the passage into adult freedom.

McGrath points to the intricate dance of secession and gratitude that every young person must enact, as she grows up and leaves the nest. The essay is not a quick read, but it well repays your attention, and it will show you in detail exactly why Lady Bird is an art work that deserves all the praise it’s getting. It’s beautifully acted, honestly written, and genuinely moving. Go see it — you won’t regret it.

I’ve other things to say about Lady Bird that McGrath didn’t get around to. So here are a few reflections that might pique your interest in the film.

The Virtues of Private, Religious Education

For generations, Hollywood has indulged the stereotype that Christian (especially Catholic) schools are sites of grim repression. Nuns and priests who are stifling their sexuality and hobbling their intellects wield tyrannical power of shaming and expulsion over their students. They curb and punish the magnificent primal urges and native curiosity of these young people. But the hero or heroine of the story bravely stands up and resists the System. By tossing off those shackles the protagonist finds joy and authenticity. And everyone goes off fornicating and freethinking happily into the sunset.

Pretty much every mainstream film you’ll see made after 1968 about religious schools follows this template. It’s all perfectly hackneyed (recycled from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man) and mostly untrue. In Lady Bird you’ll see Catholic high school as my parents and I saw it when I enrolled in 1978: As a haven from the violence, chaos and bottomed-out standards of public schools. Like the mom in Lady Bird (dad’s around and amiable, but unemployed), we struggled to make tuition. But we knew better than to risk life, limb and intellect in those grim state institutions that dotted the neighborhood. We knew them as places where I could serve as a practice stabbing dummy for the Future Felons of America.

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All Schools Are Religious. Some Admit It.

Even if your public schools aren’t quite as scary as New York City’s, it’s almost certain by now that they’re not even really secular. Thanks to the transmission belt of leftist teachers’ unions and California textbooks, they hew now to a fully developed false religion: Social Justice. (See my essay “Woke Is the New Saved” for its creed and rituals.) This new faith includes not just leftist ideology, but aggressive evangelization on sexual politics and abortion. It’s not a tolerant faith. As we’ve seen from the colleges that desperately silence dissenting speakers, its very lack of grounding in any ultimate truth makes it all more inquisitorial. When your logic is weak, you tend to shout.

In Lady Bird, however, a Christian school is portrayed much more accurately: As a place where nuns, priests and high-minded lay teachers work hard for very little money. They do it to pass on beliefs and ideals, but also a view of the human person. They respect it, as the image and likeness of God. That sometimes means imposing some discipline. And sometimes authority figures overstep their bounds.

Parochial schools are closing, fading, failing — just when we need them most.

But at the heart of the enterprise is not some bureaucratic mandate underwritten by taxpayer money and chained to the lowest common denominator. No, as Lady Bird shows in powerful visual after visual, it’s Jesus, up on the cross which He climbed out of love for every one of those students. The smart, rebellious ones. The dopey, distracted ones. The jocks, the nerds, the secretly homosexual and the openly promiscuous. We are all of us sinners, and His Church is for all of us. So are its schools.

To put her daughter in this imperfect but basically wholesome environment, Christine’s mom works long night shifts. She shops at thrift stores. She scrimps and pinches. Her daughter mostly doesn’t realize how lucky and blessed she is — how her mother’s grumpiness is the side effect of love in action. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but the end holds an epiphany when Lady Bird goes off to a perfectly modern, soulless secular college.

A Vital, Fading Resource

Parochial schools are closing, fading, failing — just when we need them most. Many do a tepid job at best of transmitting religious doctrine. Some are even infused with liberal theology. Mine was — and I courted expulsion by reporting my religion teachers to Rome — but that’s another story.

But overall, church schools are a vital national resource. They deserve our support and respect. From legislators they deserve the lifeline of tuition tax credits for parents. Such schools take kids like Clarence Thomas from threadbare backgrounds and remind them of their dignity. And of its source, up on the Cross.

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