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Is Santorum the Model Carmel High School Graduate?

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As he rolls into Illinois for the Republican Presidential primary, former Senator Rick Santorum's campaign is hyping the fact that he attended Carmel Catholic High School in suburban Mundelein. His supporters even created a "Carmel High School for Santorum" Facebook page, gushing that "Santorum embodies everything that true practicing Catholics believe, and the students at Carmel Catholic strive to become a positive public figure like Rick Santorum who stands up for the American people's values."

Yet, later this week Santorum is scheduled to campaign with former State Rep. Al Salvi (a fellow Carmel graduate) at a prep school in Niles (which is nowhere near Mundelein) and not at Carmel's gym, which bears the Salvi family name. Perhaps Santorum knows what many in the Carmel community think of him and his campaign.

Carmel describes itself as a college preparatory school and "a community which fosters respect for diversity, mutual growth and development," and many Carmel graduates, including myself, don't consider Santorum a feather in our cap. While my Carmel experience was nearly 20 years after Santorum's, I'm confident his political persona does not reflect what he learned there.

Carmel is part of the Catholic Church's centuries-long commitment to intellectual development and the pursuit of knowledge. Listening to Rick Santorum, one would think he's the product of some shady institution created by a televangelist during the age of disco to provide an academic pretense for challenging scientific consensus and reversing decades of social progress.

It is embarrassing for Santorum to cast himself as a vociferous defender of "intelligent design," having pushed legislation instructing teachers to downplay evolution and teach that specific brand of creationism, even bragging how he angered the Biology Teachers Association and sparked years of conflict over the issue in schools across the country. Carmel has a nationally recognized academic program, and 25 percent of students pursue science and engineering careers. They know about evolution -- and that the Catholic Church rejects intelligent design, has supported evolution for more than 50 years and decries the use of the Bible as a source of scientific knowledge.

Equally inexplicable are Santorum's claim that "Satan" has infiltrated the university system and his attack on President Obama as a "snob" for reasonably suggesting that all high school graduates further their education by at least one year. "I understand why Barack Obama wants to send every kid to college," Santorum said, "because of their indoctrination mills, absolutely." Yet 99 percent of Carmel graduates attend college, apparently all doomed to become a bunch of elitists brainwashed by the devil.

Santorum defended a TV preacher who described Islam as "evil," calling his statement "reasonable," indulged birtherism at a campaign event and exploited racial stereotypes by saying he didn't "want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money." These typical Santorum remarks hardly reflect Carmel's values of respect for self and others -- values based in Catholic social teaching, which "calls us to overcome barriers of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, economic status, and nationality."

Santorum can't seem to reconcile that broader ethic that is inherent in Carmel's philosophy with his political ambitions, since he campaigns as a religious conservative, yet openly disdains several Catholic social values.

Santorum's defense of concentrated wealth and opportunity hardly reflects the Church directive that "economic development must remain under the people's control, [not] left to the judgment of a few individuals or groups possessing too much economic power."

He chastised a worried mother whose son's annual prescription drug costs exceed one million dollars by saying, "We either believe in markets or we don't" -- hardly echoing Pope John Paul II's denunciation of an "idolatry of the market" or his call for "the state and [all of] society to defend needs... that cannot be satisfied by the market system."

Santorum may despise "Obamacare" and complain that Americans have "been conditioned to think health care is something you can get without having to pay for it," but the law doesn't go nearly as far as the Church's edict that access to adequate medical care is an "inalienable right" that "should be a priority of governments" and "[as] far as possible it should be cheap or even free of charge."

Santorum reviles church-state separation, but it is inconceivable that he would publicly espouse his faith's more socially conscious principles. Instead, he artfully promotes right-wing fundamentalist notions he definitely never studied at Carmel. The media call Santorum an "evangelical Catholic," which is simply a misleading euphemism that makes his political pandering appear virtuous.

Carmel students learn values that serve as a foundation for how they live, not as a guidebook for demeaning others and certainly not as a blueprint for remaking government. They are encouraged to think independently and respect cultural and religious diversity. How students apply their values as adults in a pluralistic society is a responsibility each confronts individually. Carmel graduates develop the same political ideologies and opinions on controversial issues as most Americans. And, they form their own views on the proper roles for government and religion in social and economic matters.

Similarly, Catholic politicians must reconcile their respect for Church teaching with their oath to the Constitution and responsibility to constituents of all faiths. Opposition to abortion, contraception and gay marriage seem to offer the clearest path to the heart of the Republican base. This works out well for Santorum, who clearly shares the Church positions here but whose language is laden with more apocalyptic condemnation than most will ever hear at mass.

Conservative Catholics like Santorum argue that those issues are the gravest evils facing our country and that liberals misguidedly associate them with such values as economic opportunity, compassion for the poor and respect for the global community. Regardless, all are essential elements of the Catholic faith. Harping on a few politically potent values doesn't earn you a pass to actively work against the others.

All of this is not to characterize Santorum as a "bad Catholic" and certainly not to challenge the way he has personally lived his faith, which in some respects is admirable. Rather, the bottom line is that Rick Santorum, the politician, has constructed his own independent theology, piecing together the most electorally beneficial elements of Catholicism, ignoring or deriding its other tenets and shrouding it all in rhetoric that frequently runs counter to the academic rigor and values central to the Carmel High School experience.

Few of us would claim to be the model Carmel graduate. I honestly don't know who would be. But I do know the ideal model is not Rick Santorum.

Update: Santorum has since cancelled his appearance at Northridge Prep in Niles, Ill. He is now expected to appear at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights on Friday, March 16, 2012.