Maintaining the Ethos and Identity of Catholic Schools

Author: Leonardo Franchi

Maintaining the Ethos and Identity of Catholic Schools

Leonardo Franchi

Educating to intercultural dialogue and transmitting the basic values of life

Catholic schools, as communities of faith and learning, can (and do) come in many shapes and sizes. This diversity should reflect the unity of faith which binds us.

In brief, Catholic schools are not schools for Catholics: they are schools for all, rooted in a solid Catholic world view which informs a wider view of education. This is how a vision of Catholic truth (unity) is expressed in different contexts (diversity). The Church’s educational tradition is not, and cannot, be simply geared towards explicit evangelisation and catechesis of the school’s pupil population (of which more later) but is the ‘casting of nets’ in deep waters, an invitation to all to look at the mystery of life and therein to engage with what it means to be a human person. St John Paul II, in his visit to St Andrew’s College (Scotland) in 1982 put it as follows:

‘Perhaps we could reflect on the philosophy behind education: education as the completing of the person. To be educated is to be more fitted for life; to have a greater capacity for appreciating what life is, what it must offer, and what the person must offer in return to the wider society of man. Thus, if we would apply our modern educational skills and resources to this philosophy, we might succeed in offering something of lasting value to our pupils and students, an antidote to often immediate prospects of frustration and boredom, not to mention the uncertainty of the long-term future.’

We note here that there is no direct reference to religion. That is not a cause for alarm as the conceptualisation of education as a means of human formation is a truly ‘Catholic thing’. We see this line of thinking reflected in Pope Benedict’s trenchant criticism of contemporary educational trends encapsulated in his use of the term ‘educational emergency’:

‘Daily experience tells us — as we all know — that precisely in our day educating in the faith is no easy undertaking. Today, in fact, every educational task seems more and more arduous and precarious. Consequently, there is talk of a great “educational emergency” of the increasing difficulty encountered in transmitting the basic values of life and correct behaviour to the new generations, a difficulty that involves both schools and families and, one might say, any other body with educational aims.’

For Pope Benedict, the ‘educational emergency’ is not solely a crisis in Catholic education. It is a crisis in the culture of education with consequent grave consequences for Catholic education — and indeed for catechesis. At the core of this ‘emergency’ is the dominant understanding of truth as relative: there is no truth apart from the fact that there is no
truth! While it is important to assist students to develop knowledge and understanding, teachers are conduits leading towards the inherited traditions which, in turn, make demands of the student in terms of application. We teach by setting out key ideas but with the insistence that students refer, as appropriate, to primary sources: as St Augustine said in De Magistro (On the Teacher), ‘Who is so foolishly curious that he would send his son to school in order to learn what the teacher thinks?’ — a motif which should be carved into the entrance of every Catholic school, college and university!

Pope Benedict has rightly targeted, without mentioning it by name, this way of thinking which remains common in many educational institutions. We do our pupils and parents a disservice if we diminish the ‘chain of memory’....

The recent address (February 9, 2017) by Pope Francis to the Congregation for Catholic Education develops the lines sketched out by Pope Benedict. Pope Francis has picked up on the tension between unity and diversity but frames it in the context of dialogue. He introduces a phrase ‘grammar of dialogue’ alongside a succinct definition of unity in diversity for educators:

‘Dialogue, in fact, educates when a person relates with respect, esteem, sincerity in listening and expresses himself with authenticity, without obfuscating or mitigating his identity nourished by evangelical inspiration.’

It is the role of the Catholic teacher and, by extension, all agencies dedicated to Catholic education, to develop ways in which this dialogue can take place in the secular world.

There are two principal themes in the body of teaching which merit careful study and which, ideally, will help us develop a vibrant, faith-filled and outward-facing Catholic culture in our schools: the Catholic school as site of intercultural dialogue and the relationship between catechesis and school-based Religious Education.

Before dealing in more detail with each theme, it is important to bear in mind their interconnectedness. As good theology is a symphony of themes, Catholic education harmonises theology, educational thought and culture. Pigeonholes are great for letters and pigeons, but not for ideas! In this part of my talk, I will refer principally to the Congregation for Catholic Education’s 2013 document, Educating to Intercultural Dialogue in Catholic Schools: Living in Harmony for a Civilization of Love. This long teaching document, the latest major piece by the Congregation, is a good starting point for study of recent Catholic teaching on education.

Educating to Intercultural Dialogue will take some time to digest, especially its title. For those unfamiliar with the developments in Catholic teaching on education since the Council, it might take even longer! Essentially, the Congregation is recognising the reality of life in the Catholic school: the pupils are not all Catholics, the Catholic pupils are not all from practising families and the socio-political environment is often hostile to religion in general, and Catholicism in particular. This might not be, at first sight, an ideal set of circumstances but there is nothing new in this. We must, however, be clear: the fostering of intercultural dialogue is not simply a response to a lived reality but is, rather, a fresh dimension to the conceptual framework of Catholic education. As the (Gentile) Wise Men followed the star to the Jewish homeland, all people can find the means of human formation in the Catholic school.

In the Introduction to Educating to Intercultural Dialogue, we read as follows:

‘Schools have a great responsibility in this field, called as they are to develop intercultural dialogue in their pedagogical vision. This is a difficult goal, not easy to achieve, and yet it is necessary. Education, by its nature, requires both openness to other cultures, without the loss of one’s own identity, and an acceptance of the other person, to avoid the risk of a limited culture, closed in on itself.’

To what extent, therefore, are we promoting intercultural dialogue? Of course, difficulties can easily arise when we encounter unhelpful views in those with whom we wish to be in dialogue. Dialogue, by definition, needs willing interlocutors: without them we remain gazing at the starting line. Is it the case that so-called ‘progressive’ education is open to religion only in the context of religion’s willingness to recognise and support a ‘progressive’ agenda? This is the nub of the issue and reminds us that a Catholic school committed to intercultural dialogue is committing, in a sense, to the taking up of the cross in the public square.

The varying levels of hostility towards the influence of religion in schools is a sign of a continuing recognition of the importance of religion in civic society. This gives Catholic schools an opportunity to reframe debates in order to teach about the value of religion and religious ways of thinking to wider society. Before continuing, please be assured that I am not about to make an argument in favour of a phenomenological approach to Religious Education, nor to a broader religious studies curriculum in place of a Catholic-centred approach....

When we talk about catechesis and Religious Education as separate yet distinctive ways of Catholic formation, we are using the language of communio. This partnership recognises their different spheres of influence, conceptual frameworks and pedagogical preferences; it also accepts that they feed into and draw from each other. It is, in practice, a pedagogical diversity rooted in a cultural and theological unity. Educating to Intercultural Dialogue sums it up as follows:

‘Moreover, it must be pointed out that teaching the Catholic religion in schools has its own aims, different from those of catechesis. In fact, while catechesis promotes personal adherence to Christ and maturing of the Christian life, school teaching gives the students knowledge about Christianity’s identity and the Christian life’ (74).

In other words, they need each other. To say that Religious Education is not primarily a catechetical endeavour does not minimise the catholicity of the school: it is, rather, a spur to improve the teaching of doctrine in a meaningful and culturally enriching way. That is what we mean by teaching the students ‘knowledge about Christianity’s identity and the Christian life.’ All Catholic schools should have core theology on the curriculum: for the Catholic pupils, this might also serve as a form of catechesis but only implicitly: genuine catechesis comes from wider and meaningful integration into the life of the Church. For those pupils who are not part of the Catholic tradition, this curriculum is primarily ‘knowledge-based’ which asks for reflexivity but does not expect a lived commitment to the tradition. Such a differentiation of expectation is a mark of a mature Catholic school, secure in its culture and confident in its inheritance. It is also, I suggest, a valuable contribution to the New Evangelisation.

To ignore the language, culture and practices of religion is to engage in historical agnosticism and self-denial. Religious literacy/knowledge, while not co-terminous with religious belief, is a mark of a civilised society. In this respect, the Catholic school’s status as a site of intercultural dialogue informs its Religious Education curriculum: the fostering of religious literacy/knowledge is, I suggest, a sure means of cultural enrichment and a possible means of pre-evangelisation. How much we need this today!

It is my deeply-held conviction that to enhance the mission and identity of Catholic schools we must look honestly at how we support teachers in Catholic schools. This is not to deny the vital role of parents in education but simply to recognise that the quality of a Catholic school lies in the quality of its teachers. I am convinced that the key to reform in Catholic education lies in the wider embrace of Catholic culture: indeed, Catholic education is a cultural project in the richest sense of that term. To be a Catholic educator is to live a vocation at the heart of both the Church and world. No one says it is easy because it is a demanding call to holiness. We are called to be no less than saints in the world. This is the obligation placed on us by Baptism. To respond in faith, hope and love to this invitation is, truly, to do the ‘Catholic thing’.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
28 July 2017, page 6

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