Monday, 2 January 2012

Catholic Schools: faith, culture and life

Protect the Pope (link to Deacon Nick's post here, and it is worth reading the discussion in the comments before you continue reading this post) has drawn attention to Bishop Michael Campbell's New Year pastoral letter (follow the link at the top of this page to see the full text), and in particular to its paragraph referring to Catholic Schools:
Is it right or sustainable to expect our Mass-going population of 21 000 to support our schools and colleges in which often the majority of pupils, and sometimes of teachers, are not practising Catholics? Is it time for us to admit that we can no longer maintain schools that are Catholic in name only?
There is also comment here. You might like to read this post,too, before continuing

Bishop Campbell places this paragraph in a context of

... a time of great transition for the Church in which Christianity changes from a religion adhered to by the majority out of social convention to once again being a way of discipleship deliberately chosen by some, but not all; chosen by the faithful out of conviction.

I think it is worth reflecting on the purpose of the Catholic School in the light of this pastoral letter.

First of all, I think we should recognise that Catholic schools in England and Wales have a particular historical/political background. One aspect of this is the commitment of the Bishops over many years to provide places in Catholic schools for the children of Catholic families, and the second is the arrangement that might be summarised by the term "dual system" whereby a significant element of the cost of Catholic schools is provided by the state while Diocesan authorities retain some significant controls as far as the governance of the schools is concerned. In this situation, it is very easy to see the Catholic nature of the school as being defined by its pupil intake; and to, at the same time, see a threat to the Catholic nature of the education provided in the school from the collaboration with government. The recent events surrounding the Cardinal Vaughan School had a number of other aspects about which I am not in a position to comment as I have no direct knowledge of the school or the events concerned; but it did appear in some of the public debate that the Catholic nature of the school was seen as depending on its pupil admissions policy. The idea that the Catholic school should succeed in producing pupils who are strongly practicing Catholics might be seen as being compromised by the implementation in the school of state policies consequent on the balance of collaboration between the state and the Church in the running of the school, the introduction of the compulsory teaching of the National Curriculum representing a key moment here.

But this is a very specific historical/political context. If we think about schools opened in mission territories, or, as I have been trying to study in recent months, the schools and universities that are run in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem (in the Palestinian territories and in the Kingdom of Jordan) we can see a model of Catholic education that intends to serve the educational needs of the local population. I do think that it is worth reflecting on the possibility of a Catholic school that does not have a significant proportion of Catholic pupils. This also raises a question about how the activity of the school with regard to specifically religious formation is going to relate to formation to the Catholic faith only.

Secondly, I think we should reflect more deeply on how the Church has articulated its understanding of the nature of a Catholic school. In    the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education produced a document on the Catholic School, and this represents the most careful such articulation. It is worth reading the whole of this document in the context of this post. A "strapline" that summarises the view of a Catholic school is that it should promote the integral formation of the person through a synthesis of culture and faith, and a synthesis of faith and life (cf n.37 and n.49):
Its task is fundamentally a synthesis of culture and faith, and a synthesis of faith and life: the first is reached by integrating all the different aspects of human knowledge through the subjects taught, in the light of the Gospel; the second in the growth of the virtues characteristic of the Christian....

The specific mission of the school, then, is a critical, systematic transmission of culture in the light of faith and the bringing forth of the power of Christian virtue by the integration of culture with faith and of faith with living. 
In its consideration of the first of these syntheses, there is a thread in the document that would see in the school a sense of a community in learning, that embraces pupils and faculty. The consideration ends with this paragraph (n.43):
The integration of culture and faith is mediated by the other integration of faith and life in the person of the teacher. The nobility of the task to which teachers are called demands that, in imitation of Christ, the only Teacher, they reveal the Christian message not only by word but also by every gesture of their behaviour. This is what makes the difference between a school whose education is permeated by the Christian spirit and one in which religion is only regarded as an academic subject like any other.
In considering the second of these syntheses, the document says (n.45):
The Catholic school has as its specific duty the complete Christian formation of its pupils, and this task is of special significance today because of the inadequacy of the family and society. It knows that this integration of faith and life is part of a life-long process of conversion until the pupil becomes what God wishes him to be. Young people have to be taught to share their personal lives with God. They are to overcome their individualism and discover, in the light of faith, their specific vocation to live responsibly in a community with others. The very pattern of the Christian life draws them to commit themselves to serve God in their brethren and to make the world a better place for man to live in.

I do think that it is the consideration of the "integration of faith and life in the person of the teacher" that is a far more important question for the Catholic identity of the school than that of how many of its pupil intake are practising Catholics. If the educational enterprise of a Catholic school is seen as one of a conversion that brings young people to a self-sustained Christian life, then one might argue that the less-than-fully practising should be able to access that just as much as the fully practising. Should we not endeavour to see a greater presence in our schools of priests, religious and adherents of the new ecclesial movements in an attempt to address this?

In a situation where the majority of pupils in a Catholic school are either non-Catholic, or are non-practicing if they are Catholic, is the historic commitment of the Bishops to providing places in Catholic schools for children of Catholic families really being served? Would a Catholic school in this sort of situation not be more true to the educational aims of a Catholic school were it to adopt an admissions policy that is not dependent on Catholic affiliation, but work with a faculty that are committed to the promotion of the syntheses of faith and culture, of faith and life? Can this two-fold synthesis be promoted when the pupils are not all Catholics? What are the implications of this for the religious education in the school, which would clearly have to adapt to the circumstances?

Would Academy or Free School status - and therefore the freedom not to teach the National Curriculum - allow Catholic schools to better build a curriculum that synthesises faith and culture and a coherent ethical outlook?

This post does not really answer thoroughly all of the questions being raised by Bishop Campbell's pastoral letter, or even draw together the three conclusions above; and neither does it do full justice to the Sacred Congregation's document. And, of course, different Catholic schools find themselves in very different situations, too. Perhaps more than anything else, I hope that it raises in a realistic way the possibility that the Catholic Church should run schools with a wider outlook than the historic commitment in England and Wales of just providing places in Catholic schools for the children of Catholic families.

Any comments or observations welcome.


Patricius said...

I think you raise some important questions here which are worthy of deeper pondering than I am able to indulge in at present. I will say, however, that your final remark about the possibility of the Church running schools with "a wider outlook than the historic commitment in England and Wales of just providing places in Catholic schools for the children of Catholic families" is particularly interesting and perhaps you might enlarge upon how this might be achieved without watering down or contradicting core principles.

Joe said...


Some very quick thoughts.

1. It depends on looking at the nature of the school as a school - something that the Sacred Congregation document I quoted does do in a part of the document.

2. It depends on seeing the synthesis of faith and culture as being something that can be offered to those outside the Catholic faith - they may not share it fully from the faith side, but they may value an encounter with it and be able to live it to an extent. Seeing the role of the school as an evangelisation of culture.

3. It would clearly argue - as does Benedict XVI - in favour of the religious dimension of life and of educational activity. So, while you might not expect whole School Mass on a holy day of obligation, you would expect there to be a Catholic chapel.

4. Religious education would have to be different. The catechetical role of RE for the Catholic pupils would perhaps be provided through the chaplaincy role in the school rather than through the RE lessons; and the RE curriculum would have to in some way reflect the pupil population (local authority Agreed Syllabus?)

5. But the really fundamental issue would be that of working out a practice of inter-religious dialogue, and of a dialogue with non-believers, that could be lived out in the life of the school. This would require the work of the Catholic educational thinking under the heading of synthesis of faith and life to engage with the different levels of dialogue recognised in the work of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue. I haven't explored this; there might well be experience that could be seen in, for example, the schools - and now the University of Madaba - run by the Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

5. There is a risk of the exercise being reduced to syncretism. But a suitably formed faculty could avoid this. The exercise would be very dependent on having a faculty that itself can live the synthesis of faith and culture and faith and life - otherwise any Catholic identity would be lost.

Traditionalist Catholics probably won't like it ... but I do think the exercise could be undertaken in a manner that is fully in accord with the teaching of the Church about both education and inter-religious dialogue.

Patricius said...

Thanks for your reply. There is a lot there but it is a very important subject. You say "Traditionalist Catholics probably won't like it" and I have to admit that I, too, have some difficulty with seeing this sort of arrangement working. In particular I'm unhappy with any approach that seems to risk putting the "Catholic R.E." into a box although, from my experience, this is, effectively, what already happens in many schools. Two things which have to be faced, in my opinion, are the fact that need and provision vary across the country and that- consequently- one cannot provide- at secondary level- a one-size-fits-all solution. Perhaps, rather than focussing upon institutions (schools, colleges etc.) attention should be given to supporting and encouraging the primary role of parents as educators of their own children by means, for instance, of the internet and well-designed support materials. Back in the sixties Harold Wilson spoke of a "University of the Air"- which became the Open University. Perhaps a "Catholic School of the Air" - one which empowered parents with access to appropriate resources might be a model for the future!

Joe said...


I think you are right in saying that there is not a single solution, since different schools find themselves in different situations.

I think the question of the position of RE is linked to the historic "provision of places for Catholic children in Catholic schools" - it is perhaps a question that would have a different answer, if the latter principle did not underly the school, depending upon the exact situation of a particular school.