Thursday, 3 September 2009

Religious Education in Catholic Schools: catechesis or evangelisation?

We can ask a question about the purpose of Catholic schools; and then, as a kind of sub-set to that general question, we can ask a question about the purpose of religious education in Catholic schools. And, if we answer to this second question that the purpose of religious education is catechesis we do not necessarily mean by that the same thing as if we were to answer instead that it is evangelisation. Which can be quite bemusing!

Before going further, it should be pointed out that when the Church talks about evangelisation, it uses terms in a carefully defined way. At least that is the case in its most careful expressions of that teaching, Pope Paul VI's Evangelii Nuntiandi and the General Directory for Catechesis, though in general discussion the word "evangelisation" is frequently used without differentiating it into its different elements. In the teaching of the Church, the word "evangelisation" is used to refer to the whole complex of activity of spreading the Gospel and enabling people to grow in their knowledge and love of God. "Presence in charity" refers to the witness of Christian living in the world, perhaps through charitable activity or professional engagement and presence. "Primary proclamation" refers to an explicit announcement of the Gospel aimed at leading its hearers to conversion of heart towards belief in Jesus Christ. "Catechesis" refers to the process of systematic teaching of the content and practice of the faith, particularly in preparation for the reception of the sacraments of initiation, but generally aimed at enabling the person who has undergone a first conversion to Christ to grow in their knowledge and communion with him. And finally there is ongoing formation in the life of the Church, which might be related to spiritual growth.

All the different elements inter-relate, and in a particular situation, they do not necessarily follow on one after the other as just described. In the Catholic Church, a need is sometimes identified for an increase in attention to "primary proclamation", focussing on the core of Christian faith - God's saving love for us shown in the Paschal Mystery of his death and resurrection. "Catechesis", at which we probably do better, is not able to achieve its fruit if it is not preceded by a living conversion towards Christ. The reality is that both need to be present in the activity of the Church, and they both grow off each other.

As far as religious education in schools is concerned - where does it fit among these different elements of evangelisation? According to Religious Education: Curriculum Directory for Catholic Schools, published by the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales and applicable to the Catholic schools in those countries:

"In the living and sharing of faith, evangelisation [ie "primary proclamation"], catechesis and religious education are always intertwined. While awareness of the distinctiveness of each makes our witness to the Gospel more effective, the relationship between them should never be lost ...

For those already engaged in the journey of faith religious education will be catechesis, and for some children and young people religious education will be evangelisation [ie "primary proclamation"], the first opportunity to hear the good news of the Gospel."

In May 2009, the Congregation for Catholic Education wrote a circular letter to presidents of Episcopal Conferences on religious education in schools. This letter has been forwarded to headteachers of Catholic schools in this country as the new academic year begins. The letter addresses a number of issues relating to religious education in the world today, but includes a paragraph about the nature of religious education in relation to evangelisation:

Religious education in schools fits into the evangelising mission of the Church. It is different from, and complementary to, parish catechesis and other activities such as family Christian education or initiatives of ongoing formation of the faithful. Apart from the different settings in which these are imparted, the aims that they pursue are also different: catechesis aims at fostering personal adherence to Christ and the development of Christian life in its different aspects (cf. Congregation for the Clergy, General Directory for Catechesis [DGC], 15 August 1997, nn. 80-87), whereas religious education in schools gives the pupils knowledge about Christianity’s identity and Christian life. Moreover, Pope Benedict XVI, speaking to religion teachers, pointed out the need “to enlarge the area of our rationality, to reopen it to the larger questions of the truth and the good, to link theology, philosophy and science between them in full respect for the methods proper to them and for their reciprocal autonomy, but also in the awareness of the intrinsic unity that holds them together. The religious dimension is in fact intrinsic to culture. It contributes to the overall formation of the person and makes it possible to transform knowledge into wisdom of life.” Catholic religious education contributes to that goal, in which “school and society are enriched with true laboratories of culture and humanity in which, by deciphering the significant contribution of Christianity, the person is equipped to discover goodness and to grow in responsibility, to seek comparisons and to refine his or her critical sense, to draw from the gifts of the past to understand the present better and to be able to plan wisely for the future” (Address to the Catholic religion teachers, 25 April 2009).

The specific nature of this education does not cause it to fall short of its proper nature as a school discipline. On the contrary, maintaining this status is a condition of its effectiveness: “It is necessary, therefore, that religious instruction in schools appear as a scholastic discipline with the same systematic demands and the same rigour as other disciplines. It must present the Christian message and the Christian event with the same seriousness and the same depth with which other disciplines present their knowledge. It should not be an accessory alongside of these disciplines, but rather it should engage in a necessary inter-disciplinary dialogue” (DGC 73). ...

- Religious education is different from, and complementary to, catechesis, as it is school education that does not require the assent of faith, but conveys knowledge on the identity of Christianity and Christian life. Moreover, it enriches the Church and humanity with areas for growth, of both culture and humanity.

According to this view, religious education is seen as an evangelising of the culture represented by the different academic disciplines of the school; its role is that of establishing a unifying synthesis in and of the different academic disciplines. In this view, religious education contributes something to and enters into dialogue with every other curriculum area. This is not to deny the place of "presence in charity", "primary proclamation" and "catechesis" in the life of a Catholic school seen as a whole - that might well be present through the liturgical life and practical charitable action of the school - but it does offer a different view of the part to be played by religious education itself.

I do find that these two different ways of understanding the role of religious education in a Catholic school prompt a challenging reflection on what exactly the RE department is about in a Catholic school. If the first view is to be held, it will not do for an RE department to deny that it has a role in "primary proclamation" and "catechesis" and leave that to families and parishes - it should instead take a careful look at whether or not its examination curricula at KS4 and KS5 deliver on that role (they almost certainly do not). If the second view is held, then the RE department needs to achieve a breadth of vision and inter-disciplinary knowledge to be able to contribute to evangelising a culture both in terms of curriculum content and in terms of the formation that that curriculum content communicates to its students. In either case, the outcome should be pupils who know the Catholic faith and are able to defend it in the contemporary world - and who practice it!

1 comment:

Jared said...


Thank you for your thorough analysis of this topic. As you rightly point out, Catholic schools serve a unique role in evangeling culture. I haven't seend the document released by the Congregation for Catholic Education in May 2009 so thanks for the heads up.

As it is written in the Vatican II document, "Gravissimum educationis," one of the proper functions of a Catholic school is to "order the whole of human culture to the news of salvation so that the knowledge of the students gradually acquire of the world, life and man is illuminaed by faith" (GE, 8). This requires the work of all teachers in the school, not just the religion teachers.