Catholic education has a significant intellectual and pastoral heritage: are we making good use of it? Are we sure that all with a stake in Catholic education have sufficient opportunities to study and learn from the traditions they have inherited?
The Covid pandemic has forced us to confront realities we previously could afford to ignore – or thought we could safely put off – especially regarding education in general and our Catholic schools in particular. The financial and pedagogical crises which are now before us, allied to existing ideological threats to Catholic education, have created a perfect storm.
It is not alarmist but sensible to highlight this: only by facing the business squarely and without stint, can we hope to find solutions – and to be perfectly frank, time is very short.
Nor is this a merely local or regional difficulty, even though different facets of the threat manifest differently according to local circumstance. Pope Francis put the matter starkly in a 2014 address to the International Catholic Child Bureau: “The horrors of the manipulation of education that we experienced in the great genocidal dictatorships of the 20th century have not disappeared,” he said. “[T]hey have retained a current relevance under various guises and proposals and, with the pretense of modernity, push children and young people to walk on the dictatorial path of ‘only one form of thought’.”
The whole Church, not just parents and teachers, must recognize the gravity of the situation we face in Catholic schools. While schools in some parts of the world are still significantly funded by the state, elsewhere – in the United States, for example – things are anything but rosy. The recent appeal by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to Congress for emergency funding for Catholic schools drives this point home.
Outfacing that threat will require creative thinking tailored to the precise circumstances in each locale. It will also require mission discipline: we need to keep our eye on the ball, and eschew “solutions” to the financial problem that would entail further compromise – immediately or down the road – to our core mission.
At the same time, we must make certain that we do not allow a sort of crypto-Donatism to make us so anxious to preserve the trappings of pure identity at the cost of mission-effectiveness in the early middle of the 21st century.
There is an immediate air of paradox to the thing, but one of the drivers of the trend toward “one form of thought” is actually relativism. On this, Pope Francis and his two most recent predecessors in the papal office are of one mind in these regards. Relativistic thinking is the currency du jour in many areas of culture but is often very prominent in educational bodies (schools, colleges, universities). Under the guise of promoting dialogue (which is a good and necessary part of the New Evangelization) relativism becomes a dogmatic assertion that there is no such thing as truth.
To the believer, the problem this poses is (or should be) self-evident. It can lead to what Pope Benedict in 2007 called the “educational emergency” where “basic values of life” are not communicated satisfactorily, if at all, to the young generations. This has the potential to sweep away the foundations of Catholic schooling and indeed of any form of schooling which does not conform to its increasingly strident voice.
In many jurisdictions, educational relativism accommodates the distinctiveness of Catholic schooling systems by means of approved Religious Education syllabi, the display of religious symbolism in schools and chaplaincy-style activities for pupils and teachers. This can be packaged as a successful outcome of dialogue and good will between Church and state but also means that Catholic schools end up being very similar in curriculum matters to other forms of schooling. This is problematic because it diminishes the integral nature of education by locating “Catholic identity” as an extra commitment alongside the many policies and procedures which are prioritised, reinforced and inspected by the state. Strong voices at all levels of education are needed to counter this limited vision of the Catholic school.
The prevalence of “new thinking” in matters of gender and sexuality has put Catholic schools on the back foot.
This goes to the heart of what it means to be a human person and we cannot simply ignore it. Currently, it is more of a concern for the Church in the West: the danger is that such ideas will colonize educational policy-making in the global south where, for now at least, there is resistance to this particular direction of travel. Let us not underestimate the many challenges (including legal) this ideology poses to the continued existence of Catholic schools in countries where governments and their educational agencies actively promote and fund such ways of thinking as a ‘good thing’.
We need to articulate a vision for Catholic education that responds to the general educational emergency in which we are currently embroiled: the vision must be global – universal – and it must be actionable at every level, from the individual school and even school classroom to the highest echelons of policy-making and governance in the Church and in the world.
That’s a tall order.
A keystone of any such plan must continue to be teacher formation. The development of teacher-focused Higher Education programmes rooted in Catholic intellectual and educational traditions is essential for the ongoing religious, professional and cultural formation of educators at every level.
Critical study of all forms of ideas (including problematic topics like relativism and ‘woke’ ideology) will accentuate the positive vision of the human person which lies at the heart of the Catholic education. Such programmes will equip Catholic teachers with the knowledge and skills needed to be confident contributors to global educational reform – and not just in Catholic schools.
In short: if we want people and institutions to get behind the effort to save Catholic education, we need to secure the Catholic educational project as something worth saving.
Leonardo Franchi teaches at the University of Glasgow, where he specialises in Religious Education with a particular interest in Catholic education, and has a keen interest in the potential of the liberal arts to shape Higher Education. He is co-editor of the Reclaiming the Piazza series.
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