In David Lodge’s 2001 novel Thinks, the protagonist Helen Reed muses on her Catholic schooling: “I’m deeply grateful that I had a Catholic education … and in retrospect I feel only nostalgic affection for the nuns who taught me even though most of them were more or less deranged by superstition and sexual repression, which they did their best to instill in me…” This being Lodge, a faltering half-belief in the scrupulousness of Catholicism is a typical literary conceit, and one used to excellent comic effect. But like all comic turns, the underside is much darker: the subtext that the religious are an encumbrance rather than an enhancement to a modern education. This perspective must continue to be challenged as Catholic education moves forward.
Pope John Paul II called religious education “the core of the core”. This is elaborated by the Catholic Education Service, which states that the clergy must pass on the “Deposit of Faith” so its recipients may be drawn “into deeper communion with Christ in his Church”. And yet, as the Clarke-Woodhead reports on Religious Education show, the Church is continually being asked to fight to maintain control over it.
It is, of course, too easy to slip into binary views about Catholicism. If an educational institution presents itself as Catholic, then it is assumed that that institution aligns itself completely with the Pope. But the readiness to accept this assumption can distort the intellectual and cultural breadth within many modern Catholic schools. Put simply, Catholic schools cannot easily be defined by complete adherence to, or rejection of, the Church’s educational aims.
Tensions arise when the gap between the Church’s prevailing view and practice widen; tensions that undoubtedly damage the relationship between curricular issues and institutional relationships within any Catholic school. Pre-conciliar views might suggest that many Catholic schools have lost their way, particularly with regard to such issues as homosexuality, gender and parenthood. The situation is horribly familiar: a Catholic family teaches children the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s obedience to God and motherhood as the ultimate vocation for women. However, at school, the children may hear that there are many vocations open to women, and that motherhood is simply one of these and not necessarily a dictum to be adhered to.
What, then, can be done? How do Catholics respond to a Church they love but cannot change? And how do the clergy respond to dissent within its educational framework without frustrating or polarising its laity? One way out might be to go back to basics, asking what we mean by a “Catholic education”. Do we, like Lodge, imagine a Catholic schooling (and there is a difference between schooling and education) as an endless series of dicta administered in chilly chapels upon uncomfortable pews? Or, do we envisage a provision of Catholic schooling possibly without even a basic catechism?
For those who send their children to Catholic schools to give them the basis for a “Catholic identity”, the latter definition might seem absurd. Answering this question with no small amount of obfuscation, Catholic theorist Graham McDonough argues for a “theoretical framework” in which the clergy and Catholic schools might deal with dissent and disagreement within the ranks.
Perhaps, as Catholics, we must accept the fact that we cannot please everyone. Accepting this, we must admit that the clergy’s involvement with Catholic education is at a crossroads in its history as it encounters a changing world. Or perhaps – as Lodge did with regards to his own schooling as a scholarship boy at a Catholic grammar – we must recognise the individuals within the framework who make the most difference: the priests who convey a sense of humanity and scrupulousness simultaneously, those priests who uphold Catholic education with devotion, and something approaching humour.
Dr Arabella Byrne is a freelance writer
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