The month of September marks the beginning of a new school year. Given the growing rhetoric in Alberta that is once again advocating for an end to Catholic public schools, I thought it is important to outline why maintaining the Catholic ethos and identity of our schools is critical in the face of such arguments. This fall we will also have the election of new Catholic trustees who must be committed to promoting the vision and mission of our publicly funded Catholic schools.
What is a Catholic school and what makes it distinct and relevant in our current society? Catholic schools are communities of faith and learning. They can be diverse in their configuration i.e. public, private or charter, yet focused on presenting the unity of truth which is acquired through reason and faith and which ultimately binds us. It might be a surprise to some, but Catholic schools are not intended to be for Catholics alone nor to exclusively advocate the Catholic faith. They are in fact school communities for all but which are rooted in a Catholic world view, ethos, and identity that serves to inform a wider view of educating our young people.
Catholic schools are not institutions of propaganda, as some would argue, nor are they to be driven by agendas, theories, and educational trends of a government ministry. The Catholic educational tradition offers experiences of learning that allow for evangelization and the catechetical support of young people in the faith. However, the task of education is much broader. It is to promote a wholistic experience of learning that forms and completes every person, preparing them for life, to appreciate the value of their life, and that of others, by offering back to society values and goods that they willingly share for the benefit of all in our society. This is the distinctly Catholic approach to education which enhances the human formation and mature development of the next generation of young people.
Pope Benedict, in his critique of our contemporary educational culture, used the term “educational emergency” to describe the increasing difficulty that we encounter in transmitting the basic values of life and good behaviour to the new generation of young people. At the core of this “emergency” is the belief that truth is relative, that what I subjectively believe to be true for myself is “truth” and must be accepted by others. Pope Francis has also identified this tension between unity and diversity of truth for educators – “Dialogue, in fact, educates when a person relates with respect, esteem, sincerity of listening and expresses themselves with authenticity, without obfuscating or mitigating one’s identity” which is nourished by an evangelical faith and inspiration. This is the role of our Catholic school teachers who must engage in this dialogue through their teaching in a society and culture which is becoming more secular.
The Catholic school curriculum needs to have this intercultural dialogue while balancing the relationship between religious education and catechesis. This initiative of intercultural dialogue is distinctly Catholic and one which we offer to society through our Catholic schools. The teaching of the Catholic religion has it own aims which are different from catechesis which promotes a personal relationship with Christ and a maturing Christian life-whereas religious teaching offers knowledge about Christianity and the Christian life in meaningful and culturally enriching ways. Catholic schools have a core curriculum of religious faith instruction that permeates all subjects. For Catholic students, this might also serve as a pathway of catechesis which must always respect a wider and more meaningful integration within the family and the life of the Church. This curriculum is primarily “knowledge-based” for those students who are not part of the Catholic tradition. It invites them to be reflective, to grow in religious literacy and knowledge while being open to a human formation that reflects the Christian understanding of the human person, their inherent dignity and destiny.
Catholic schools, both public and private, have the potential to contribute to the cultural enrichment of society. Despite the hostility towards religion, these schools will serve as a continuing recognition of the importance of religion and belief in civic society. Therefore, Catholic schools have a unique opportunity to enter these debates to teach about the value of religion and religious ways of thinking to a wider society. The key to the future mission and identity of our Catholic schools is the commitment of the parents and teachers to see Catholic education as an enrichment of our culture through such a Catholic ethos and identity. Education by its nature requires an openness to other cultures without the loss of one’s identity. We cannot lose sight of this rich tradition of Catholic education and schools.
☩ William McGrattan
Bishop of Calgary