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.
☩ Most Reverend William T. McGrattan, D.D.
Bishop of Calgary
The Obama administration had recently ordered almost every employer and insurer in the country to provide sterilization and contraceptives, including some abortion-inducing drugs, in their health plans. However, never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. All of this in a land where the free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights.
A vocal opponent of the Obama plan, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, presented an engaging parable to US House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform.
Once upon a time, a new law is proposed, so that any business that serves food must serve pork. There is a narrow exception for kosher catering halls attached to synagogues, since they serve mostly members of that synagogue, but kosher delicatessens are still subject to the mandate.
The Orthodox Jewish community—whose members run kosher delis and many other restaurants and grocers besides—expresses its outrage at the new government mandate. And they are joined by others who have no problem eating pork—not just the many Jews who eat pork, but people of all faiths—because these others recognize the threat to the principle of religious liberty. They recognize as well the practical impact of the damage to that principle. They know that, if the mandate stands, they might be the next ones forced—under threat of severe government sanction—to violate their most deeply held beliefs, especially their unpopular beliefs.
Meanwhile, those who support the mandate respond, ""But pork is good for you. It is, after all, the other white meat."" Other supporters add, ""So many Jews eat pork, and those who don't should just get with the times."" Still others say, ""Those Orthodox are just trying to impose their beliefs on everyone else.""
Those arguments fail in the public debate, because people widely recognize the following.
First, although people may reasonably debate whether pork is good for you, that's not the question posed by the nationwide pork mandate. Instead, the mandate generates the question whether people who believe—even if they believe in error—that pork is not good for you, should be forced by government to serve pork within their very own institutions. In a nation committed to religious liberty and diversity, the answer, of course, is no.
Second, the fact that some (or even most) Jews eat pork is simply irrelevant. The fact remains that some Jews do not—and they do not out of their most deeply held religious convictions. Does the fact that large majorities in society—even large majorities within the protesting religious community—reject a particular religious belief make it permissible for the government to weigh in on one side of that dispute? Does it allow government to punish that minority belief with its coercive power? In a nation committed to religious liberty and diversity, the answer, of course, is no.
Third, the charge that the Orthodox Jews are imposing their beliefs on others has it exactly backwards. Again, the question generated by a government mandate is whether the government will impose its belief that eating pork is good on objecting Orthodox Jews. Meanwhile, there is no imposition at all on the freedom of those who want to eat pork. That is, they are subject to no government interference at all in their choice to eat pork, and pork is ubiquitous and cheap, available at the overwhelming majority of restaurants and grocers.
The question is this: can a customer come to a kosher deli, demand to be served a ham sandwich, and if refused, bring down severe government sanction on the deli. In a nation committed to religious liberty and diversity, the answer, of course, is no.
At this time the battleground in Canada tends to be education rather than health-care, but the answer in Canada must also be “no!”
Parents are the primary educators of their children and may chose to delegate this authority to the educational systems that are available. These include a variety of forms of education, whether religious, non-religious, public and private, classroom and home, which is already a model for respecting differences.
Some forms of education are based around distinct religious beliefs and respect for a variety of beliefs is an aspect of multiculturalism and pluralism in Section 27 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom. The provision of a variety of religious and non-religious faith-based schools, e.g. secular schools, is a further evidence of diversity in fact. Respect for difference in the form and substance of education must continue to recognized in Canada.
Canada’s Supreme Court has erred in its latest ruling that a mandatory Quebec curriculum in Ethics and Religious Culture, from which a Drummondville Catholic couple wished to exempt their son, does not infringe the couple’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion.
Premier McGinty and Ontario Education Minister Laurel Broten in their attempt to force single issue clubs such as gay-straight alliances upon all schools, including Catholic schools, through Bill 13, are also off-side and in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom.
Under Alberta’s new Education Act, home-schoolers and faith-based schools will not be permitted to teach that homosexual acts are sinful as part of their academic program, says Donna McColl, the spokesperson for Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk.
In a well-known and often cited passage, Chief Justice Dickson, in the first definition of the Supreme Court of Canada dealing with the definition of the freedom of conscience and religion in section 2(a) of the Charter stated: “The essence of the concept of freedom of religion is the right to entertain religious beliefs as the person chooses, the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious beliefs by worship and practice or by teaching and dissemination.”
The right to teach religious beliefs is recognized as an important aspect of the freedom of religion. Freedom of religion cannot be reduced to freedom to worship.
☩ Frederick Henry
My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
A friend of mine recently told me a story about the joy of taking the family to dinner.
Their father was in an advanced state of dementia. His care became more than his family could provide at home, so they were forced to place him in a nursing home. But they remain devoted. Dad was always easy to love, and still is, even when the greater part of him is gone.
One night the family visited and stayed to have dinner with him. It was the usual generic dining hall fare. Dad had little to say. In his younger days he was bone-shakingly funny and the tireless, unapologetic cheerleader for his children; now he mostly repeats simple questions.
When dinner was over and everyone was getting up to leave, Dad suddenly became agitated. No one could understand what was wrong nor could he articulate his distress. Then his wise daughter-in-law had an idea. She handed him a paper napkin and a pen. He scratched away, at peace, and handed the napkin back.
The napkin was the cheque for the meal and he was paying for it. His joy was to take his family to dinner.
At that moment, his family saw their dad both as he had been and what he had become. In the fog of Alzheimer's, the essence of his old and protective habit of love survived. Everyone also learned something from the loving insight and action of the daughter-in-law.
The love that Jesus demands of us, his disciples, is that simple and profound. He asks us to love one another as he has loved us: to put ourselves second to others, to seek our joy in bringing joy to others, to honor and cherish others simply because they are sons and daughters of the God of mercy and love. This loving father continues to teach his children the transforming love of Christ.
It is the responsibility of all members of the faith community to heed the call to serve and support the formation of our children, whether that call is Catholic school trustee, educator, parent, priest, bishop, or community supporter. The responsibility to show Christ to our students lies on all our shoulders.
As we prepare for another municipal election this fall, it is important that we reflect on the important role of Catholic trustees and their vocation of service.
The role itself can be described in a variety of ways - politician, goal setter, policymaker, planner, communicator, information receiver and disseminator, advocate for education, and role model.
Catholic school trustees are a vital link between the school, the church, the community, and the government, and they provide an essential Catholic oversight of the school division or district. The Catholic school trustee, answering the vocation of trusteeship, is a steward for the Catholic school. This vocation is a call from the Church and the community to bring together faith and political life to share in the central mission of the Church: passing our Catholic faith on to our children.
The Congregation for Catholic Education puts it this way: "The heart and soul of Catholic education is Jesus Christ, and our school system finds its very reason for existence in its communication of the Christian message."
To be a Catholic school trustee represents a dual challenge: trustees must ensure that students are provided an education, while at the same time ensuring that Catholic principles and values are reflected in policies and practices of the school board, thus establishing an education system that is permeated by faith. In practice, this plays out in trustees being accountable to both government legislation as well as Canon Law (Church law).
Through legislation, the government rightly delegates much of its authority for the governance of education to locally elected boards in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity. Catholic school boards are also accountable to the bishop in their diocese.
Canon 806(1) states: "The diocesan Bishop has the right to watch over and inspect the Catholic schools situated in his territory, even those established or directed by members of religious institutes. He also has the right to issue directives concerning the general regulations of Catholic school."
The ability to fulfill both a faith role and a political role without compromise is paramount for Catholic school trustees. Their position as leaders in the faith community requires understanding, a willingness to grow, and a commitment to bear daily witness to the faith.
Finally, the trustee is an important link in the partnership of home, school and parish. As representatives of the Catholic community to the government, trustees have the opportunity and responsibility to model their faith in the political arena. Implicit in that role is the responsibility to speak out when legislation or political action threatens to compromise the unique nature of Catholic education. Catholic school trustees must continually call for a discerning, visionary, and purposeful interpretation of legislation that recognizes the essence of Catholic education and its significance to society.
Candidates desiring to run for the position of Catholic trustee should consult the Local Authorities Election Act and the School Act for further information.
All eligible members of the Catholic community have the responsibility to vote on October 16, 2010 and to become involved in decisions regarding Catholic education.
☩ Frederick Henry