What Makes a School Catholic?


St. Thomas More—Ora pro nobis.
Contrary to the modern misconception that faith is somehow in adversity to knowledge and reason, historically, the truth has, in fact, demonstrated exactly the opposite. Schools are actually a Catholic legacy. The Church has always had a mission to educate, making it a duty to offer this, especially, to the poorest in society. Following Catholic emancipation in the 19th Century, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales prioritised the building of schools before the building of churches. The Church's commitment to education remains just as strong today.

There does appear to be a malaise at the heart of the contemporary Catholic educational system however. This was referred to by the head teacher of Ampleforth College in an address he gave to the Catholic Grant Maintained Schools Conference in 1996. He criticised, in particular, the reaction of some Catholic religious educators in the face of 'steeply rising rates of divorce, the abandonment of marriage, [and] the discovery of serious moral failures within the Church' (Dom Leo Chamberlain, OSB: 'The Faith, Society and Catholic Schooling Today', Speech delivered to the Catholic Grant Maintained Schools Conference, 14 November 1996). They seemed to wish to adopt a spirit of accommodation to the secular liberal agenda. In some instances this had led to 'the abandonment of doctrinal teaching on the grounds that human language and thought is incapable of transmitting certainties about the infinite God'. But he reminded his audience, 'the Catholic faith holds that God is revealed in the historic person of Jesus Christ and in His Word', and that 'religious truth can be contained and is contained in the Tradition of the Church...' (Ibid). There could hardly be a stronger argument than that contained in these two points for for the complementarity of the teaching of religious knowledge inspired by sound catechetical objectives.

So what constitutes a Catholic ethos, what makes up this ethereal idea of Catholicity? In schools we hear a lot about "Jesus at the centre of our school" and "Gospel values", but how does this translate in real terms? Surely we are not being so self-serving or naive as to consider that one needs to be religious in order to be moral, or that you need to believe in God in order to be good? The reality is that the world is full of goodness, whether or not we call it God's grace (c.f. CCC 33). So if "Catholicity" means no more than "being good", surely we are offering nothing distinctive from that offered by any half-decent school.

The difference involves a religious understanding of a discovered morality as opposed to an invented one. The former pre-supposes that it exists independently of our will, the latter manufactures a relative morality dependent on temporal trends. We recognise true morality as a call from the very essence of our being: love your neighbour, love the stranger, feed the hungry, heal the sick, reach out to the poor, do not hate, do not harbour a grudge, do not take revenge, do not stand idly by in the face of injustice, be forgiving as you desire forgiveness. There is incredible power in these teachings which should serve to sacralise our relationships and fulfil us in our daily dealings.

Utilitarianism (the idea that morality is simply decided by the greatest happiness for the greatest number), by contrast, may find the greatest happiness for the greatest number in something which is plain wrong, like prejudice in a racist society, or violence in a lynch mob. Utility can conflict with integrity: sometimes we have to do the right thing even though it may be difficult or makes people unhappy. (To find out more on the Catholic position regarding both Utilitarianism & Consequentialism read blessed John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor especially numbers 74, 75 & 106).

There is, then, a connection between religion and morality. Our Catholic faith is perhaps the greatest moral tutor the world has ever known and understanding the principles of faith can provide us all, but our young people especially, with a sound method of discernment which will serve them all their lives. Are we teaching these basic principles currently?

Catholic education begins with an objective understanding of what we are—body-soul composite beings—in that we are human, we are human in body and soul. We are made by God and for God and our desire for God is written on each of our hearts (c.f. CCC 27) thus man only lives freely if insofar as he / she lives by this bond with God.

If we understand that we are all created in the image of God (c.f. Gen 1:27-28; 5:1-3; 9:6; Heb 1:3; Col 1:13-15; 2 Cor 4: 4-7) we recognise the essential dignity of all human life. When we turn our gaze towards others then, our faith teaches us habits of virtue by getting us to do ethically demanding things: visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved, helping the needy, donating our time and money to worthy causes (c.f. Matt 25:40). All these things are done in the context of community, and community is the focus and centre of theology, insofar as the Holy Trinity represents the perfect community: communion-in love-without rivalry.

The pursuit of Knowledge has long been a satisfying dimension of our humanity. Knowledge makes us happy because it shines a light on the essential questions of our being: Who am I? (The question of identity) Why am I here? (The question of purpose) How shall I live? (The question of ethics and meaning). All knowledge helps to develop a contextual relationship to these questions, but ultimately, they can only be answered by theology, not politics, not economics, not science and not technology. It is for this reason that Catholic teaching concentrates on the centrality of faith: learning how to worship God the Father in spirit and truth (c.f. John 4:23) especially in liturgical action. Physical, intellectual and moral talents need to be developed harmoniously, in order that each person can achieve fulfilment and reach their full potential. (c.f. Canon 793-795).

Central Importance of Apologetics in a Modern Catholic School.

It is also essential that we give our young people the necessary tools to engage with modern culture. The difficult issues surrounding Catholic moral and social teaching are seldom addressed in our schools , or they are taught in parallel with other attitudes, as one of many options, and without the foundational reasoning or underlying reasoning being understood by the educator, let alone explained to the student. This has led to a 'cafeteria' Catholic attitude, where people pick and choose teachings they wish to believe and ignore anything they disagree with or find controversial or challenging (more relativism).

The reality is that if we don't teach clearly, and from a perspective of affirming the objective truth of Catholic teaching, we are lost: we only damage the message and provide our young people with a confusing muddle. If you are confused or upset abut Church teaching you need to acquaint yourself what it authentically teaches. As the venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen said "Most people don't hate what the Catholic Church teaches, they hate what they think the Catholic Church teaches." If you need help with this; ask.

Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen
In the first instance, young people learn by example, thus the calibre of our educators must be exemplary and thoroughly Catholic. But I've always thought about it like this: ultimately, we all make up our own minds about things, but our decisions are necessarily informed by what we encounter. The better the material we encounter on the way to forming our opinion, the better we are equipped to live, to make moral decisions, to stay true to our promises, and to add value to our communities. In a Catholic sense, a failure to give regard to what Chesterton termed 'the democracy of the dead' leads to a flawed grasp of coherence in the present. The horizons of the young are inevitably determined by the nature of their personal experiences. The Catholic school must be in a position to broaden and deepen those experiences in the ambience of the Church's teaching within a true concept of the communion of saints. Children in Catholic schools are not simply being prepared to cope with the world into which they are immersed but to possess the vision and desire necessary to change the world in the light of Christ's teaching, to become an essential part of the Church's evangelising mission.

The better we form our young men and women and provide them with the necessary tools to discern the correct choice from the incorrect one, the happier they will ultimately be, the fewer mistakes they will make, the better they will be able to make the arguments and discussions that will ultimately form them as adults. We need our faith to remind us of the importance of marriage and fidelity and loyalty; of the fact that success, fame wealth affluence, the siren songs of today's culture are trivial in comparison with character and integrity. And we need communities in which virtues live, are rehearsed and are valued. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to sustain the moral life.

Our Catholic schools must not slip this challenge, but must inform our children in order they might be able to appraise moral values with a right conscience and thus embrace a moral life with personal adherence, together with a deeper knowledge and love of God.

Catholics believe there is objective truth and there is objective religious truth: such subscription must hold central place in the formation and education of children. Catholics maintain that 'Christian holiness is a synthesis of truth, truth in thought, in word, in action. It is inspired by a divine, objective ideal: it depends on trustworthiness, upon man's power of knowing, judging, believing and choosing, according to a common rational standard'. (M. O' Leary: The Catholic Church and Education (London, Burns & Oates, 1943), p. 18).

Of course, morality doesn't break down suddenly when people stop believing. People do not conclude: God does not exists, therefore everything is permitted. But in the long term, like an orchestra without a conductor, they eventually lose the habits that sustain the virtues that create the trust that preserves the institutions that shape and drive a moral order. It is at this point that you can start to see the first signs of discontent with secularisation and we can recognise it today. People start sending their children to faith schools. Children, even if only a few, start becoming more religious than their parents. Religious voices begin to be listened to with respect, if only because so many other voices sound cynical or self-seeking.

A family is influenced in its stability by its becoming a schola caritas— a school of love, punctuated in its daily life by a number of signposts and rituals which add appropriate degrees of support and correction and indicate the duty of each member to attend to the common welfare of all. If our Catholic school is to be true to this vision, serious attention must be given to the rituals that emphasise community need and punctuate the school day. At the heart of this process lies not only a belief in the integrated man, but also in the concept of responsibility, a sense of caring and commitment and the consciousness of obligation. In this way, school acts as an extension of our loving Catholic families, embracing the same values taught at home, whilst offering a safe haven and family refuge for children who are suffering the effects of a broken home, physical or mental maltreatment. The harmonised diversity associated with the organic unity of humanity is thus emphasised and school shares in the essential dimension of the Catholic family as 'a school of deeper humanity' (c.f. Familiaris consortio n. 21) 'where there is care and love for the little ones, the sick, the aged; where there is mutual service every day; where there is a sharing of goods, of joys and of sorrows.' (Ibid). What an incredible school that would be!

"For a true education aims at the formation of the human person in the pursuit of their ultimate end and of the good of the societies of which they are members, and in whose obligations, as adults, they will share." ~ Gravissimum educationis.

Some further Magisterial Catholic resources on this subject:

The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School

The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millenium

Educating Together in Catholic Schools

Sapientia Christiana

Ex Corde Ecclesiae

Gravissimum educationis

Decree non the Reform of Ecclesiastical Studies of Philosophy

Circular Letter to the Presidents of Bishop's Conferences on Religious Education in Schools

Reform of the Higher Institutes of Religious Sciences


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