Catholic Schools: Time To Decide

Editorial FAITH Magazine March-April 2005

In 1852, two years after the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales , the new bishops set out their pastoral strategy:

‘Wherever there may seem to be an opening for a new mission, we should prefer the erection of a school, so arranged as to serve temporarily for a chapel, to that of a church without one. For the building raised of living and chosen stones, the spiritual sanctuary of the Church, is of far greater importance than the temple made by hands.’

It was a visionary directive. They knew, of course, that education has always been close to the heart of the of the Church’s mission, that it is part of her care for the human person and the progress of human society. But that was not what they meant, they were not merely promoting ‘education’ in the abstract as a noble ideal, rather they had grasped a more practical truth. They saw that a school is a natural community and that schools also build communities beyond their own physical boundaries. The bonds of friendship, shared experiences, common identity and purpose engendered by school life spill over into the homes and onto the streets of a locality.
In our increasingly urbanised and fluid culture, where traditional communities based on self-contained towns and villages are fast disappearing, a school can set the boundaries of a virtual village within an anonymous, modern suburb. It can be a complex and far flung ‘village’, for sure, especially in the case of a secondary school, with boundaries and identities that overlap other institutions and community centres, but its bonds are real and strong. And these can feed the life of parishes in a number of very fruitful ways.

The astute pastor can do much informal evangelising and community building among several generations at the school gates, so to speak. For example, building a parish youth group can draw on a ready made network of relationships. Gathering parents for catechesis based around programmes of sacramental formation is made much easier with a core of adults whose common interest is the education of their children. Although this does not mean that sacramental programmes have to take place in the classroom. The bishops of 1852 did not envisage the school itself as the centre of Catholic life: Christ present in the Mass upon the parish altar – wherever that is physically located - is always the centre of the Church’s life and identity. But they did realise the vital and useful role that a goodschool can play in building up parish life.
Now, it ought to go without saying that the most essential ingredient for the success of a Catholic school is the Catholic Faith. But the Victorian bishops were wise enough to know that it did need saying. They emphasised the need for Catholic schools to offer a fully rounded education: “a liberal, scientific and professional education”, but it must also be , “united with solid religious instruction”. Their reason for saying this was not because they saw a school simply as a vehicle for sectarian indoctrination, but because they knew that the Faith is an essential framework for the flourishing of the full human person and they also saw a crying need for religious truth and certainty in the society of their day which was already showing signs of secularisation.
“The innumerable contradictions of doctrine, which have long prevailed in every system out of the Catholic Church, fretting and clashing together, have worn themselves down into a smooth apathy; and the simplest hypothesis for getting rid of the scandal of contention about sublimest truths has been adopted – that they are matters of indifference.”

The pervasive indifferentism of the surrounding culture posed a threat to the souls of Catholic children and of society itself. But this situation also imposed an evangelical duty on the Catholic community to raise up generations who would be formed in authentic truth and love. So they emphasised that:

“…while we thus wish to promote a secular instruction equal to what others offer, we consider sound faith, virtue and piety by far the most important elements of education.”
In other words, they considered that the Catholic Faith itself is our greatest contribution to individual education and to the nation. As a system, Catholicism is not just a series of traditional beliefs and practices, but a philosophy that illuminates, integrates and elevates what is human into communion with God in Christ. As a religion it is nothing short of a personal and social relationship with God who redeems and fulfils our humanity in the fullest possible way. Such a claim could never be content to be sidelined as just another subject or point of view among many; it should never become just an optional add-on to an otherwise self-contained educational package. Catholicism should shape and inform every aspect of the life and curriculum of the school. The bishops warnedspecifically against the danger in their own day of a system where

“… religious knowledge should be confined to a perfunctory repetition of the catechism, and devotional affections not cultivated at all. The mischievousness of children so educated would be in proportion to their knowledge and cleverness.”
Over the next hundred and fifty years the policy of Cardinal Wiseman and his colleagues of 1852 proved remarkably successful. Catholic schools made a significant contribution to Catholic revival in England and they were gradually recognised as making a useful contribution to the common good.

Of course, such gains were not won without great commitment and sacrifice. By 1870, when elementary education was made compulsory in Britain, more than £4 million had been contributed towards the cost of building Catholic schools, most of it made up literally of “pennies in the plate” from the labouring classes in city parishes. It was a remarkable act of collective generosity, which bears witness to the deep faith and selflessness spirituality of the ordinary laity of the time.

Then in 1944 The Education (“ Butler ”) Act famously accorded 90\% state funding to the running of Catholic schools which came under the state education system, while still allowing the Church to retain control over school management and ethos. The situation in Scotland differs in some details because of the distinctive Scottish legal and educational systems and a somewhat different religious culture, but in essence it is the same story. It was a remarkable breakthrough, one which brought Catholic education into the mainstream of British schooling, where many of them gained a reputation for excellence and popularity; a reputation that still endures today.

But in the late nineteen sixties and through the seventies our schools were first and hardest hit by the post-Conciliar decline. There was a revolution in catechetics which swept away the traditional teaching of religion, books and all, with the force of a tsunami. Indeed there had been a case for some reforms. Sometimes teaching had become “mere catechism repetition” as the earlier bishops had feared, and there was a desperate need for a new apologetic to meet the objections of a new scientific age. A more discursive, inspirational and scriptural approach was called for.
But what really happened was a take over by modernist ideologies. Schemes of the day downplayed the divinity of Christ and the need for grace and portrayed religion as a celebration of the self and of humanity, with Jesus becoming simply a cipher or heroic example of kindness and tolerance etc. Sacraments became signs that celebrate our own insights and achievements and the Church a purely human community of like minded spiritual seekers.

However, more often than not, what happened on the ground was the abandonment of doctrine altogether. Religious education and catechesis became purely aspirational, appealing to the sentiments and the will, but with little or no intellectual content. It may be appropriate to infancy but, over time such an exclusively emotional approach fails to hold or form the mind and heart. If carried over into the secondary school, it breeds a cynical disrespect for religion in most adolescents.

If at an age when children are absorbing major factual information and critical thinking in other subjects - the sciences for example - they are still being asked to do nothing but draw endless pictures and pretty posters in the RE class, the message, conscious or subconscious, is that religion makes no truth claim. This attitude is reinforced by the modern reluctance to carry countenance any kind of testing of the results of religious education. Much of this is based on fear of being perceived as returning to a culture of rigidity and narrowness. It seems that it is beyond the imagination of some educational and catechetical establishments that we could approach things in a kinder spirit and yet at the same time maintain and monitor a clear factual content to Catholic education. Thetragic result was that through most of the nineteen seventies and eighties Catholic schools in Britain stumbled on with little or no formal programmes at all. No wonder the lapsation rate was so high!

The nineteen-eighties did finally see the arrival of new formal schemes. But unfortunately by now the modernism which had infected the Catechetical and Religious Education establishment had descended into open syncretism. In programmes like Weaving The Web (now happily consigned to the dustbin of history) Christianity was presented as no more than one tributary in the stream of human religious consciousness. At the same time many Catholic schools were drawing up mission statements in which the word “Catholic” was quietly dropped in favour of the more generic “Christian” and the ideal of teaching Catholic doctrine was replaced with the much vaguer expressions such as “gospel values”.

This is not to say that there were not good and of sincere teachers who made great efforts to communicate Catholic certainties in a chaotic world. Parents and parish priests know well that there were other factors influencing their children beyond the classroom. The popular indifferentism identified by the bishops of 1852 had since hardened into a thoroughgoing and aggressive secularism. But our current religious education policies have signally failed to address the problem. We desperately needed a clearer apologetic and a new philosophical synthesis to answer the challenge of the times. Sadly it did not happen, not on a widespread and popular scale at least.

The net effect has been that far from helping build the Catholic community, many schools have become a breeding ground for the culture of lapsation in early adolescence; so much so that some of our most committed parents prefer to send their children to other schools. They feel that an honestly secular environment which genuinely respects their child’s personal faith and religious practice is less harmful than bombardment with false or inadequate teaching in the classroom and sarcasm and negative social pressure in the playground. There are times when we cannot help but sympathise with such a view!

It is only right to observe that there does seems to have been a change of heart in some quarters recently, especially following the publication of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church. There are somewhat better RE programmes on offer now for the secondary sector. And there have been some much clearer guidelines about what is to be taught as minimum content of classroom RE, although sometimes still a curious reluctance to test whether this is being carried out! But there remains a desperate shortfall of Catholic teachers who can discuss and explain the Faith in a lively, balanced way and orthodox way. And the laspation rate among the young continues apace. We know by experience that it can be reversed, but it takes clear thinking and concerted action to turn it round.

And now we also have to face a new attack from political forces which are dead set on abolishing religious education altogether in the UK . In Parliament and in the media the case against faith based schools draws on a combination of fear of extreme Islam, historic anti-Catholicism and secularist socialism/humanism. But within educational circles it sells itself under the cloak of “multiculturalism”, an apparent ideal of tolerance and social integration. In principle, of course, Catholicism has no problem with these ideals.

The Catholic Church is supremely multicultural by definition and Catholic schools are probably the most culturally mixed in Britain for the same reason. But we should be under no illusion. “Multiculturalism” in this context means “multi-faith”, and this does not imply intellectual neutrality and even-handedness. It is systematic secularism under another name. It is an ideology in its own right which portrays all religions as equally “interesting” from the point of view of cultural studies, but of only personal and private value – just “stories” to be shared. Weaving The Web anyone?

This is the framework of education that some politicians seem intent on imposing right now. It is not the publicly stated view of the Prime Minister, who sends his children to Catholic schools, nor, we presume, is it the view of our recently appointed Minister for Education, who is a committed Catholic. So all may not be lost. And after all, the parishes still contribute 10\% - about £20 million/year – to the financing of our schools. Surely this must give us some rights or at least some leverage? But the fight is definitely on. What are the choices before us?

We could simply give up on state education for Catholics in the UK , cut our losses and put the financial and personnel resources into parish based catechesis or fee paying parish and diocesan schools as in America . We do not favour this solution. We believe our schools are still worth fighting for. It is still true that the school is a natural community. It would be a tragic waste to close our schools with the valuable social and pastoral contact they afford, as well as the infrastructure and resources already invested in them over many decades. The crisis of teacher formation and pupil lapsation can still be turned round if there is the humility to listen and the will to change.

We should be fighting for the value of specifically and unapolegetically Catholic education. This does not mean that Catholic schools should be exclusively for the education of Catholics; they never have been. But it does mean that what is on offer at a Catholic should be based on the Catholic world view and that Catholic parents should have a prima facie right to have their children educated in such a system.

This does not mean that we offer a narrow indoctrination, but it does mean that Catholicism should be taught and explained as a coherent organic system of thought and lifestyle. Of course other religions and ideologies should be explored and presented with respect. And of course students may accept or reject the faith on a personal level, but they should not leave a Catholic school without at least understanding what they are rejecting.

It does not mean that a Catholic school can only be staffed by Catholics; they never have been. But it does mean that those who accept a teaching post at a Catholic school should accept the aims and ideals of the schools mission, including the explicit support of a Catholic based system. Sadly this cannot be taken for granted, even among Catholics now. In some positions a respectful non-Catholic teacher can be a safer pair of hands than a disaffected or malformed Catholic.

What we must resist above all is the new secular humanist propaganda which is trying to portray all faith based schools as inherently divisive and doctrinaire. There is no basis for levelling this accusation at the Catholic education system and we serve both the Church and humanity ill by weakly agreeing to their ideal of a “multi-faith” –for which read “post-Christian secular” – curriculum with an optional smorgesboard of religious trimmings offered from the sidelines.
This is already what appears to be happening in the recently publicised case of St Theodore’s Catholic high school, Burnley , Lancashire . The flourishing sixth-form of the school is to be closed and its students transferred to a purpose built “multi-faith” college, because the local County Council inspectors thought that the pupils are “not effectively prepared for life in a multicultural society” even though they conceded that the school has “an atmosphere where very good attitudes and behaviour are expected form all pupils”. The local diocesan authorities have said that they have no legal power to fight for Catholic selection of sixth-form students, because the student intake is beyond the age of compulsory education. That may or may not be so, but much more worrying is the fact thatthe diocese meekly concurred with the Council’s ideological agenda by saying:

“We wish to support [students] in their own faith development while giving them the wider experience of co-operating in a multifaith and multicultural environment. This, we believe, will best prepare them as Catholics for higher education or work in the modern world.”
Translated into practical reality, this just means the abandonment of effective Catholic education for over the 16’s in the voluntary sector and retreating into providing just a chaplaincy of some kind. This is not a new and exciting model of education. It has been tried before, and even on so called “ecumenical” campuses it fails to impart any coherent ethos or identity to a school. In a so called “multi-faith” environment it can only breed indifferentism. It is turning the Catholic sixth form into a secular university environment. Pupils are hardly equipped for university life, as it is, by our current Catholic schools, so what hope if we abandon their formation at 16!? And how long before this secularising agenda is foisted on 11-15 year olds too?

No, quite frankly, this does not constitute an “adequate preparation” of young Catholics for the intellectual bear-pit of university or the world of work in a secular culture. What we need is young adults with a sound and well informed grasp of their own faith, who can also give a reason for their faith, with respect and charity, to those who enquire of them. Again, there is no evidence that being well instructed in your faith makes you narrow and belligerent; quite the opposite, in fact. You cannot have respectful dialogue unless and until you understand your own position well. Across the Catholic education establishment in the UK , it seems that too much heed is being paid to pleasing the political masters of the moment rather than the interests of the people of God and therefore thelong term common good of the people of Britain .

We need decisive action. Either we support, re-equip and offer within the state system an educational service that is unequivocally Catholic in its foundation and content, or if that is no longer possible or desirable, we should pull out and throw our energies into parish based catechesis. The worst of all worlds is to go along with the state agenda, drifting further and further into anonymous secularism until the loyalty and money of the people of God has all drained away and state funded Catholic education disappears in any case. We must not allow inertia and indecision to erode any further our uniquely valuable Catholic voluntary education system.  

Faith Magazine

March - April 2005