Catholic Education and Playing "Devils Advocate"

Editorial FAITH Magazine May – June 2012

A class of children aged 13 to 14 is ready for an RE lesson. The plan is to discuss a controversial subject (abortion, contraception, gay marriage, celibacy, or women priests ... tick the box.) The teacher says sagely, with a conspiratorial smile: "I'm going to play devil's advocate." He then skilfully sets out the case for the opposite of what the Church teaches; the youngsters then have to argue against him.

This might not be a bad activity for a group of well-informed young people, committed to their faith, to assist them in the task of apologetics and evangelisation. Such a lesson would need to include at the end a run-down of the best answers to some of the questions that they struggled with, confident advice on how to deal with the more difficult objections to the Church's teaching, and an affirmation of the truth of the Catholic faith. Sadly this rarely happens, more because of a prevailing culture than through the fault of the usually very professional teacher.

This not infrequent exercise is usually based on the absurdly unrealistic idea that pupils unthinkingly parrot Catholic dogma, and need to have their horizons widened to understand the views of others in a secular world. The "devil's advocate" objections to the faith can confuse the Catholic pupils who have some knowledge of their faith, since the objections come from a teacher. However much he might cherish the sub-Marxist idea of being a facilitator of pupil-centred learning, he is, like it or not, an authority figure and the path to loss of faith is made wider and easier.

In his New Year Pastoral Letter, Bishop Campbell of Lancaster pointed out that, in terms of committed membership, we have experienced a transition from Christianity adhered to out of social convention, to Christianity once again being a way of discipleship that is deliberately chosen by relatively few. The "Let me play devil's advocate" strategy is bizarrely inappropriate in such a situation, as it assumes that the young people in our secondary schools are so indoctrinated that they need to be shaken out of the complacency of a life of faith based on social approval.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In many Catholic secondary school classes, there are few young people who enthusiastically practise the faith. The editorial of the February edition of The Catholic Voice of Lancaster observed what many parish priests have found to their alarm, that it is not uncommon for children from practising families to be bullied by other children because they are such a tiny minority in schools in which the majority of children, and teachers, are either non-practising or non-Catholic.

In such a situation, the "devil's advocate" approach profoundly undermines the position of the committed and practising Catholic young people, and effectively reinforces the loss of faith of the young people on the fringe of Catholic practice and just looking for an excuse to drop out. Sometimes it can seem reasonable to ask whether the teacher really is only pretending to support the anti-Catholic position. One might ask "Why not play God's advocate just for a change?"

Theological Issues

The senior management of many Catholic schools are of an age to have experienced the introduction of the "new catechetics" through the infamous Corpus Christi college and the like, or to have grown up with the projects and RE materials that this new philosophy spawned. Over the years, we have examined and critiqued these materials in Faith, but now we are no longer a voice crying in the wilderness. Bishop Campbell is only the latest to acknowledge the very real problems that have resulted; and we are profoundly grateful to him for doing so - as, we are sure, are many others. Yet there remains a general ignorance in the senior management age group of what has happened in the Church in the pontificates of Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict, of the revival of faith, whetherthrough new movements or the rediscovery of the tradition of the Church.

There is a certain recognition of the enthusiasm of World Youth Days and the Papal Visit to Britain, but generally there is no real understanding of the project of the last two Popes. We also need to bear in mind that in many Catholic schools, the proportion of practising Catholic staff has dropped alarmingly. Many years ago, the Memorandum on the Appointment of Catholic Teachers used to state that for all teaching posts in Catholic schools, a practising Catholic applicant should be preferred, all other things being equal, and that for head, deputy and head of RE posts, a practising Catholic was essential.

This was diluted in 2003: the requirement for a practising Catholic applicant to be preferred for all posts was replaced with the expression that finding Catholics was a "high priority". Concerning the new "free" schools there seems to be a lack of clarity concerning guarantees of some of these basic aspects of Catholicity. In many Catholic secondary schools the proportion of non-Catholic teachers is now as high as 70 per cent. Of the Catholics, some will be practising, some not. Of the practising Catholics, some will accept magisterial teaching, some not.


All of this creates an environment in which problems arise that can demoralise parish clergy in their relationships with schools. At the school Mass, pupils will be marshalled up to Holy Communion without any reference to their practice of the faith. It is assumed that all who are nominally Catholic are properly disposed to receive Holy Communion, even if they have not actually attended Mass during the past year or two. Inevitably there are problems with how pupils receive Communion, and, not rarely, instances of the desecration of the sacred species. If the priest complains, he is considered to be part of the problem.

For priests in London and the South-east who have to take on the traumatic responsibility of signing school forms to say whether applicants go to Mass regularly or not, it is dismaying to find that the same pupils a year later are signed up for a weekend school trip on which no provision is made for attending Sunday Mass. He may also be faced with incomprehension and hostility when he tries to persuade the school not to support "Red Nose Day" or "Jeans for Genes"; when he suggests that asking pupils to stand at the front of the class and shout out the names of intimate body parts is an invasion of their modesty; when he objects to the non-Catholic geography teacher's presentation of solutions for over-population, the "gay rights" agenda seeping in through text books, the chaplaincyco-ordinator's failure to get abortion agency leaflets removed from the library, or the school nurse's distribution of cards with information on how to get the morning-after pill.

For a teacher or priest to attempt to challenge such situations can be precarious. They might be considered "rigid" or "conservative" unlike the nice people at "The Diocese" who recognise that we have to live in a pluralist society and we must not try to create a Catholic enclave with a "ghetto mentality" in a secular society.

It is no wonder that some priests are beginning to ask themselves how they might use their limited time to better effect. Not a few still valiantly attend governors' meetings, spending hours of their valuable time in the evenings rubber-stamping the latest government initiative and approving the various ways that conscientious headteachers implement this year's scheme for proving to Ofsted that their school is "outstanding."

Priests are becoming weary of receiving notices and press releases proclaiming this year's percentage of five GCSEs at A*-C when they know that there are other criteria according to which many of our schools are failing in relation to the faith. If a sought-after school is in the position of accepting only those applicants for whom a priest will sign that they attend Mass every week, one might ask: what is the value-added measure for this by Year 11 ? Starting from a benchmark of 100 per cent practice in Year 7, how many pupils are still attending Mass when they leave the school? The school might reasonably say that this is not under their control: much depends on the commitment of the parents. And one might answer that this is true regarding pupils' commitment to do the coursework fortheir GCSEs. In the one case there is the sanction of published results; in the other, we shrug in despair and blame the parents.

Bishop Campbell drew attention to the dilemma of the small proportion of practising Catholics being called upon to support and maintain schools in which the majority of pupils and staff are not practising the faith. The Catholic Voice of Lancaster put it more starkly, referring to the sacramental and educational system that has produced five million lapsed Catholics. Of course, the schools are good at raising money for charity: this is a handy "Catholic ethos" indicator which is measurable. The problem is that without effective evangelisation, including the "new evangelisation" directed to people who are "Catholic in name only", the charitable fundraising activity will lose its fundamental base of practising Catholics as well as being itself divorced from Catholic principles bysupporting the more fashionable charities whose activities are in some cases morally unacceptable.

Parents' Trials

The concern felt by the priest, though real, is nothing compared with that felt by the "Humanae Vitae Catholics", as we might call them. We use that term because, in practice, adherence to the teaching of Humanae Vitae is undeniably a litmus test of fidelity to the magisterium. In our parishes, if we are lucky, there will be a small number of families who rejoice in this teaching and try to live it fully. They are a godsend to the parish priest. Not only does he have allies in defending the teaching of the Church, but he also has people who are tuned into formative parochial apostolate as well as overwhelmingly generous in giving their time and energy to the Church. With the support of the priest, they can take an important role in the mission of the parish, often insmall and informal ways, those little acts of witness, charity and encouragement to others that make all the difference.

Unfortunately it is often different when it comes to the Catholic school. Some of us have seen at first hand the process that parents go through. Something happens at the school - it might be anything in the list that we mentioned above faced by priests. The parents are shocked and feel quite sure that the headteacher will be supportive as soon as the issue is flagged up.

They are then further disturbed that the headteacher loyally supports the staff member who has made the children shout out "penis" or "vagina" at the front of the class, or has said that the Church will one day ordain women priests, or has talked openly about their gay partner. Letters to "The Diocese", whether the Education Commission or the bishop, elicit carefully guarded responses. Some well-informed (or well-advised) parents will gather a dossier of correspondence and send it to one of the Roman Congregations.

Sometimes some action is taken as a consequence, but this will be after perhaps 18 months of a traumatic process in which the parents are scandalised. Their confidence in the Church is shaken, they suffer being cast in the role of enemies of the state, and their children are taunted on the playground. Some take the courageous and uncertain route of home-schooling, others quietly withdraw their children and place them in a nearby non-Catholic school where life is more peaceful and their religious convictions are scrupulously respected along with those of the Muslims, Sikhs and others.

What Next?

We have written before in Faith of a "time for reassessment", a time to consider whether we should continue to fight for the integrity of state-aided Catholic education. The question is no less urgent but has changed in some respects. Within the Church the impact of the pontificate of Blessed John Paul, and its consolidation under Pope Benedict, has provided a new generation of young priests who are firmly orthodox and fully aware of what is going on in education. Among the laity, strong Humanae Vitae families have grown in confidence and are better organised. There is a loss of confidence in the liberal consensus and a cautious approach to Rome now that the game has changed.

If we are to tough it out with state-funded Catholic schools in the mainstream voluntary-aided or academy sectors, there is a desperate need for the training of Catholic teachers. If this were based straightforwardly on an in-depth study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it would be an immense step forward. The Maryvale Institute has done sterling work in this field over many years and one would hope that this work will continue to bear fruit in well-educated and informed teachers; those teachers also need to be supported and encouraged by "The Diocese." A couple of dioceses are taking this path against a powerful headwind. May the Lord prosper all their efforts.

For Catholic schools to be a worthwhile enterprise for the Church, they must survive and flourish as institutions where pupils grow in a "personal relationship with Jesus" which includes following the teaching of Jesus, through His Church, that we should attend Mass every Sunday, go to confession regularly, say our prayers and be loyal to the magisterium -especially in its moral teaching regarding the sanctity of human life, and the meaning and purpose of sex and marriage, in accord with Humanae Vitae and Evangelium Vitae.

Religious Freedom

This brings us face to face with a further change in society over recent years, namely the encroachment of the state upon religious freedom. To be fully Catholic, our schools now have to be radically counter-cultural. One of the hot-button issues for the foreseeable future will be the question of homosexuality in general, and civil unions and gay marriage in particular. The US bishops are showing that concerted opposition to a government's restriction of religious freedom is not a hopeless cause. As we go to press, there are signs that the Obama administration is beginning a tactical retreat on its controversial healthcare policy. Whether the US bishops are successful or not, they have certainly not taken the attack lying down. If we are to continue Catholic education we have to take thesame robust approach to the question of gay marriage and any subsequent attempt to take away our liberty to proclaim Catholic teaching - especially in our schools.

The alternative would be to make a tactical retreat, hand over our schools gradually to the state, and insist on the right of Catholic pupils in state education to be treated with the same consideration as people of other faiths. Our parishes would then need to provide a focused Catholic catechesis on faith, morals and prayer for the children and young people who are part of the families who keep the Church going. They could then be the principal agents of the new evangelisation to help their peers to recover the faith.

Which of these alternatives is viable depends on the willingness of our schools or dioceses to insist on a much more concrete, measurable and effective "Catholic ethos" than is presently the case in so many Catholic educational establishments. There is really no justification for continuing to commit time and money to schools that provide a vaguely Christian approach to fundraising for charity and respect for other people; after all, many non-religious schools do this perfectly adequately. For our schools to be worth the effort that is expended on them, they must turn into the storm, battle strongly for the faith, and be beacons of the stand that the Church is now forced to take against the ravages of secularism. If they won't do that, Catholics will have to look elsewhere to engage inthe new evangelisation.

Faith Magazine