Secularization was the main concern discussed at a European conference on Catholic education, dedicated to “The Catholic School in the European Public Sphere”, sponsored by the Council of European Episcopal Conferences and the European Committee on Catholic Education on 1st & 2nd December 2008.
According to Auxiliary Bishop Pero Sudar of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, promoter of the “Catholic Schools for Europe” project, the main concern for Catholic education in Europe — unlike in other continents — is the drop in the number of students. In the last three years, there has been a continental decrease of some 200,000 students.
In Western Europe, there are about 7.3 million students in Catholic schools, half of them in France and Spain. But in Eastern Europe, there are less than 200,000 students. This has caused some schools in certain countries to close due to lack of demand.
The bishop considered the causes of this decline, noting above all a growing secularization that creates “a climate of hostility” toward religious values. “A strong group of promoters of European public life today show a deep distrust, not to say hostility, toward the churches and religious communities,” he said.
According to Bishop Sudar, “a strong secular dogmatism is being promoted, characterized by a subtle intolerance toward religion and believers,” who are considered “obstacles to progress and peaceful coexistence.”
He spoke to Vatican Radio about the project he is promoting in his home country. It sprung from the need to help the Church survive in Bosnia-Herzegovina, he said. “Because of the war and the emigration linked to it, from 950,000 Catholics we’ve gone to 460,000. The [education] project was born to motivate Catholics to stay.”
It’s about “finding a new mentality so that the different ethnicities and religions are not seen as threats, but as positive challenges,” he said. Concretely, the prelate noted how in some Catholic schools of the nation, Orthodox priests teach the young Orthodox students, and Muslim leaders do the same for the Islamic children.
“I am convinced,” Bishop Sudar said, “that this is today an opportunity for Catholic schools: to give an example, without betraying one’s own religious identity, of collaboration with non-Catholics, at the service of the human cause. This is today the best way to evangelize, with a lived testimony.”
Nevertheless, the prelate suggested during the conference, the situation of secularization is a challenge to which the Church should respond, given that schools are “very important tools” in the transmission of values, especially to the children of Catholic families.
“The fact that education is affected by the same evils as society: subjectivism, moral relativism and nihilism, makes more present the right of Catholic parents to enroll their children in schools that guarantee a Catholic education,” he affirmed.
Moreover, Bishop Sudar continued, the school “should be one of the tools of the new evangelization of Europe” and of “valuing the historical contribution of religions to the European patrimony.”
According to Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham, England, president of the bishops’ council’s commission on teaching and universities, the Catholic school in Europe today has four key characteristics.
First of all, schools need to recall that they have “a key role in the Church’s mission to make Christ known to all people. […] All personal development, teaching and learning, formation of the culture and society will be well founded if it’s centered on him,” the archbishop said. Secondly, schools “assist parents in the education and formation of their children” and therefore, educational work should be undertaken as a team with the parents, he explained.
Thirdly, the prelate continued, the school “is at the service of the local Church, the diocese and the parish. […] The parish is the place for religious and spiritual formation; the school is the place for cultural formation. Both dimensions should be integrated because the same values inspire them both.” Finally, he said, the school is “at the service of the well-being of society” because “it guarantees the parents’ right to have their children receive an education in conformity with their convictions” and because “it helps the development of religious sensitivity, of principles and values,” which is “essential for social cohesion.”
Archbishop Nichols noted four challenges that correspond to these characteristics, “keys for the Catholic school of the future”: pluralism, commitment to the truth, liberty and solidarity.