When I was representing the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland at a recent conference attended by colleagues from across Europe, I was struck by the significant variations in the ways that Catholic education is provided in many European countries.
For instance, in Ireland almost all primary schools – well over 90% – are owned by, and managed by, the Church. This has led to recent calls for different kinds of school provision being made available to those who do not want to send their children a Catholic school.
In some countries, Catholic schools are provided by Dioceses and Religious Congregations as independent schools which charge tuition fees. In others again, schools are managed by Church agencies and financed by the State to provide education for Catholic children.
In many of the countries of Eastern Europe there are encouraging signs of growth in Catholic education. Dioceses and Religious Congregations are building Catholic schools, investing in the lives of young people, offering access to quality education and formation which develops Gospel values in the lives of young people.
Despite the differences in structures and in governance across the various systems of Catholic schools in Europe, it is clear that they face common challenges: to their mission and purpose, to their religious character and identity and to the very place of religion within the sphere of education.
In a recent document, published by the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education and approved by Pope Benedict XVI, some of these challenges are acknowledged. In particular, the document highlights the need for Catholic schools to provide young people with the experience of being members of a community of faith, in the midst of a world which is increasingly diverse. It calls for “education in communion”, in which young people have a strong experience of sharing, are encouraged to search for truth and meaning, to come to know themselves and to recognise the signs through which God leads them to the fullness of existence.
Interestingly, the theme of “Forward in Communion” was adopted by the Catholic Primary Head Teachers’ Association (CHAPS) for their annual conference in September of this year. The organising committee had recognised that their work in Catholic schools across Scotland is all about providing young people with experiences of “living in communion”. They know that this is not easy today when society seems to encourage individualism and bombards young people with various kinds of values which conflict with notions of eternal truth, shared responsibility and the common good.
However, there is plenty of evidence to indicate that many Catholic schools and parishes are successful in providing such experiences of communion and in providing formation which helps young people to know how to spend their lives responsibly, in response to God’s call. Teachers do this best in collaboration with parents and with the local parish, preparing children to receive the sacraments, helping them to develop a sense of belonging and encouraging them to be living witnesses of God’s love in the world.
When teachers are encouraged to develop their own understanding of Gospel values they are able to develop these same values in the lives of young people. This requires them to address their own theological and spiritual formation as part of their ongoing continuing and professional development. Only through such a “formation of the heart” will they themselves experience that encounter with God in Christ which they hope to offer to their students. The Values for Life resource, recently developed by the Catholic Education Commission, encourages exactly this kind of formation.
Significant attention requires to be given to this formation of teachers – both in Initial Teacher Education courses and through in-service training. Again, there are signs of positive developments here in Scotland, with courses being offered in Dioceses, in the University of Glasgow’s Faculty of Education and in schools themselves. This will require the Church’s continuing commitment, through the work of the Scottish Catholic Education Service and various other groups.
Over the next few years, teachers in Catholic schools throughout Scotland will be encouraged to reflect upon the place and the nature of religious education. As part of a major review of the curriculum in all schools, they will consider the nature of the learning experience which should be provided for young people in primary and secondary schools. This may involve them in planning to ensure the centrality of religious education in the life of the Catholic school, and it may challenge them to reflect upon their own personal understanding of the Gospel message and of how it can be communicated to children and young people. Throughout this journey the Church will accompany and support them.
Such support is necessary if we wish to help Catholic schools to resist the pressure from various quarters to ‘leave faith at the school gate’. Loud secular voices are claiming that, out of respect for people of other faiths and none, it is time for schools to be prohibited from “favouring” Christianity in any way. A recent newspaper survey suggested that only one fifth of primary schools in England would hold a Nativity play this year, out of fear of offending non-Christians. Pressure from the secularist lobby is beginning to pay dividends, as some schools find it hard to resist calls to be “inclusive” and, as a consequence, to play down their distinctive traditions and character.
Of course, we understand that “living in communion” is not in any way an exclusive activity. It is welcoming to all people, encouraging them to know that God loves them. It encourages all to see, in the light of the Gospel, what is positive in the world, as well as what needs to be transformed. It helps to form people in such a way “as to respect the identity, culture, history, religion and especially the sufferings and needs of others, conscious that we are all really responsible for all”, as the recent Vatican document says.
This is the vision – of life and of education – which should be embraced by all involved in Catholic education in Scotland and elsewhere.
 Educating Together in Catholic Schools, Congregation for Catholic Education , Vatican City (2007)