Catholic Education -the business is never finished as it continually seeks to interpret the message of Christ to each generation in culturally diverse societies.
It didn’t all start with the Vatican Council, nor did it finish with it. The Vatican Council’s views on Catholic Education appear in its 1965 Declaration on Christian Education. The Declaration identifies twelve principles that relate to seven areas, indicating that post-conciliar commissions would need to elaborate the principles. The areas are:The universal right to an education (I)
- Christian education (2, 4, 7)
- Parents (3, 6, 8)
- Schools (4, 5, 8, 9)
- Catholic Universities (10)
- Theological education (II)
- Cooperation (12)
In line with the theme of this conference -the unfinished business of the Council – this paper will argue that the Church’s business of Catholic education is unfinished and always likely to remain so. The paper will focus on three of the areas mentioned above: Parents, Catholic schools, and university education, drawing its examples from the years 1965 to 2002, and it will home in on the changes that have taken place during those years and note some challenges ahead.
In presenting this paper I will apply one of the core principles of Catalyst for Renewal, namely, conversation; thus I will pause at strategic points to engage you in conversation about the issues raised in relation to each of the topics of the paper.
First, let us consider what the Council and subsequent documents from the Congregation for Catholic Education have written about the role of parents. The Declaration states that parents “must be recognised as the primary and principal educators” (3) and have “the primary and inalienable duty to educate their children” (6). It is the family that is the primary faith educator, thus explaining the exhortation to the teachers in Catholic schools to be “partners with parents” (8). The Declaration also maintains that the Church too owns the children and thus has the duty of educating them (3).
The theme of the primary rights of parents is maintained in the later documents: The Catholic School (1977), The Catholic School on the Threshold of the New Millennium (1997), and The Church in Oceania (2001). The most recent statement of Pope John Paul II reads:
“Parents are the first educators of their children in human values and the Christian faith; and they have the fundamental right to choose the education suitable for their children. Schools assist parents in exercising this right by helping students to develop as they should. In some situations, the Catholic school is the only contact parents have with the community of the Church.” (33)
Surveys indicate that parents are happy with the values education taught and expressed in Catholic schools and are also satisfied with the religious education programs. Individual schools and more recently parishes have attempted to achieve the involvement of parents in the religious education programs though sacramental programs. There has been less success with Catholic parents who have chosen to send their children to public or Christian schools and there has been mixed success with parents of children in secondary schools. Schools have attempted to implement the partnership exhortations through Parents and Friends Associations, school boards, and at diocesan level through parent representative councils. It has to be said that these latter organisations have had minimal impact on the religious education programs offered by the schools, and that there have been very few jointly developed parent-school religious education programs.
The paper will take up some of these matters later, but for now, let us consider some of the issues that are relevant to the role of parents in the religious education of their children.
What do parents do – or what are parents able to do – to fulfil their obligation of being the “primary and principal educators of their children “?
If’ you agree with the Church that religious education is optimally carried out in an ecclesial community, and that the Catholic school is the “only contact parents have with the community of the Church”, what is the way ahead for Catholic schools in providing this community and education in faith?
The Declaration says that we need to be aware of and respond to “the signs of the times”. What are the “signs” and how are parents, schools and the Church to respond to them?
Second, let us consider Catholic schooling. The focus will be The Declaration on Christian Education (1965), The Catholic School (1977), The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium (1997), and The Church in Oceania (2001). There are a number of consistent ideas that the Church makes through these documents, and the following are some of the more significant of them:
The Catholic school exists for the holistic education of the human person
Holistic education of necessity involves the integration of culture and faith and the personal integration of faith and life
Catholic education has to be based firmly on the teachings of Christ
Catholic education properly exists within a believing community
It would be difficult for any Catholic to disagree with any of these propositions, even if in practice there might be quite significant differences about how they would be implemented. There are developments, nonetheless, from the Declaration to The Millennium and The Church in Oceania documents and these need to be elaborated.
The sociological make up of the Catholic school has changed significantly since 1965. Prior to the early 1960s Catholic schools were staffed predominantly by Religious with a few, usually unqualified, lay staff. The schools of 2002 are staffed predominantly by highly qualified lay staff. The number of interfaith marriages was significantly lower in the 1960s than now. The number of divorced/remarried parents is higher now than in the mid 1960s, as is the number of single parent families. In the mid 1970s approximately 2% of students in Catholic schools were not baptised Catholics; in 2000 the figure was closer to 17%, and the percentage is much higher in individual schools. The size of the individual schools has increased greatly with the education offices emphasising bigger rather than small schools for financial reasons. The figures vary, but the growth has been 20% in some states, higher in others. The demography of the Catholic school has changed profoundly, thus making it difficult for the school to develop and maintain an ecclesial community.
There is a greater awareness in the more recent documents of the mixed cohort in Catholic schools. Many Catholic schools, if not most, are multi-ethnic and multi- religious, and there are increasing numbers of “indifferent and non-practising” students and families in the schools (Millennium, 6), mirroring the society in which the schools exist. Herein lies one of the major changes in the schools in this country since the Declaration Document was released. Catholic schools are to be communities of faith, and, as Pope John Paul has acknowledged, if they are “the only contact parents have with the community of the Church” (Oceania, 33), then the school has an ongoing and challenging future as it is simultaneously school and parish. Much more is expected of it than in the 1960s, and one suspects much more will be demanded of it in the future.
Whilst governments have provided financial support to the schools through the Catholic Education Commissions, the struggle to attain equity of funding remains a constant factor in the very survival of the system. It is a system that caters for increasing numbers of those who would use the schools for social or educational advantage rather than, as the Pope acknowledges, for religious purposes. Research indicates that when there is harmony between parental and school aims, there is greater effectiveness of the school; when the two have different and somewhat competing expectations, there is diminished effectiveness.
Given the expectations placed on them, Catholic schools are extraordinarily successful places of Christian formation. Schools have been asked to undertake an educative role that now embraces the prime catechetical function that was once the domain of the family. They must do this in a situation where they have mixed faith classes and parental clientele. They also must provide a faith community in concert with the parish, albeit sometimes in a parish that might well resent the financial resources spent on education where there might be a perception of nil return if Catholic schools are seen as sending children to mass on Sundays.
And what of the Church’s exhortation that “a distinguishing feature of Catholic education is that it is open to all, especially the poor and weakest in society” (Oceania, 33)? Try as they might, it is an extraordinarily difficult task for Catholic schools to bring this to practice. The Catholic school response is, and has always been, to make allowances through scholarships, delayed payment options, and non-payment in difficult times, for parents unable to afford the fees. Many parents are, nonetheless, often reluctant to apply for their child’s enrolment in a school that requires uniforms and costs much more than the local high school. Again, a matter of perception; for some, the Catholic school is failing to be “open” to these families, for others, the door is perhaps ajar rather than fully open.
Let us reconsider the principal traits of Catholic schools mentioned above: they offer a holistic education based on the teachings of Christ and they are in the business of assisting individuals integrate culture and faith and their faith with life. I applaud the Catholic schools, the agencies of the Catholic Education Offices, as they implement the various diocesan-approved guidelines. These guidelines were years in gestation and now rebalance the religious education programs that lost their way somewhat in the years immediately after the Council. I was teaching religion in those far off years and know how difficult it was to implement the spirit of the Council. I believe that the current guidelines have captured the content and the spirit of the Church of the new millennium. The religion is being taught, and the school communities are doing their level best to reach the faith of the students.
The matter of holistic education meant, for the Council, that Christian values and virtues were to be ever present in the teaching and practices of the schools. The integration of the faith with the lives of the students is becoming more and more difficult as culture becomes increasingly agnostic, if not atheistic. Culture does not support Christian values and is seen by some to be directly opposed to such values. Schools are being asked to counter such values and to attempt to be witnesses to the life of Christ. The combined forces of parents, parish and teaching staff are obliged to offer a set of values opposed to corporate Australia, to media and sporting “one day wonders”. All this, and the Internet that offers the young a world almost out of parental control.
It is too easy to brag that the schools are losing or that there isn’t anything to worry about. The world facing the young is significantly different from that faced in 1965. As the rate of change increases rather than decreases it is clear that the business of education is becoming extraordinarily challenging. So much is now beyond the control of parents and schools. The Internet, film and other media offer the young a culture that will be difficult to synthesise with faith. Difficult but not impossible. It is clear that all involved in Catholic education have to understand the world of the young, realise the good and not forever criticise it just because it is different from that which we grew up in. There is no going back to our childhood nor is it effective to present the young with “in my time ..” as if there never was a better time to be alive. The young have to be presented with the gospel of Christ for now not then. Christ, the values he presented, are as relevant now, even when faced with serious moral issues that were not part of our growing up.
The focus must remain Christ and his teaching. Too much emphasis on the Church rather than on Christ has not been helpful. The young report that they have little time for an institutional church of whatever denomination. What do they have trust in?
Consider authentic leadership, offered by those who personify the critical synthesis of culture, faith, and life. The ideal of the Catholic school is such a product; if the students experience such synthesis in those who are the leaders, namely their parents, teachers and priests, then the task of Catholic education is made so much easier.
There is much more to the Church’s self-understanding of Catholic schools than this brief presentation allows. One could focus those Catholics not in Catholic schools or the appropriation of language once thought to belong exclusively to Catholic education such as “pastoral care”, “retreats”, “values education”, “mission” and others. These latter terms were once considered the hallmarks of a Catholic school; nowadays all schools consider them as part of their lexicon too.
Let us pause here and engage each other in conversation about Catholic schools. Consider, for example, the following:
What is the unfinished business of Catholic schooling?
The Church documents see the role of Catholic schooling as part of the Church’s mission of evangelisation. What do you consider evangelisation to be and how do you see Catholic schools fulfilling this role?
What are the positive features of modern culture that Catholic schools ought be engaging with in order to assist young people to integrate their lives and their faith?
Catholic schools have an ecclesial, societal and educative role and must hold these in balance. What do you see as its role and responsibility in each of these categories?
Third, let us consider Catholic higher education. In Australia there are two Catholic universities. One is publicly funded, Australian Catholic University; the other is a private university, the University of Notre Dame Australia.
There had been attempts to establish a Catholic university in Australia by Cardinal Moran in the 1880s and by Cardinal Gilroy in the 1950s. Moran had wanted an ecclesiastical university; Gilroy wanted a university to cap off the Church’s primary and secondary education system. In Melbourne Mannix had spoken of the folly of a Catholic university, arguing that Catholics should attend the secular universities and seek to influence those universities from within. When the Church notified the Australian community that it was going to establish Australian Catholic University a number of Catholic scholars and commentators expressed their opposition to the venture, arguing that a Catholic university was a contradiction in terms, and also that the laity had not been consulted and that the move was yet another example of hierarchical high-handedness.
The fundamental text on Catholic universities is Pope John Paul’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which elaborated the principle enunciated in the 1965 Declaration (10) and later gained a small comment in The Church in Oceania (33). The Pope has made it clear that a Catholic university is not an option for the Church and that the “entire ecclesial Community is invited to give its support to Catholic Institutions of higher education and to assist them in their process of development and renewal” (11).
The Catholic university is to be engaged in the love of knowledge and the impartial search for truth through its teaching and research (Ex Corde: 1, 4; Oceania: 33). As with Catholic schools, Catholic universities are charged with the task of being a Christian community and providing service to the wider community. The universities are also to ensure that theology is “allowed to shed its light upon all fields of enquiry” (Oceania, 33).
Catholic universities are engaged in the implementation of these principles in an increasingly challenging Australian university context. Some of the issues facing the Catholic University are:
- Maintaining the focus of a Catholic university on the student’s spiritual development and growth;
- Integrating a Catholic ethos and reason as a never-ending dimension of the intellectual life of the Catholic university;
- Having the Catholic community embrace the Catholic universities as “theirs”; and
- Achieving a community experience that is Catholic.
None of these issues is insurmountable; they each remain part of the “unfinished business” of the title of this paper.
Consider the following aspects of the Church’s involvement in Catholic universities.
What specific service does a Catholic university provide to the Church and the wider society?
Ex Corde says that “a Catholic university must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society” (32). Should a Catholic university have the same obligation to say uncomfortable truths to the Catholic Church?
This short paper has kept within the limits of the original Declaration on Christian Education (1967) and subsequent documents of the Pope and the Congregation for Catholic Education. It has consciously avoided the many commentaries that have been written within the 1965 -2001 years in an attempt to focus attention on what the official Church thinks about Catholic education. There are many other aspects of the topic that could be developed and perhaps they are the agenda for further papers.
The theme of this conference is the “unfinished business” of the Vatican Council; the theme of this paper relates that to the Declaration on Christian Education and to education more generally. There are three questions that I would like to finish with.
First, what do you see as the specific role of Catholics – as distinct from any other group in society – in relation to education?
Second, the Church urges us to be aware of “the signs of the times”. What do you see as the signs of the times and what do you see as the appropriate educational response to such signs?
Third, it remains for participants and readers to identify the business of the Council that has been achieved and that which remains unfinished. This is the final point of discussion of our topic “Catholic Education -the business is never finished as it continually seeks to interpret the message of Christ to each generation in culturally diverse societies”.
Relevant Church Documents
1965 Vatican 11 Declaration on Christian Education
1970 Italian Episcopal Conference The Renewal of the Education of the Faith
Australian Bishops Supplement
1971 Sacred Congregation for the Clergy General Catechetical Directory
1976 Synod Preparation Document Catechetics in Our Time
1977 Congregation for Catholic Education The Catholic School
Australian Bishops Conference We Preach Jesus Christ as Lord1982 Congregation for Catholic Education
Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to Faith
1988 Congregation for Catholic Education The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School
1990 Pope John Paul 11 On Catholic Universities
Congregation for Catholic Education
The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium
2001 Pope John Paul 11 The Church in Oceania
- What do parents do – or what are parents able to do – to fulfil their obligation of being the “primary and principal educators of their children “?
- If’ you agree with the Church that religious education is optimally carried out in an ecclesial community, and that the Catholic school is the “only contact parents have with the community of the Church”, what is the way ahead for Catholic schools in providing this community and education in faith?
- The Declaration says that we need to be aware of and respond to “the signs of the times. What are the “signs” and how are parents, schools and the Church to respond to them?
- What is the unfinished business of Catholic schooling?
- The Church documents see the role of Catholic schooling as part of the Church’s mission of evangelisation. What do you consider evangelisation to be and how do you see Catholic schools fulfilling this role?
- What are the positive features of modern culture that Catholic schools ought to be engaging with in order to assist young people to integrate their lives and their faith?
- Catholic schools have an ecclesial, societal and educative role and must hold these in balance. What do you see as its role and responsibility in each of these categories?
- What specific service does a Catholic university provide to the Church and the wider society?
- Ex Corde says that “a Catholic university must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society” (32). Should a Catholic university have the same obligation to say uncomfortable truths to the Catholic Church?
- What do you see as the specific role of Catholics – as distinct from any other group in society – in relation to education?
- The Church urges us to be aware of “the signs of the times”. What do you see as the signs of the times and what do you see as the appropriate educational response to such signs?
- What is the business of the Council that has been achieved and what remains unfinished?
(Dr Timothy O’Hearn is Associate Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Assistant for Special Projects at Australian Catholic University.)