November 2006

Education and the Evangelisation of Culture

Far from becoming just a private matter for a few, religion seems to at the centre of our public life and concerns.  At the present time the ‘hot topic’ is faith schools and religious education.  Are faith schools divisive?  Are they a danger to the welfare of our society?  Should they be made to take a quota of members of other faiths or none, so that controlled so that social cohesion can be safeguarded and promoted?

We might think that such issues are purely empirical matters.   We ought to be able to resolve them by just looking at the extent to which faith schools help or hinder social cohesion.  If they encourage hatred and violence, if they fail to promote greater understanding of other faiths, and if they fail to foster the ethical basis for a positive concern for the dignity of all human beings, for justice, religious freedom and social harmony, then they might well be called to account, might be blamed.  If they do the opposite, they should be praised.  Either way, we ought to be able to look at what takes place and reach an answer. 


Children and bishop in a Catholic school

In the current debate over faith schools there is, however, more at work than merely concern over whether faith schools do observably cause social division or not.  There is a deep difference of attitudes over what form a secular society should take.  On the one hand there is a secularism in which all religious beliefs and practices are marginalised and kept out of public life.  On the other hand, there is a secularism in which faith is seen as part of an integral identity that individuals have and in which faith communities are encouraged to express that integrity in ways that build up a harmonious and just society, in partnerships with government, in a fair participation in the structures and institutions of public society, in cooperation and friendship with each other in ordinary life.

The Catholic Church is committed to the second of these options.  And it sees its schools as the context in which that model of secular society can be taught and fostered.  Yet more needs to be said, for in the Catholic understanding, it is the principles of faith and morals which pupils learn that make them want the common good.  The Christian faith they learn and for which the schools exist, is itself the basis on which the principles of living well in society can be taught.  It is in learning the faith that they come to recognise that love of God goes with love of neighbour and in which they come to learn that there is no limit to whom that neighbour is.

In other words, the Catholic understanding of schools is that they have a positive role to play in the evangelisation of culture, in which pupils are prepared for to live out the values of the Gospel in the culture in which they live.  As the Pontifical Council for Culture has put it, ‘Education does not just form individuals, but initiates them into social life and citizenship, into relationships based on respect for rights and duties, in a spirit of welcome and solidarity, and with a moderate use of property and possessions which will guarantee just conditions for everyone, always (Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture (1999), 16). 

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