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Catholic schools and education

I would say that normally it is the creative minorities that determine the future, and in this sense the Catholic Church must understand itself as a creative minority that has a heritage of values that are not things of the past, but a very living and relevant reality.’ Pope Benedict XVI

The question of what Catholicism should look like has for decades been the fundamental question underpinning the most heated debates within the Catholic community in England and Wales. On the one hand there are those who maintain the faith has to be in and of the culture in which it resides, to be at ease with the socio-cultural establishment of which it should seek to be part, to talk the language and live the life of those to whom it seeks to offer the Good News. On the other hand, there are those who maintain that the community is strongest when it remains faithful to the Magisterium, that its renewal comes most authentically through ressourcement, that the recusancy streak running through its very DNA continues to be its greatest and most enduring strength, not its fatal weakness.

It is into this melting pot that the Bishops continually seek to tread, endlessly courting adverse reaction from one side or the other. And into the ring has been thrown the Mitre of the Bishop of Lancaster Michael Campbell, who has issued a pastoral letter reflecting on the theme of the New Evangelisation, itself very much of the Holy Father’s oeuvre, whilst asking how the Church of today can best meet the challenge of this much needed renewal.

The letter is bold, and asks some genuinely courageous questions that will no doubt horrify some whilst delighting others. It has chosen to address, in a very direct way, that very kulturkampf outlined above, before asking what the response of the Diocese of Lancaster will be, both spiritually and constitutionally, to the goal of evangelisation.

On this note, one section in particular provoked special interest. After reflection on the nature of the faithful community in contemporary society, and what the response of the institutional Church should be to the changing social circumstances with which it is confronted, Bishop Campbell asks;

Is it right or sustainable to expect our Mass-going population of 21,000 to support our schools and colleges in which often the majority of pupils, and sometimes teachers, are not practising Catholics? Is it time for us to admit that we can no longer maintain schools that are Catholic in name only?

It is worth saying that, until relatively recently, this question would simply not have been asked, or at any rate not framed in such terms. Indeed, the very use of the words ‘Catholic in name only’ (or CINO in shorthand) is itself provocative for those who have not and do not necessarily see the role of Catholic schools as being ‘Catholic’ at all, at least not with a capital ‘C’. That the Church should compromise its generous access and influence within mainstream schools sector, and the (imagined?) political leverage that comes with it, was simply off the radar – better by far to bury the question with platitudes about Gospel values and the vital role Catholic schools play in some of the toughest communities (as they absolutely do, by the way). Questions of authenticity and mission, indeed of practice, were irrelevant; presence was the key.

This narrative has been challenged in the past, again most notably in the Diocese of Lancaster. Whilst still Bishop of Lancaster, Patrick O’Donoghue wrote an impressive piece on education entitled Fit For Mission? Schools (I’ve blogged on this before – see here) in which evangelisation was thrust into the debate as one of the central considerations when assessing the role of Catholic education in the formation of the young. The document, unfortunately, was better received in Rome than Eccleston Square, but for Bishop Michael the insight has clearly proven crucial, so much so that he has grabbed it and started asking searching questions in light of it: in short, what is a Catholic education all about?

For his part, he leaves us in little doubt;

The Church only exists to evangelise – that means buildings, churches, parishes, schools and colleges are only valuable insofar as they help the Church in that mission of salvation! How can we as parishes, schools and colleges – as the Diocese – support this sorely needed New Evangelisation?

Salvation! For many Catholic schools, caught in the vice-like grip of external secular pressures placed on the schools system as a whole, as well as the identity-amnesia that has gripped the Church more widely, evangelisation as warranting even a footnote on the mission statement is essentially alien. Understandably, schools have instead concentrated on the meat and drink of the education system – bums on seats and exam results. Holistic visions of a Catholic education, encompassing both organisational structure and pedagogy, are simply trumped by the reality and demands of the schools sector: the dilution of any distinctive ethos thereby brought about through a mixture of cultural change within and without the Church and simple, cold reaction to legislative demand. After all, with many schools no longer guaranteed the supply of Catholic children for which they were designed following the baby boom of the early sixties, so ‘the brand’ has had to adapt to new realities, which has included a new clientele for whom Catholicism is neither central nor necessarily relevant.

Now there are some important questions here requiring careful consideration – implicit in Bishop Campbell’s words is the suggestion that Catholic education should only be for active, worshipping Catholics. Clearly there are some in the Diocese of Westminster, for example, who might well take issue with that view, but politics aside the question is crucial: should Catholic education really be just for Catholics? Should it not welcome all and invite all to share in the community of faith? Or does open access make it more difficult for schools to cultivate a community of faith that people might be able to share in?

There are also technical questions – what should this new education look like (cue people dusting off their old copies of Newman from the bookshelf)? Inevitably it will be smaller, but in what manner? Will it exist within the mainstream, or the (charitable) private? Are there the legal and legislative options available for this to happen? Could the diocese fund such a re-ordering? How shall they be run? What happens to those schools likely to feel the sharp edge of such decisions? What happens to land/buildings held in trust?

Now there are those who characterise the debate over Catholic schools as being the battle between the CESEW who wish to abolish the ‘Catholic’ and certain Bishops who wish to abolish the ‘schools’. It seems clear to me that this is absolutely not what Bishop Michael is driving toward. Quite the opposite, in fact. He is asking, with rather more focus than which we have become accustomed: ‘just what is a Catholic school?’

For those who would embrace these words as evidence of a coming Revolution, one would advise caution. These remain questions put to the laity, and we should trust that the issue remains one for discussion and not the outline of a pre-determined plan whose features and priorities are already set out. For those who would dismiss this as next week’s fish-wrap, the remarkable boldness must surely make one think again.

In short, we don’t yet know.

Interesting times.


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