Unless you are the President of a National Bishops Conference (anyone?), you probably didn’t get a copy of this letter in the post. Coveniently, the Congregation for Catholic Education was kind enough to include a summary of the letter in the text itself (they must have had bloggers in mind!):
– Education today is a complex, vast, and urgent task. This complexity today risks making us lose what is essential, that is, the formation of the human person in its totality, particularly as regards the religious and spiritual dimension.
– Although the work of educating is accomplished by different agents, it is parents who are primarily responsible for education.
– This responsibility is exercised also in the right to choose the school that guarantees an education in accordance with one’s own religious and moral principles.
– The Catholic school is truly an ecclesial subject because of its teaching activity, in which faith, culture, and life unite in harmony.
– It is open to all who want to share its educational goal inspired by Christian principles.
– The Catholic school is an expression of the ecclesial community, and its Catholicity is guaranteed by the competent authorities (Ordinary of the place).
– It ensures Catholic parents’ freedom of choice and it is an expression of school pluralism.
– The principle of subsidiarity regulates collaboration between the family and the various institutions deputised to educate.
Religious nature is the foundation and guarantee of the presence of religious education in the scholastic public sphere.
– Its cultural condition is a vision of the human person being open to the transcendent.
– Religious education in Catholic schools is an inalienable characteristic of their educational goal.
– Religious education is different from, and complementary to, catechesis, as it is school education that does not require the assent of faith, but conveys knowledge on the identity of Christianity and Christian life. Moreover, it enriches the Church and humanity with areas for growth, of both culture and humanity.
Given usual complaints about the quality of religious education in schools, that last point is interesting. Here is the full paragraph on that point:
Catholic religious education from the point of view of culture, and its relationship with catechesis
17. Religious education in schools fits into the evangelising mission of the Church. It is different from, and complementary to, parish catechesis and other activities such as family Christian education or initiatives of ongoing formation of the faithful. Apart from the different settings in which these are imparted, the aims that they pursue are also different: catechesis aims at fostering personal adherence to Christ and the development of Christian life in its different aspects (cf. Congregation for the Clergy, General Directory for Catechesis [DGC], 15 August 1997, nn. 80-87), whereas religious education in schools gives the pupils knowledge about Christianity’s identity and Christian life. Moreover, Pope Benedict XVI, speaking to religion teachers, pointed out the need “to enlarge the area of our rationality, to reopen it to the larger questions of the truth and the good, to link theology, philosophy and science between them in full respect for the methods proper to them and for their reciprocal autonomy, but also in the awareness of the intrinsic unity that holds them together. The religious dimension is in fact intrinsic to culture. It contributes to the overall formation of the person and makes it possible to transform knowledge into wisdom of life.” Catholic religious education contributes to that goal, in which “school and society are enriched with true laboratories of culture and humanity in which, by deciphering the significant contribution of Christianity, the person is equipped to discover goodness and to grow in responsibility, to seek comparisons and to refine his or her critical sense, to draw from the gifts of the past to understand the present better and to be able to plan wisely for the future” (Address to the Catholic religion teachers, 25 April 2009).
18. The specific nature of this education does not cause it to fall short of its proper nature as a school discipline. On the contrary, maintaining this status is a condition of its effectiveness: “It is necessary, therefore, that religious instruction in schools appear as a scholastic discipline with the same systematic demands and the same rigour as other disciplines. It must present the Christian message and the Christian event with the same seriousness and the same depth with which other disciplines present their knowledge. It should not be an accessory alongside of these disciplines, but rather it should engage in a necessary inter-disciplinary dialogue” (DGC 73).
It seems to me, however, that we do often expect RE in schools to do the work of catechesis. Afterall, are not most sacramental programs conducted in schools rather than in the parish? What the letter seems to be saying is that we cannt expect that the schools will or should do the job of formation in the Christian faith which is properly the job of the Christian family and the Parish community. However, this doesn’t let the schools off the hook: in fulfilling their responsibility to convey the knowledge of the Catholic faith, they should be as rigourous as they are in other disciplines. This seems to me like a challenge in itself. Would they give the teaching of mathematics or physics or history to someone who had no idea of the discipline, no belief in its importance and scant regard for the facts of the discipline? Then why do they do this with religious education?