Religious Education in Schools

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?

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5 responses to “Religious Education in Schools

  1. PM

    Indeed, the problem is that schools have often been doing neither catechesis (at least at the post-primary level) nor religious education. (‘Who is this person Grace you keep talking about?’, a Year 12 student asked a researcher investigating religious knowledge.*) If RE is a content-free zone or vapid 1960s pop psychology, the pupils will draw their own conclusions.

    *Rymarz, R. (2007). Who is this person Grace— Some reflections of the teaching of content knowledge in religious education. Religious Education, 102(1) 62-74.

  2. in fulfilling their responsibility to convey the knowledge of the Catholic faith, they should be as rigourous as they are in other disciplines.

    Not misinforming students about the subject is always a help too.

  3. jules

    I’m afraid many Catholic teachers are not practising the faith. Many I know are living out of wedlock, and one had two children before she got married, during her employment at a catholic primary school. Many are taking contraceptives and many don’t attend Mass on Sunday. This is sad.
    In one school I know of Mass has not been offered since last year. How come?Instead children are taken to the church for “meditation”. One student tells me that her class is divided into two factions, those that believe in God and those that don’t- she also said this division runs throughout the entire school-this is a Catholic HS in Sydney! 😦

  4. Paul

    I give some Catholic Scripture classes in public primary and high schools, and I confess to cynicism towards the fine words of this letter about RE. Let’s be honest – the RE class has to do it all, catechesis, religious studies and general defence against the prevailing scepticism about religion. Where else do the children hear about the Gospel message?

    – most parents are in the habit of “outsourcing” their child’s development to the school, and RE is no exception. They choose Catholic RE and assume an “expert” is teaching the class, and it is up to their child to make up his/her mind about religion. Often they let the child decide whether or not to be baptised (unless, of course they plan to send them to a Catholic school, which usually forces the issue).

    – Catholic parishes are hopeless at education, for adults or children. If people attend Mass regularly, they get a 5 minute homily each week, and the assumption is that the children learn everything from the school. If the child attends a public school, it is up to the enthusiastic volunteers in the SRE classes to give one 40 minute lesson per week. I really don’t understand why Catholic parishes don’t organise “Sunday schools” for adults and children. If we can have “spirituality in the pub”, why can’t we have “spirituality in the parish”? How hard can it be to find speakers willing to spend an hour every now and then to run a class, and anyway, an hour from the priest doesn’s seem too much to ask.

    -to me, an obvious first step is for the parish to educate in apologetics. Adults and children should be confidant that the faith is defensible, especially against the mostly juvenile and non-intellectual assaults from the media and general scepticism around us. For example, after the third or fourth time I was asked in a Scripture class “why aren’t there dinosaurs in the Bible” I realised I had to take the question seriously and talk about it to them. I’m just an amateur, but surely the diocese and parish can produce some material to cover questions like these.

    I’m sorry to get a little worked up, but I just think we can’t keep writing worthy essays about whether RE is appropriately done in the family, parish or school. The truth is that it is done nowhere, so we have to do it wherever possible. In my opinion, the glaring omission, which could be fairly easily addressed is RE given by the parish, outside the Mass homily, if necessary, using material supplied by the diocese.

  5. Donna Jeeves

    It’s happening!!
    Just to make a tiny announcement that the Catholic Archdiocese is now offering Catechesis workshops and training sessions for our Parish Young Adults group. Yee ha!
    And there is more…
    All speakers, material and meal breaks are supplied and run by the Catholic Archdiocese.
    Better late than never!
    On a sadder note, I can relate to Jules comments.
    Wouldn’t it be great if we could bring back the dedicated nuns who were by all means inspirational, respectful teachers and confidents to many of us girls who went to same sex Catholic Schools. Unfortuneately so many of our Catholic Primary school teachers to-day aren’t true to the faith and this impacts onto our impressionable children.