Bishop Donal McKeown: Catholic Schools – Places of Faith and Learning

30 Jan 2014

If Catholic Church leaders and members have had to learn anything over the last twenty years, it is a heavy dose of humility. But Pope Francis has succeeded in blending humility with enthusiasm for ‘the joy of the Gospel’. And those two poles provide the context within which we celebrate Catholic Schools Week 2014 across the island this week.

Each year a theme invites schools and communities to celebrate their work in the context of one specific idea. If Catholic schools are motivated by an explicit belief in God, they need to reflect on their mission, not just focus on their marketing.  This year’s focal point is ‘Catholic Schools – Places of Faith and Learning’. So what might that ask us to look at?

For a while, there was the shallow ideology that faith and science were incompatible. You couldn’t possibly be an empirical scientist and a religious believer! The more people became rational and scientific, the more they would leave behind religious fables.

But people from Copernicus, Descartes, to Newton and Fr. Georg Mendel (the founder of modern genetics) found no problem in balancing faith with a fascination for the world of science. The one thing that science can’t prove is that science has all the answers to life. It takes a real leap of faith to believe in scientism!

Recent Popes have been very clear that faith and reason are not enemies but that they need each other. Pope Benedict noted that both reason and religion could develop ‘pathologies’.  In Ireland we all know too well what religion can look like when sickly! Indeed, the Pope Emeritus said that ‘I would speak of a necessary relatedness between reason and faith…, which are called to purify and help one another’. In an age where there is widespread scepticism about both religion and the secular state, this dialogue is vitally necessary.

And it has become increasingly clear that human beings seek to know, not just facts about volcanoes, tornados and the duck-billed platypus, but whether their life has any meaning. Most people don’t lose sleep over how old the earth is – but hearts are broken by illness, death, broken relationships and shattered dreams. Those are the real questions to which people seek answers.

So it is not surprising that Catholic schools around the world show that, the more explicitly they are proud of their faith identity, the better seats of secular learning they become!  A learning community, imbued with meaning and hope, tends to deliver above-average exams result in everything from arithmetic to zoology, not despite the fact that it is openly faith-based put precisely because of its faith convictions. Being places of faith helps Catholic schools and colleges to be top class places of human growth and learning.

The openness to the transcendent seems to be accompanied by the belief that teachers and young people can do fabulous things together. What Harvard researchers in 1992 called the ‘inspirational ideology’ pushes staff and students that little bit further in all fields of learning. Catholic schools are not a burden on the Exchequer. In the age of ‘value for money’, civil society is getting a great bargain from explicitly faith schools!

And what else links faith and learning? In our increasingly individualised and fragmented society, a faith perspective on life offers – and does not impose – a worldview, a framework within which young people can anchor their learning and their living across all subjects. Indeed, when a curriculum reduces itself to subject content and fails to help young people discuss the major topics of life, it is deficient. An education that is limited to fragmented packages of information and analysis is humanly impoverished. Young people, threatened by drugs, family break-up and suicide need more than better maths results!

Indeed all the great works of literature, art and music deal with the big questions of love, loss, forgiveness, betrayal and hope. And much modern culture – including music, films and books – often deal with the challenges, joys and crises of life in our high-speed world. Catholic education explicitly engages with these questions about the meaning of living rather than just the means for living.

Professor James Conroy recently led a team of experts to study the value of religious education. And their conclusions? “What they reveal is that good RE is about something absolutely fundamental: a space for serious, critical exploration of the meanings and values by which we live. To live good lives, individually and together, we need to be able to make sense of our world and ourselves – and RE offers the only place in the curriculum where that can still be done systematically”.

That is not indoctrination. But it is training young inquisitive minds to not be afraid of tackling important issues. A good education involves asking awkward questions, not just regurgitating pre-packaged answers.

This Catholic Schools Week, Pope Francis would invite us to reflect, with humility, on our strengths and weaknesses – and to acknowledge the joy of the Gospel that we seek to offer to our contemporaries. That contribution to the Common Good is worth celebrating!

+Donal McKeown
Bishop of Down and Connor

This article was published in Faith Matters in the Irish News on Thursday 30 January 2014.