Catholic Social Thought in Education – Building the Collegium

Three Students look and laugh at a laptop

The term “Catholic social thought” would normally bring about discussion of issues related to politics, social and welfare policy, overseas aid and climate change, to name just a few well-trodden contemporary topics. Schooling is often thought of as a topic separate from Catholic social teaching, perhaps because of the large volume of distinct work produced on this topic by dioceses and the Vatican. However, the same issues apply to schooling as apply to (for example) healthcare. There are questions of the policy framework we should have for its delivery (the Church teaches that Catholic schools should not be discriminated against, as compared with state schools, when it comes to funding); who has responsibility (the principle of subsidiarity applies); how we should ensure that all children have an adequate education; and so on. This short piece will sketch out two further ways in which Catholic social thought could profitably influence the global networks of Catholic schools.

Three Students look and laugh at a laptop

By Dr. Leonardo Franchi

Dr. Leonardo Franchi is lecturer in Religious Education at Glasgow University and editor of Reclaiming the Piazza and Reclaiming the Piazza II.


Making the Catholic school a great place to work

Much is made in Catholic social teaching of the responsibility of employers for the wellbeing or employees. This is not just in terms of material wellbeing, but also ensuring that the workplace is somewhere that encourages ethical behaviour and decision-making and the personal growth of the employee. Workplaces should contribute to promoting the common good and play their part in bringing society to a higher state of perfection. Put this way, we can see how it is relevant to Catholic schools.

To make schools a great place to work, a necessary starting-point is a commitment to exemplary staff relations. A Catholic school should be a genuine collegium, fostering the common good through shared intellectual exploration and pastoral sensitivity. It does so with close reference to the Church’s teaching on education, seeing such bodies of knowledge as core material for professional learning. A key to making this happen is the quality of leadership available at all levels of the system, including fruitful lines of communication with the wider professional networks in education, thus avoiding the collegium becoming overly self-referential. The Catholic university, of course, has a role to play in preparing school leaders.

An excellent school will foster the traditional transcendentals of truth, beauty and goodness and all aspects of its life can be evaluated in this light.

An excellent school will foster the traditional transcendentals of truth, beauty and goodness and all aspects of its life can be evaluated in this light. On a practical level, it is important to commit to the provision of high-quality educational resources. This refers to books and other teaching materials, furniture and audio-visual aids, all of which should be stimulating, attractive and up-to-date in style and tone. Attention to detail in these matters is not a peripheral issue and shows respect for all who are associated with the school community. These elements of promoting the common good that relate to our relationship with the transcendent are often forgotten, but they are part and parcel of the common good – otherwise the term merely echoes secular utilitarian welfare ideas.

Developing a ‘knowledge for all’ curriculum

To propose the school curriculum as a site of universal knowledge might seem uncontroversial. The rise of narrow and explicitly skills-based approaches to education, and their offspring in slogans such as ‘preparing for work’ and associated lists of ‘competencies’ should lead to more nuanced views and practices. The Catholic school must be second to none in communicating the treasury of human knowledge to all pupils and avoiding an artificial fissure between such knowledge and so-called practical skills. In teaching business studies, for example, a properly conceived ethics should be taught alongside technical skills, as the social teaching documents of the Church have suggested.

The commitment to knowledge emerges from the school’s high expectations of staff and pupils. If the human person is truly made in the image and likeness of God, and is hence called to perfection, the school is one of the means by which this path to virtue is laid. Of course, the school recognises the diversity of ‘ability levels’ present in the pupil population but fosters an authentic inclusion by its levels of expectation. Central to this is a system of support for pupils and staff to ensure that, as far as possible, we are ‘getting it right’ for each and every child in the school.

Concluding Remarks

Catholic social thought has much to offer the Church’s educational mission. Given the need to respect subsidiarity, schools will often do things differently according to place and context. Curriculum development, carried out in a collegial spirit, is a form of dialogue in two contexts: the first is the dialogue in the school itself, whereby the collegium speaks and seeks consensus; the second is dialogue with schools that are not part of Catholic networks. It is an act of social justice to make available to others the many riches in art and music, for example, which have arisen from the Catholic mind.

Pope Francis talks frequently of the need for the Church to be a place of encounter with the “Other”. Of course, the primary encounter is with God in the liturgy but there are few better places to encounter the Other than a school which is called (in his words) ‘to cultivate without uprooting, to foster growth without weakening identity, to be supportive without being invasive’ (Pope Francis, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia, 2020, 28).

If we can follow this line of thinking, Catholic schools will be making a fine contribution, as we must, to the common good. After all, it would be a tragedy if we did not follow the social teaching of the Church even inside those schools that the Church herself manages.


 

Photo by Priscilla du Preez on Unsplash

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Leonardo Franchi

Author: Leonardo Franchi

Published: 10th March 2020

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© Catholic Social Thought 2020