Citizenship and Education

In this post I explore citizenship education through the lens of Catholic teaching on education. I also make reference to Pope Leo XIII’s teaching on citizenship. I show that there is such a thing as a Christian ‘idea’ of citizenship. This might not sit comfortably in a society which seeks to marginalise (intentionally or unintentionally), the Christian voice.

Citizenship, education and religion

How citizenship education in the Catholic school is both understood and taught makes it a crucial feature of the contemporary educational scene.

Citizenship education flows from a political or civic desire to build community cohesion – universally deemed a ‘good thing’. How to promote, far less achieve, this in a multi-cultural society remains problematic.

For some, citizenship education is a ‘secular’ version of religious education: values emerge, it seems, from reason alone without a concomitant contribution from revealed religion. Although religious belief and practice should be fundamental parts of citizenship education, contemporary articulations of citizenship education minimise discussion of the difficult issues arising from religious faith or identity. Nonetheless, the number of children of all faiths and none who are educated in Catholic schools should place the Catholic school not at the margins but at the heart of citizenship education.

Religions, of course, are an expression of diversity. This leads to the following question: is contemporary education a means of monopolising thought and values within a conceptual framework which purports to be inclusive but, intentionally or otherwise, fails in this objective?

Religions, of course, are an expression of diversity. This leads to the following question: is contemporary education a means of monopolising thought and values within a conceptual framework which purports to be inclusive but, intentionally or otherwise, fails in this objective?

Is there a Catholic approach to citizenship education?

In saying a tentative ‘yes’ to this question, it is important to offer some historical roots.  A Catholic vision of citizenship is evident in the corpus of Pope Leo XIII (Pope from 1878-1903) for whom the Catholic school is the crucible in which a ‘Catholic mind’ is formed. For Pope Leo, a well-formed Catholic is a leaven in society: the good Catholic is a good citizen.

Pope Leo married a traditional life of piety with a recognition of the value of dialogue with people of different views – albeit in the context of a constant looking back at the sources of Christian thought. Three of Pope Leo’s encyclicals provide examples of his desire to engage intellectually and pastorally with the challenges of the age. They encapsulate his thinking on how the good and faithful Catholic is also the ideal citizen.

In Spectata Fides (1885), a short encyclical on Christian education, addressed to the Catholics of England and Wales, Leo sewed together the value of Christian education with a related commitment to the welfare of all: ‘for there is no better citizen than the man who has believed and practised the Christian faith from his childhood’. This highly charged sentence links pithily the traditional piety associated with childhood with the need to engage with wider society. The union of the verbs ‘believed’ and ‘practised’ reminds us that religious belief, for Pope Leo, was linked to witness in ordinary life. Note also that this encyclical is addressed to Cardinal Henry Manning, present at the conclave which elected Leo in 1878 and renowned for his involvement in social issues, most notably in attempts to resolve the London Dockers’ strike of 1889. This episode is an example of what Leo understood as Christian citizenship.

Spectata Fides, while a valuable indicator of Pope Leo’s vision of ‘education for citizenship’ was an overture to his more substantial encyclical on citizenship, Sapientiae christianae (1890). This landmark encyclical afforded him a platform from which to link once again the existence of the doctrinally well-formed Catholic with the general wellbeing of the nation. It is essential to place this gradual adaptation to modern (as opposed to modernist) ways in context: dialogue was a way of explaining the Catholic approach (or solution) to particular issues as the optimal way. There is, unsurprisingly, little sense of dialogue understood as a path to a common and as yet undiscovered solution to social ills:

From day to day it becomes more and more evident how needful it is that the principles of Christian wisdom should ever be borne in mind, and that the life, the morals, and the institutions of nations should be wholly conformed to them’ (1890: 1).

The encyclical demonstrates Pope Leo’s determination to see Christianity as the key driver of political, social and economic life. If you have not yet read this encyclical, now is the time!

Pope Leo’s short encyclical to the Bishops of Scotland, Caritatis studium (1898) returned to the theme of Christian faith and citizenship. One of Leo’s first acts as Pope was to restore the Scottish hierarchy in 1878. This encyclical shows how the Catholic Church in Scotland, while a major institution in the history of the Scottish nation, had lost influence and status after the Reformation. Leo knows of the challenges facing the small and increasingly immigrant Catholic community in Scotland. He is also aware that there is common ground between Catholics and Christians from the Reformed traditions, with both traditions under threat from religious liberalism. Leo asks the Catholic community to move away from an intellectual and cultural ghetto in order to engage with wider Scottish society. This will show that Catholicism, far from being an alien culture to Scotland, has much to contribute to the welfare of the nation: ‘nothing else contributes so much to the honourable and successful discharge of social duties’ (1898: 11).

Citizenship and Catholic education today

In Catholic educational thought, education is more than the accumulation of qualifications to enhance employability. At the heart of the vision is something radical and counter-cultural: the gradual building of the Kingdom of God – while remaining aware that this is always a work in progress owing to the fallibility of humanity. Essentially, the good Christian citizen is first and foremost a good person – one who has responded to the grace of God impelling him or her to the love which demands sacrifice for the ‘other’.

Christian thinking accepts the notion of human virtues which, by definition, are not explicitly religious. We all want schools and wider society to be underpinned by such tolerance, good humour, fairness etc. The issue is how to define what the values mean in practice and, crucially, identify what lies at their root.

The Catholic vision of doctrinal development is one of continuity, not rupture. Catholic teaching on education and citizenship is part of this continuity. It will be interesting to follow developments in light of contemporary papal initiatives like Scholas Occurrentes and the Global Compact on Education.

I end with two questions.

  1. A rediscovery of the link between the ‘good Catholic as the good citizen’ should encourage Catholic educators to look again at the key principles of Catholic education. How will this be done?
  2. Can the modern secular state accept Pope Leo’s claim that the good Christian is the ideal citizen?

A version of this post was presented at a World Union of Catholic Teachers Webinar on February 2, 2021. 

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Author: Leonardo Franchi

Published: 9th February 2021

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© Catholic Social Thought 2020