The Christian is called to promote the welfare of family, friends and wider society. This commitment to the good of the other is manifested in many ways, including active involvement in community, social and cultural groups which seek to improve society.
Education is one such venture. For the Christian, authentic education (primary, secondary and tertiary) aims to form young people in virtue and promote human flourishing. All schools should work towards this ideal. In the Catholic school, the body of knowledge known as Catholic social teaching, with its concern for the welfare of individuals, families and wider society, is not just one part of the wider curriculum but should, ideally, underpin the mission, aims and objectives of the school (Grace, 2013).
Catholic educational institutions operate in many different political jurisdictions. This variety of settings engenders an unavoidable diversity in the relationship between the school and the state. Nonetheless, Catholic political thought on the role of the state in human affairs revolves around the concept of the common good and on how individuals and families can be supported to live a life that is oriented towards God (Alting van Geausau and Booth, 2013).
Yet, it is reasonable to ask: what is the common good? Can we agree on a broad definition for application to the multifaceted world of education? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers a valuable working definition of common good for our purposes:
In ordinary political discourse, the “common good” refers to those facilities—whether material, cultural or institutional—that the members of a community provide to all members in order to fulfill a relational obligation they all have to care for certain interests that they have in common.
We find here the importance of relationships and commonality. These are key concepts in any understanding of Catholic social teaching, yet we note also the absence of references to political machinery and the notion of a state. This form of words is not far from the vision of the common good outlined in Dignitatis humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom:
Since the common welfare of society consists in the entirety of those conditions of social life under which men enjoy the possibility of achieving their own perfection in a certain fullness of measure and also with some relative ease, it chiefly consists in the protection of the rights, and in the performance of the duties, of the human person. Therefore the care of the right to religious freedom devolves upon the whole citizenry, upon social groups, upon government, and upon the Church and other religious communities, in virtue of the duty of all toward the common welfare, and in the manner proper to each (Second Vatican Council, 1965, 6).
It is no surprise that the Council advocates religious freedom as part of the common good. A broadly similar understanding is found in Part 4 of the UNESCO publication, Rethinking Education: Towards a Global Common Good (UNESCO, 2015). Of course, the common good is a term ripe for hijack by politicians of all stripes in support of their own agenda, with the obvious danger that this important concept becomes no more than a slogan used with little sense of nuance by public figures. This places a greater responsibility on Catholics to use the term wisely.
We also need to ask if is it possible to maintain, far less promote, authentic Catholic schooling in the context of strong statist tendencies to control educational processes to the extent that would be likely to lead to a clash between Church and state. In such an atmosphere, is an attachment to ‘parental rights’ no more than a sweet-sounding yet meaningless headline which falls short of the reality we face? By statist I refer to a sort of modern so-called liberal group-think which appears to be emanating from a loose coalition of people who are determined to move education, culture and society in a particular ideological direction and who, crucially, have identified the state and the big institutions of society, including universities, as the drivers of this social transformation. This Gramscian tendency in the West sits ill alongside authentic liberty and the principles of Catholic social teaching, especially in the field of parental rights, where the Christian view, the bedrock of so many public institutions, is now just ‘one of many religions’ (Hitchens 2019).
In light of the broad issues highlighted above, the chapter is underpinned by some fundamental questions regarding the common good in education. Firstly, what are the limits of state influence on Catholic education? Secondly, to what extent can the corpus of Catholic social teaching influence in a positive way how the Church envisages and ‘practises’ Catholic education?
What is necessary now is to put some flesh on the proposal for Catholic social teaching to underpin Catholic education. The next sections will explore the role of the family, school and state in the provision of education. This will be followed by a discussion of some of the limitations of state intervention in Catholic education, especially in the fields of funding, admissions and curriculum. Within the chapter, ‘Catholic education’ refers to ‘Catholic schooling’ at both primary and secondary levels.
Education and the role of the family
In Catholic teaching, the family is the primary setting for education. It is the non-negotiable role of parents to lead their children to knowledge of what it means to be human. As it was stated in Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, the family thus becomes a place of socialisation where good customs, right behaviour and virtue are exemplified and taught. In this ambitious educational programme, so to speak, families are encouraged to be open to others and, ideally, work with other families to build supportive local and global family networks. For Pope Francis, family education is truly an ‘education in hope’ (Amoris laetitia, 275).
The Church also recognises some limitations of the family’s role as primary educators. Indeed, as far back as 1929, Pope Pius XI, in the encyclical on education, Divini illius magistri, noted as follows with regard to the various agents of education:
In the first place comes the family, instituted directly by God for its peculiar purpose, the generation and formation of offspring; for this reason it has priority of nature and therefore of rights over civil society. Nevertheless, the family is an imperfect society, since it has not in itself all the means for its own complete development; whereas civil society is a perfect society, having in itself all the means for its peculiar end, which is the temporal well-being of the community; and so, in this respect, that is, in view of the common good, it has pre-eminence over the family, which finds its own suitable temporal perfection precisely in civil society. (12)
This important, if little-known, text brings to the surface a number of questions concerning the correct ordering of the relationship between the family and civil society. The preceding paragraph in the encyclical locates the family and civil society firmly in the ‘natural order’ and the Church in the ‘supernatural order’. In the following paragraphs, Pope Pius XI sets out why the Church has priority in education: it is ‘absolutely superior therefore to any other title in the natural order’ (15). This claim was one way of reminding wider society of the Church’s ambitions in and for education, especially at a time of significant political and cultural challenges in inter-war Europe.
More recently, in a general audience, Pope Francis lamented the negative consequences for the Church and society of the alleged broken ‘educational alliance’. The roots of this crisis are many, he claims: pressure from work, marital breakups, lack of trust between parents, to name just a few. In this intervention, Pope Francis is endorsing and developing Pope Benedict XVI’s prior diagnosis of an ‘educational emergency’ as manifested, for example, in a genuine gap in cultural expectations between the generations. Indeed, according to Pope Benedict, the so-called ‘generation gap’ (of which we hear so much) is the consequence of inadequate educational processes which have failed to ‘transmit certainties and values’. (Pope Benedict XVI, Letter to the Diocese of Rome, 2008).
In light of this problematic educational climate and the sociological challenges arising from an apparent lack of family stability, serious thought is now needed on how the Catholic school can exemplify a way of life which is rooted in Catholic tradition yet open to people from all (or no) religious traditions.
Education and the role of the school
In the first place, the Catholic school positions itself as an extension of the natural family, opening its doors to all families, including those of no particular religious affiliation. Alongside the question of how a Catholic school can successfully accommodate people of all religious traditions (which is not a theme of the present chapter), there arises the issue of the different expectations families have for their children’s education. To address this, the role of the school in working with parents as ‘primary educators’ is extended to include the explicit education of parents:
Every school should initiate meetings and other programmes which will make the parents more conscious of their role and help to establish a partnership; it is impossible to do too much along these lines (Congregation for Catholic Education, 1988, 43).
Recognition of the need to support parents with their educational responsibilities is not unique to the Church. A good society cannot but support and encourage parents to work with their children to build a bright and happy future for them and others. A major challenge arises when parental expectations differ so radically from the aims of the school that we encounter the reality of the fractured educational pact alluded to above by both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. This added dimension to the role of the teacher is a salutary reminder of how the formation of teachers is a necessary prerequisite for good schools. If teachers are to be in the front line of family support, this adds impetus to the global educational community’s reflections on how best to support teachers at all stages of their career (Rymarz and Franchi, 2019).
Of course, the climate of the school is not solely dependent on the teachers. Ancillary and administrative staff, along with parents and pupils, make up the school community. Nonetheless, while parents remain the primary educators of children, the culture of the Catholic school can be shaped by the policy decisions and pastoral priorities of the teaching staff. To ensure that such ways of working accord with the Church’s considerable expectations, further critical reflection is needed on formational processes offered to teachers. In an important document on how to deal with the inter-cultural (inter-religious) nature of Catholic schooling today, the Congregation for Catholic Education has advised that the added value to education which the Catholic school promises requires a reconsideration of how the corps of Catholic teachers can be offered the pedagogical, cultural and religious formation they require to discharge their considerable responsibilities effectively (my italics):
The formation of teachers and administrators is of crucial importance. In most countries, the state provides the initial formation of school personnel. Good though this may be, it cannot be considered sufficient. In fact, Catholic schools bring something extra, particular to them, that must always be recognized and developed. Therefore, while the obligatory formation needs to consider those disciplinary and professional matters typical of teaching and administrating, it must also consider the cultural and pedagogical fundamentals that make up Catholic schools’ identity (Congregation for Catholic Education, 2013, 76).
Awareness of the limitations of the state processes for teacher formation is an incentive for Catholic educators to take their own formation more seriously. There is still considerable work to be done before the Catholic educational community can make the claim that its formation processes for teachers successfully incorporate what the Congregation calls the ‘cultural and pedagogical fundamentals that make up the Catholic schools’ identity’. A start can be made at a local level if schools make the decision to prioritise engagement with the Church’s rich body of material on education published by the Congregation for Catholic Education since the Second Vatican Council. Such an initiative could involve co-operation between schools and encourage Bishops’ Conferences to think more deeply about how they can support Higher Education bodies in this important mission.
Education and the role of the state
Like the Church, the state is not a monolith. It is important, however, to distinguish between the state and civil society. The latter is a fluid term encompassing a wide range of voluntary organisations, charities, businesses, professional groupings and such like. What seems to unite such bodies is their voluntary nature and dependence on the support of individuals and groups. The state, on the other hand, is a more centralised force, an overarching political society which seeks to control the life of its citizens and pass legislation to that end, thus potentially bringing about a situation in which ‘subordinate units are merely extensions of the dominant power’ (Kennedy, 2014, p. 251).
The state shapes educational priorities according to the political programme of governing parties and ways of working shaped by education professionals. It does not follow, of course, that the state will always and everywhere be opposed to the priorities of parents and the Church: the political climate can be more or less favourable to Catholic thinking on education at any given time. A serious problem arises, however, when the political and cultural priorities of the state, following and shaped by the ideology of particular governing parties, seek to limit the legitimate influence and freedom of the Catholic Church in relation to education. At its worst, the state might oppose the existence of Catholic schools or do what it can to make their existence difficult. A no less challenging situation can arise when the state gives its full support to Catholic schools but simultaneously promotes legislation which goes against Catholic teaching on issues such as marriage and the sanctity of life and which therefore undermines freedom of conscience as expressed in the life of the school. A case in point here is that of Catholic schools in Scotland. The SNP (Scottish National Party) government has offered its full support to Catholic schools on many occasions but also takes considerable pride in its self-definition as a ‘progressive’ government with the standard policy priorities such an ideology enshrines.
In an encyclical on Christians as Citizens, Sapientia Christianae (1890), Pope Leo XIII declared that, essentially, the faithful Catholic is, by definition, a good citizen. Pope Leo, best known for his commitment to the promotion of the Church social doctrine in the encyclical Rerum novarum (1891), nudges the believer towards full engagement with society: in fulfilling our rights as citizens, he argues, the Christian is promoting the correct moral order. As such, the institutions of Catholic education are not opposed to the operation of the legitimate functions of the state.
From this firm foundation, the Congregation for Catholic Education reminded educators in 1988 of the importance of playing a visible and positive role in civic, national and international celebrations as ‘traditional civic values such as freedom, justice, the nobility of work and the need to pursue social progress are all included among the school goals, and the life of the school gives witness to them’ (Congregation for Catholic Education, 1988, 45). This is a timely and gentle reminder that Catholic should avoid seeing Catholic schools as places of refuge from the influence of wider society. Instead, they should engage appropriately with the wider cultural life of the nation. Catholic schools thus work with the state and civil societies and contribute to the life of the state and civil society in multiple ways.
A key to effective Church-State relationships is dialogue. A willingness to listen to other points of view and to make friends with people from other cultures necessarily involves an openness to the possibilities for the promotion of peace and justice offered by inter-religious dialogue (Congregation for Catholic Education, 2017) and wider human interaction. Nonetheless, it is legitimate to ask how Christians, acting both as individual citizens and collectively, can make a meaningful difference to a society where the majority view might be pushing hard in a different direction. These dangers seem to be compounded when a state is unsure how to handle religious groups whose views on particular issues might not accord with some of the liberal cultural nostrums currently in fashion.
The Limits of state involvement in the life of the school
While the majority of faith schools have a Christian foundation, the rise of such schools linked to other religions does raise questions about how such varied provision sits within a socially pluralist system:
Debates about Catholic schools are rooted in wider discussions about the role of religion in educational provision. Traditionally, denominational education, so-called, referred mainly to schools with a Christian foundation. The debates now include schools associated with other religions (Islam, Sikhism etc). This brings to the fore questions related to the existence of multiple forms of denominational education and their place in a plural polity. (Parker-Jenkins et al. 2005.18, chapter 1).
The United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights says clearly that: ‘Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.’ (United Nations, 1948, 26, (3)). This lapidary statement reflects the order of priority expounded in 1929 by Pope Pius XI in Divini illius magistri (see above). It shows how the Catholic vision of education is very much integral to the developing post-War vision of education. The Declaration, perhaps understandably, does not elaborate on how this aim can be realised in the emerging post-War polities. From the vantage-point of contemporary politics, it could almost seem to be an unrealistic and idealistic vision of the role and influence of parents in schooling. In light of this misgiving, is it possible for the state to offer educational provision which can in any way match the expectations contained in this famous and oft-quoted line from the Declaration?
The importance of this topic cannot, of course, be sidelined given the fundamental need to respect parental rights. The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis humanae (1965) has, unsurprisingly, something important to say about parental rights:
Government, in consequence, must acknowledge the right of parents to make a genuinely free choice of schools and of other means of education, and the use of this freedom of choice is not to be made a reason for imposing unjust burdens on parents, whether directly or indirectly. Besides, the right of parents are violated, if their children are forced to attend lessons or instructions which are not in agreement with their religious beliefs, or if a single system of education, from which all religious formation is excluded, is imposed upon all. (Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis humanae, 5).
The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education, Gravissimum educationis (1965) reflected the aspirations of the 1948 Universal Declaration. Indeed the Declaration is referred to explicitly in its opening sections (footnote 3) and the right of parents to have their choices supported by the state is again expressed in unequivocal terms:
Parents who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools. Consequently, the public power, which has the obligation to protect and defend the rights of citizens, must see to it, in its concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children (6).
This assertion, laudable in intention, intersects with the financial realities faced by the state and the wider agenda mapped out today by those who advocate that particular approaches to questions such as inclusion, equality, diversity, sex and gender must be taught in all schools. The writers of the Declaration on Christian Education were not to know of the impending wave of religious-cultural fissures which were soon to mark western society. Their vision would be very much that of Catholic schools located within political arrangements which were more or less supportive of their right to exist but which varied in the level of support offered. It is unlikely that the Council Fathers would have anticipated the levels of hostility directed towards Catholic schools and the content of Catholic education in many traditionally Christian countries today.
To illustrate the depth and range of challenges facing Catholic schooling today, three areas of challenge arising from the relationship between the Church and state in education are identified.
Challenge one: State Funding and Catholic Schools
Regarding the relationship between state funding and Catholic schools, operational models range from the state-centred funding model in Scotland to the model of Charter Schools in the USA (cf: Franchi 2018, Miserandino, 2018).
There are two broad arguments against state funding for Catholic schools. Firstly, it is argued that the state should not fund schools that are associated with religious belief as the existence of such schools damages social cohesion. Religion and education are not natural allies: a socially progressive policy hence would seek to remove the influence of religious bodies on education. Clearly the issue is less about the funding of Catholic schools but their existence: the removal of funding is part of wider moves to abolish them.
Secondly, it is suggested that the existence of faith schools is broadly acceptable, but the debate should be about the provision of school places and the economic consequences of supporting different models of schooling. This ‘magnification of difference’ might not be conducive to the building of a society already straining to deal with the implications for social cohesion of religious and cultural pluralism (Judge, 2001, p. 470).
Together, both arguments place considerable difficulties in the way of Catholic schools. They seem to be rooted in a belief that religious practice negatively affects social cohesion and thus Catholic (and other denominational) schools should be either abolished or have significant changes in the mode of finance, which could lead to closure.
Clearly, the nostrum that parents have the right to choose the education they wish for their children is not acknowledged. The state, either through heavy-handed legislation or subtle adjustments to funding formulae, is leading the development of schooling and thus limiting or ignoring the important principle of subsidiarity.
Challenge two: Admissions
A second challenge related to admissions policy. The factors that coalesce to help schools decide who should be given priority of access is one of the most problematic factors in Catholic schools’ relationship with the state. Given the recent turn in Catholic education towards reassessing the value of inter-cultural dialogue in the life of the Catholic school (Congregation for Catholic Education 2013), the question of admissions policies, alongside issues arising from how to deal with the faith-formation of pupils, is clearly at the centre of discussion on the ‘identity’ of the Catholic school.
As far back as 1994, James Arthur, referring to admissions policies for Catholic schools in England and Wales, spoke of a ‘disjunction between principles and practices in Catholic education’. By this he meant the challenges arising from the need to ensure that the shared values of the Catholic school could be preserved.
In essence, admissions policies for Catholic schools have to deal with the following conundrum: to what extent can a Catholic school serve the needs of the Catholic population while at the same time fulfilling its role as a public body (with funding contributed by the state) and the concomitant obligations this brings in its wake?
The Catholic Education Service in England and Wales seeks to occupy the middle ground between an openness to all people and a commitment to serving the Catholic population. It requires that schools prioritise Catholic pupils, but that they allow in non-Catholics if there is spare capacity. If there are more Catholic applicants than places Catholic practice can be taken into account which is normally certified by a priest.
From the perspective of the advocates of secularism in education, so-called discrimination in the admissions policies of denominational schools, especially when significant amounts of public money are part of the debate, is self-evidently problematic. Yet, a state’s commitment to equity also has to take into account the related—and equally high-stakes—need to support diversity of provision and hence successfully navigate the complex seas where inclusion meets choice, diversity and equality. After all, Catholic parents pay taxes and it is not unreasonable that, if the state is going to require them to pay taxes for education, they are allowed to choose how their children are educated.
Challenge three: The Curriculum
The curriculum of the Catholic school is where the Catholic intellectual tradition interacts with the wells of human culture. The Catholic intellectual tradition refers to the wide paths mapped out by Catholic thinkers over the centuries in the ongoing mission to integrate revealed truth with culture and the vagaries of human life (Royal, 2015).
As always, different educational jurisdictions will reflect different aspects of human culture. What unites them should be, ideally, a recognition that the curriculum itself must be rooted in a well-defined intellectual heritage: in so doing, it allows the teacher to accompany the student on the path to wisdom and right living, illuminated and challenged by the minds of the past. In The Religious Dimension of Education, the Congregation for Catholic Education offers rich insights on the shape of the curriculum of the Catholic school:
Every society has its own heritage of accumulated wisdom. Many people find inspiration in these philosophical and religious concepts which have endured for millennia. The systematic genius of classical Greek and European thought has, over the centuries, generated countless different doctrinal systems, but it has also given us a set of truths which we can recognize as a part of our permanent philosophical heritage. A Catholic school conforms to the generally accepted school programming of today, but implements these programmes within an overall religious perspective (Congregation for Catholic Education, 1988, 57).
Such an idea of curriculum, of course, is not exclusive to those belonging to the Catholic tradition. There are other strong educational trends which continue to promote the underlying value of intellectual heritage. Nonetheless, there are equally strong secular trends in education which, using superficially attractive terms such as ‘future-oriented’ and ‘creativity’ (which are not in themselves alien to a Catholic view of education) significantly diminish the perceived priority of a defined intellectual heritage in favour of more process-oriented, or skills-based, curricular models. Scotland’s troubled Curriculum for Excellence, which also applies to Catholic schools, has attracted some criticism for diminishing the importance of subject knowledge in favour of the promotion of generic skills (Paterson, 2018).
It might not be immediately obvious why Catholic educators should be attracted by the priority of intellectual heritage in the construction of contemporary curricula. The focus on tradition as ‘historical memory’ – the story of the human person’s ongoing interaction with each other – is a conduit towards to the critical study of ‘the best of what has been thought and said’, raising the further question: who decides what qualifies as the best and which criteria should be used to make such decisions? For the well-intentioned Catholic educator, working within the multi-layered dramas of relativist secular politics, this brings welcome opportunities for re-presenting the nature of truth, beauty and goodness to a pupil population (and educational community more broadly) reared on less nutritious educational diets.
In any school, study of the contribution to human society of religion and associated ways of thinking has to be part of what is offered to pupils. Of course, the inclusion of religious topics in the curriculum does not presuppose any form of religious commitment. Catholic schools exist within a pluralist society and are called to engage with people of all beliefs and none. Nonetheless, a Catholic school will have a commitment to study religious topics from a particular point of view: if it is to be true to the desire of the parental body to offer an education in accordance with their wishes, it also has to be faithful to the ongoing development of Catholic thinking in education.
In recent years there have been increasingly strident calls to ‘remove religion’ from schools, meaning not just the abolition of faith schools but serious curricular reform designed to minimise the potential of religious education to act as a vehicle for faith transmission. What is less widely appreciated is that the Congregation for Catholic Education has recognised the challenges inherent in a religious education syllabus which is designed explicitly to catechise:
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 (Congregation for Catholic Education, 2009, 17).
This shift in Catholic thinking is not simply a result of pressure from the state or other bodies to limit the Catholic content of the religious education curriculum. Far from it. Rather, it is part of the Church’s ongoing reflection on how the Catholic school can contribute to the New Evangelisation and promote wider cultural enrichment. Furthermore, it recognises the prior role of the family in catechesis and thus rejects the view that catechetical activity and children religious formation should be driven principally by the Catholic school.
The curricular climate in the West emphasises a form of individualism which, arguably, has contributed to rise in what is known as ‘identity politics’ (Murray, 2019). The Catholic Church still struggles to articulate a vision for Catholic education which, from the intersection of ethics and identity politics, and allied to the necessary commitment to equality and diversity, looks coherent to both outsiders and insiders. Once again, the rights of parents have been stated clearly by the Catholic Church:
Partnership between a Catholic school and the families of the students must continue and be strengthened: not simply to be able to deal with academic problems that may arise, but rather so that the educational goals of the school can be achieved. Close cooperation with the family is especially important when treating sensitive issues such as religious, moral, or sexual education, orientation toward a profession, or a choice of one’s vocation in life. It is not a question of convenience, but a partnership based on faith. Catholic tradition teaches that God has bestowed on the family its own specific and unique educational mission (Congregation for Catholic Education, 1988, 42).
Sex and moral Education encapsulates the significant cultural challenges currently facing Catholic educators. In brief, is it possible for Catholic educational institutions to propose established Catholic teaching to a society where such teachings run the risk not only of landing on barren soil but of falling foul of the law?
To move this debate forward, it is vital to rediscover the roots of Catholic teaching on human sexuality. Pope Francis has helpfully reminded the Church of the beauty of conjugal love and of the urgent need to return to the message of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae vitae (Pope Francis, 2016, 80). Pope Francis refers specifically to paragraphs 11-12 of Humanae vitae in which it says:
The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called. We believe that our contemporaries are particularly capable of seeing that this teaching is in harmony with human reason.
This text succinctly proposes the Catholic vision of human sexuality in a way which is both challenging but fully in accord, it is claimed, with reason. A state which, in the name of tolerance and inclusion, prevents the teaching of Catholic teaching on sexuality and requires its own view to be taught as normative is surely neither tolerant nor inclusive. It certainly isn’t pluralist.
Concluding Remarks and Recommendations
Catholic social teaching, if it is truly to run through the life of the Catholic school, will support a knowledge-rich curriculum. However, if parents are the primary educators of children, there is a related urgency to advance the Church’s commitment to supporting parents in this mission. While the Catholic school and its teachers do have a naturally professional relationship with parents, there is a need for a thorough examination of how parishes and ‘family associations’ can play a more active role in supporting parents as primary educators.
How the state should support families in their primary role as educators is a key question. While the democratic state has the responsibility to ensure that all children have access to schooling of high-quality, it does not follow that the state must be the principal provider. This, of course, raises further questions about the essential and desirable features of a high-quality education which the state would then oversee and finance. Central to this is discussion of the role of the state in determining curriculum content and, more broadly, shaping the wider cultural atmosphere around schooling. This is where a recovery of subsidiarity could open up new pathways for schools to be places where diversity of curricular approaches (for example with a focus on technical education, or liberal arts) contribute to the common good.
Despite the many challenges facing the life of the Catholic school, a good case can be made that the Catholic school can still be a site of rich dialogue between the ‘Catholic Intellectual Tradition’ and the multiple channels which support other worldviews.
A sine qua non of an authentically Catholic school is the commitment of teachers to the ideals underpinning Catholic education. Satisfactory initial formation of teachers needs to be complemented by opportunities to engage seriously with the guidance offered by the Congregation for Catholic Education on how to shape the religious and cultural life of Catholic schools. How this is done will vary across local churches but there is a pressing need to study, reflect on and put into practice the aspiration contained in the underused corpus of teaching on Catholic education.
References and further reading for this unit
Adler, M. (1984), The Paideia Programme: An Educational Syllabus, USA: Institute for Philosophical Research.
Alting von Geasau, C. and Booth, P. M. (2013), Catholic Education in the West: Roots, Reality, and Revival, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Acton Institute.
Arthur, J. (1994), Admissions to Catholic schools: Principles and Practice, British Journal of Religious Education, 17:1, 35-45.
Canetta E. (2019), Can there be a Catholic approach to the teaching of physics to students in Catholic universities? Some ideas for teachers and students to consider, International Studies in Catholic Education, 11(2), 178-189,
Catholic Education Service for England and Wales, Certificate of Catholic Practice, https://www.catholiceducation.org.uk/guidance-for-schools/admissions
Franchi, L. (2018), Religious Education and Catholic Education: A Scottish Perspective, in Sean Whittle, (Ed.) Researching Catholic Education: Contemporary Perspectives, Singapore: Springer.
Franchi L. (2017), Reclaiming the Piazza II – the Catholic school and the new evangelisation, Leominster:Gracewing.
Grace, G. (2013), ‘Catholic social teaching should permeate the Catholic secondary school curriculum: an agenda for reform’, International Studies in Catholic Education, 5:1, 99-109.
Hitchens, P. (2019), Human Dignity Redefined, First Things. Available at:
Judge, H. 2001) Faith-based Schools and State Funding: A Partial Argument, Oxford Review of Education, 27:4, 463-474
Kennedy, R. (2014), ‘Business and the Common Good’, in Philip Booth (ed), Catholic Social Teaching and the Market Economy, London: Institute of Economic Affairs,
Miserandino, A. (2019) The Funding and Future of Catholic Education in the United States, British Journal of Religious Education, 41:1, 105-114.
Murray, D. (2019), The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity, London: Bloomsbury.
Newman, J. H. (2008) , The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated in Nine Discourses Delivered to the Catholics of Dublin, Gutenberg Press edition http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24526/24526-pdf.pdf
Parker-Jenkins, M., Hartas, D. and Irving, B. (2005/2018), In Good Faith: Schools, Religion and Public Funding, Abingdon: Ashgate Publishing.
Paterson, L. (2018), Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: A Betrayal of a Whole Generation. Available at:
Royal, R. (2015), A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, San Francisco: Ignatius Press
Rymarz, R. and Franchi, L. (2019). Catholic Teacher Education: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Preparing for Mission, Bingley: Emerald Publishing Limited.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Common Good. Available at:
United Nations (1948), Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Available at:
UNESCO (2015), United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, Rethinking Education: Towards a Global Common Good. Available at:
Papal encyclicals and other Church documents referred to in this unit
Congregation for Catholic Education (1988), The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School.
Congregation for Catholic Education (2009), Circular Letter to Presidents of Bishops’ Conferences on Religious Education in Schools.
Congregation for Catholic Education (2013), Educating to Intercultural Dialogue in Catholic Schools: Living in Harmony for a Civilisation of Love. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccatheduc/documents/rc_con_ccatheduc_doc_20131028_dialogo-interculturale_en.html
Congregation for Catholic Education (2017), Educating to Fraternal Humanism: Building a Civilisation of Love 50 years after ‘Populorum Progressio’.
Pope Francis, 2016, Amoris laetitia, apostolic exhortation:
Pope Leo XIII, 1890, Sapientiae Christianae, encyclical letter:
Pope Leo XIII, 1891, Rerum novarum, encyclical letter:
Pope Pius XI, 1929, Divini illius magistri, encyclical letter:
Vatican II, Dignitatis humanae, 1965, Declaration on Religious Freedom:
Vatican II, Gravissimum educationis, 1965, Declaration on Christian Education:
Questions for discussion
What are the respective role of the school and the family in the education of children?
The Church teaches that Catholic schools should be funded in the same way as state schools and that there should be no state school monopoly. Should the modern western state fund schools of other religions and of humanists in the same way as it funds Catholic schools?
What are the implications of Dignitatis humanae and Gravissimum educationis for education policy?
What are the reasonable constraints that the state can impose upon faith schools?
What are the threats from the state to the parents’ role as prime educators of children and to Catholic schools in your country?
How should Catholic schools ensure that they play a full part in the life of civil society in countries that are predominantly not Catholic?
 See: Pope Benedict XVI (2008), Letter to the Faithful and the Diocese of Rome on the Urgent Task of Educating Young People, available at https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/letters/2008/documents/hf_ben-xvi_let_20080121_educazione.html