Faith is at the heart of Catholic schools

Those of all or no religion are also welcome says Michael McGrath
Religious education has changed dramatically in Catholic schools over the last 50 years. Picture: Stephen MansfieldReligious education has changed dramatically in Catholic schools over the last 50 years. Picture: Stephen Mansfield
Religious education has changed dramatically in Catholic schools over the last 50 years. Picture: Stephen Mansfield

A recent inquiry into the place of religion in modern society has called for public life in Britain to be systematically de-Christianised. It says that the decline of churchgoing and the popularity of other faiths mean that a “new settlement” is needed for religion in the UK, giving more official influence to non-religious voices and those of non-Christian faiths.

The Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life, chaired by former senior judge Baroness Butler-Sloss, was critical of religious education in schools. While supporting the value of education about religion and belief in schools, the commission insists that the subject should be re-named (to appear less “religious”?) and should not contain elements of “confessional instruction or indoctrination” in faith schools. I suspect that the term “indoctrination” provides an interesting insight into the commission’s perspective on the value of schools which are shaped by religious traditions. I wonder how many young people and parents were asked for their experience of religious education. I doubt that many could point to experiences of “indoctrination”, of being coerced into accepting Church doctrine without free will.

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Recently the Scottish Catholic Education Service published its syllabus for religious education for pupils in S4, S5 and S6. This builds on our existing syllabus for the broad general education phase – P1 through to S3. Both documents had been developed over a number of years and have been carefully constructed to reflect the statutory position of Scotland’s Catholic schools. So, while the earlier document is in line with the Scottish Government’s Curriculum for Excellence, its contents were also approved by the Vatican as authentic Church teaching.

At the launch of the senior phase syllabus, I spoke about how religious education in Scotland’s Catholic schools had developed over the past 50 years. I demonstrated how it had reflected changes in how the Catholic Church engaged with the world and with other faiths. And yet, during these years of seismic social change, religious education programmes in Catholic schools remained constant and true to Church tradition.

Across 50 years very significant changes can also be seen in the learning and teaching approaches adopted in religious education in Catholic schools. Today’s pupils are not expected to sit in passive silence, accepting “religious instruction” obediently and unquestioningly. They are expected to be inquisitive, to enquire and research, to seek people’s views and experiences. They address the “big questions” of today – about the origins of our planet and our species, the causes and impact of climate change, issues of social justice, moral and ethical dilemmas, the devastation of warfare. Obviously they are encouraged to learn from the wisdom offered in Scripture and in the traditions of the Catholic faith. However they also learn about other religious traditions and about the viewpoints of those who do not adhere to any religious belief of tradition.

In all this learning they are invited to acquire values which are life-enhancing – good for them and for the world. Out of these experiences of learning, reflection and action, some young people are enabled to develop a maturing personal relationship with God. Others may benefit from developing as people of moral and social conscience who do not affiliate to any religious tradition.

Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, reminded the audience at the launch of the senior phase religious education syllabus that, in Catholic schools “faith has been placed at the heart of the curriculum; [it] can never be a ‘bolt-on’, a minority subject, merely a statutory obligation. It should be our first priority, our central focus, to ensure that the religious education experienced by our young people is relevant, engaging and, indeed, transformational.”

This is a vision which I hope would find resonance with many, even with members of the Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life.

• Michael McGrath is director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service


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