A COMPANION TO CATHOLIC EDUCATION
by Leonardo Franchi and Stephen McKinney (ed)
(Gracewing/Freedom Publishing, 2011, 232pp, $30.00. ISBN: 978-0-85244-757-4. Available from Freedom Publishing)
The Catholic Church consistently emphasises the importance of the vocation of Catholic teachers, and the immense responsibility entailed therein. This singular vocation can be an incredibly rewarding one, as the teacher has the privilege of doing God's work and mirroring Christ, whose Apostles addressed him as 'Rabbi', which means teacher.
This calling also brings with it a heavy sense of duty, however, as the Catholic teacher, parent, catechist, RCIA instructor and even Baptismal sponsor all become accountable for the souls that are placed in their care.
There are many challenges to be faced by Catholic school teachers, particularly in modern times, such as secularism, the Culture of Death, the dangerous, all-permissive philosophy of relativism and the reductionist view of religion (over-simplifying it until all religions become equal).
Theology and philosophy
With these challenges in mind, A Companion to Catholic Education seeks to walk teachers (and not just new teachers, but any seeking professional or faith development) through the basic theology and philosophy that underpin their task. The Companion is in fact a compilation of 13 essays, all by Glasgow University academics, including priests, writing in their respective fields of expertise.
This group of essays is divided into two parts, Theological Knowledge and Application to Context.
Part 1 provides a crash course in Catholic philosophy and theology, including Scripture, the Sacraments, the Liturgy and Catholic moral and social teaching. The allocation of a specific topic to each of the contributors in the book, and the numerous sub-topics and headings within each chapter, allow this book to be an easy reference guide. It is also a very accessible and enjoyable read as background information for a teacher. Indeed, Part 1 could be read as is by an adult or upper secondary student.
Although there is not space here to critique the individual chapters, there are many sections within the book that do stand out.
Chapter 1, Victoria Harrison's "God and Philosophy", provides a concise and engaging overview and examination of three ways of arguing for the existence of God, as well as a brief introduction to the discipline of philosophy, which is intimately related to theology. She also explains the ontological, cosmological and design argument categories with brevity and accessibility, while exploring contemporary areas of philosophical and social tension such as the 'problem' of science and religion.
It is important to remember while reading this chapter that Harrison is engaging in a philosophical discourse rather than apologetics, as very often she raises more questions than she answers. Hence her contribution should be seen as a vehicle for stimulating philosophical and theological discussion rather than the final word.
The positive (and perhaps sometimes negative) aspect of a book with multiple contributors is that the assorted elements and authors within the text will vary in their appeal to different readers. For example, some may be annoyed (as I was) by the use of the acronym 'BCE' in what was otherwise a rich and well-written chapter on sacred Scripture.
This implied bow to the modern intellectual habit of ignoring the Judeo-Christian origins of our Western civilisation did not seem in harmony with the rest of a text that was clearly proud of the Catholic Church and the place it has held in culture and history.
There are many moving and memorable sections in this book, notably Philip Tartaglia's chapter on "Christology". This area of study, which in other hands could become a dry intellectual exercise, is charged with passion and love as he instructs us that we cannot escape theology without the involvement of our hearts: "You do theology on your knees or you do a pale reflection of theology".
Another striking passage is Thomas Kilbride's conclusion to his chapter on "Understanding the Church Today", which gives a beautiful account of the nature of the Church and her place in the world, reconciling the weakness of her members with the perfection of her Head.
Part 2, Application to Context, focuses on the teacher, in particular on "Catholic schools in the contemporary English-speaking world", and primarily in the UK, the locus of the contributors' educational experience. However, the chapters in this section apply equally to schools here in Australia.
There is an emphasis on the somewhat daunting expectations, standards and level of personal formation required of Catholic educators. However, just because many fall short of these ideals does not mean that standards should be lowered. The contributors to this book are all educators themselves, and thus qualified to set certain standards drawn from the Church's teachings. In so doing they provide a platform of theology and a correct approach to teaching it rather than dictate specific lesson plans or set a rigid structure inapplicable in certain contexts.
With a focus on prayer and personal spiritual growth, constant reference to the writings of the popes, Scripture, and the Catechism, and a bibliography at the end of each chapter, A Companion to Catholic Education, while not a stand-alone guide to Catholic teaching, fulfils its promise to be a good 'companion'.
It would make an excellent addition to any Catholic teacher's bookshelf, being both scholarly and easy to read, and permeated with the contributors' central theme: "Teaching has an extraordinary moral depth and is one of our most excellent and creative activities. For the teacher does not write on inanimate material, but on the very spirits of human beings".
Angela Schumann is a recent graduate from Campion College, Sydney.