Catholic school education: returning to our roots

Catholic school education: returning to our roots

Paul McCormack

There were many discussions during my Graduate Diploma of Education about what a Catholic school should be. The statement that received general and widespread acceptance was that "a Catholic school should be a good school."

At the time, I could see no problem arising from this understanding and articulation of the mission of a Catholic school. With hindsight, however, I can see that the separation of Catholic and good was part of the problem. Indeed, the emphasis on 'good school' has ultimately led to a situation where the central importance of the school being Catholic has been diminished.

If I could take myself back, I would now offer a simpler alternative to the statement that was widely agreed upon at that university. I would offer the completely unremarkable idea that a Catholic school should be a Catholic school, and insofar as it remains a Catholic school it will remain a good school.

Current problem

As I see things, the current problem with many Catholic schools is not necessarily that they're no longer good schools. Many of them have excellent facilities including buildings and technology resources, they are well managed financially, the students are talented and achieve good academic and sporting results.

However, there are many public school and non-Catholic religious schools that can also be considered good schools. The problem is that many good schools proclaiming also to be Catholic schools are no longer Catholic in any authentic and distinctive form.

In arguing that a Catholic school should be a Catholic school, I am suggesting that it should be a place where the teachers are faithful to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church; the students are taught the doctrines of the Church and learn how to explain and defend them; the parents receive support in their role as the primary educators of their children and agree to undertake their obligations faithfully; where saints are invoked and icons are visible, where prayer is a common and regular practice including Mass; and a place where the salvation of our soul and desire for eternal life (Heaven) are the underlying priority.

After all, if that should be the underlying priority for an individual Catholic, then it should also be the underlying priority for a Catholic school.

If we accept that there is a problem with Catholic education in Australia, we come to the basic questions of when, where, how and why things started to go wrong. Of course, the answers to these questions are naturally interlinked. Moreover, there are many people who are well aware that the culture wars have been going on for decades and have engulfed the Church as much as society.

The great Australian Catholic intellectual of the 20th century, B.A Santamaria, spent the best part of his life engaged in the culture wars, as have the many other lesser known but equally diligent members of the organisation he founded and other similar groups dedicated to the preservation of traditions and ethics that enabled Western civilisation to flourish to the extent it did.

It was Santamaria who saw the relevance of creative minorities to be the standard-bearers of the true, the good and the beautiful in a society that increasingly denies and defies all three.

There are various opinions concerning when the proverbial rot set in. Some would argue that state aid for Catholic schools marked the first step towards a loss of independence for Catholic schools.

As Catholic schools received more public funding, they became more duty-bound to follow the dictates of government policy and the wider culture. As the saying goes, "He who pays the piper calls the tune."

Others may suggest that the opening of the doors to non-Catholic students, in a spirit of evangelism that has often been accompanied by a large degree of naïveté, led to a situation wherein the Catholic faith became more of an addendum than the essential content of Catholic schools.

I believe the problem with these developments is that the focus in Catholic education shifted from Catholic schools as being places that should be distinctively Catholic to being places that primarily seek to incorporate and accommodate the values of wider society.

Crucial insight

In an article written for the online journal, First Things, and entitled "Can Notre Dame be Saved?", a Methodist staff member of that university (in Indiana, USA), David W. Lutz, offered the following crucial insight: "From my perspective as an outsider on the inside, it appears that many of the problems within the Catholic Church in the United States today are related to the attempt by American Catholics to apply the political system of their government to their Church."

If I could paraphrase Mr Lutz to extend the observation to Catholic schools in this country, I would say that many of the problems within Catholic schools in Australia today are related to the attempt by Australian Catholics to apply the political system of their government to their schools. Hence, you will be far more likely to see values such as "diversity" and "inclusion" and "sustainability" being promoted in the social justice departments of Catholic schools than you will see promotion of virtues such as piety, humility and obedience (particularly to the Magisterium).

You will also be far more likely to hear a Maranatha Meditation than the Memorare. In addition to the interesting observation that the same people who scorn traditional rote prayers of the Church are willing to endlessly repeat modern mantras such as Maranatha, the irony of the fashionable practice of vocalising "Maranatha" is that its translated meaning is "The Lord is coming", and if the Lord is coming to modern Catholic schools, then He will have a difficult time recognising them, given the absence of things that acknowledge his place as Lord in their lives.

However, He will certainly find no end of secular slogans about harmony and respect and peace and stewardship, not to mention the fact that He will be made well aware of the traditional owners of the land.

I was in the office of a courier company recently and I saw a large wall poster with the words, "Expect Respect". There is obviously nothing at all objectionable about such a poster in a secular workplace setting. However, it does show how much Catholic schools have adopted the same style that you are more likely to find that type of slogan on the wall of a modern Catholic school than an image of Our Lady or of the Sacred Heart. This is a great shame because an image can speak a thousand words to us and all of the goodness within those slogans is evident in the holy images.

Major problem

It is clear that one of the major problems confronting Catholic schools today is the desire to blend in to the culture, not to stand apart from the crowd, and simply to go along to get along. To the extent that they pursue this objective and shun what is distinctively Catholic, they effectively become Catholic in name only.

This is not to argue that Catholic schools should be places that are completely shut off from the world. Catholics will always enjoy worldly activities such as sport, music, books, films and social events and there is nothing wrong with that. Catholics have been called many things over the years but 'wowsers' is certainly not one of them.

In accord with the cardinal virtue of temperance, my belief is that there should be a place for everything and everything should be in its place. Thus, when it comes to a Catholic school, we should always ensure that it is Catholic in the first place and a school in the second.

This brings me to the question of where I consider the best future lies for Catholic schools.

As a founding principle, Catholic schools and any other Catholic organisations first need to understand what it means to be Catholic because if we do not understand ourselves, we cannot begin to understand others or to genuinely serve others.

In order to counter the temptation to blend into the culture so as to avoid discord, we would do well to remember something that is often stated by my father: as Catholics ours is a faith that is in this world but not of this world.

Although I earlier referred to my disagreement with one of the popular statements about what a Catholic school should be during my teacher training course, one of the things I was taught that has been proven in my experience and which I will always agree with is the following message: The higher the expectation you have of a student, the higher their standard of achievement will be.

The same principle applies to Catholic schools in their employment of staff. While acknowledging the reality of our individual sins and human failings, Catholic schools need to set higher expectations across the board if they wish to set higher standards, particularly in the areas of life where it is most important to have high standards. Unfortunately, from my experience, the desire not to cause offence or be seen as judgmental has all too often taken precedence over the necessity of affirming standards.

The desire not to cause offence is connected to a fear of losing support and a consequent decline in student numbers. A principal at one of the large Catholic schools at which I taught told me that the school would not be viable if it were not for the non-Catholic students. I think it would be more accurate to say that the school could still be viable but it would be much smaller and financially less wealthy.

If Catholic schools profess and practise the moral doctrines of the Church in the current culture, it is almost a given that many people who are currently nestled in these school environs will retreat from them.

The reality is that Catholic schools that genuinely commit to Catholicism in our current Australian society will undoubtedly be smaller, although I believe they will also be stronger. That is the trade-off we must be prepared to make, at least in the short term.

In some ways it is a case of becoming a creative minority while in other ways it is a case of going back to the future because smaller schools with less income were the norm rather than the exception for the early Australian Catholic teachers, the most famous of whom was St Mary of the Cross, and we all know the outstanding work that she did.

Attaching less value to numbers and material resources has the benefit of reminding us of the need for humility and in that respect, we have an inspiring example in Pope Francis.

Humility and fidelity

If the characteristics of the students and staff in all Catholic schools, now and in the future, were to be humility and fidelity to the Church, then it should not matter if they become smaller and more detached from the cultural values of the secular world.

As a stranger in Manchester once reminded Malcolm Muggeridge, "Never forget that only dead fish swim with the stream." We should always remember that the early Christian Church started off as a small number of people swimming against the stream and, by their prayerful witness and teaching of the truth, the Church was strengthened and ultimately expanded its influence to make disciples in all of the world's nations.

From little acorns, mighty oaks grow.

Paul McCormack is a secondary school teacher and Deputy Principal at St Mary Mackillop Colleges in Wagga Wagga. This is an edited extract of a speech he recently [c. July 2013] gave to a Catholic men's conference in Wangaratta.

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