The future of Catholic education

The future of Catholic education

Archbishop Timothy Costelloe

On 20 August 2013, Perth's Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB gave a public lecture on the future of Catholic Education in WA at the University of Notre Dame, Fremantle. These are extracts from his address.

When I was a young man in my final years of preparation for ordination as a priest one of my lecturers in Church History, Fr Austin Cooper, often spoke about the role and importance of conservatism in the life of the Church.

At the risk of over-simplifying his views, the "take-away" message from his lectures was, as we might say today, that conservatism is all about evaluating what has been handed on from the past in order to discern what is of lasting value and, indeed, essential, from that received tradition if we are to be faithful to our own identity as we seek to move courageously and enthusiastically into our future.

I was impressed by that insight at the time and remain so today. To manage the present and build for the future with confidence we need to be people who live out of the richness of our past, while not being people who are slavishly locked into that past.


What we can do is seek to identify that which lies at the heart of the Church's engagement with the education of young people and seek to ensure that as we try to meet the myriad challenges which will confront us, and grasp hold of the many opportunities which will be set before us, we do so with courage, with creativity, with energy, and also with fidelity.

The decisions about where we wish to go in the future will need to be in harmony with the fundamental insights which have guided the Catholic Church's involvement in education for the last fifteen hundred years or more.

If we do look to the past, and here I am talking not about the last fifteen hundred years but rather about the last 150 years here in Australia, we quickly realise that there was a fundamental purpose in the establishment of a Catholic education system in Australia in the early years of British settlement.

It is not in fact possible to separate religion from all the other dimensions of life: that education, if it is to be complete and integral, must be informed by and permeated by a world view, an understanding of what it is to be human, which, in the case of the Catholic tradition, places the relationship between a person and God at the heart of what life is all about.

This of course is the very opposite of a secular, or at least a secularist, world-view. Indeed to opt for a secular system of education rather than a faith-based one is as much the adoption of an ideology as is the decision to opt for a faith-based system.

I would propose then that a foundational reason for the establishment of the Catholic school system in Australia lies in a deeply held conviction that there is no true and comprehensive education unless that education is informed by, underpinned by and permeated by, the unshakeable belief that the exclusion of God from the educational endeavour so badly distorts the true meaning of what it is to be human that it is a betrayal of young people.

We live at the moment in a society and culture which seeks to relegate religion to the private sphere. It is acknowledged, sometimes grudgingly and with some perplexity, that religion is important to many people, and the right to freedom of religion is upheld in theory, if not always in practice.

Society is prepared to allow people to "be religious" if that is their inclination, but religious belief is not something to be forced on others, and religious convictions certainly should not be the basis for public policy. What this means is that the question of God is removed from the public sphere and confined to people's private lives.

While there are many examples from history and from contemporary experience of the damage that can be caused by the misuse of religion in public life, and while our own history in Australia is marked at times by a very destructive sectarianism, nevertheless for a believer the practical exclusion of God from public life, and the demand that a belief in God should not and must not have any effect on the way in which believers engage in public life and discourse, makes no sense at all.

From a Christian's point of view, we might say that if God is as we believe he is, if God is as Jesus tells us he is, then God stands at the heart of everything: God stands at the heart of an individual's life; God stands at the heart of people's relationships; God stands at the heart of the common lives we share as members of communities; God stands at the heart of our life as a society.

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