Cathal Barry discusses Catholic education with a senior Vatican official
When it comes to education, there is no body more global or universal than the Catholic Church. Yet there is no body more local in education either.
That’s according to Fr Friedrich Bechina, Undersecretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, who addressed delegates at a major education conference in Dublin last week.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic ahead of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association’s Annual General Meeting, Fr Bechina claimed education is a “key mission” for the Church, even more so in today’s increasingly secular society.
More specifically, Fr Bechina insisted Catholic education is crucial for the sustainability of balanced and diverse society, particularly in the Irish context at present.
“In the past in Ireland the whole environment was Catholic. However, the more society becomes multicultural and no longer a purely Catholic environment, the more it is important to have institutions that are in dialogue with people and explain the Gospel in a reasonable way.”
Fr Bechina is also convinced that education plays an integral role in the development of a stable society.
He said the burning question in Europe at the moment is: ‘Should education just prepare people for the labour market developing technical skills and competencies alone?’
According to Fr Bechina, the Church believes that “education must be more”. “If we just work on economic growth and technical skills development we will never reach a sustainable socially balanced society,” he warned.
“I would say that if you want to train people not just for certain competencies or skills but if you want to educate people, human persons, then you need an integral, holistic approach,” he said.
Fr Bechina is aware that a large percentage of primary schools in the Republic of Ireland (89%) are under the patronage of the Catholic Church, while the Church also features prominently in the education of the vast majority of Irish secondary school students. However, he insists that the percentage figure should be relevant to the demand of parents for Catholic schools.
“The ideal case would be that all parents who want to send their children to Catholic schools should have the possibility to do so,” he said.
Fr Bechina suggested there is also a need to establish the relationship between the demand and the existing offer, and to constantly question the availability of resources.
“We must also question if we are able to train enough people sharing these values and identity, and even if there is not, the conclusion should not be to just stop.”
“We need to create resources and invest in good education for teachers and developing teacher bodies such as the CPSMA who help Catholic schools develop a corporate identity and spirit. Sometimes we are not creative enough in creating and allocating new resources and asking how we can fulfil the requests of parents,” he said.
Regarding the divesting of patronage, Fr Bechina followed the lead of several members of the Irish Church’s hierarchy in warning against a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
“You have to examine the situation on a case by case basis taking into account both common sense and common good,” he said.
“There are people who would like to eliminate religion from the public sphere but knowledge of religion is vital to contributing to a fair and reasonable dialogue in public. If you leave religious education to extreme groups you risk in the long term the balance and sustainability of society.”
So, how would Fr Bechina respond to comments such as those made recently by Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn in which he suggested that schools cut time allocated for religious education to focus on improving pupils’ reading and maths?
“The Minister is arguing from very monolithic vision of a totally Catholic country. It is the argumentation of a closed Catholic society, but that’s gone. If you want to have a sustainable and long term policy based on the common good then you cannot argue to throw religion out of schools.
Long term policy
“If you really have a long term policy and are not just concerned with looking for votes for the next election, then you need to keep religious education in schools. Some politicians are too concerned with trying to get re-elected than having good effect in years to come when they are no longer in the political sphere,” Fr Bechina warned.
So, what exactly are some of the benefits of religious education?
“Religious education, along with gymnastics, music and the arts are all formative subjects for the human mind and human personalities. It is not technocrats or experts in a specific field who make society a worthwhile place to live, rather intellectuals and people with a broad formation who understand diverse human aspects, as well as cultural and religious differences. This is something you cannot achieve with people who are just trained solely in mathematics and in language skills,” Fr Bechina cautioned.
The Vatican official is also convinced that the successful implementation of Catholic education is reliant on the education and training of teachers.
“The vocation of people is vital. Catholic education is dependent on those involved, their personal engagement, their passion for what they are doing, and if they are doing out of love and identification.”
For this reason, Fr Bechina maintains it is essential that third level Catholic education be strengthened and developed in Ireland.
“For Ireland the question of strengthening the tertiary education of the Church is absolutely crucial. The future of Catholic education in Ireland will depend on if we are successful in not only keeping, but further developing the tertiary institutions we have and strengthening them in their quality and their identity. We must also think about developing new ones,” he said.
Commenting on remarks made by CPSMA head, Fr Tom Deenihan, that there is worrying narrative in Ireland that Catholic schools are selective and sectarian, Fr Bechina said:
“This is surprising, because if you look at the history of the Church in Ireland, it is a history of opening access to education by Catholic schools to those who were excluded by education for a long time.
Inclusion, he suggested, is one of the key elements of Catholic education, and is based on the teaching that all people are created in God’s image.
In the words of a document, penned by Fr Bechina’s own congregation, Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to Faith, the Vatican proposes:
“In today’s pluralistic world, the Catholic educator must consciously inspire his or her activity with the Christian concept of the person, in communion with the Magisterium of the Church. It is a concept which includes a defense of human rights, but also attributes to the human person the dignity of a child of God… It calls for the fullest development of all that is human, because we have been made masters of the world by its Creator.
“Finally, it proposes Christ, Incarnate Son of God and perfect Man, as both model and means; to imitate him is, for all men and women, the inexhaustible source of personal and communal perfection.”
It is clear from speaking to Fr Bechina that the Church’s vision for Catholic schools is not to be factories for the learning of various skills and competencies designed to fulfil the needs of business and industry.
In the eyes of the Church, education is not a commodity, even if Catholic schools equip their graduates with enviable skills. Rather, the Catholic school sets out to be a school for the human person and of human persons.