One of the great weaknesses of contemporary debates in Ireland is that few of them penetrate beneath the surface. Too often discussions rest solidly on ideology rather than a shared search for understanding.
Take education, as an example. It is increasingly obvious that the thrust of policy in this area is to ensure that schools and colleges are equipped to provide Google, Facebook and other technology giants with productive units for future employment. There is little room for a more holistic approach to education where the service of the human person is at the centre.
The prioritisation of the so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) leaves little room for deeper reflection and often leads to a vision that is both reductive and utilitarian.
Cardinal John Henry Newman – who will be canonised in Rome at the weekend – stood in firm opposition to such tendencies in education.
As Pope Benedict XVI reflected in his homily for the beatification of Newman in 2010, “his insights into the relationship between faith and reason, into the vital place of revealed religion in civilised society, and into the need for a broadly-based and wide-ranging approach to education were not only of profound importance for Victorian England, but continue today to inspire and enlighten many all over the world”.
Benedict went on to praise Newman’s vision “which has done so much to shape the ethos that is the driving force behind Catholic schools and colleges today”.
Almost 130 years after Newman’s death, we are still grappling with the idea of ethos in our schools and other religious institutions. Many people, I think, would be hard-pressed to define what the distinctive ethos of a Catholic school is. Answers, I suspect, would look at things like prayer at the beginning of the day, preparation for the sacraments and school Masses. All of these things are important, but without a deeply Catholic spirit permeating every aspect of the school day they run the risk of being little more than lip service.
Catholic schools are embracing of all – they should be (and are) places where children raised in all religious traditions and none feel welcome and can achieve their potential.
The holistic vision of Catholic education also sees the school as a place where people from different backgrounds, ways of life, circumstances and ability gel together. Academic achievement is vitally important, but not as an end in and of itself.
We are still grappling with the idea of ethos in our schools and other religious institutions”
A more rounded vision sees education not as merely preparing students for work, but as preparing them for life. Values like honesty, commitment, self-sacrifice, and compassion are not often seen in the markets, but they should be hallmarks of anyone who has attended a Catholic school and values that those educated in Catholic schools bring to their work.
Catholic schools have made an enormous contribution to Irish society both north and south, they will continue to do so and should be proud of their place. At the same time, they must be prepared to stand out from the crowd and insist that education is not about productive units, but the development of the human person made in God’s image and likeness.
Topics like the ethos of Catholic schools will be explored in the forthcoming national conference organised by The Irish Catholic ‘Can we keep Faith in Catholic schools in a secular society?’ at the Clayton Hotel, Ballsbridge, Dublin on Thursday, October 24. Speakers include Bishop Tom Deenihan, Prof. Francis Campbell, Paul Barber, Bairbre Cahill and Natalie Finnegan. See www.irishcatholic.com or call 01 687 4028.