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Catholic schools: Education that goes forth

Pope Francis’ most recent document on education was issued on 25 January 2022 by the Dicastery in Culture and Education. The basic question it wanted to answer is what is the basic identity and mission of Catholic schools in our times.

The title of the document gives a hint: “The Identity of the Catholic School for a Culture of Dialogue”. The Vatican document treats many things: the school shares in the Church’s identity as “mater et magistra” (mother and teacher) of all peoples; the varied roles of different stakeholders and the canonical provisions referring to these responsibilities; and some critical aspects that beset Catholic schools today.

Let me focus on the main point Pope Francis wanted to say in this document: that Catholic education is an “education that goes forth”. This is part of Pope Francis’ whole program of a “Church that goes forth”.

I would like to say from the outset that education is not about us nor about our Catholic identity. It is about the other. Or better still, the Catholic identity of our schools is found in “going forth to the other”.

Jesus did not come proclaiming himself, that he is the Son of God or Messiah. He came to heal the sick, to welcome sinners, to liberate the oppressed. Only later did people realize and acclaim him as the Messiah. If our schools would like to follow Jesus, this is our Christian identity: a school for the other.

What makes a Catholic school “Catholic”?

There are reductive views of Catholic school identity which Pope Francis denies. First, a school is not Catholic because it is run by priests or religious nuns or because they have Catholic liturgies celebrated regularly.

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Beyond personalities and activities, it should be clear that the whole school community — from its vision-mission, to administration and personnel — places the Gospel and all that it demands as the center of its identity. It does not just use the “Catholic” label for advertising purposes and functions like another business enterprise.

Second, there is a “formalistic” view. It is true that a decree from the competent ecclesiastical authority (e.g., the Bishop or Bishops Conference) is necessary to grant it legitimacy as provided for in canon law and civil law. “No institute, even if it is Catholic, cannot bear the name of ‘Catholic school’ without the consent of competent ecclesiastical authority” (CIC 216, 803).

But this merely fulfills its formalistic requirements. Though basic, this does not guarantee its real Catholic identity. Approval from the Catholic hierarchy can be useful if you are unjustly closed down by a bishop, for example. This gives you canonical rights to argue for your existence in the higher levels of the church hierarchy. But a mere document alone does not give you your Catholic identity.

Opposite to this formalistic requirement is the “charismatic view”. Some people say what is important is the “Catholic spirit” or “Christian inspiration”, not canonical approval. This is also insufficient. In some secular and pluralistic contexts, the term “Catholic” is avoided in the name of inclusivity. Schools do not want to be identified as “Catholic” because it sounds too sectarian and not open enough to other persuasions.

In Europe, for instance, in order to welcome non-Catholic sensitivities, we should not flaunt our “Catholic identity”. But the situation is the opposite in the Philippines. To be called a “Catholic” school in the Philippines seems to be a plus factor, also read as an “economic factor”. In both uses, the term “Catholic” does not really point to true “Catholic identity”.

The last reductive version of Catholic education is the “closed view”. In these schools, there is no room for those who are non-Catholics. If non-Catholics are accepted, they are not given a space for respect of belief and dialogue. Though we need to proclaim the Catholic faith among our students, we should foster an “open Catholic school”, the document says, not a “closed one” — one that is in dialogue with different faiths, different cultures, and religions.

I know of some Catholic schools in Muslim-dominated areas which has two departments of religious education for their different students. Muslim imams and Catholic catechists are fully employed faculty members to teach their respective religions. And on some special occasions, they have joint recollections. Other schools have prayer rooms for other faiths as well.

In short, Catholic education should be one “that goes forth”. The over-emphasis on “canonical requirement” or “Catholic clientele” without openness to plural and interreligious contexts is a poor view of Catholic education. It is inward-looking and only places us in a self-survival mode.

This is what Pope Francis calls the sins of “self-referentiality” and “logic of exclusion”. In the self-referential mode, education aims at preserving ourselves at the expense of dialogue and care for real persons on the ground. It makes our “systems” and “policies” more important than the needs of real persons. We do not care whether people are truly helped or respected, in their differences, as long as our doctrines, policies, and traditions are conserved.

Against self-referential education, Pope Francis encourages education that is a part of “Church that goes forth”, “standing by people at every step of the way”, and education in solidarity with others. If you want to use another image by Pope Francis, our schools should be seen as “field hospitals”. In a world of violence where victims are all over the place, we should be able to welcome the victims, even if our resources are limited. Field hospitals do not have all the supplies and the best laboratories. But they need to treat the victims of war as they come. So do with our schools.

Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M., is the President of Adamson University in Manila. He is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community on the outskirts of the Philippine capital. He is also Vincentian Chair for Social Justice at St. John’s University in New York.

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