Catholic schools make society better for all

By  Msgr. Dennis Murphy, Catholic Register Special
  • April 27, 2011
A new study says the phenomenon of religious belonging and its social connectedness of religious schools have a positive impact on society. (CNS photo/Michael Alexander)Editor’s Note: The following Education Week essay by Msgr. Dennis Murphy is not intended as a comparison between the public and Catholic school systems but is only intended to underline the positive contribution that Catholic schools make to public life.

As we approach the October provincial election the question of public funding of the Roman Catholic school system in Ontario will predictably be raised again. Opponents of Catholic schools will offer familiar arguments: it is unfair that one religious denomination has its own publicly funded schools; these schools represent a divisive force in our pluralistic society; a single education system would be more effective, cost efficient and save the taxpayer money; and a secular society should not be in the business of funding anything that is religious.

Promoters of the Catholic system will respond that Catholic schools exist due to promises made as part of our Canadian Confederation and are therefore constitutionally guaranteed. While probably acknowledging that it is indeed unfair that Catholics are uniquely privileged, advocates of Catholic education will suggest the solution is not to abolish Catholic schools but to make publicly funded schools available to other parents. Proponents of Catholic education will point out there is no evidence that Catholic schools are a divisive force, as witnessed in the graduates not only from Catholic schools but from the religious schools that receive public funding in provinces such as British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba. To the financial argument, the response will be that it is virtually impossible to prove that bigger education systems are more efficient and effective financially or educationally. Considering the cost of the much larger administrative units born through amalgamation of boards in the late 1990s, the argument that bigger is better rings hollow. To the contention that the province should not fund religious organizations and institutions, Catholic educators will point to Ontario’s long history of financially supporting not only their schools but religious hospitals, children’s aid societies and so on, all of which significantly contribute to public life. Finally they will cite data that belies any claim that ours is a secular society.

Most of these arguments have been hashed and rehashed over the years. Nonetheless, the Roman Catholic education community is again at a crossroads. It must convince itself and its fellow citizens that, rather than impoverish, its schools add depth and value to publicly funded education. Instead of perpetuating traditional arguments, advocates of Catholic schools might win more support if they better articulated the contribution their schools make not only to Roman Catholics but to all Ontario citizens.  

This is an era marked by an apparent increase in incivility, harshness and polarization; an era seeming to lack genuine friendliness as evident in unwillingness to share resources and time through volunteering; an era of declining trustworthiness. There is an ever-more frenzied search for happiness and satisfaction in life. Amid all this, Catholic school supporters might ask if we can demonstrate that our graduates contribute to public life in ways that benefit not only Catholics but all citizens.

If the debate is to take place with more light than heat, we might benefit from examining a recent book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites, by acclaimed authors Robert D. Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard, and David E. Campbell, a political scientist from the University of Notre Dame. They explore the consequences of religious belonging. Putnam, raised as a Methodist, is a convert to Judaism. Campbell is a Mormon. They are social analysts who have “earned their bones” and are admired by their peers.  

One of the questions central to this new study is how religion influences the life of our civic communities. Among their principal findings, after studying massive data from several American social surveys, is that behaviour is not profoundly influenced by theological or moral convictions, such as creedal statements and the Ten Commandments. More influential, they find, is the phenomenon of religious belonging. They contend that communities of faith and the social connectedness these communities create, rather than faith itself, have a very positive influence on society. Through the development of networks and relationships, communities build a “social capital” whose dividend is certain positive characteristics and attitudes. The authors say that “religious Americans (those who belong to these communities) are in fact more generous neighbours and more conscientious citizens than their secular counterparts.” Although less tolerant of dissent than secular Americans, the authors write that: “Nevertheless, for the most part the evidence we review suggests that religiously observant Americans are more civic and in some respects simply nicer.” Compared to secular Americans, religious people are more likely to volunteer and are more philanthropic in support of both religious and secular causes.

According to U.S. data from the General Social Survey of 2004 and 2006, frequent churchgoers are more likely than their secular neighbours to:
  • Donate to a charity
  • Do volunteer work for a charity
  • Give money to a homeless person
  • Return excess change to a shop clerk
  • Donate blood
  • Help someone outside their own household with housework
  • Spend time with someone who is “a bit down”
  • Allow a stranger to cut in front of them
  • Offer a seat to a stranger
  • Help someone find a job.

Likewise, in the area of public and civic involvement, religious Americans are more likely than non-religious Americans to:
  • Belong to community organizations
  • Energize community problem solving
  • Take part in local civic and political life
  • Press for local social or political reform.

These kinds of findings have obvious application to the discussion about Catholic schools. The essence of a Catholic school is its core intention to create a community of faith as the fundamental learning environment. This is the particularity of Catholic education. It is the ethos of a Catholic school. Before all else, Catholic educators strive to create and sustain a learning environment that is a Christian community with all the social connections and interconnectedness this entails. They understand community as flowing from the very nature of human beings and not simply a political or social construct.

An important consequence of this is that the religious belonging of a Catholic school, far from being divisive, moves students to treasure relationships with people of other faiths and no faith. Social commentators recognize that globalization, especially as promoted by the Internet, has made us aware that we are all neighbours. But it does not lead us to recognize that we are brothers and sisters. The Christian community that founds the learning environment of a Catholic school is inspired by the Hebrew notion, taken up by the Gospels, that there exists a common good and it calls us to love and care for everyone as a brother and a sister.

None of this is to suggest that these values are absent in other schools and in their graduates. But in Catholic schools these values intentionally constitute a significant dimension of the daily curriculum. They flow from the sense of community in these schools. In so doing, Catholic schools make a prominent contribution to public life and discourse, to our attempts to live as compassionate Ontarians and Canadians.

Another characteristic of people who believe and belong to religious communities is that they are happier. The Putnam/Campbell study is not alone in identifying the happiness factor in religious people. The December 2010 review of the American Sociological Association published an article (“Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction”) that underlined the association between religiosity and life satisfaction. In the Jan. 24 edition of the Toronto Star, Rabbi Dow Marmur mentions a study called the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.  One conclusion of this research “is that the happiest are religious people, defined as those for whom ‘religion is an important part of daily life and church/synagogue/mosque attendance occurs at least every week or almost every week’. ” The Gallup study suggests there is something about religiosity, defined as a personal importance placed on religion and frequent religious service attendance, that leads to a higher level of personal wellbeing. Gallup analysis clearly showed that time spent socially and among social networks is positively associated with wellbeing, and that is particularly true of networks affiliated with religious community. Religion generally involves more meditative states and faith in a higher power, both of which can lower stress, reduce depression and promote happiness. Religion provides mechanisms for coping with life’s problems, which in turn may reduce stress, worry and anger.

As well as engendering a feeling of general well-being, religious belonging has other benefits for society. Happy people usually make better and more caring neighbours. As well, they are usually healthier, making fewer demands on our social and health care systems and therefore represent a financial saving.

Although this is an American study, it is not a stretch to assume that Ontario graduates of religious-oriented community schools will to some extent share the characteristics of citizenship revealed in the Putnam/Campbell research. Graduates can be expected to make significant contributions to public life through their levels of volunteering, charitable or philanthropic giving, and political and civic involvement. In other words, the citizens of Ontario can look to these graduates to make important contributions to public life — contributions without which the province would be much poorer.

Most of us have bemoaned a lack of trust evident in many aspects of our lives. The easy assuredness that we can rely on oral agreements is often no longer the way things are done, particularly in business. It seems that a person’s word is no longer their bond. Putnam/Campbell conclude that “religious people are both more trusting of virtually everyone else and (in the eyes of others) more trustworthy themselves.” One would suspect that if this could be demonstrated as a value-added dimension of Catholic education it would assure greater support for this system, not only from Catholics but from all citizens.

Obviously this argument does not suggest that graduates of Catholic schools are better people or morally superior to graduates from secular schools. Rather, the argument is that these schools and their graduates make a particular and significant contribution to the lives of all citizens of Ontario — and that all Ontarians benefit from their existence.

The conclusions of this discussion are based on the assumption that most readers agree that loving one’s enemies and being compassionate to all is the only way for humankind to have hope in the present and in the future. Such hope requires a leap of faith. Catholic schools are founded on just such a leap. They are founded on the conviction of a compassionate God who calls us ever forward to promote humankind’s commitment to freedom, to the advance of knowledge and the progress of peoples. Catholic schools do this in the faltering fashion of any human endeavour, but because they commit intentionally to these goals they create a better society for everyone.

Social science studies are not infallible, so it is possible to question some of the data and conclusions regarding people who belong to a religious community. However, it would be foolish to totally discredit these findings and reject the fact that religious schools contribute significantly to a gentler, kinder and more compassionate public and civic life.

(Msgr. Murphy, a former director of the Institute for Catholic Education and former director of education for the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association, is the author of the acclaimed book Catholic Education: A Light of Truth.)

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