CNS photo/Courtesy of Karen Callaway, Northwest Indiana Catholic

Catholic education can never be neutral

By  John B. Kostoff
  • April 30, 2016

Pope Francis, speaking to Italian school teachers and parents, said, “Education cannot be neutral. It is either positive or negative; either it enriches or it impoverishes; either it enables a person to grow or it lessens, even corrupts him. The mission of the school is to develop a sense of truth of what is good and beautiful.”

Catholic education has never been neutral. By its very origin it stands for a very unique world view. It always has and must always be anything but neutral. That is why we celebrate Catholic education and Catholic Education Week in Ontario.

Pope Francis has further said, “Catholic schools are attended by many students who are not Christian or do not believe. Catholic educational institutions offer to all an approach to education that has as its aim the full development of the person, which responds to the right of every person access to knowledge…”

The Pope also reminded Catholic educators “that every educator — and the Church as a whole is an educating mother — is required to change, in the sense of knowing how to communicate with the young.” Pope Francis also told educators they must enter this discussion with youth with courage.

Pope Francis’ words certainly cause us to pause and reflect as they ring true. While the vast majority of students in our schools are Catholics, he realizes, as does every administrator, parent council member and teacher, that some who attend our schools do not share our values or beliefs. But as we are reminded, Jesus’ message was to communicate in much the same circumstance as Jesus in early Galilee, in a cosmopolitan market square of many mixed beliefs. What allowed His message to spread was it was never neutral but rather pointed to a different set of values, a different way of understanding life and relationship to God.

Some time back, columnist David Brooks of The New York Times wrote, “I doubt people behave worse than before, but we are less articulate about the inner life. There are fewer places in the public where people are talking about things that matter most. As a result, many feel lost or overwhelmed. They feel a hunger to live meaningfully, but they don’t know the right question to ask, the right vocabulary to use, the right place to look or even if there are ultimate answers at all.” Of course Brooks is right, but Catholic schools are one of those places where we give space for those kind of discussions, of things that matter most, of how to live our short lives, of what is the purpose and meaning of life. To be sure, some walk away or smirk, just as they did when Jesus in the Galilee marketplace tried to engage people with these questions. But we have a place to raise these questions: Catholic schools. We don’t shirk or shrink from these discussions. These are a part of the curriculum, part of the discipline. They are fleshed out in our Catholic Graduate Expectations.

Some would say “yes, but not all who attend Catholic schools are changed.” True, but I have to believe that the many hundreds who moved about the market square in Jesus’ time were not changed either. They walk away and avoid the questions, they couldn’t be bothered. But we so often forget that the exception proves the rule, and for the vast majority of our students these questions are not only asked but answered in our schools.

Students encounter God in our religion program, in our family life program, in our infusion of the Gospel message across the curriculum, in our codes of behaviour, student expectations, in our celebration of our faith and sacraments. Our outreach programs and social justice programs seek to put flesh on our words and actions. Our hospitality and inclusion allows all to feel welcomed and challenged.

We couple this with a strong academic challenge, a desire for citizen engagement and seeking to develop responsible children and young people who are part of a family, Church and community. But Pope Francis reminds us again that “we have an even wider diffusion of multicultural societies (than in Jesus’ time) that require those who work in the school sector to be involved in educational itineraries involving comparison and dialogue, with a courageous and innovative fidelity that enables Catholic identity to encounter the various souls of multicutural societies.”

The Jesuits indicate that the success of their educational model is one that has worked for centuries and can be found in part or in whole in many of our Catholic school boards. They identify the qualities they seek to impart in their students as self knowledge and discipline, attentiveness to their own experiences and to the other’s experience, trusting God’s direction of their lives, respecting intellect and reason as tools for discovering truth, skill discerning the right course of action, a conviction that talents and knowledge are gifts to be used to help others, flexibility and pragmatism in problem solving, large-hearted ambition and desire to find God working in all things. Catholic education embraces these goals and others, but to do so, you can never be neutral.

So as we enter Catholic Education Week, let us see our school boards, parishes, schools and families celebrate and participate in Catholic education celebrations and may they never be neutral about the gift of Catholic education.

(Kostoff is the Executive Director of Ontario Supervisory Officers Association and author of Auditing Our Catholic Schools.)

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