We are challenged to declare our Catholic education goals

By  Peter Lauwers, Catholic Register Special
  • November 24, 2006

Where does Catholic education in Ontario find itself today? It truly reflects the culture.

In his book, entitled Unknown Gods: The Ongoing Story of Religion in Canada (1993), Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby pointed out that a decline in attendance at religious services, first observed years earlier, was continuing: "beyond numerical involvement, relatively few Canadians give evidence of being profoundly influenced by any organized faith." He noted: "The Roman Catholic example, however, suggests that when religious groups have to go head-to-head with the myriad socializing influences found in Canadian culture more generally, it is extremely tough to come out the winner."

Of particular relevance to Catholic education, Bibby added: "Further, our examination of students in the Roman Catholic system suggests that, even when religious groups attempt to increase their influence by operating their own schools, they experience very modest amounts of success."

In his most recent book, entitled Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada (2002), Bibby's rather more positive finding is that "after a few decades of slumber, there appears to be a stirring among the country's established churches — the same groups that Canadians have been so reluctant to abandon." This is a hopeful context for Catholic schools

The paradox of evangelization

Evangelization is the mission of the church and also Catholic schools, but it is becoming increasingly difficult in modern society. Catholic virtues and values are not those shared by our culture.

A key insight comes from the recent Heythrop Study (2005) in Britain on a framework for Catholic education, catechesis and formation: "Evangelization is at the heart of the church's mission but it is not a one-way process. The church is also 'evangelized' by the culture; this can become colonization." The study warned that evangelization "is only possible if the community itself has a coherent, intelligible and communicable cognitive structure (understanding) that sustains the practices of its life. It must be one in which the community has confidence, not only believing it to be true but also persuasive."

The concept of "colonization" is most important: "If the religious community seeks to evangelize the culture, it must also be aware that it is being evangelized by the culture. Many aspects of this are positive. Yet when the community's own cognitive culture is weak or fragmented, it will be colonized by secular culture."

Sociologist Bibby agrees, noting that "religious groups themselves are increasingly influenced by secular culture. They consciously and unconsciously take their cues from sources such as media, education, business and government, rather than from something that transcends culture, so their structures, ideas and programs begin to closely resemble those of other organizations. Their measures of success sound like those of business, their priorities are frequently dictated by what the culture says is important, and their activities often look much like secular imitations — perhaps well illustrated by a focus on efforts to update forms of worship and music."

Serious evidence of colonization is present in most Catholic endeavours. It may be that Catholics compromise with the colonization temptation by identifying particularly with the church's social justice teachings, which have wider political resonance, while minimizing the religious or moral teachings, with which they have less affinity.

Elementary and secondary Catholic education in Ontario

It may be time for the Catholic educational community to reassess the state of affairs in Catholic education and consider the possible futures. It has been 15 years since the Institute for Catholic Education (ICE) undertook a quantitative research study, carried out by sociologist Bernard Blishen and others (1990). The Blishen study was designed to be longitudinal and could be easily and relatively inexpensively repeated. The results of Blishen's study were controversial at the time and would likely be more so today.

It has been about 20 years since the first steps were made to implement the historical announcement of Ontario Premier Bill Davis to complete funding for Catholic secondary schools. The announcement marked the beginning of a certain disengagement, particularly financial, of the institutional church and the whole Catholic community in the parishes from education, certainly at the secondary level. It may be crass to observe that the church is no different from other institutions in our society; the lack of a financial stake often signals and begets indifference.

Catholic teachers and trustees

Immediately after Bill 30 the completion of the Catholic high school system proceeded apace. Many Catholic teachers recruited for the system had not themselves had the experience of Catholic secondary education but had attended public high schools. Church attendance was low and dropping, although according to the 1990 Blishen study Catholic teachers were generally more frequent Mass attenders than most Catholics. Teacher training for Catholic teachers was deficient and faculties of education were often not helpful or responsive to the needs of the system.

There have been many improvements over the years in teacher education and professional development. The first generation of post-Bill 30 teachers are retiring and are being replaced by Catholic teachers who are products of the system.

It is worth considering whether there is a need for a Catholic faculty of education, in part as an antidote to counteract the general resistance of the secular faculties of education, and also to counteract colonization. It may also be time for the system to provide the same kind of intensive formation for trustees that teachers, principals and supervisory officers now get.

Catholic schools

Enough has been written about the collapse of the traditional tripod of home, school and parish in Catholic education to show that it is a real problem. Catholic schools represent a significant evangelical opportunity that can too easily be missed, if not effectively turned into an occasion of resistance. There is real truth and insight in the "school as church" concept. Many in the school system believe that, given the fractured state of many families, the only significant exposure that children and often their parents will have to the church and to Catholicism will be through the Catholic school. This is really hard to deny as a fact, as much as one might wish to deplore it.

Anecdotally, however, it is sometimes reported that school-based catechesis is poor, and that there is on occasion a certain destructive rivalry between the school and the parish. Some pastors seem convinced that heresy is being taught in the schools and run them down. Some have been reported to even advise parents to send their children to public schools. There are very few homilies about the virtues of Catholic education. Is the evangelical opportunity being squandered?

The Ministry of Education funds curriculum development, but will not fund positions such as chaplains or catechetical programs. Perhaps the funding for chaplains and catechetical programs should come from the dioceses.

Open access for non-Catholic students to Catholic high schools

Under Bill 30, Catholic school boards were obliged to permit non-Catholic students to attend Catholic high schools. This phenomenon is known as "open access." The open access provisions were intended to permit students to attend schools generally based on program needs, and in some circumstances, based on attendance patterns of the family.

In their 1984 Pastoral Guideline on Pupil and Teacher Access to New Catholic Secondary Schools, the Ontario bishops objected mildly, noting that the "change, now proposed, may be pressed too brusquely. Separate schools are established, according to the Scott Act, 'for Roman

Catholics.' " The Catholic community ultimately chose not to challenge the open access provisions.

Open access has since proceeded apace across Ontario, with the result that there are a number of Catholic high schools in which non-Catholic students comprise between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of the student population. In a study done by Dr. Robert T. Dixon for the Institute of Catholic Education in 2002, there were reports of real difficulties on the part of school staff in maintaining the Catholicity of the high schools. Such a large scale movement of students was never expected.

This open access phenomenon has been inadvertently reinforced by the provincial funding model for new school construction. In recent years Catholic boards, because they closed inner-city schools more readily and also because they were receiving capital funding on the secondary side for the first time, were able to construct new high schools. Students and parents naturally choose new Catholic high schools for their children in order to avoid decrepit buildings and long bus rides. Others choose Catholic high schools to avoid the secular and relativistic public high schools.

Present demographic projections predict that both public and Catholic schools will lose enrolment heavily in the next number of years. This will put pressure on school boards to close schools or to recruit students for schools that are emptying out. The temptation for Catholic schools will be to compete for non-Catholic children, even at the elementary level, in order to keep the schools open. Inevitably, however, excessive hospitality to non-Catholics will mean an erosion in the distinctiveness of the system. Would being smaller and more authentic be better?


The opportunities and challenges are real and exciting. There is nothing here that persuasive and visionary leadership could not successfully address. As the Ontario bishops wrote in their pastoral letter, This Moment of Promise (1989): "In a time which often seems to be without goals or ennobling aspirations, we are challenged to declare ours and to dedicate our lives to their achievement. In an age which seems more fearful of the future, we are directed to give an account of the hope that is within us."

(Peter Lauwers is a Toronto lawyer with expertise in education law and the denominational rights of Roman Catholics.)

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