Aelred Magee: Are Irish Catholic schools really Catholic anymore?
It’s a difficult thing to hand on what you haven’t necessarily got in the first place
The ongoing debate centred on the divesting of Catholic schools has received – and for good reason will continue to receive – significant attention.
However, perhaps the question for Catholic education, and those who serve it most directly in positions of responsibility, is altogether more fundamental: are our schools still in a position to say definitively that they communicate a Catholic ethos?
In the maelstrom of an increasingly pluralistic Irish society which sees cultural, political, social and religious contexts changing rapidly, what is the specific content of the Catholic ethos? What added value do Catholic schools, teachers, principals, managers, boards and trustees bring with them,which distinguishes these schools from merely secular institutions?
That, after all, should be the claim which a Catholic school makes: that, while holding its own in the academic and human formation of the individual – and that includes its staff and the parents whose lives are inextricably caught up in its daily grind – it delivers something else.
Perhaps it is easier to consider for a moment some of the contrary notions which are set against Catholic education. That in some way, by its denominational character, it is sectarian or divisive or exclusive. But the fundamental reference point of any denominational institution is that it comes to know first of all itself, and so grows in respect for its own distinctive identity. And Catholic schools do not welcome only Catholic children.
Do they threaten by their professionalism and dedication?
On the other hand, while the burden of the work of formation in a Catholic school undoubtedly falls to the principal and teachers – the parties who, in the first instance, are asked to communicate the nuts and bolts of a Catholic life model – it’s a difficult thing to hand on what you haven’t necessarily got in the first place, what might not be the essential fabric of your own life. No one can give what he hasn’t got, as the old rule of law runs.
Or perhaps we have forgotten that a Catholic school which hasn’t Christ at the centre of all that it deliberates, does and delivers, shouldn’t go by the name. It’s not true, as some would suggest, that one “gets” the Catholic ethos almost by “osmosis” – that sort of questionable gloss allows those who have to deliver the ethos in practical terms, but do not, a prosaic escape route.
A Catholic school distinguishes itself by communicating and handing on foundational Catholic values and beliefs – and those remain merely theoretical if they are not living and breathing in the lives of men and women who associate themselves with the institution.
Teaching and believing
And if there are those who choose to disagree with these foundational teachings, well, so be it – the struggle to put faith into practice is neither easy nor always comfortable, and the challenge to be seen to oppose current well-supported trends is hardly popular.
Chesterton may well have been correct: Christianity has never succeeded because it has never really been tried.
I wonder, perhaps, that there might be those in Irish society who have a chip on their shoulder about Catholic schools precisely because of this – if it were really tried, and the invitation taken up to become Christ-centred in our way of teaching and living, Catholic schools might become powerful means of formation. But that might give the impression Catholicism was still in business in Ireland.
Fr Aelred Magee, with Niall McVeigh, of the Cistercian College, Roscrea, is organising the National Conference on Catholic Education: Re-visioning and Renewing the Catholic School in Ireland Today. It takes place in the Cistercian College, Roscrea, this Friday. ccr.ie