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January 9, 2018

Confronting the issues related to Catholic education

Catholic educators must attend to the moral and social development of students with an emphasis on encouraging service. Here, a Presentation College, San Fernando student packs boxes of foodstuff for distribution to the poor in December.

by Dr Lennox Bernard

As we enter a new year following the installation of Archbishop Jason Gordon, there is no clear philosophy nor are there planned practices to deal with the current status of Catholic education in Trinidad and Tobago.

I am referring specifically to formal education in the context of our primary and secondary schools—I wish I could have included teacher education in the context of tertiary education.

At the informal and non-formal levels, meaningful work is ongoing at the parish level, Catholic commissions, the Catholic News and Church ministries, but in the absence of  formalised programmes, at the formative stage of development of our children and beyond, attempts at the creation of authentic disciples (Archbishop Emeritus Harris’ quest) is diminished.

We are not as a Church forthright in dealing with the current dilemma facing Catholic schools. On the one hand, Catholic schools are fearful of being seen as divisive if they do not reflect the multi-cultural and multi-faith nature of the school community.

On the other hand, there are those who believe that Catholic schools were founded to transmit the Catholic faith—its beliefs, values, character and norms of conduct. This is based on the belief that God created each and every human being and that the person of Jesus Christ is at the heart of the student, the teacher, the school and the entire educational endeavour. This belief formed the basis for the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education (1965).

In the face of that dilemma, some have argued that what has emerged is a ‘dualistic’ model that separates the religious and secular elements of education in our schools, with the religious element seen as something additional and even voluntary, to its main purpose of academic pursuits and its success in the market place of contemporary education.

There is no hard local evidence to show how the distinctive ethos of the Catholic school is affected or even diluted by an increase in the non-Catholic population of staff and students. In other jurisdictions, some have argued that the decline in the sacramental life of Catholic schools may be a cause for the decline in adult Mass attendance and active parish participation.

An alternative argument has been that the diversity feature has a welcoming element and is a catalyst for change by offering without coercion and marginalisation an alternative worldview leading to the evangelisation of non-Catholic members of the school community. Such an argument however requires an overarching philosophy and planned practices via a curriculum.

Gallagher (2001, 2004) in seeking to establish the heart of Catholic education has proffered four dimensions. Catholic schools’ educators must:

Encourage a sense of belonging, that is, students must feel welcome in the school community;

Provide a sense of the ‘ultimate’, that is, students must be able to explore and reflect upon the important question of life;

Listen to the students own stories, their own journey of faith ‘without judgement or criticism’;

Attend to their students’ moral and social development with an emphasis on ‘doing’ that is encouraging service, both within the school and the community’.

I believe that a ‘dualistic’ model that puts Jesus Christ at the heart of Catholic education while ensuring the academic prowess of all students is a reasonable approach, awaiting of course a Charter for Catholic Education for the archdiocese.

As part of any philosophy though, there should be greater coherence among the home, school and parishes as well as a tertiary institution grounded in the tenets of the faith as well as the principles of teaching and learning. Such an institution would ensure that social justice is a component of teacher education while assisting in developing ‘authentic disciples of Christ’.

It is my humble opinion that the Catholic Religious Education Development Institute (CREDI) is well poised to perform that role, but the institution must be accepted and supported wholeheartedly by the entire Church.

Even if as a Church we are fearful or unwilling to tamper with the social and political landscape, we owe it to our society plagued with negative value frames among our youth, crime and violence, corruption, dispossession and exploitation, a burgeoning prison population, to assist in building ‘a civilisation of love’.

I am reminded of the words of John Paul II, “Catholic education aims not only to communicate facts but also to transmit a coherent, comprehensive vision of life, in the conviction that the truths contained in that vision liberate students in the most profound meaning of human freedom.”

May the light of Christ light our path for 2018 and beyond.