September 25, 2018

Monica Doumit is wrong: Leuven faith project is Catholic, says Paul Sharkey

Students at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart College, Kensington, participate in School Mass. PHOTO: Our Lady of the Sacred Heart College

A recent article in The Catholic Weekly by Monica Doumit entitled ‘Catholic faith education program has a lot in common with Safe Schools’ was so wide of the mark that I believe the record needs to be corrected.

To begin with, the initiative being critiqued in the article is not a ‘faith education program,’ it is research being undertaken by a Catholic university in Belgium to understand the religious options being taken by families, staff and students in countries around the world at this time. We mightn’t like some of these options but we need to know what they are and we need to deal with them.

Those who lead Catholic schools and systems need to draw from a variety of sources as we seek to understand the implications for our school communities of what is unfolding in our culture. As we develop strategies to enhance the Catholic identity of our schools we need to move from anecdotes about our communities to develop strategies that are based on evidence and research.

The Leuven research is helpful as one of the many sources that leaders will rely upon as they lead their schools. Naturally any research and data will always need to be interpreted within a theological context that is faithful to the teachings of our Church and this is the case in my experience with the research project in question here.

The writer of the Doumit article admitted that she did not have a background in education and that her article was based on the ‘For Dummies’ guides to the research.

Given this low level of experience and engagement with the research, it is perhaps not surprising that the writer misunderstands the research and the use being made of it by the schools involved. This is not the place to discuss the technicalities of the research or its terminology but some key points about where the research is coming from and what it is trying to achieve can help to correct some important misunderstandings evident in the Doumit article.

One of the key drivers for the research is the development of strategies for shifting students from relativism into a faith commitment that is based on the experience of God who has been revealed in the person of Jesus and made known to us in the teachings of the Church, in its liturgical life, in its sacraments, in its sacred texts and in its pastoral care.

The research challenges students to understand that their criticisms and concerns do not have to become barriers to Catholic faith but can become pathways into it.

The project challenges teachers and students to understand that while critical thinking is essential in our times, criticism is never enough.

The Catholic school always has to be oriented towards belief and meaning that is illuminated by faith.

Those who have read the report published in 2014 from the research know that the first recommendation is that Catholic schools need to cherish and place more emphasis on traditional Catholic objects and practices such as crucifixes, Bibles and Scripture quotations, statues and artwork, the school chapel, prayer tables, celebrations, posters, icons, candles, and so on that build up the school’s Catholic identity. This recommendation was made not just because these objects are traditional markers of what it means to be Catholic, but because they are symbols that enable us to relate in a unique and vivid way to Jesus Christ.

The second recommendation from the same report is that Catholic schools need to teach their students to pray because ‘there is hardly a more fitting way to communicate the Christian faith to a new generation and to foster a true and living religious school community’.

Another key element of the research is that Catholic schools need to engage students much more explicitly with Catholic doctrine, liturgy, Scriptures, beliefs, practices and communal life. Instead of presenting a version of Catholicism only framed around values such as forgiveness, compassion and concern for the environment, Catholic schools must engage with the specific teachings and liturgical experiences that underpin these values.

Finally, the research is heavily critical of schools where the Catholic perspective is lost in a cacophony of beliefs and unbeliefs about the world and the purpose and meaning of human life.

It is one thing to listen carefully to students and treat them with respect, it is another thing altogether to provide students with explicit Catholic experiences, beliefs and practices to help them appreciate the richness and truth of Catholic faith.

Anyone who works with young people (and the not so young) knows that attempts to coerce people into belief will fail. The only way that religious educators will be effective in their work is when they are prepared to listen to their students and take their concerns and beliefs seriously. Being prepared to listen and show respect is however never enough for the Catholic educator.

Those who teach in Catholic schools need to know how to create educational experiences that are illuminated by Catholic faith and lead students to appreciate its richness and truth.

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