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Q&A with Fr John Flader: Leuven Project opts for surrender in thinking about faith and society

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Question: Dear Father, I have my children in a Catholic school and have heard talk about the Leuven Project for assessing Catholic school identity. I don’t know anything about it. Can you enlighten me?

The name Leuven is the Flemish name for the Catholic University of Leuven, in Belgium. The university is perhaps better known by its French name Louvain. Since 1968 the University has been divided into a Flemish-language campus in Leuven and a French-language campus in Louvain-la-Neuve.

The Leuven Project was an initiative of the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria, which in 2006 entered into an agreement with the University of Leuven to undertake research in Catholic schools in order to respond to increasing secularisation and religious diversity. Researchers in Leuven came up with this program, officially known as the Enhancing Catholic School Identity Project (ECSIP). It is presently being used in many dioceses in this country, although many parish priests have opted not to have it in their schools.

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In order to understand the Project it is helpful to know something of the theory behind it. The principal researchers were Didier Pollefeyt, Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, and his research assistant Jan Bouwens. Underpinning their research, however, was the work of Lieven Boeve, a theologian who maintains that the Christian “meta-narrative” has little or no meaning for people who are immersed in pluralist Western societies, and that belief in Christ and the teachings of the Church has been replaced by what he calls “post-critical belief”, a belief system which is symbolic rather than grounded in objective truths. For ECSIP “post-critical belief” is the ideal for Catholic schools and parishes.

ECSIP is based too on a process known as “recontextualisation”, whereby the Catholic school enters into dialogue with the ideas and values of the pluralist secular society in which it operates, receiving much from that society without attempting to assert its own beliefs.

Needless to say, these presuppositions are at best questionable and at worst a frontal attack on everything the Catholic school system was established to achieve: the teaching of the truths of the Catholic faith, so as to lead students to know their faith well and love Jesus Christ personally. The knowledge of the truths of the faith is critical too for the Church’s work of evangelisation, the spreading of the truth and love for God which Pope Francis has done so much to promote.

Significantly the goals of Catholic education were set out beautifully by the Bishops of New South Wales in their pastoral letter Catholic Schools at a Crossroads, just ten years ago. Among other things, that document expressed the aim of “ensuring that our schools are truly Catholic in their identity and life, are centres of the new evangelisation, enable our students to achieve high levels of Catholic religious literacy and practice, are led and staffed by people who will contribute to these goals.”

One can see the presuppositions and agenda of ECSIP in many of the questions on the “Post-Critical Belief Scale”, where the person answers on a seven-point scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”. For example: “The Bible is a guide, full of signs in the search for God and not a historical account.” “Even though this goes against modern rationality, I believe Mary was truly a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus.” “Too many people have been oppressed in the name of God to still make believing possible.” “Because Jesus is mainly a guiding principle for me, my Faith in Him would not be affected if it would appear that he never actually existed as a historical individual.” “Ultimately, religion is a commitment without having absolute certainty.” “God grows together with the history of humanity and therefore is changeable.” “I am well aware, that my beliefs are only one possibility among so many others.” “There is no absolute meaning in life, only direction-giving, which is different for each one of us.”

I can understand that some people would find ECSIP a good way for Catholic schools to dialogue with a pluralist culture, but frankly I think it undermines everything the schools were set up to achieve. I can understand why many priests have refused to have it in their schools.

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