A living tradition


Two people who were involved in the development of This is Our Faith, the Religious Education syllabus for Catholic schools in Scotland – and who prepare education students to teach it in schools – offer a response to John Stoer’s article in the August/September edition of Open House.

John Stoer’s critique of This is Our Faith, the RE syllabus for Catholic schools in Scotland provides a welcome opportunity to engage in reflection and discussion ahead of the 10th anniversary of the publication of this landmark document. 

By way of providing some context to this response, it is worth highlighting that while the Catholic RE curriculum in Scotland is under the jurisdiction of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland (as a result of the 1918 (Scotland) Act) agreement was reached that it would adopt the same structures and framework of the Scottish national curriculum, Curriculum for Excellence by providing Experiences and Outcomes.  This is a feature of all other national curriculum documents including that for Religious and Moral Education used in the nondenominational sector. 

Such agreement has resulted in theological content and Church teaching being presented and published in Education Scotland’s curriculum documentation—highly symbolic of the Catholic Church’s prominence and current vitality in the Scottish Education system. This is Our Faith, henceforth TiOF, is the supplementary document, produced and published by the Church, that puts flesh onto the bones of the Experiences and Outcomes

John Stoer’s article provides a timely catalyst for discussion on the document and, indeed, debate about the purpose of RE in our Catholic schools.  Interestingly, very little has been written about TiOF, perhaps owing to a lack of fora or opportunity for scholarly discourse on matters pertaining to Catholic Education in Scotland. 

In responding to some of John’s key points, this article suggests that a formal review of RE in Scotland should take place and presents further observations that would benefit from reflection and discussion.  It will suggest a way of continuing the conversation informally and stimulating dialogue on other related Catholic education matters.

Key points

The first of John’s key points which we would like to address is the amount of content (‘core learning’) which teachers are expected to teach. The core learning is found in section 4 of TiOF, which runs to 288 pages.  As John notes, ‘given the length of the latter, it is very difficult to discern what is essential, what is really core learning, as opposed to what is supplementary’.  

It was perhaps inevitable that content was progressively added to TiOF as it passed through the different layers of development: from the writing team to consultation with the overall development team, theological advisers and the Holy See.  Each added what they felt was missing, but a review might profitably slim down the document in light of teachers’ experience of teaching such a high volume of content.  It should also be made clearer that – in the S1 to S6 section – there is already a distinction between what is core (currently written on a clear background) and what is supplementary or illustrative (currently written on a grey background).  A revising team could undertake the same task in the P1-P7 section, teasing out the core from the supplementary for the primary sector.  

A rationalisation review could proceed by prioritising what Pope Francis calls, ‘the essentials, what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.  The message [which] is simplified, while losing none of its depth and truth’ (Evangelli Gaudium 35).  In short, the kerygmatic core.  

Catechesis in the Vatican II era moved rapidly from the existing catechism-based religious instruction through kerygmatic-focussed catechesis towards life-centred approaches1.  In recent years popular authors such as Fr James Mallon2 and Sherry Weddell3 have drawn upon the teachings of Pope Francis and the Aparecida documents to argue for the kerygmatic proclamation of the death and Resurrection of Jesus the Saviour to be a model for the whole of evangelisation: could it be time to consider a return of the kerygmatic model to Catholic religious education?  If applied to TiOF, such prioritising of the core of faith would respond to John’s laudable defence of the hierarchy of truths, and also his insistence on the need for a more Christo-centric document, all the while making the volume of content more manageable.  

It is very unfortunate if the existing Christo-centric nature of TiOF is not evident.  The intention of the writing team was that the Son of God strand of faith, presented with scriptural richness and nuance, would be the hub of all the other learning.  For example, the Second Level (P5-7) core learning in every strand revolves around the portrait of Jesus and the theological concerns present in the three synoptic Gospels. These provide the key themes for the whole year.  In secondary, the traditional Scottish RE presentation of the portrait of Jesus by Mark (S1), Luke (S2) and Matthew (S3) was also largely retained. Therefore we feel that John’s opinion that the Magisterium is prioritised over Scripture, as well as the Church over Christ, is wide of the mark.  

Nonetheless, it is instructive that this is the impression gleaned by such an astute and experienced practitioner. 

 Overall vision

The proposed review would also be in a position to formulate an overall vision and strategy outlining the relative place of home, school and parish in faith development, rather than leaving a systematic presentation of the faith to take place in school alone.  A leaner syllabus would also allow more space for the exploration of issues ‘in light of the great existential questions that face all humanity’, and room for personal search, as the students’ maturity and intellectual subtlety progresses.  Indeed we see great potential to undertake such work within the existing strands of faith framework, with Mystery of God and In the Image of God.

 One potential obstacle, as John notes, is the question of how personal search can be undertaken in light of TiOF, given the rationale that ‘teachers must propose Roman Catholic beliefs and values as objectively true. By making this claim, the idea of God becomes separated from human consciousness’. This deserves serious reflection.  

As Thomas Groome points out, every religion makes truth claims4, and Christianity in particular is tied to truth since it is a religion rooted in historical events – such as the Exodus, the Incarnation, the Resurrection.  The eternal God remains mysterious and unknown, yet is also revealed.  Because of this, our faith and its expression will always remain both declarative and apophatic, spoken and unspeakable.  

Within this delicate balance, as a community of faith we can say ‘we believe/ understand/ know’ that e.g. Jesus is the Son of God.  Appearing in TiOF as ‘I’ rather than ‘we’ language, it functions as an expression, as it were, of the corporate faith of the school community as Catholic.  The use of ‘I’ language – rightly praised by John for its personal import – has nonetheless the inherent disadvantage of suggesting that each individual pupil adheres to the truth of faith: this is not the intention.  We might say instead that the ‘I’ is the I of Credo, the corporate ‘I believe’ of the Church, translated as ‘we believe’ in the original English language version of Pope Paul’s 1970 Novus Ordo Missal.  

Students must be free to find their place vis-à-vis the Church’s belief, and they can be invited into the truth which, in Catholic teaching, is a relationship and a person, Jesus Christ. Thus, our faith is a living tradition embodied in the community of faith, and we are always penetrating deeper into its mystery.  Any document is a snapshot of the living tradition, and itself must be a living document – not least so it can progressively incorporate the insights of the Magisterium itself.

In this light, it is important to consider the impact that any review of TiOF would have on the ‘recognitio’ status granted by the Vatican, which confirmed TiOF as the ‘definitive text’ to be used when teaching RE in Scotland’s Catholic schools. Gaining recognitio—which was the assent of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation of the Clergy (interestingly, not the Congregation for Catholic Education)—has been described by the Church in Scotland as ‘a rare and momentous achievement’.  

While such an accolade is understandably desirable by some, since it arguably elevates a document’s status, a significant disadvantage is that core texts such as TiOF (as noted above) are unable to operate as ‘living’ documents, constantly reviewing and updating content in response to lived teacher experience, critiques, national developments, Church teachings and encyclicals such as Laudato Si’ – which would significantly enhance the Mystery of God strand).  The recognitio decree, found at the front of TiOF, states clearly that ‘any subsequent revisions will require the necessary approval to be obtained’: the extended timescale required to attain approval of the original TiOF from the Holy See suggests that the acceptance of future revisions would also take a substantial amount of time.  These observations raise questions about the value of the recognitio status. We suggest here that any review should consider replacing the current hard copy with a more accessible online ‘living’ document that can easily be adapted when required, and – if desired – submitted periodically for updated recognitio.

Religious Education in schools continues to be passionately debated in a range of faith and non-faith contexts across the world.  John Stoer has started a welcome conversation about how it is presented and taught in Catholic Schools in Scotland.  We hope that conversation continues and recommend that any review of TiOF takes the time to elicit and reflect on the perspectives of learned and experienced practitioners such as John Stoer.  

Finally, given that there is a shortage of platforms for scholarly discourse on Catholic Education, the St Andrew’s Foundation has decided to set up a blog forum with the aim of generating dialogue on matters relating to Catholic Education in general (see https://www.gla.ac.uk/research/az/standrewsfoundation/).  We hope and pray that it will help nurture a living tradition, alive with the ‘freshness of the Gospel’ (Evangelli Gaudium, 11).


Dr Roisín Coll is Director of the St Andrew’s Foundation for Catholic Teacher Education, and Fr Stephen Reilly is Co-ordinator of Spiritual and Pastoral Formation, both in the School of Education at the University of Glasgow.

[1] See Franchi, L. (2016). Shared Mission: Religious Education in the Catholic Tradition. London: Scepter, pp. 65-78.

[2] Mallon, J. (2014). Divine Renovation: Bringing your Parish from Maintenance to Mission. New London (CT), Twenty-Third Publications.

[3]  Weddell, S. A. (2012). Forming Intentional Disciples: the Path to Knowing and Following Jesus. Huntingdon (IN): Our Sunday Visitor.

[4] Groome, T. (2007). Advice to Beginners—and to Myself, Religious Education, 102:4, 362-366.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.