This is our faith
A retired head teacher argues that a fundamental review of Scotland’s programme of Catholic religious education for young people is long overdue.
Anyone who sets out to review critically a programme or scheme of Catholic religious education, henceforth RCRE, must recognise how difficult it is to write a good programme. On the one hand it must faithfully present Catholic Christianity and, on the other, it must try to interest and engage young people. The comments that follow on the scheme for Scotland, This is Our Faith (2011 & 2015), henceforth TIOF, must be understood in that context. The purpose of this critical review is not to offer a comprehensive analysis but to identify its main strengths and weaknesses, and hopefully encourage discussion. The focus is on classroom teaching and learning and given the nature of my own experience, much of what follows refers to secondary RCRE.
One of the strengths of TIOF is its stress on knowledge. Criticism has been made in the past that RCRE programmes were too focused on experience and, as a result, pupils’ knowledge was deficient. This criticism could not be made of TIOF. The criticism that could be made is 1) what and how much knowledge, 2) how to use and evaluate what you know, and 3) how to relate your knowledge and your life experience.
What and how much knowledge
The content (knowledge and understanding) is found in what is called the core learning and the theological framework. The latter ‘is intended to provide readers with an accurate outline of the main teachings and traditions of the Catholic faith which will be addressed in Catholic religious education’.1 Together with the related core learning, it is divided into eight strands: Mystery of God, In the image of God, Revealed Truth of God, Son of God, Signs of God, Word of God, Hours of God, and Reign of God. The framework is relatively short, only 16 pages of text, whilst the learning outcomes are lengthy, 288 for P1 to S6. As both framework and outcomes are divided into the eight strands, and 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.
The theological framework could be described as a selective summary of the Catechism as it tries to present an understanding of Catholicism. Despite ‘the central place of Jesus Christ’ being emphasised in the introduction and the repeated reference to God in the titles of the strands, the focus for learning is the Church. For instance, in the first strand, the mystery of God, the theological framework refers not to the good news of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:1-8) or the good news of God (Mk 1:14-15) but to ‘[t]he Good News of Christianity’.2 This emphasis on the Church leads to a reduced emphasis on Sacred Scripture, and a sharp distinction between the Church and the world.
With regard to Scripture, you might expect the theological explanation of the word of God strand to be an opportunity to stress its importance. In six short paragraphs, only three are devoted solely to Scripture and only one suggests how it might be used to inspire and encourage Christian life. There is no other specific section or strand on Scripture and an over-riding impression is the importance of Sacred Tradition and the authoritative interpretation of Scripture by the Magisterium, emphasised twice. In justifying this emphasis, TIOF makes selective reference to the Catechism. It does not mention, as the Catechism does, that the ‘Magisterium is not superior to the word of God, but is its servant’ (Catechism 86); or, that ‘the Church desires that in the ministry of the word, Sacred Scripture should have a pre-eminent position’ (General Directory for Catechesis 127).
TIOF aims to be faithful to Church teaching. It does, however, in its theological framework, demonstrate a particular interpretation of Church teaching in making a sharp distinction between the Church and the world. Consideration of three strands provides evidence of this. The seven paragraphs in the signs of God strand has one sentence on God’s presence in all people and all creation. The remainder is devoted to God’s presence in the Church and in the sacraments. In the hours of God strand, the focus is entirely on prayer and the liturgy with no mention that all hours belong to God including hours at work, at play, with our family and friends, and when we work for God’s Kingdom. The reign of God strand, where you might expect an explanation of the Church being of service to and a sign of the Kingdom, simply equates the Church and the Kingdom of God. There is no suggestion that human advancement and the Kingdom might be related; there is no mention that the active presence of the Holy Spirit can be found outside of the Church; or that the Church can learn from the adherents of other religions and those with no religion. This strong emphasis on the Church vies with and at times replaces a Christo-centric focus.
Without the Church we cannot know Christ but the Church is not the object of Christian worship and, as Henri de Lubac SJ explains, ‘we cannot believe in her as we believe in the Author of salvation’.3 The problem is compounded by the instruction in 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. David Grumett, in his study of de Lubac, argues that if you consider your understanding of God to be objective, you will ‘quite possibly have concealed within it particular suppositions which present God in the image of particular powerful voices in Church or theology and silence other voices’.4 TIOF, especially in its theological framework, is in danger of doing just that.
Using and evaluating knowledge
A range of skills that should be developed in RCRE are identified in TIOF. It is a good list which, if applied to the subject content, is an excellent basis for understanding academic rigour as it includes interpreting experience as well as critical thinking and analysis. The problem lies in the application of the skills to the content. TIOF states that the central purpose of RCRE is to assist learners to respond to ‘God’s call to relationship’. When presenting this call, teachers are advised, as mentioned earlier, that they ‘must propose Roman Catholic beliefs and values as objectively true’.5 This statement immediately limits the range of skills that can be applied in RCRE. No reference is made, for instance, to the historical development of doctrine, to better understanding and expression of what a doctrine means, or to the authority of a teaching. For instance, if pupils are taught that ‘the sacraments were willed and instituted by Christ’ (TIOF 41) and later discover that a comprehensive doctrine of the seven sacraments did not exist before the middle ages, what else might they come to question? If Catholic beliefs and values are objectively true what need is there for critical, interpretive and evaluative activity. Critical thinking, whilst listed as one of the skills to be developed, applies only to the search for meaning in life. There is no example in the core learning from P1 to S6 of critical enquiry being applied to Church teaching.
Relating knowledge and life experience
A strength of TIOF is the acknowledgement that RCRE ‘will involve a process of continual dialogue between the life experience of the learner and the various elements of Catholic Christian faith’.6 As a result, learning outcomes start with the first person. For instance: ‘I have deepened my understanding of the Reign of God by considering the meaning of the Beatitudes’.7 This is a helpful way of showing a living faith. The problem is that the link to experience in the learning outcomes is always prescriptive and limited. No attempt is made to distil or prioritise the large quantity of content in light of the experience of young people. The writers of TIOF will be fully aware that that most young people in Catholic schools and their parents do not attend Mass in their parish on a regular basis, that agreement with Church teaching is contested, and that the Church herself has been and remains the subject of criticism and, at times, ridicule. They have, however, chosen to ignore this reality. There is no suggestion as to how the content might be interpreted in different ways, no question of disagreement with Church teaching, of a diversity of views within the Catholic community or how this might be addressed by a teacher or pupil. The Church and its teaching are always portrayed in an idealised, homogenous manner and ahistorical manner. There is no hint of the idea of the Church as a pilgrim people, that ‘Christ summons the Church to continual reformation’ which includes her moral conduct, Church discipline, and even the way that Church teaching has been formulated.8
Conscious that non-Catholic pupils attend Catholic schools, TIOF explains that RCRE must be suitable for all pupils through contributing to their personal search for meaning. It outlines different responses that are possible for Christians, other faiths, and all learners, which presumably include those with no religion. This is helpful but it assumes that young people can be divided into discrete categories when a young person’s identity is often fluid and could, for even a baptised Catholic, include faith, doubt and antipathy to religion. It makes no reference to examining one’s choices more deeply, or a more general search for meaning in light of the great existential questions that face all humanity. In delivering these learning outcomes, the onus is placed on the teacher to be sensitive to the differences. Given the nature of the outcomes and the way they are framed, it is difficult to see how they might be adapted by a teacher and apply to all the young people in the classroom. For instance, the S2 outcome, ‘I know that Jesus is truly divine and truly human and I can acknowledge Him as our Saviour who brings the New Covenant’, does not allow much scope for adaptation.9
TIOF does, however, recognise that we live in a pluralist world and explains briefly the Church’s attitude to other Christians and other religions. In the units on Judaism, Islam and other religions, from P3 onwards, there is some, though limited, opportunity for learning from as well as about other religions. The scheme is explicit that it will not include ‘stances for living that may be independent of religious belief’.10 Given that recent data indicates that 74 per cent of all 18-34 year olds in Scotland say they have no religion this is an interesting decision to have made.11 When young people leave a Catholic school you would hope that some attempt might have been made to equip them for respond to and learn from the religious beliefs of others and those, possibly the majority, who say they have no religion. By ignoring the non-religious, the field is clear for secular arguments to go unchallenged and for the Catholic understanding that all men and women are by nature religious not to be articulated.
The strengths of TIOF include its focus on knowledge, the skills it identifies, and its insistence that knowledge is related to experience. These strengths, however, contain within them serious weaknesses. There is simply too much knowledge and too much of it is about the Church. As a result, a Christo-centric focus is lost. What is even more problematic is the theological framework which does not place appropriate emphasis on Sacred Scripture, and creates a sharp distinction between the Church and the world. Whilst the list of skills is good, they are not uniformly transferred and exemplified in the learning outcomes. For instance, there are no examples of critical thinking and analysis being applied to Church teaching. A particular weakness of TIOF is that it shows little awareness of current social and ecclesial conditions including plurality and diversity in Scotland as a whole, and within the Catholic community. Any desire by young people to exercise personal agency or choice in a search for meaning is ignored, as is the reality of no religion despite its prevalence amongst young people.
A fundamental review of TIOF is long overdue and should try to bring together three themes: the core beliefs of Catholic Christianity with its focus on Christ; the experience of young people and their search for meaning; and the need for RCRE to be good education, including being open to critical thinking.
John Stoer is a retired head teacher who has just completed a PhD on the development of a new approach to Catholic religious education using the resources of the Catholic theological tradition.
1 TIOF 22. No distinction is ever made in TIOF between Tradition and traditions.
2 TIOF 25.
3 Henri de Lubac SJ, The Splendour of the Church, trans. Michael Mason (London: Sheed & Ward, 1986), 20. (Reprint of 1979 edition, first published in 1956).
4 David Grumett, De Lubac: A Guide for the Perplexed (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2007), 116.
5 TIOF 16.
6 TIOF 10.
7 TIOF 259.
8 Unitatis redintegratio 6.
9 TIOF 243.
10 TIOF 18.
11 ScotCen. ‘Scots with no religion at record level’. http://scotcen.org.uk/news-media/press-releases/2017/july/scots-with-no-religion-at-record-level/