Dr Joseph M Bradley (Experienced University Lecturer & Secondary School Teacher)
The world tells us to seek success, power and money:
God tells us to seek humility, service and love (Pope Francis).
Western societies are dominated by ideological practices and philosophies characterised by consumption, competition, and achievement. This is reflected in personal, group and national aspirations governed by passions, incentives and actions regarding the production and acquisition of wealth, status, power and material advancement. Partly in this context, directly and indirectly, a conventional school education in Scotland plays a significant role in preparing pupils to ‘fit in’ with society.
Nevertheless, while preparing pupils for the veracities of the real world, Catholic education has an additional and more fundamental role, ethos and mission. It is partly in this context we might ask: are Catholic schools good for Scotland and can or do Catholic schools make the world better? Such questions say something about what Catholic/Christians are tasked with, and what should arguably distinguish them. To assist critique this notion, we might reflect on some well-known words from Mark’s Gospel (8:36):
For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?
Such teaching and wisdom, is invariably absent in terms of an entirely secularised view of the purposes of formal education in western societies, including Scotland. Jesus’ instruction warns against over-estimating, indeed, that we should frequently reject, human inspired and created ambitions, values, status, and achievements.
Mark’s Gospel assists understanding the rationale for Catholic schools. This, in that the words of Jesus offer a counter cultural deduction regarding an education that leads pupils to simply ‘join in’ with the ways of the world. From a Catholic education perspective, this is not enough. Although offering a similar diet to the required and prevailing formal learning experience, theoretically a Catholic education holds the further promise of being characterised by teaching, learning, ambitions, virtues and achievements that are more in line with the teachings of the Gospels than those of a secular society.
In a world that evidences physical beauty and splendour, kindness, charity, compassion and love, it is also overshadowed by cultural, political, economic and social conflict, hedonism, selfishness and violence. Devoid of Jesus at the centre, the socio-economic, politico-cultural ideologies that dominate, can be considered culpable in creating, encouraging, and reflecting these transgressions.
Although a Catholic education has a responsibility to prepare pupils to positively engage with the world as it exists, part of its greater role, like that of the Church itself, is to be a radical voice that recognises, questions and challenges numerous real-world actualities. Such critical engagement is arguably inherent to and a distinguishing feature of a truly Catholic education: also reflected in the rationale and core mission narratives of a Catholic school. Thus, Catholic education can be a reminder of Jesus invitation to “follow Me”.
Catholics too seek to achieve in education, business, culture, sport, politics, etc. However, Jesus (Mark 3:6) offers no solace with regards academic qualifications, wealth, capacity for entrepreneurship, a good singing voice, size of salary, Champions league medals, etc. Whatever merits found in these, on their own they remain inadequate and deficient: even inconsequential.
There is nothing inherently wrong with having money, being the fastest athlete, acquiring a PhD or being an effective businessperson. These have the potential to be functional, beneficial, uplifting, gratifying, rewarding. However, from a Catholic perspective, the merits or otherwise involved depend on what these represent, and the importance given them, with respect to life’s journey. As Mark’s Gospel emphasises, and critical with regards context, if these are gained at the expense of soul then Christ’s teachings have been ignored.
Thus, a Catholic education does not distinguish between the religious/spiritual and the secular. It aims to generate as many pupils as possible that attain academic excellence and/or can use their acquired knowledge, understanding and experiences for self, family and community empowerment and advancement in the real world. However, this is underscored and qualified by the principle need to take in to account the radical and revolutionary attitudes and actions of the Gospels. Such recognition leads to an alternative understanding concerning formal education. This partly includes perceptions of popular notions about progress, achievement, ambition, success, development, etc. Potentially, Catholic education can offer a more ethical understanding and meaning with respect to such conceptualisations.
The task of building God’s Kingdom partly means transforming the existing world to better reflect Gospel virtues. The success or otherwise of a Catholic school in contributing to this, as of course with an incalculable number of other factors and actors (not least of all immediate family), is key as to whether a Catholic education is good for Scotland and makes the world a better place.
In this sense, if decisions of a Catholic educated person are guided by a Christ centred consciousness; knowledge, understanding, motivations and actions, we are guaranteed to have a better world. If a Catholic educated person sees war, poverty, racism, materialism, the politics of food, human sexuality, the human person, the environment, etc, from the perspective of the Gospels, and if this person reflects commensurate attitudes and virtues and acts accordingly, for that individual at least, and almost certainly for some that experience, even imitate, their witness, the Catholic school has succeeded in its mission. In this way, a Catholic school makes a small contribution to Scotland and the world being truly better places.
In the Jesuit constitutions, Saint Ignatius exclaimed that we can and ought to “seek God our Lord in all things”. Ronald Modras elaborates saying, that if this is so, “then there is no aspect of human endeavour that is outside of grace or inappropriate for Christian service”. St Pope John Paul said in a message to high school students at Maddison Square gardens in 1979:
by the practice of your religion, you are called to give witness to your faith. And because actions speak louder than words, you are called to proclaim, by the conduct of your daily lives, that you really do believe that Jesus Christ is Lord.
For Pope Francis, being motivated by Gospel virtues means proclaiming and living, ‘the reconciliation, forgiveness, peace, unity, and love that the Holy Spirit gives us’. For supporters of Catholic education, the widespread acquisition and practice of such virtues would make for a truly wonderful society. Indeed, what more might we want for Scotland and the world?
Of course, as part of the secularism that often dominates, often aggressively, we also have the real world that Catholic schools exist within. As with numerous other types of schools and educational systems, designs and types – this includes, Catholic failures, lapses, errors (sins), etc. This real world also involves the efficacy that Catholic education relies, on the part of those that proclaim and live it, as well as those that receive, experience, and learn it. Theoretically, philosophically and practically, a Catholic education aims to engage with the reality of the world as it is. This also, whilst constructing it anew and, inspiring, aspiring, hoping, praying and loving, with respect to the world to come. Advocates of Catholic education believe this is good: for Scotland and ‘the real world’ at large.