Thursday, February 7, 2013

Defending Catholic Education

Dear Theophilus,

An Ontario court recently ruled in favour of a parent who wanted their children who are enrolled in a publicly funded Catholic high school to be exempted from religious education. In all fairness, the court is upholding a law that has been inexistence since 1944, when was made a part of the provincial curriculum (Education Act of Ontario, Part I, Section 11, Paragraph 20). Unfortunately, this decision has set a very dangerous precedent for publicly funded Catholic education in Ontario and elsewhere.

Indeed, these are dangerous times for Catholic education in Ontario. The above mentioned court decision comes only months after the Minister of Education, Laurel Broten, publicly stated that Catholic schools in Ontario do not have the right to teach Catholic doctrine (read about this here). If what both the courts and government are saying is to be taken seriously, there is a not so subtle, and very direct attack being made on Catholic education in Ontario – and those who live in other jurisdictions where Catholic education exists need to be concerned as well.

What I find interesting in all of this is that according to the Ontario Ministry of Education document on religious education – religion class in publicly funded schools is to be about instruction and not indoctrination. As a religion teacher in a publicly funded Catholic high school, I can tell you that this is exactly what goes on. If a parent asks if their child will be evaluated on the strength of their faith, the answer is an unequivocal No – only God can make that evaluation. Students are evaluated on their knowledge of the material presented, how they communicate its relevance to today’s world.

Do I teach Catholic doctrine? Absolutely. Do I refer to Church documents such as the Catechism or Vatican II documents to help answer the students’ questions on Church teaching and why those teachings are relevant to the betterment of society? Of course I do. Do I compel my students to believe Catholic doctrine? Not in the least. What I do ask my students to do is to listen to Catholic teaching, ask any questions they may have, then to form their conscience accordingly. The same way a chef will create a sumptuous feast, but he cannot compel the diner to chew, let alone declare the meal delicious.

During my drive into school this morning I listened to the question of exemptions from religion classes being discussed on Radio-Canada. A listener from Toronto suburb where I live had called in to say he found the proposition very tempting. His children are enrolled in French-language public school, and at grade 7 to remain in a non-denominational school, they would need to be bussed two towns over (a 30 minute drive in light traffic, never mind on a bus during rush-hour), while there is a French-language Catholic high school in the town where we live. In many ways I get his dilemma, as my wife and I debated a similar situation when deciding whether or not to have our son educated in French, French Immersion or in our local English-language school (in the end we were blessed to have French Immersion introduced in our neighbourhood Catholic school).

The caller stated that although he had been raised Catholic, he and his wife are Protestant, so if their children were to attend he would want them to be exempt from religion class, as they get enough religious education at home and in their own church. When the host correctly noted that Catholic teaching permeates the entire life of Catholic schools, from curriculum to extra-curricular activities, to teach Catholic virtues, the caller conceded that he and his wife probably share those same values. From my own experience, I’m convinced that if the listener took the time to research what is taught in Catholic classrooms, he’d probably be pleasantly surprised.

Keeping in mind that in the majority of cases, the reasoning behind non-Catholics choosing to send their children to Catholic schools is proximity, followed by program – the push for exemptions from religious education classes can only be seen as an attack on publicly-funded Catholic education. The outcome of non-Catholics being exempt from religion class in a Catholic school will ultimately be the removal of Catholicism from Catholic education.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a call to ban non-Catholics from our classrooms. If anything, as a religion teacher in a Catholic high school I embrace non-Catholics in my class, as they bring a unique perspective to my lessons that I cannot provide. In fact, by inviting non-Catholics into the religious dialogue, we are following the teaching of Vatican II:

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men. (Nostra Aetate 2)


Today, in many parts of the world, under the inspiring grace of the Holy Spirit, many efforts are being made in prayer, word and action to attain that fullness of unity which Jesus Christ desires. The Sacred Council exhorts all the Catholic faithful to recognize the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism.

The term "ecumenical movement" indicates the initiatives and activities planned and undertaken, according to the various needs of the Church and as opportunities offer, to promote Christian unity. These are: first, every effort to avoid expressions, judgments and actions which do not represent the condition of our separated brethren with truth and fairness and so make mutual relations with them more difficult; then, "dialogue" between competent experts from different Churches and Communities. At these meetings, which are organized in a religious spirit, each explains the teaching of his Communion in greater depth and brings out clearly its distinctive features. In such dialogue, everyone gains a truer knowledge and more just appreciation of the teaching and religious life of both Communions. In addition, the way is prepared for cooperation between them in the duties for the common good of humanity which are demanded by every Christian conscience; and, wherever this is allowed, there is prayer in common. Finally, all are led to examine their own faithfulness to Christ's will for the Church and accordingly to undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform. (Unitatis Redintegratio 4)

Part of the larger problem in this discussion is the misconception of what contemporary Catholic religious education is, with many (Catholics included) seeing it as it once was – the memorization of the Baltimore Catechism. Some of the blame needs to be put on the shoulders of Catholic educators. If we want to defend Catholic education, then we need to be able to articulate why Catholic education matters to the betterment of society. We need to be able to tell the world how Catholic doctrine, social teachings, virtues and Catholic Graduate Expectations will make their children better people.

We need to communicate why Catholic education matters. If we can do that, the parents, like the listener on Radio-Canada, will seek out Catholic schools, not because they are close to home, but because, as the listener stated, the values taught match their own.

If these parents continue to choose Catholic schools with the intent of asking for an exemption from religious education simply because of the school’s proximity, then one can only assume that they are looking for a fight. A fight worth taking on in the defense of Catholic education.

As for my classroom – regardless of the subject matter (geography, history or world religions), it will continue to be permeated with Catholic teachings. Like a chef, I will lay a sumptuous feast out for my students; I pray that they will chew.

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