Education in the Catholic Tradition: Maintaining the Ethos and Identity of Catholic Schools


I was privileged to give a public lecture in Maynooth College, Ireland, on February 20 2017 on the topic of Ethos and Identity in Catholic Schools. The talk was arranged by seminarians who have formed the Saint John Paul II Theological Society. The host for the evening was Rev Dr John Paul Sheridan. I am grateful to the staff of Maynooth for their warm hospitality and to the audience for their patience and fine questions.

Please find below the text of the talk.


The use of ‘tradition’ in the title of this talk is instructive: the Catholic Church to which we belong by Baptism and the bonds of communio is dedicated to the integral formation of the human person. The history of the Church shows our spiritual family alive and moving at the heart of educational reform. No good history of education textbook, for example, could possibly ignore the vital contribution of our religious orders to the development of education. Implicit in the word ‘tradition’ is, of course, a sense of continuity. Religious orders, alongside legions of lay people, continue to be involved in the urgent mission of education.

This evening I wish to reflect on some of the challenges facing Catholic education. I do not wish, however, to give the impression that Catholic education has never faced opposition until recent times. Far from it. Nonetheless, a cluster of related themes currently challenges the integrity of what we seek to do. I begin by reflecting on Ethos and Identity. I follow this by exploring two important developments in contemporary Catholic Education and end with two points for reflection.

Ethos and Identity: Forging a Catholic Culture

In her new book, Catholic Theology, the Australian theologian, Tracey Rowland, juxtaposes logos and ethos. She sets out the classic distinction of logos as the intellectual logic behind a set of ideas with ethos referring to the embodiment of ideas in social practices. Drawing on the work of Romano Guardini, Rowland suggests that a favouring of ethos over logos could lead, potentially, to a removal of the essential fabric of Catholic teaching from its institutional practices. We need to keep this distinction in mind.

In what does this ‘essential fabric’ consist? What does it mean to have a Catholic identity? As Catholics, our identity is as children of God, made in His image, wounded by sin, redeemed by the Paschal Sacrifice and called to holiness. Therefore, the identity of our Catholic institutions must reflect and encourage this ideal.

The many ideas inherent in the term ‘ethos and identity’ can be very well expressed in the short word ‘culture’. Indeed, in simple arithmetical terms we can say that, in the context of Catholic schools, ethos + identity = Catholic culture.

In Rebuilding Catholic Culture: How the Catechism Can Shape Our Common Life, Ryan Topping summarises beautifully the essence of Catholic culture:

‘Whenever the Gospel encounters nations and tribes and tongues, what is human is taken up into what is divine and nevertheless not destroyed. Catholic culture is thus a culture informed by revelation, robed in flesh, enriched through time’ (p. 227).

‘Taken up into what is divine and nevertheless not destroyed’ and ‘robed in flesh’ remind us that Catholic education is at the heart of world, not hovering over temporal matters, quick to condemn and even quicker to seek its privileges. No, our hands must get dirty, our hearts pained. The good Catholic educator should have much to pray for – and go to bed tired!

Our schools are ecclesial bodies, fully part of the life of the Church, not an annex operating to different rules and terms of engagement. Yet they are also civic institutions, open to all and in constant dialogue with the state and a wide range of parties with an interest in education. In stark terms, teachers are not the frontline troops of the Bishops and the Bishops are not the quartermasters of the teachers! This rather strong image reflects the mystery of communion, which, I suggest, is the most appropriate and theologically rich image of Church available to us. Communio encourages space for reflection on the implications of unity in diversity: Catholic schools, as communities of faith and learning, can (and do) come in many shapes and sizes. This diversity should reflect the unity of faith which binds us.

Sadly, any talk of diversity contains seeds of misunderstanding. For some Catholics, a commitment to diversity overcomes the commitment to unity, leading to dissent, heterodoxy, and, ultimately, deformation of the inherited Tradition. I will say no more about this.

To see how the seemingly contradictory concept of unity in diversity is essential to an authentic Catholic worldview, we can refer to a document called Unity of Faith and Theological Pluralism, published by the International Theological Commission in 1972. There is no direct reference to the Church’s explicit educational mission here but we do find a suitably refined treatment of some important themes. Catholicism, we read, is not an invitation to adopt a monochrome vision of the world but an invitation to see God’s providence in creation and in the Church’s heritage. We are also warned, however, against a false pluralism which moves further and further away from Truth towards ‘pragmatic co-operation lacking any sense of community in the truth’.

‘Even if the present situation of the Church encourages pluralism, plurality discovers its limits in the fact that faith creates the communion of men in the truth, which has been made accessible in Christ. This makes inadmissible every conception of faith that would reduce it to a purely pragmatic cooperation, lacking any sense of community in the truth. This truth is not linked to any theological systematization, but it is expressed in the normative proclamations of the Faith. Faced with doctrinal statements that are gravely ambiguous, even perhaps incompatible with the Faith of the Church, the Church has the capacity to discern error and the duty to dispel it, even resorting to the formal rejection of heresy as the final remedy for safeguarding the Faith of the people of God’ (8).

In brief, Catholic schools are not schools for Catholics: they are schools for all, rooted in a solid Catholic world view which informs a wider view of education. This is how a vision of Catholic truth (unity) is expressed in different contexts (diversity). The Church’s educational tradition is not, and cannot, be simply geared towards explicit evangelisation and catechesis of the school’s pupil population (of which more later) but is the ‘casting of nets’ in deep waters, an invitation to all to look at the mystery of life and therein to engage with what it means to be a human person.  St John Paul II, in his visit to St Andrew’s College (Scotland) in 1982 put it as follows:

‘Perhaps we could reflect on the philosophy behind education: education as the completing of the person. To be educated is to be more fitted for life; to have a greater capacity for appreciating what life is, what it must offer, and what the person must offer in return to the wider society of man. Thus, if we would apply our modern educational skills and resources to this philosophy, we might succeed in offering something of lasting value to our pupils and students, an antidote to often immediate prospects of frustration and boredom, not to mention the uncertainty of the long-term future.’

We note her that there is no direct reference to religion. That is not a cause for alarm as the conceptualisation of education as a means of human formation is a truly ‘Catholic thing’. We see this line of thinking reflected in Pope Benedict’s trenchant criticism of contemporary educational trends encapsulated in his use of the term ‘educational emergency’:

‘Daily experience tells us — as we all know — that precisely in our day educating in the faith is no easy undertaking. Today, in fact, every educational task seems more and more arduous and precarious. Consequently, there is talk of a great “educational emergency”, of the increasing difficulty encountered in transmitting the basic values of life and correct behaviour to the new generations, a difficulty that involves both schools and families and, one might say, any other body with educational aims.’

For Pope Benedict, the ‘educational emergency’ is not solely a crisis in Catholic education. It is a crisis in the culture of education with consequent grave consequences for Catholic education – and indeed for catechesis. At the core of this ‘emergency’ is the dominant understanding of truth as relative: there is no truth apart from the fact that there is no truth! While it is important to assist students to develop knowledge and understanding, teachers are conduits leading towards the inherited traditions which, in turn, make demands of the student in terms of application. We teach by setting out key ideas but with the insistence that students refer, as appropriate, to primary sources: as St Augustine said in De Magistro (On the Teacher), ‘Who is so foolishly curious that he would send his son to school in order to learn what the teacher thinks?’ –  a motif which should be carved into the entrance of every Catholic school, college and university!

Pope Benedict has rightly targeted, without mentioning it by name, this way of thinking which remains common in many educational institutions. We do our pupils and parents a disservice if we diminish the ‘chain of memory’…

The recent address (February 13, 2017) by Pope Francis to the Congregation for Catholic Education develops the lines sketched out by Pope Benedict. Pope Francis has picked up on the tension between unity and diversity but frames it in the context of dialogue. He introduces a phrase ‘grammar of dialogue’ alongside a succinct definition of unity in diversity for educators:

‘Dialogue, in fact, educates when a person relates with respect, esteem, sincerity in listening and expresses himself with authenticity, without obfuscating or mitigating his identity nourished by evangelical inspiration.’

It is the role of the Catholic teacher and, by extension, all agencies dedicated to Catholic education, to develop ways in which this dialogue can take place in the secular word. To do this, we would benefit from taking some time to reflect on recent developments in Catholic thinking on education. Only then can we give expression to a desired ‘authenticity’.

Contemporary Developments in Catholic Education

 Contemporary teaching on Catholic education is developed from Gravissimum Educationis (Vatican II’s Declaration on Christian Education) and the subsequent body of teaching issued by the Congregation for Catholic Education. However, in the spirit of the ‘hermeneutic of continuity’, we acknowledge that Gravissimum Educationis is itself rooted in previous Magisterial teaching, notably the Encyclical Divini Illius Magistri, by Pope Pius XI in 1929.

There are two principal themes in the body of teaching which merit careful study and which, ideally, will help us develop a vibrant, faith-filled and outward-facing Catholic culture in our schools: the Catholic school as site of intercultural dialogue and the relationship between catechesis and school-based Religious Education.

Before dealing in more detail with each theme, it is important to bear in mind their interconnectedness. As good theology is a symphony of themes, Catholic education harmonises theology, educational thought and culture.  Pigeon holes are great for letters and pigeons, but not for ideas! In this part of my talk, I will refer principally to the Congregation for Catholic Education’s 2013 document, Educating to Intercultural Dialogue in Catholic Schools: Living in Harmony for a Civilization of Love. This long teaching document, the latest major piece by the Congregation, is a good starting point for study of recent Catholic teaching on education.

Educating to Intercultural Dialogue will take some time to digest, especially its title. For those unfamiliar with the developments in Catholic teaching on education since the Council, it might take even longer! Essentially, the Congregation is recognising the reality of life in the Catholic school: the pupils are not all Catholics, the Catholic pupils are not all from practising families and the socio-political environment is often hostile to religion in general, and Catholicism in particular. This might not be, at first sight, an ideal set of circumstances but there is nothing new in this. We must, however, be clear: the fostering of intercultural dialogue is not simply a response to a lived reality but is, rather, a fresh dimension to the conceptual framework of Catholic education. As the (Gentile) Wise Men followed the star to the Jewish homeland, all people can find the means of human formation in the Catholic school.

In the Introduction to Educating to Intercultural Dialogue, we read as follows:

‘Schools have a great responsibility in this field, called as they are to develop intercultural dialogue in their pedagogical vision. This is a difficult goal, not easy to achieve, and yet it is necessary. Education, by its nature, requires both openness to other cultures, without the loss of one’s own identity, and an acceptance of the other person, to avoid the risk of a limited culture, closed in on itself.’

To what extent, therefore, are we promoting intercultural dialogue? Of course, difficulties can easily arise when we encounter unhelpful views in those with whom we wish to be in dialogue. Dialogue, by definition, needs willing interlocutors: without them we remain gazing at the starting line. Is it the case that so-called ‘progressive’ education is open to religion only in the context of religion’s willingness to recognise and support a ‘progressive’ agenda? This is the nub of the issue and reminds us that a Catholic school committed to intercultural dialogue is committing, in a sense, to the taking up of the cross in the public square.

The varying levels of hostility towards the influence of religion in schools is a sign of a continuing recognition of the importance of religion in civic society. This gives Catholic schools an opportunity to reframe debates in order to teach about the value of religion and religious ways of thinking to wider society. Before continuing, please be assured that I am not about to make an argument in favour of a phenomenological approach to Religious Education, nor to a broader religious studies curriculum in place of a Catholic-centred approach…

When we talk about catechesis and Religious Education as separate yet distinctive ways of Catholic formation, we are using the language of communio. This partnership recognises their different spheres of influence, conceptual frameworks and pedagogical preferences; it also accepts that they feed into and draw from each other. It is, in practice, a pedagogical diversity rooted in a cultural and theological unity. Educating to Intercultural Dialogue sums it up as follows:

‘Moreover, it must be pointed out that teaching the Catholic religion in schools has its own aims, different from those of catechesis. In fact, while catechesis promotes personal adherence to Christ and maturing of the Christian life, school teaching gives the students knowledge about Christianity’s identity and the Christian life’ (74).

In other words, they need each other. To say that Religious Education is not primarily a catechetical endeavour does not minimise the catholicity of the school: it is, rather, a spur to improve the teaching of doctrine in a meaningful and culturally enriching way. That is what we mean by teaching the students ‘knowledge about Christianity’s identity and the Christian life.’ All Catholic schools should have core theology on the curriculum: for the Catholic pupils, this might also serve as a form of catechesis but only implicitly: genuine catechesis comes from wider and meaningful integration into the life of the Church. For those pupils who are not part of the Catholic tradition, this curriculum is primarily ‘knowledge-based’  which asks for reflexivity but does not expect a lived commitment to the tradition. Such a differentiation of expectation is a mark of a mature Catholic school, secure in its culture and confident in its inheritance. It is also, I suggest, a valuable contribution to the New Evangelisation.

In proposing a knowledge-rich and culturally accessible curriculum, the Church is in line with the Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching About Religions and Beliefs in Public School. A case could be made that the Toledo Principles are nicely packaged statements about religious ideas but not applicable to the life of the Catholic school. Like all public policy statements about religion, there will rarely be close attachment to one religious tradition. That is to be expected but we should rejoice at the high profile afforded to Religious Education. Although Religious Education in the Catholic school is rooted in the study of one major religious tradition, this does not mean that minds are closed to other ideas. What we wish for is communication of knowledge, intellectual stimulation and cultural enrichment.

What is often left to one side in this debate is the nature of catechesis beyond the school. Is it the case that for many Catholic pupils, the Catholic school is now the sole site of religious formation? Probably yes – but that should encourage us to think more deeply about the New Evangelisation and the loci for and nature of catechesis, not simply transfer all our catechetical energy into the life of the school. We will leave that topic for another talk!

As noted at the start of this section, religion and associated ways of thinking remain part of daily life. Religion is visible in architecture and dress in our streets today. Furthermore, we cannot study art, music and literature without being immersed in religious ways of thinking and their myriad expression in culture. Take away religious paintings from our major European galleries and we are left with acres of empty rooms.

A robust Religious Education curriculum is a response to the perceived demise of religious literacy – a term currently fashionable as an indicator of how people demonstrate even a basic grasp of religious language and related ways of thinking. Is it (religious literacy) the best term available? Perhaps yes – but ‘perhaps not’ as well. Surprisingly, I found myself nodding in agreement with some of the comments made by the National Secular Society in evidence submitted in April 2016 to the (UK) All-Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education. In particular, I was struck by their advocacy of the term ‘religious knowledge’ as a replacement for ‘religious literacy’, although other parts of the document did not leave me nodding in agreement. The important point is that despite a carapace of hostility towards some expressions of religion, there was a hook there which could be a starting point for dialogue.

To ignore the language, culture and practices of religion is to engage in historical agnosticism and self-denial. Religious literacy/knowledge, while not co-terminous with religious belief, is a mark of a civilised society. In this respect, the Catholic school’s status as a site of intercultural dialogue informs its Religious Education curriculum: the fostering of religious literacy/knowledge is, I suggest, a sure means of cultural enrichment and a possible means of pre-evangelisation. How much we need this today!


Concluding Remarks

 As we look ahead, we do so with courage, faith and hope. The two great theological leitmotifs of recent times, ressourcement and aggiornamento are the lodestars of the renewal of Catholic culture. As we move forward energised by Tradition and fed by the words of the great minds of the Church, we take our inheritance and present if afresh to new generations.

It is my deeply-held conviction that to enhance the mission and identity of Catholic schools we must look honestly at how we support teachers in Catholic schools. This is not to deny the vital role of parents in education but simply to recognise that the quality of a Catholic school lies in the quality of its teachers.

I now feel that I should ‘take a liberty’ and make some concrete pastoral suggestions.

Love the Mass

For all Catholics, the Mass is the centre of a life of faith. Catholic teachers must love the Mass, prepare for Mass well, participate fully in the Mass and allow the Mass to be the source and summit of all they do. Of course, ‘Love of the Mass’ without any professional competence is problematic. I would not argue that a solid faith is all that matters for a prospective Catholic teacher: the ongoing professional development we wish to promote must be allied to ongoing faith formation opportunities. Yet love of the Mass is essential for the Catholic teacher. Here are three things to think about:

  • Is daily Mass available for teachers at a suitable time?
  • Do we encourage a deep study of the theology of the Mass with recognition of the importance of liturgy in Catholic life?
  • Do we offer opportunities for Eucharistic devotion outwith the Mass – perhaps with Benediction at the end of an In-Service Day?


Value frequent Confession

 Confession can get a bad press but permit me to  offer an interesting angle on the importance of this sacrament. We see in education the ongoing importance of professional reflection and how this is a factor in good practice. In wider life, we are always looking at ways in which to make our lives better, more efficient and, perhaps, more productive. For example, we tend not to make big purchases without doing some form of price/quality comparison. Well, we can see Confession as the reform process of our own spiritual life. It is reflective practice par excellence for Catholic teachers. If our professional life as teachers is linked to our spiritual life, it is reasonable to ask ourselves how well we are ‘doing’ in our relationship with God and others. Here are three things to think about:

  • Do we stick to a regular time for confession?
  • How well do we prepare for confession?
  • Do we do an examination of conscience before retiring at night?


This evening I have sought to outline some modest ways in which the ethos and identity of the Catholic school can be maintained and enhanced. I am convinced that the key to reform in Catholic education lies in the wider embrace of Catholic culture: indeed, Catholic education is a cultural project in the richest sense of that term. To be a Catholic educator is to live a vocation at the heart of both the Church and world. No one says it is easy because it is a demanding call to holiness. We are called to be no less than saints in the world. This is the obligation placed on us by Baptism. To respond in faith, hope and love to this invitation is, truly, to do the ‘Catholic thing’.


About Leonardo Franchi

Leonardo Franchi is a member of the School of Education at the University of Glasgow. He has many years experience of teaching in schools and universities. He was Director of Catholic Teacher Education at the University of Glasgow from 2012-2016. Leonardo’s principal research interests are in the nature of Religious Education and initial teacher education/formation. He has an MA in Modern Languges, an MEd in Religious Education/Catechesis and PhD in Religious Education. His latest book, Shared Mission: Religious Education in the Catholic Tradition, was published in 2016. He has published articles in scholarly journals on a wide range of topics in the field of Catholic education. Leonardo is a member of the Executive of the Association for Catholic Colleges and Institutes of Education (ACISE), the sectorial branch of the International Federation of Catholic Universities and sits on the Executive of the Scottish Catholic Education Service.
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