Friday Filing: What Makes A Catholic School Catholic?

The question of what makes a Catholic school Catholic is one that has been floating around in my head for quite some time, largely I suspect because it is a question that, in one form or another, is being asked in the context of the place where I minister and on various committees, councils and commissions on which I serve. Is a school Catholic because “Religious Education” is taught there? Or is it Catholic because the liturgical life of the Church is celebrated there? Or is it Catholic because there are religious symbols dotted around the school’s campus? Is it something else? Is there no difference?

It is a question that goes to the very heart of why the Catholic Church in Australia, in particular, seems almost welded on to the assumption that we must operate a large non-governmental school system in each and every diocese and state of this nation. I can’t help but continue to ask why we work from that assumption. Why are dioceses so committed to operating systemic schools? What is their purpose? Who are they for?

Very early on, I want to make it clear that there is, I believe, a very real value to the Church operating a system of schools in a diocese. The rider to that, however, is that we need to be exceptionally clear about their purpose, their target ‘audience’, and what we’re expecting from them. If those criteria are not clear, then we simply continue doing what we’ve always done, and that is not always a healthy approach.

The purpose of the Catholic school has changed over the years, and will continue to evolve as the years pass. With the change in enrolment policies which essentially opened up the Catholic school to an increasing percentage of non-Catholic students – which is a fundamental good I would argue – the purpose has changed from simply educating Catholics to educating because the school, the school system, and the staff of both, are Catholic.

This change represents a fundamental shift in orientation for a Catholic school system: no longer is it about ensuring those within the tent of the Church receive a good education in line with Church teaching; it is now about being a missionary presence in the world that provides education because the Church recognises the value of education for all children, and is determined to ensure that same education is available as widely as possible.

But this shift in focus can be confronting. Things cannot continue the way they were, particularly those things that are specifically ‘Catholic’ (eg liturgy, sacraments, etc). If there are non-Catholics in a school, and there should be, then a focus on such things can be counter-productive to the renewed purpose of the Catholic school. Yet some systems seem determined to assess the ‘catholicity’ of a particular Catholic school, or indeed the entire system, by how many times (and what kind of) liturgy is celebrated, or how many crosses are to be found on the campus, or how much and what kind of prayer is used in the school. Almost as if the counting of these things, the metrification of these most Catholic things, is a measurement of just how Catholic that particular school or system is.

And if crosses have to be counted, and liturgy celebrated, for a school to be considered truly Catholic then perhaps it has already failed.

I wish to argue that a Catholic school is truly Catholic not because of the celebration of liturgy or the presence of religious symbols or indeed the percentage of Catholic students enrolled in the school (setting aside for the purposes of this column whether a student is truly ‘Catholic’ just because they attend a ‘Catholic’ school).

A Catholic school is worthy of that descriptor because of the way in which it operates, the way in which it gives witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ through social justice and equity, through being open to all regardless of race or religion, through its engagement with the community in which it exists, through the care it has for students and families who are part of the school community. The difficulty is that it is not easy to quantify these kinds of things; they escape any easy conversion into numbers and figures.

This difficulty in quantification might make it all but impossible to tick boxes or fill out surveys and forms. And yet when these qualities are absent it is clearly obvious that they are absent. Catholicity is, in that sense, a binary thing: either it is obviously present or it is obviously missing. And no amount of the celebration of liturgy, or the presence of crosses can change it. It is entirely possible for the presence of liturgical celebration and religious symbols to hide the absence of the qualities of the true Catholic nature; they become nothing more than window-dressing.

True Catholicity, the measure by which a school or other institution is considered ‘Catholic’, is a nebulous reality, and it is a constant struggle to recognise its presence, which should be celebrated, or its absence, which should be corrected. It requires a constant awareness of what it means to be Catholic here and now, in this time and place – and not what it meant once upon a time in some half-remembered golden age.

As the society in which the Church exists changes, the Church is called to respond accordingly, seeking always to speak the Gospel of Jesus Christ into the world as it now. As for the Church at large, then so for the agencies and institutions of the Church – including the schools operated by the Church. The continuing and constant task is to respond here and now to the demands of the Gospel and its proclamation in the world.

And that might mean that a true Catholic school will be determined less on the presence of symbols and the celebration of liturgy, and more on the way it interacts with the changed and changing setting in which it lives.