Friday Filing: More on the Catholicity of Catholic Schools

A few weeks ago, I wrote my Friday column on the the question of ‘what makes a Catholic school Catholic’ – which you can find by clicking here. In the intervening weeks, the question has continued to percolate away in my mind, with new and exciting aspects of that questions, some of which I had not considered, rising to the top of my consciousness – and often at the most inopportune moments. The purpose of this week’s column, then, is to continue the discussion that I have already started here, and which is also doing the rounds in any number of places.

The Catholic school, when it is fulfilling its primary mission to provide primary or secondary education within a Catholic context, can be one of the great jewels in the Church’s missionary activity, yet it doesn’t completely encompass the fullness of Catholic education. Catholic schools, when the drift away from the missionary dimension of the existence – which as I’ve said is not simply about teaching religious education to Catholic students – Catholic schools stand in danger of losing the sense of their place in the life of the Church, and to claim a greater place for themselves than they rightly occupy.

Catholic schools might be one of the most visible aspects of the Church’s life, yet they should not lose their connection to the primary expression of Church, the parish community that gathers on a Sunday to celebrate Christ’s enduring presence among the People of God, to such a degree that they see themselves as the only expression of the Church. A Catholic school that is disconnected from the gathered worshipping community loses something of its Catholicity, so much so I would argue that the phenomenon I identified in my previous column about needing to celebrate liturgy and count religious symbols to validate the title ‘Catholic’ is a replacement.

The Church does not exist because of the Catholic schools; Catholic schools exist because of the Church, and because of the Church’s clear recognition of the value of good education for all children, and the desire to make that education as widely available as possible. Catholic schools are not, or should not be seen as, a cheap form of private education (most systemic Catholic schools are comparitively cheaper than true ‘private’ schools) much in the same way that they should not be seen solely as a place that educates only those who are Catholic.

In the same way that a true Catholic school will be determined by the way in which it interacts with the changed and changing setting in which it lives, so too will the way in which the Catholic school interacts with the wider Church community contribute to its true Catholicity. A disengagement from the Church community, including the gathered worshipping assembly on a Sunday, will seriously jeopardise the true Catholic nature of a particular school.

This disengagement may take many forms, some more obvious than others. It might be a question of physical separation, either through distance or physical barriers, or it might be a question of disinterest or indifference from those who staff the school and/or those students and families who are Catholic. In other cases, connection with the wider community might be tenuous or only as window dressing. All of these, however, and so many more, can have a serious impact on the Catholicity of the Catholic school.

Of course, this disengagement can go both ways; there are times when the local expression of the Church that is the parish withdraws from engaging with the local Catholic school because the parish is caught up in other issues and challenges that it faces. This too is a mistake, and I would argue that the local parish, and local parishioners, need to be proactive in reaching out to that part of the parish’s missionary expression that is the Catholic school. And Catholic schools should welcome and accept this reaching out not because of any measurable benefit that might come from it – and there are – but because that relationship is essential to the understanding of the Catholicity of the Catholic school.

And therein lays the ‘trick’, I think. The relationship between a parish and the Catholic school that relies on the parish is a natural one, as natural as parent and child. It does not, or should not, require a formal expression of relationship in a charter or pact or agreement. That kind of requirement represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the inherent relationship, and should be avoided as much as possible – and if it is needed by external regulatory requirements, to be entered into with a firm understanding of the fundamental and foundational relationship that already exists and can never be extinguished.

There can be a danger in the face of justifiable tighter regulation from external authority that the truth of the Catholicity of Catholic schools can be jeopardised by an exclusive focus on adherence to regulations without due consideration of the relationship with the wider Catholic Church. This danger, if not recognised and considered, again risks the possibility of Catholicity being reduced to mere external quantifiable factors, such as liturgical celebrations and the number of religious symbols present in the school. When this happens, as I have argued previously, then the true Catholicity of the Catholic school is endangered and, if left uncorrected, might move towards being completely absent.

A true Catholic school must not only continually respond here and now to the demands of the Gospel and its proclamation in the world, it must also do so in a foundational relationship with the wider Church – represented most clearly by the local parish – to which it intrinsically linked. It is not enough, I would argue, to simply claim to live according to the Gospel; a Catholic school must subvert its own identity to that of the wider Church.

And if the Catholicity of a Catholic school does not feature both of these characteristics, then no amount of remedial window dressing will make it otherwise.