Two years ago I looked out over my first Christian Ethics classroom in Saskatchewan. I was excited, even more so than I had been in my 11 years of teaching in Catholic schools in British Columbia. I was excited because, unlike in B.C., almost all my students were not Catholic. And who they were instead blew my mind.
While that semester went on to be a challenging one, it wasn’t because of the diversity of faith. The nature of faith, evangelization, catechesis, and even religion, is not well or widely understood in our culture. This lack of understanding offers the most foundational challenge to religious education in the high school classroom today, whether that class consists of 100 per cent Catholics or 10 per cent. But the spiritual diversity in my class does suggest a question: Just what is the purpose and benefit of religious education for a pluralistic classroom?
The Catholic tradition has a clear and well-developed understanding of the civic duty of the Catholic school, which is to educate and form future generations to participate positively in public life. In that light, religious education becomes a significant social contribution. In addition to teaching moral and civic responsibility as a tangible benefit for society, religious education also is a fundamental right of every person because it “helps (students) attain a vital harmony between faith and culture,” according to the Congregation for Catholic Education in 2009.
Writing to national conferences of bishops, the Congregation pointed out that, even though “Religious education in schools fits into the evangelizing mission of the church,” it is not the same as catechesis. “(C)atechesis aims at fostering personal adherence to Christ and the development of Christian life . . . , whereas religious education in schools gives the pupils knowledge about Christianity’s identity and Christian life.” Religious education also “does not require the assent of faith.”
I took heart in this, considering who I had for students. In my survey of religious affiliation, I identified one student who regularly attended Catholic mass. A few were non-attending Catholics. A strong handful attended an Evangelical church. One Lutheran. Several Confucians. A Buddhist. A Muslim. An agnostic. A few students who participated in First Nations spirituality. And the rest kind of shrugged off the question: I don’t really know what I am. What on earth attracted these students to enrol in Catholic schools, with its requirement of Catholic religious education?
I believe the answer lies in the remarkable consistency across all students, whether they identified as believing or not. When I invited them to consider religious questions so as to explore the Catholic perspective, I was struck at how little-practiced they seemed to be in reflecting on and discussing questions of faith. I do not mean they did not understand Catholic orthodoxy (they didn’t) or that their religious expression was different in form and style from my own (this always happens). What I mean is that my students needed introduction to the very idea that one could consider religious questions, let alone play around with some possible religious answers. That’s where we started from, and declared religious adherence did not seem to make a difference.
I speak of a lack of “religious literacy.” Whether in families, certain age groups, or the wider culture, it could be a reasonable assumption that religious ideas are not widely discussed. What might be the consequences of this? Pope Benedict XVI commented, in 2009, that “the religious dimension is in fact intrinsic to culture. It contributes to the overall formation of the person and makes it possible to transform knowledge into wisdom of life.” And later, “the religious dimension . . . is an integral part of the person from the very earliest infancy; it is fundamental openness to otherness and to the mystery that presides over every relationship and every encounter with human beings. . . . (It) makes the person more human.” I wonder if he was right.
If he was right, we might see the reason and the purpose for Catholic schools, and within them religious education, in the province of Saskatchewan. This work of mine and my colleagues does not restrict freedom, but takes place in the context of a “positive spirit of secularism which makes it possible to promote a constructive civil coexistence, based on reciprocal respect and loyal dialogue.” If we are to participate in this kind of respect and dialogue, then clarification of the purpose of religious education is crucial in the social context of a secular culture. For Catholic education to effectively engage secular culture, including unchurched students and families, and still be true to the animating ethos of the Christian faith, it needs to indicate just what it means to accomplish through a religious education program.
What was accomplished in my class? I have to admit, I was always curious about the one Muslim student in the class. After fleeing the Taliban and being a refugee in Iran, this student chose Catholic education in Saskatoon. What I wondered was, why? I thought there might be a cultural respect for worldwide Catholic institutions of learning, or perhaps having some kind of faith in education was preferable to a secular environment. In discussion about those first experiences after Iran, that student shared with me that it was the caring and compassionate welcome which the people in Catholic schools extended to a stranger that made the difference. Diverse students make Catholic schools more human.
LeBlanc teaches with Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools and helps educators across Saskatchewan direct their efforts to improve learning. He can be found at BigPictureSmallSteps.com