Catholic education and A Church in Crisis: Pointers to a Way Forward

Catholic Education and a Church in Crisis: Pointers to a Way Forward – Le Chéile Conference, Feb 3, 2012 

Introduction:  We have been listening to the very interesting reflection on the ‘system’ by Professor Emer Smyth, as seen through the perspective of young people.

You will be aware that this system, as outlined in the Charter of the Le Cheile Trust, has at its centre a mission and vision of Catholic Education that encourages the students to ‘ search for truth and meaning’ and to ‘strive for excellence in all areas of human growth’ (5). This will be achieved, according to the Charter, by establishing a school community  ‘that witnesses to the Kingdom of God and to Gospel values’, that has a focus on Christ ‘ as a teacher and a model of human living’(4). This mission is articulated explicitly as a ‘participation in the mission of the Church’, such that the Trust ‘values its links with the local and universal Church’ (2). In other words, you are being asked as Heads and Board members not just to aim for an academically good school, much less one which achieves eye-catching points results and a good place on the Irish Times League tables. No, you are being asked to educate towards a much broader range of human values, and to link these values with Jesus Christ and with the Church, so that there may ensue an invitation to discipleship.

It is good to have high ideals, even when the day-to-day reality, as evidenced in Professor Smyth’s findings, are often more mundane. It is good to be reminded as a teacher that the God of grace, of charis, as spoken about by Sean Goan at this Conference last year, is behind the daily slog in the classroom, so that there is a sure basis to ‘believe in young people and want to encourage their reaching for the stars’ (Kolvenbach, Ignatian Pedagogy, 1993,  123). And as a Head or Board member it is reassuring to understand that grace is not just personal and interpersonal, it can also be institutional. This means  that the often boring and conflictual round of seemingly interminable administration and meetings of all kinds, that ‘Long March through the Institution’, is an invaluable service, as shown in the fruits of a school that staff and students can enjoy being part of, one which can heal or at least ameliorate historic and contemporary divisions, one which has a culture or ethos where people can flourish.

The high ideals of the Le Cheile system are challenged on many sides today – a utilitarian and overly pragmatic approach to education, that focuses excessively on the so-called needs of the economy and on technical competence, can be impatient with the notion of a more ‘integral human development’; the intrinsic link between a  broader range of human values and Jesus Christ and the Gospel can be problematic at a time of growing secularism; and the temptation to distance oneself as far as possible from the so-called institutional Church is strong at a time when this Church is in crisis. I want to offer some reflections on these challenges, in particular on the link between Le Chile schools and the Church.

Part One: Values and Culture

One way into this discussion is to focus, even briefly, on Catholic and Christian values in dialogue with the surrounding culture. This culture is a mixture of what commentators call Modernity and Post Modernity.

In Modernity the focus tends to be on knowledge that can be scientifically or mathematically verified, and so, on a world that is ‘disenchanted’, without God (who is scientifically unprovable), with great confidence in the individual and belief in his/her freedom, and a sense that history is a matter of progress and its shaping the responsibility of human beings alone. Within this world-view there is much that Christianity can resonate with -the value of critical intelligence;  the drive towards scientific understanding and technological innovation;  freedom, human rights and democracy based on the dignity of the individual. However, there are lacunae – critical intelligence is too often limited to what is empirically measurable (the cynic knows the price of everything but the value of nothing – Wilde); rights are so individualistic that (as in the days of the Celtic Tiger) the world  becomes a kind of Darwinian jungle which sees the fittest survive and the vulnerable perish; and without God, values such as honesty, decency, justice and love are more difficult to sustain, and freedom is often reduced to a negative ‘freedom from’ whose default is to reject authority of all kinds, rather that a positive ‘freedom for’.

The critique of Bishop Donal Murray hits the mark in this respect.  He notes that Dickens in Hard Times has Mr Gradgrind declare that ‘Facts alone are wanted in life’. But, Murray goes on to say, truth is more than just facts, and when the mantra of facts dominates the culture we are in danger of losing sight of the truth that ‘Poetry, art, joy and sorrow, friendship, hope, mourning, promises of love and fidelity, and moral principles are all expressions of what is truest in us but they are more than statements of fact’ (Murray, Let Love Speak, Dublin: Veritas, 2011, 119).

With post-Modernity there is a welcome move to ‘re-enchant’ the world, so that commentators sometimes speak of our ‘post-secularist’ world.  There is a sense of the divine, the transcendent, even if a reluctance to link this with any grand-narrative that organized religions might offer. This new openness comes about because ‘reason’ is expanded to go beyond the empirical, the values of feeling, imagination and creativity are acknowledged, there is a new welcome to the forgotten voices of women and other groups (Southern Hemisphere) which Modernity treated as ‘minorities’. Vistas are opened towards prophecy and justice, towards gratuity and prayer.  But the gains are fragile. Knowledge is relativised – the ‘that’s the way things are’ of Modernity is replaced by the ‘that’s the way things are for you’- so that the welcome tolerance for all kinds of views (‘cool’), including the religious, is often accompanied by a shared agnosticism about what is true or false, right or wrong. This  results in a kind of apathy and indifference that, while not hostile, eschews long-term commitment and can lead to moral drifting. The consequences are a kind of brittle sense of self (the de-centred self of individualism) that is easy prey to a celebrity culture or to an economism that judges success primarily by how much wealth you accrue.

Catholic education takes place in this complex and mixed cultural landscape. Our job is to engage in the kind of cultural discernment that seeks to cooperate and reinforce the more positive aspects of the culture (for example, the sense that, despite the other cultural pressures mentioned, education is a matter of the whole person, body, mind, imagination, feelings and so on, and not just a narrowly focussed technical education, and that it can lead to what is true, good and beautiful);  and, more demandingly, to  counter the more negative aspects (for example, to locate the worth of the individual student within that of the community, the common good; to encourage a search for meaning that can take on board an evolutionary, scientific world-view with all its mysteriousness and point to the further questions that remain unanswered;  that can engage in the kind of ‘education of desire’ that rejoices in the gifts of sexuality and material well-being but is not seduced by consumerism, hedonism or an attachment to material goods that neglects environmental well-being – see Claire Brandeleer, Environment et justice sociale, Invitation a une spiritualite engagee, En Question, Revue du Centre Avec, Bruxelles, n 99, Decembre, 2011, 27-28). In doing this we are being true to the values articulated in our own Charter.

We can be helped in so doing by the innate sense that young people have of fairness, justice, integrity, authenticity; their dislike of hypocrisy; their sensitivity to experience and witness; their love of freedom. These kind of values – too purist, too rigorous in themselves, but appropriate at this stage of their development- resonate so well with the person and witness of Jesus Christ – the Way, the Truth and the Life. When one falls in love all cultural pre-determinations are relativised, everything becomes possible. God, Jesus has fallen in love with us, loves us, loves each of our students, invites a response. It is the enormous privilege of a Catholic school – even when individual staff members may have their own struggles with faith- to have at the centre of its mission the integral development of each student, to the point where they may somehow glimpse this invitation of love from God  and be enabled to make a free response.

Part Two: The Church

In an influential book on the Catholic Church ( Models of the Church)first published in 1974, and then re-printed with some significant changes in 1987, United States theologian Avery Dulles proposed that one way of looking at the Church was to see it as a kind of sacrament, an effective sign, of Jesus Christ, of God. The Catholic imagination has always been sacramental in the sense that nature and other people are viewed as real signs of God. And so, water in baptism, bread and wine in Eucharist, the man and woman in marriage – all sacramental signs, real in themselves, but pointing to something greater, the source of all reality, God.

In this way of thinking, Jesus is a kind of sacrament of God, and the Church is a kind of sacrament of Jesus, so that when we see the Church we spontaneously think of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of justice and love which he preached and embodied. Ideally, then, the Church would be attracting us to the following of Jesus Christ, to discipleship, and enabling us to live out this discipleship in prayer, common worship and a life of justice and love.  In similar vein Dulles suggests that another way or model of thinking about the Church is to see it as the herald of Jesus Christ – its mission is not to exist for itself but to announce, to point towards, Jesus Christ and the Kingdom.  This is the kind of servant, instrumental role which resonates well with the language of Vatican II and its Decree on the nature of the Church, Lumen Gentium.

Now it is true that historically this ideal has never been realized in its pure form – one thinks of the squabbles between West and East leading up to the Great Schism of 1054, the abuses of the late Medieval Church leading to the Reformation, the corruption of the Renaissance Borgia Pope Alexander VI, to name but a few instances of a more general reality. And we ought not be too purist about this: we are a pilgrim People, a church of saints and sinners, not a Gnostic sect of the Perfect. The Church Fathers were open-eyed about this and spoke of the Church in a very unpolitically correct way as the casa meretrix, the chaste prostitute. Nonetheless, the ideal was always there and when it was clearly not being realised, when moments of crisis occurred, holy men and women like Bernard of Clairvaux, Peter Damian,  Catherine of Sienna, Theresa of Avila and Ignatius of Loyola, not to mention the Founders of the Le Cheile Trust Congregations, called the Church to repentance and renewal.

We have reached a similar moment of crisis in our times. For many, far from being a sacrament or sign of Jesus Christ, the Church functions as an anti-sign, a ‘turn off’. The scandal of clerical child sexual abuse and its serious mis-handling by church leadership has revealed wider and deeper fault-lines in the structure and culture of our Church. There is a clericalism that too often ignores the gifts of laity and is paternalistic, elitist, defensive. We have an authority structure that is overly centralised and hierarchical. This entails an unnecessary identification between the jurisdictional power of decision-making and the sacrament of Orders,  with scant regard for transparency or for the rhetorically espoused official position of collegiality, which would respect the baptismal rights of the faithful in a Church defined as the People of God. We have a teaching on sexual morality which, despite many good points, is seen by many faithful as out of touch, as little help in this most intimate part of their lives, and so is honoured more in the breach than in the observance. And there is  an attitude to women that is increasingly seen as obsolete and anachronistic.

In this climate, informal conversations about the Church  are peppered by phrases such as: ‘let the whole thing come crashing down’; ‘things will never change’; ‘they just don’t get it’; ‘the bishops themselves are the problem’; ‘get real’; ‘what kind of parallel universe do they live in?’; and, in reference to the introduction of the New Missal, a woman  quoted a friend of hers: ‘it’s like putting up new curtains when there’s a hole in the roof and the whole house is collapsing about our ears’!

The danger is, of course, that even this lively conversation – a sign of enduring interest – will exhaust itself, as no fora exist to tackle the underlying issues head-on and to give hope of appropriate change. The danger is, in a time of world-wide cultural dislocation and uncertainty, with the accompanying  temptation to fundamentalism, that the Catholic Church in Ireland, instead of opening up a space where the mystery of life and of God can be respected and explored, will take the easy option of a retreat behind the barricades, a turn to an even more so-called traditional mode of old and outdated certainties, thus becoming what Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has called a ‘culturally irrelevant minority’.

This negative analysis is far from the whole picture. There is so much that is and remains wonderful about the Catholic Church –even the disaffected often speak with warmth about key moments like marriages and funerals; there is the often hidden treasure of spirituality and retreat houses, that rich and nourishing tradition of prayer and mysticism; there is that social involvement seen in so many individuals but also in organizations like Trocaire, Crosscare, Caritas; there is that richness of theology and Christian thinking on core areas of meaning; there is the belonging at both local and universal  level to a community of meaning; there is that rich tradition of Catholic Education to which Le Cheile and you here today belong. All this, and so much more, depends on the Church and are reasons to be grateful for its existence. None of it, however, can conceal the real crisis that obtains in these days and the challenge that poses to Catholic Education.

Part Three: The Link between Catholic Education and the Church

I want to propose two approaches to how Catholic schools may better understand their link to a Church in crisis, pointers to a way forward if you will, although I suspect they are simply naming what you may already be doing.

First, you will be aware that the preferred way of talking about the Church in the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium)  was as People of God. Dulles, in turn, speaks of models like ‘mystical communion’, a ‘community of disciples’, as well as the model of ‘institution’ (which, while ‘valid within limits..cannot properly be taken as primary’- Dulles, 1987, quoted by Kevin Egan, The Sex Abuse Crisis – What have we learned?, The Furrow, 62, June, 2011, 333 (327-334). Nowadays theologians often speak in terms of the Church as ‘communion’. The significance of this kind of language is that, theoretically at least, the Church itself acknowledges the validity of speaking about itself primarily in terms of the equality of all the baptised, that charism of the baptised which Sean Goan spoke about last year. It is within this fundamental equality that the more secondary hierarchical structure operates, ideally in service of that Spirit of God which is in all the baptised and which, as discerned in the ‘sense of the faithful’, keeps us from error.

Now, within this way of understanding the Church, Catholic schools have a way of modelling Church that is absolutely authentic, is congruent with the full flourishing of students and staff, even if it is also in tension with the dominant and operative institutional model. In the respect you show to each individual student, in your efforts to persuade them of the value of community and the common good, in your transmission of gospel values such as truth, fairness,  justice, and forgiveness, in your  encouragement of critical learning and your honouring of  legitimate freedom, listening and genuine dialogue, in your witness as teachers and administrators of competence and self-sacrificing generosity, in your fair exercise of legitimate authority,  you are establishing a community which has so many characteristics of the church described by the Second Vatican Council.

Of course, it still may be true that only some, at least at this stage of life, are ready to answer that invitation to become disciples, to say ‘yes’ in an explicit way to the invitation to holiness that comes to all the baptised in whatever state of life they subsequently enter (single or married, priest or religious, craftsman, lawyer, business woman, politician – whatever). But you are doing what you can when you try, with God’s help, to create a vibrant and authentic human community of learning, framed by the Catholic ethos- the rest you can leave to God. It is said about Pope John 23 that his secretary noticed that at the end of the day he always knelt down in prayer for just a few seconds before he retired to bed. The secretary asked him what did he say in his prayer. John is said to have replied: I say, look Lord, I’m tired now, it’s your church, so over to you!

I think the great thing about this approach is that it’s not asking you to do the impossible, the kind of social engineering that educationalists sometimes demand of schools, and change the whole ecclesiastical system on your own. No, but what you do in modelling something different, is important. In particular, by respecting the freedom of your students, while also honouring legitimate authority and appropriate adult roles, you are modelling a value which is deeply ingrained in our culture and without which so many young people find it difficult to belong to any institution. Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna, said to be close to the Pope, is well aware of this. In a recent speech the argued that the current, operative model of Church needs to become ‘a thing of the past’, that there should be no return to ‘business as usual’ – ‘Today we live in a culture of freedom, and that is a very good thing as it is when we are free that we most resemble God…Freedom is the best starting point for the convincing, believing and strong  Church of the future –which will look quite different from the Church we have known up to now’ (Tablet, 21 Jan, 2012, 27).

The second approach I want to propose concerns the kind of stance a Catholic school might take to the Church as it is operatively now, characterised, as have seen,  by a strongly institutional model, unsympathetic to modern democratic sensibilities. There is a real challenge here, requiring great maturity and wisdom, and careful discernment as to concrete options. We need the wisdom to recognize that while institutions are necessary, none of them is perfect and institutional change is difficult. In this context we need to remind our students – and ourselves!- of the enduring goodness of the Church, to resist any merely fashionable church-bashing, and allow ourselves, if we are so graced, to experience gratitude for what the Church has given.

 But we also need the maturity to acknowledge the serious crisis that obtains and to ask ourselves what we can do about it. I would suggest that our best contribution is to do our utmost to form young Christians of critical intelligence and creative imagination, schooled through compassion and love in desiring what is authentic and true. In so doing they will become citizens and contribute to the well-being of society and the State, but also, for those who accept the invitation, good citizens of the church, embracing the dignity and responsibilities of the baptised member of the People of God, able to speak out with respect, but without deference, in that critically constructive way that can bring about change. We want young people who can dream dreams and imagine ways around brick walls, who are not satisfied with just tinkering with systems but who can lend their weight to the project of Church reform and renewal which seems just as impossible as civil rights, feminism, peace in N. Ireland once did, but which in reality can be achieved with God’s help and our cooperation.

To be constructively critical is of course very difficult: the temptation to throw the baby out with the bathwater is almost irresistible. Yet I believe we would be short-changing our students to do so. The Catholic Church has wonderful qualities and has an enormous contribution to make to Catholic Education. But it has huge problems too and it serves no long-term interest to ignore or keep silent about them. St Catherine of Sienna was wonderful about this, speaking to the Roman Curia of her day: ‘Be silent no longer. Cry out withy a hundred thousand voices. I see the world is destroyed through silence’. In similar vein Timothy Radcliffe notes that St Augustine has said that the two daughters of hope are courage and anger. Of course there is an adolescent acting out which can involve inappropriate speech and a self-consuming anger that is entirely negative. Again, discernment is needed: the challenge is to nurture – in ourselves and in our students – the speaking out, the anger, the courage, the hope that arise from a love that is authentic and opposes hypocrisy.

Conclusion:  I have spoken generally – I am too far away from the specifics of your reality to do more than that, and yet I hope that what I have said may give you some pointers to the way forward, may at least confirm what you already know.

A crisis is always painful but is also always an opportunity, a kairos moment. There is a real danger that our students will drift away from a Church that does not measure up, that is perceived as irrelevant to their lives. And yet, all is far from lost. With all their human faults and weaknesses, young people, as you well know, have great qualities, not least that idealism and appreciation of authentic witness that are stepping stones to faith in the Jesus Christ who said ‘I have come that you may have life and have it to the full’ (Jn. 10, 10), and who outlined that vision of the world, his Kingdom values, so attractive to young people, in the Sermon on the Mount. These are the kind of considerations which allowed Pope Benedict XVI (in his recent  1 January 2012 World Day of Peace address entitled Educating Young People in Justice and Peace) to address young people and affirm that ‘The Church has confidence in you, follows you, encourages you and wishes to offer you the most precious gift she has: the opportunity to raise your eyes to God, to encounter Jesus Christ, who is himself justice and peace’ (par 6).

Of course the question remains, can we bring about the kind of renewal and reform which will allow young people to have confidence in the Church? The challenge is enormous, often discouragingly so. As adults we will be helped by learning more about our faith, by some ongoing  formation which will give us more confidence in tackling the issues that arise. But, perhaps deeper than knowledge, we need to be imbued by the kind of spirituality which gives us heart for the struggle and allows us to engage in it respectfully.

This is the area of spiritual discernment and two remarks of St Ignatius of Loyola may be of help. If we want to renew our Church we need to develop habits of conversation which respect those we disagree with, those we simply don’t like – otherwise it’s not the Catholic, universal Church that we are talking about. In this context the advice given by Ignatius at the start of his Spiritual Exercises is ad rem: ‘It is necessary to suppose that every good Christian is more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false’ (Sp. Ex., n 22). And then, if you are tempted to think that Church reform is simply impossible, it really is a brick wall and nothing is even going to change, note what Ignatius says in his rules for what he calls the ‘discernment of spirits’ (Sp Ex, 315). Speaking of people who generally are on a good path in life, he notes that ‘…it is characteristic of the evil spirit to harass (them) with anxiety, with sadness, to raise obstacles backed by fallacious reasonings that disturb the soul…it is characteristic of the good spirit, however, to give courage and strength, consolations, tears, inspirations and peace. This he does by making all easy, by removing obstacles so that the soul goes forward in doing good’.

As part of the wonderful work that you already do as Catholic educators, you are being called at his historical juncture to re-imagine that link in the system between education and Church, not least to facilitate the invitation to students to become disciples of Jesus Christ. You can have confidence in tackling this challenge, knowing that God’s Holy Spirit is with you. The words of Gamaliel to his fellow Pharisees in the Acts of the Apostles are apt: ‘if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them’ (Acts, 5, 38-39). Many thanks.

Gerry O’Hanlon, S.J