Catholic Schools for a Culture of Dialogue

Pope Francis points out that "we cannot create a culture of dialogue if we do not have identity". The elements of the identity of Catholic schools needed an updating from what was constructed post Vatican II.

The Identity of the Catholic School for a Culture of Dialogue, published as an Instruction on 22 January 2022, offers to all Catholics working in school education, a refreshing focus that can safeguard Church unity and communion.

"Only a strong and united action by the Church in the field of education in an increasingly fragmented and conflict-ridden world can contribute both to the evangelising mission entrusted to her by Jesus and to the construction of a world in which human persons feel they are brothers and sisters."

The educational action pursued by the Church through schools cannot be reduced to mere philanthropic work aimed at responding to a social need but represents an essential part of her identity and mission."

The Instruction quotes Vatican II: Gravissimum educationis, which points out that the formation of the human person is a universal right. "School choice must be made freely and according to conscience; hence the duty of civil authorities to make different options available in compliance with the law. The State is responsible for supporting families in their right to choose a school and an educational project."

Vatican II also mandates "the initial and permanent formation of teachers", "the principle of mutual cooperation" and the treating of the "school not as an institution but as a community", animated by the spirit of freedom and charity, so that, even after graduation (teachers] continue to assist them with advice and friendship"

The Core of the Instruction deals with "Educating to Dialogue". Article 27, reproduced here in full, gives us the central function of the Catholic School in today's world: "Today's societies are characterised by a multicultural and multireligious composition. In this context, 'Education contains a central challenge for the future: to allow various cultural expressions to co-exist and to promote dialogue so as to foster a peaceful society!

The history of Catholic schools is characterised by welcoming pupils from different cultural backgrounds and religious affiliations. In this context, 'what is required [...] is courageous and innovative fidelity to one's own pedagogical vision', which is expressed in the capacity to bear witness, to know and to dialogue with diversity."

Through the educational curriculum, the School can "create the conditions for a person to develop the gift of searching... Accompanying pupils in getting to know themselves, their aptitudes and inner resources so that they can make conscious life choices is of no secondary importance".

Pope Francis provided three fundamental guidelines to help such a dialogue:
1. The duty to respect one's own identity and that of others,
2. The courage to accept differences, and
3. Sincerity of intentions.

The duty to respect one's own identity and that of others, because true dialogue cannot be built on ambiguity or a willingness to sacrifice some good for the sake of pleasing others.

The courage to accept differences, because those who are different, either culturally or religiously, should not be seen or treated as enemies, but rather welcomed as fellow travellers, in the genuine conviction that the good of each resides in the good of all.

Sincerity of intentions, because dialogue, as an authentic expression of our humanity, is not a strategy for achieving specific goals, but rather a path to truth, one that deserves to be undertaken patiently, in order to transform competition into cooperation."

These reflections on the identity of the Catholic School culminated in a global event endorsed by Pope Francis that took place on 14 May 2020 on the theme Reinventing the Global Compact on Education. In preparation for it, Pope Francis wrote, “This meeting will rekindle our dedication for and with young people, renewing our passion for a more open and inclusive education, including patient listening, constructive dialogue and better mutual understanding. Never before has there been such need to unite our efforts in a broad educational alliance, to form mature individuals capable of overcoming division and antagonism, and to restore the fabric of relationships for the sake of a more fraternal humanity. "

In fact, the fabric of relationships', is being torn apart in India today. Very appropriately, the Instruction says that the general criteria arrived at "will have to be further adapted to the different contexts of the local Churches".

We in India, have for generations past, a multireligious setting in which our dialogue is with the wide variety of faith traditions that form the consciences of our students, parents and staff - especially since all three categories in our schools often have a majority of people of other faith.

The Christian vision of the human has a lot to contribute in such a situation and the School is a good place for such a dialogue, since values and opinions are not rigid but are in the making. But the conditions for a dialogue are becoming more and more difficult and hence the need for renewed efforts, networking among Catholic Schools and civil society groups committed to the Constitution of India which has fraternity as one of its pillars.

Article 81 of the Instruction says, "There are also cases in which State laws impose choices that conflict with religious freedom and the very Catholic identity of a school. While respecting the different spheres, there is a need for reasonable defence of the rights of Catholics and their schools both through dialogue with State authorities and through recourse to the courts having jurisdiction in these matters. "Our country seems to be going through a phase in which this may be necessary, if we are to be faithful to our mission.

The indication for this is the fact that in the State of Gujarat, the Government has already passed a law which gives academic control of the School to officials appointed by the State itself, rather than to the Catholic Management. This also happened in the State of Andhra Pradesh, but the law was retracted after meeting opposition.

The stated ideology of Hindutva, which is exclusivist and discriminatory, declared more openly these days by public figures and members of Government, goes against the Constitution of India which professes Secularism and Equality. The colouring of educational content, for instance, is a cause for concern to any educationist.

More pertinently, the National Education Policy (NEP 2020), which allows for two tracks of education, one formal and the other informal, opens the way for sanctioned discrimination between the poor and disadvantaged groups on the one hand and the rich on the other - anathema to the idea of Catholic Education and to the Constitution of India which in fact mandates measures to make up for structural disadvantage and historical exploitation.

The first step may require better "union and communion" between Catholic Schools themselves, acknowledging the very fragmented state of our schools, which does not give them much bargaining power with the State despite their reputation for excellence and their overwhelming numbers. Dialogue with State authorities would then be meaningful and effective.

The need to participate in democratic decision-making may not be an arena the Church is very comfortable in, because it could suffer a backlash from the powerful, whose vested interests are exposed.

We can remind ourselves that it was Jesus who took such risks. I repeat the words of the Instruction, "Only a strong and united action by the Church in the field of education in an increasingly fragmented and conflict-ridden world can contribute both to the evangelising mission entrusted to her by Jesus and to the construction of a world in which human persons feel they are brothers and sisters." The cause of Catholic Education is worth the trouble because it is integral to our very mission.


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