Last week I introduced the latest topic we are exploring in the Going Deeper Online Catholic Staff Professional Development Program. It’s the topic of courage and the fact that it just might be central to the life, vocation and effectiveness of you as a Catholic teacher.
So why is courage so central?
There are three main forces currently impacting Catholic education that every Catholic teacher and especially, every Catholic leader needs to understand. The first two are relativism and pluralism and the third is the constant temptation to bypass evangelisation as the reason for the school’s existence in the search for bums on seats and academic rankings. This third factor is essentially the factory model of education where students are inputs and educators are simply there to value add in the search for a better final product.
Relativism, the Catholic teacher and the end of truth.
Relativism impacts every single Catholic school. It’s in the air we breathe. It’s simply the post enlightenment meta-narrative that there is no
absolute truth. This entire idea has more holes than a swiss cheese factory. It’s a fact that seems to escape most people. Relativism of course, presents the idea that there is no truth. it does this while rather inconveniently seeming to ignore the fact that the central premise of relativism is, in itself, a truth claim. The pure relativist says something like this, “There is absolutely no truth…except the statement that there is no truth!” Seems a little awkward to me. A bit like Al Gore saving all those icebergs while living in a vast sprawling US mansion and using private jets.
No one said it better than G.K. Chesterton, “If truth is relative…to what is it relative?”
Five minutes in the average classroom tells you all you need to know about how infected our students have become with relativism. To present to them the idea of truth as fixed and knowable is about as likely to go over well as telling them you really like Justin Bieber. Once we fall under relativism’s spell it’s essentially impossible to make any definitive statement about the resurrection, salvation, heaven, hell and basically the entire social teaching of the Catholic Church, especially on hot button topics.
And here the challenge begins….
Here is where our challenge begins. Jesus did not offer himself as a wisdom teacher with some ideas about the truth. He did not offer a social philosophy. He claimed to be the truth. He claimed that those who remained in Him would remain in the truth. He also specifically and deliberately established a Church. As such, the Catholic Church does not offer itself as just another tasty morsel on the smorgasbord of world religions. It claims to be the whole buffet.
A first step in finding the courage to be Catholic will be to cross the Rubicon and make the firm resolution that you are no longer in the business of relativism, that you will no longer accept its core premise. It is the firm resolution that you will practice the faith and seek to know it and Christ ever more deeply. Once you understand that relativism does not open minds but rather closes them, or lulls them into a comatose state of disengagement from the pursuit of truth altogether, then you can start to awaken to the great battle that rages in every school. It’s the same battle that both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky saw raging in the heart of every human person. The battle of light and dark, truth and lies, freedom and slavery.
The pernicious power of pluralism….
Pluralism has been especially pernicious in recent decades because it feeds off the inherent goodwill present in Catholic education. Pluralism simply enervates evangelisation in a Catholic school by generating a climate of morbid fear . It’s the fear of offending anyone by living, stating or arguing in a compelling way for the truth of your Catholic faith.
What pluralism suggests in theory is markedly different to what it presents in practice. It’s public face is the suggestion that to all get along we need to be accepting of other faith traditions. I agree. Religious freedom is utterly central to cultural flourishing and it is something that the Catholic Church has fought for rigorously, especially in the last hundred years and very much so at present around the globe. In practice however, pluralism collapses into an ideology that all faiths are the same and must be accepted as equal.
Like relativism, pluralism has become endemic in our schools. It’s the idea that there is nothing unique or special about Catholicism and that to suggest otherwise is to be intolerant of other faith traditions. Once you stop thinking that there is anything unique about Catholicism then why bother evangelising at all.
It’s completely possible to engage in respectful conversation and learning about other faith traditions. It’s also possible to do so while making a compelling case for your own. The Church devotes enormous resources to this at the highest levels with commissions for Inter-religious Dialogue. But one of the senior Archbishops on these committee’s recently told me that to do so you need to know your own faith first; and know it deeply.
In summary we don’t serve our students when by either commission or omission we communicate to them the idea that all paths are equal and that there is nothing special about the Catholic Church. That is not what a Catholic school is for. A Catholic school is ultimately a missionary arm of the Catholic Church and if we are not making disciples then we are wasting our time and we’re probably driving the Holy Spirit round the bend in the process.
The Henry Ford Model and the Catholic Teacher…
Finally, you need courage to address the last of the big three. In the developed world especially, Catholic schools are at risk of increasingly looking like every other fish in the pond. Once principals get nervous about enrolments and accept the premise that most parents are not really that concerned about ‘that faith stuff” then we are on the first track to the factory model. Ship em in, cram their heads, rank em and ship em out.
When enrolments and rankings become the main game then evangelisation and mission are not even taking a back seat…they don’t even get in the car. The sad thing is that it does not have to be a zero sum game. You can have academic rigour and evangelistic focus and fervour. You can increase enrolments by also letting those parents who really care about faith formation know that their child’s spiritual and moral formation is a major priority. In fact, it seems to me after two decades in Catholic Education that those schools that take faith formation seriously often tend to create positive outcomes across the board. Why? It’s because principals that know their stuff realise that true Catholic education is about the formation of the total person. When you understand the preciousness of every student as made in the image and likeness of God then you care about every part of their development.
In summary I wonder if there has ever been a time when more has been required of Catholic teachers? The courage required to swim against the tides of relativism, pluralism and ‘factoryism’ is extraordinary. Extraordinary but not impossible. What do you think? Post a comment at the bottom and share your experience with other teachers and leaders. Also, make sure you check out the full Going Deeper program HERE