“In a climate of growing secularism..”

The pastoral letter from the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference [pdf file] should probably be seen as an opening gambit in a conversation with all their partners in education – including the State. There’s an early reference in the letter to Pope Benedict XVI’s Spe Salvi, and the attempt, through an appeal to a “still greater form of reason”, to re-entwine faith and reason – aka The Un-Enlightenment – although the reports have focused on other elements. RTÉ picks up on the intention to establish “a national Catholic Education Service for the whole of Ireland” and that “the country has got more Catholic schools than it actually needs”, whilst the Irish Times reports the comments by Bishop Leo O’Reilly, Chair of the Education Commission of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference

He said the Vision 08 document clearly states “that all pupils whether they profess a religious belief or not are important and schools exist to care for and facilitate their growth as individuals and members of society”.

“As Ireland changes from a homogeneous country to a multi-cultural society, diversity in schools increases. We are conscious of this dynamic and we will play our part in assisting our schools in continuing to be places of welcome, respect and tolerance,” he said.

Although it isn’t clear how they’ll reconcile that objective with the commitment given in the conclusion of the letter – “we will ensure the structures, and the schools themselves, remain effective, relevant and true to an authentic vision of the Catholic school, such as we have tried to set it out in this brief letter.”Part of that “authentic vision” is described in the letter

Part of the overall pedagogy of Catholic schools involves helping pupils to grow in self-understanding and develop a language of prayer with which they can express the search for God which lies at the heart of human lives. Worship of God through prayer and the celebration of liturgy and the sacraments, ‘the doors to the sacred’, belongs at the very centre of the Catholic school’s life. Such worship is rooted in faith and inspired by wonder at the transcendent mystery of God revealed in the complex beauty of the universe. It is fundamental to Catholic self-understanding to experience everyday realities as sacramental signs of God working in the world.

And, also earlier in the letter, is the reference to Pope Benedict XVI’s Spe Salvi

Faith the Foundation

In a climate of growing secularism, Catholic schools are distinguished by faith in the transcendent mystery of God as the source of all that exists and as the meaning of human existence. This faith is not simply the subject-matter of particular lessons but forms the foundation of all that we do and the horizon of all that takes place in the school. The Catholic tradition of which the schools are a part has been continually enriched through centuries of reflection and development. This not only offers our pupils a rich heritage of wisdom but also gives them stability, a framework of meaning and a sense of direction for their lives in a time of rapid and often confusing cultural and social change.

Catholic education has always placed a high value on reason, both intellectual and practical. In continuity with the earliest traditions of the Church, it regards education and the cultivation of intellectual life as precious in themselves. It sees the use of rational thought and scientific analysis as essential to the advancement of technology and human progress. Therefore, scientific and technological studies are a very important part of education. However, it rejects those diminished and mechanistic notions of rationality which attempt to limit the concept of truth to what can be scientifically established and the concept of human progress to what can be technologically achieved. On the contrary, it believes a reasonable balance must always be maintained between the humanities and technology in education. Faith and reason must be seen as vibrant partners in the human quest for understanding and ultimate fulfilment which is pursued in Catholic schools.

As I said, attempting to re-entwine faith and reason – aka The Un-Enlightenment.

Although it’s also worth pointing out that Francis Bacon, author of “a disturbing step” in the history of rational thought according to Benedict, argued for a similarly entwined approach himself.

“Just let man recover the right over nature which belongs to him by God’s gift, and give it scope; right reason and sound religion will govern its use.”

Admittedly that was in 1620.