Wednesday, 20 June 2012 14:10

Let the riches shine

What is ‘Religious Education’? In some schools, RE is little more than Sociology of Religion, while in others it follows a Comparative Religion model, helping make true Ronald Knox’s observation that, ‘the study of comparative religions is the best way to become comparatively religious.’ If, as seems likely, Religious Studies GCSE declines as a result of the English Baccalaureate, then we are likely to see many RE lessons become a sort of curricular appendix into which all the non-exam subjects like Citizenship and Sex and Relationships Education may be quietly banished.

However, for the Christian, RE cannot simply be about cultural phenomena or a set of learnable facts. ‘That God is one nature in three persons’ is a fact quite unlike ‘three is the square root of nine’ or ‘King Lear had three daughters.’ Religion is not principally a body of information to be known, but a relationship to be entered into. Religion is what we owe to God, who created all things out of nothing because of love. He first loves us and we turn to him in gratitude and love. Religion is our moral relation to God; a response to God’s initiative through Creation and Redemption.

Nonetheless, there is still considerable confusion and debate about what, precisely, the nature and rôle of RE in our schools is, or ought to be, and as a result RE teachers are subject to a great deal of scrutiny and even criticism. It is distressing when a child is not helped and encouraged to practise his or her faith, but it is too easy to lay the blame at the door of the child’s school. Surely, RE in Catholic schools should be about catechesis? Well, yes and no. As the Vatican document The Catholic School makes clear, ‘the proper place for catechesis is the family helped by other Christian communities, especially the local parish. But the importance and need for catechetical instruction in Catholic schools cannot be sufficiently emphasised.’ (51)

The Bishops of England and Wales in fact set out a very clear vision for RE in Catholic schools and explain how RE relates to the rest of the curriculum and the school as a whole. This is done in the Religious Education Curriculum Directory, which was first published in 1996. In the next few days a revised version will be published by the Bishops’ Department for Catholic Education and Formation. This revision is occasioned in part by the celebration this year of three key events: the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the twentieth anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the inauguration of the Year of Faith. But it also issued to take account of the many changes in Church and society in the last 16 years.

At one level, the Bishops’ statement of the nature and content of RE is largely unchanged. The primary purpose of RE is to come to know and understand God’s revelation which is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, understood as it takes place in a Catholic school. Catechesis is the task of the whole school — in its worship, its relationships, its ethos, its entire curriculum — not simply that chunk of the timetable devoted to RE. In the Catholic school, RE entails learning both about religion and from religion. While it is an academic discipline with the same systematic demands and rigour as other disciplines, it is also the indispensible core of the whole curriculum. Religious Education in schools underpins, activates, develops and completes the educational and catechetical activity of the whole school.

The context, if not the content, of RE has changed. The internet has led to a proliferation of information all available at the click of a search engine. That the Bible, the Catechism and countless other texts and resources are freely available online is to be welcomed, but it must be balanced with the knowledge that the world wide web is also the source of a great deal of heresy and error masquerading as truth. The religious profile of Catholic schools has changed, too, not just in terms of confession but also of practice. RE is less able than before to take for granted religious literacy acquired outside the classroom. Religion, while not persecuted, is increasingly privatised, and is even reckoned by many to be a malign influence. A commonly held understanding of truth is that it is limited to scientific knowledge. The more loopy fringes of pseudo-scientific Creationism have not helped here, but rather given grist to the mill which churns out the tired cliché that faith and reason are somehow opposed. We might know who Edwin Hubble was, but we have never heard of Georges Lemaître.

Amid so much change, the message of Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, and so the Curriculum Directory does not demand any radically new approach or specify different content, but rather seeks to offer clarification and assistance. It does this in a number of ways, not least by clarifying once more the particular role played by RE in Catholic schools. For each topic, more detailed references from the Catechism have been provided and teachers are encouraged to make use of the catechetical formulas found in the Compendium (of the Catechism). In addition, the section dealing with Holy Scripture has been given greater prominence and detail, addressing a concern that pupils are not being given a sufficient grounding in this area. Likewise, there is a renewed emphasis upon Catholic Social Teaching, the Catholic understanding of Virtue, and ‘Theology of the Body’. Attention is also drawn to the neglected discipline of apologetics. This addresses concerns about GCSE exams which unfortunately tend to frame questions in terms of opinions and feelings. It is a reminder that even opinions and feelings can be reasoned and informed.

As Bishop Malcolm McMahon writes in the preface, ‘We do not create our own faith, but are baptised into the faith of the Church; in her teaching, worship and life, the Church transmits all that she is, and thereby calls us into a deeper relationship with Christ.’ It is hoped that this revised Curriculum Directory will encourage Catholic teachers to return to Holy Scripture, the Catechism, and the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council so that the riches of the Catholic faith might be fully and engagingly presented to our children. 

Fr Tim Gardner OP, CES Religious Education Adviser
This article appeared in the June 2012 Education Supplement in the Tablet

Download the RE Curriculum Directory.

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