So what does RE look like in a Catholic school nowadays? Well, the first thing to point out is that it is not identical to catechesis, which is the education and instruction of believers in the Christian life. RE in a Catholic school contributes to catechesis, of course, but the child is catechised by the school as a whole: its liturgy, prayer-life, social action, relationships, indeed the whole of its curriculum. An excellent Catholic school will be Catholic in 100% of its life, not just in the 10% devoted to RE. Moreover, the first and best catechesis is received by a child from his or her parents, godparents, family and local Christian community in the context of the parish.
RE aims to enable children to learn about religion and from religion. In many schools, pupils may study any number of religious and faith traditions, often in a way which comes dangerously close to Comparative Religion. In the Catholic school it is primarily Catholic faith and practice which is studied, seeking depth rather than breadth. One of the challenges for RE in the contemporary Catholic school is to ensure that it is intellectually engaging and spiritually enriching for a wide variety of pupils; not only Catholics of differing practice, but also non-Catholics and the many non-Christians who choose our schools. St Paul explains in 1 Corinthians (9:22) how he has had to be ‘all things to all people’ but makes it clear ‘I do all this for the sake of the Gospel.’
The content of RE in Catholic schools is nothing other than the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, for this is the foundation of all that we believe and do. What gives shape to the content of the RE curriculum is the Religious Education Curriculum Directory (3-19) published by the Department of Catholic Education and Formation of the Bishops’ Conference. This document replaces guidance originally published 16 years ago, soon after the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. What the Bishops do not do is map out a detailed curriculum but rather give an overview and establish basic principles. The detailed content is the professional responsibility of individual schools and teachers, working with diocesan subject advisors.
The Bishops want to ensure that teaching and learning in RE truly reflects the vision and breadth of the teaching of the Church outlined in the Catechism. They provide a structure which is based upon the constitutions of the Second Vatican Council (Revelation, The Church, Celebration and Life in Christ), and which allows pupils gradually to deepen their knowledge and understanding of RE as they progress through their school career. There are some warnings, for example that the internet carries with it an implicit caveat lector, and a recognition that RE is being taught in the context of a less religiously literate culture, and one in which the surprising notion that faith and reason (and therefore science) are strangers is uncritically accepted. There are also some reminders: about the importance of scripture, ‘Theology of the Body’, Catholic Social Teaching, an authentic understanding of Vatican II, and so forth. But there is nothing which is truly new.
The Deposit of Faith is ‘that which we have received from the beginning’ (1 Jn 1:1), and which has been proclaimed and passed on. That is what tradition is — the handing on, through Scripture and the Magisterium, of the Truth. In the words of Bishop Malcolm McMahon, the Bishops’ new Curriculum Directory is to ‘help parents, priests and teachers to hand on the Deposit of Faith in its fullness to a new generation of young people so that they may come to understand the richness of the Catholic faith, and thereby be drawn into a deeper communion with Christ in his Church.’
Fr Tim Gardner OP, Religious Education Adviser to the Catholic Education Service