Catholic Schools and Religious Pluralism

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2006 »Volume 43 2006 Number 2 »Catholic Schools And Religious Pluralism

Edmund Chia


Catholic or catholic?

The present article reflects upon how Catholic schools address the phenomenon of multi-religiousness amongst their student community. How do we express our "Catholic" identity in schools which cater to religiously plural societies? How are Catholic schools different from other schools in the first place? What makes for the "Catholic-ness" of our schools? How one responds to these questions depend greatly on where one is coming from and, to a certain extent, on one’s theological presuppositions. One whose concern is for the "Catholic" character of Catholic schools would respond differently from one whose concern is for the Catholic schools—"catholic" character. The former’s concern would be with issues of Catholic particularity while the latter’s with issues of universality. To be sure, this continues to be an unresolved theological debate. It is but an extension of the debate over God’s will for the universal salvation of all and the uniqueness of Jesus (and of the Church) in the economy of God’s salvation.

That my reflections are based on my experience of Catholic schools located in Asia might come as a surprise since one would expect that in most parts of Asia religious pluralism is already an existential reality. It would be expected then that Catholic schools have integrated the fact of multi-religiousness into their school culture and system. Unfortunately, this seems more the exception rather than the rule. In fact, many Catholic schools continue to operate as if they were catering to a peculiarly Catholic clientele and hence promote a peculiarly Catholic and Christian school culture. This might have been acceptable during the colonial era when identification with the powers-that-be—and hence, with Christianity—was a kind of status symbol. But in the post-colonial era, with the concomitant spirit of nationalism and the strive towards an Asian and local self-identity, the continued "imposition" of the Catholic and Christian culture upon persons of other religions is insensitive at best, if not downright uncharitable. What are the characteristics of these practices which seem to suggest that Catholic schools in Asia have not really grasped the fact of religious plurality?

Christianity, the Normative Religion

To begin, some regard a school as "Catholic" if it explicitly has manifestations which are recognizably "Catholic." Thus, Christian beliefs and practices permeate the ambience of school life and are made part and parcel of the school routine. In some schools, for example, the general assemblies of the students begin with prayers which are peculiarly Christian in orientation. Christian symbols such as crucifixes or statues of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph adorn many school corridors and men and women dressed in religious attire—such as the white robe of the brothers and cassock of the priests or the habit and veil of the nuns—are common sights. Many schools also have space within their compounds where Christian chapels are located, in which only Christians are comfortable going for worship and adoration purposes. Holy Mass is celebrated within the school premises, at times even during school hours.

One can also think of the many testimonies of Muslim pupils in Catholic schools attending catechism classes or of Hindu and Buddhist students participating in chapel services or of a Taoist or Confucianist teacher teaching the subject of Bible studies. Christianity is the normative religion promoted and propagated (albeit indirectly and subtly) in these Catholic schools. This is by no means suggesting that there is no respect or tolerance for the other religions but simply to state the case that the ambience of Catholic schools seems to be peculiarly Christian. This might have been appropriate if all of the school community is Christian (for example, schools in the Philippines). But, the reality is that in most countries in Asia, the majority (in some cases more than 90 or even 95 %) of those within the school community are believers of religions other than Christianity. Moreover, in most cases those who come to Catholic schools come, not so much because they seek a "Christian" or "Catholic" education, but more because they desire a "good" or "holistic" education. Thus, when we enforce peculiarly Christian expressions and symbol systems into the Catholic school culture, we risk isolating and excluding the majority of the school population who do not necessarily subscribe to such practices. They may, of course, tolerate it for the sake of the good education they might otherwise not receive.

I suggest that Christianity seems to be normative in Catholic schools because I’m not sure if as much space and importance is given to any other religion other than Christianity in these schools. For example, I’m not sure if we ever encourage the student population to take up Qur’anic studies in Catholic schools, the same way we sometimes encourage students to take up Bible studies. Or, I’m not sure if we encourage Buddhist monks or Hindu priests to come to Catholic schools regularly to preach retreats or to teach their religion as frequently as we encourage Catholic priests to do the same. Or, I’m not sure if we display as many symbols of the other religions (such as statues of the Buddha, Hindu shrines, or Qur’anic verses) in Catholic schools the same way we display Christian symbols. This, I suppose, is not so much because the persons of other religions never request for them, but more because we see our schools as specifically Christian schools. Therefore, as owners and power-holders, we decide that space and importance ought to be allocated only to our own, and not to the other religions. In a way, as Catholic or Christian school heads see themselves as not only having the right but also the responsibility for promoting the specifically Christian religion. Never mind if the majority of our students come to our schools not so much because of this specifically Christian ambience. Never mind also if some may feel uncomfortable with the way we subtly impose and express our specifically Christian convictions. What matters is that as long as we have charge and control over these schools we believe it is our God-given right to promote our own, viz. Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. After all, if we don’t, who else will take up this responsibility to advance the cause of Christianity.

Mission of Catholic Schools

This mission would be appropriate if the express mission of the Catholic schools was the promotion of the Catholic or Christian religion. In such a case, the "Catholic-friendly" policies and practices serve well to ensure the perpetuation of the religion. Many of these practices are so subtle that one may not even be aware of the adverse impact on persons of other religions. For example, innocent activities such as teaching Muslim pupils hymns with lyrics such as "Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is Lord" or the Christmas carol "O Come let us adore him, Christ the Lord" can be subtle forms of proselytism. Or, having unwritten rules which ensure that Catholics are given priority in promotion exercises and allowed to dominate positions of responsibility (and, therefore, power) in our schools are means by which we ensure the survival and perpetuation of the Catholic in-group. If these are our practices and policies, then the "Catholic" identity of Catholic schools boils down to the extent that Catholicism is implemented and perpetuated in them. If that were the case, Catholic schools would be no different from any other group serving its own self-interests. That Nazarene teacher reminds us that even thieves and murderers do the same. Likewise, the Pharisees and terrorists also act in their own self-interests.

It is worse still if Catholic schools have mission and vision statements which explicitly preach against such self-serving practices. In this regard it is not uncommon for Catholic schools to proclaim loudly that theirs is a school open to all persons regardless of race or religion and that equality, respect, and justice are cardinal virtues of the school system. However, the question is: Do we really practice what we preach? How can we claim to be practicing justice if we provide for only "our own" and not for the religious growth and development of persons of other religions? How can we claim to be respectful of all if we can’t even be respectful of the gods, icons, and beliefs of our students of faiths other than Christianity? How can we claim to be treating everyone equally if we only allow one religion the advantageous position for influencing (even if indirectly) the young minds of the students? Not only that. What is more significant is that such practices teach our students that when one is in power one ought to take care of only one’s own. Thus the values of selfishness, self-centeredness, and self-perpetuation are transmitted by the witness of our schools’ policies vis-à-vis other religions. Furthermore, by not providing sacred spaces for other religions in our schools, we may also be reinforcing the fears and prejudices which many already have towards other religions. We are thus communicating to our students the fear for religious diversity and pluralism. Indirectly we are perpetuating attitudes of exclusivity and hostility rather than of respect and acceptance of others’ religions.

Catholic Schools in the West

So far I have been discussing the practice of Catholic schools in apprehending the fact of religious pluralism from an Asian perspective. The discussion can also be extended to countries in the West. Why? Because countries in the West have recently seen the rise of peoples from the East settled there in great numbers. Many of these immigrants bring along with them their own heritage and cultural traditions. Thus, in many Catholic schools in Europe and America there has been an increase in persons from Asia, many of whom are not Christian, but believers of the many great and ancient world religions. Not only that. Many persons in the West have also ceased to affiliate themselves to any religion.

In such contexts, Catholic schools have to learn how to deal with these students (and teachers) who are believers of religions other than Christianity or who are unbelievers of any particular religion. For example, how would Catholic schools in the West address the issue of compulsory subjects such as Christian studies, catechism, and Bible studies? Likewise, how would they address the issue of holy days such as Diwali or Eid al-Fitr or Wesak? Would the students be required to attend school on their sacred and holy days and be on holiday during Good Friday, a day which is of no significance to them? These are serious questions for Catholic schools in the West in view of the advent of religious pluralism amongst their student-bodies. Moreover, it won’t be long before countries in the West are no longer predominantly Christian as they become more religiously plural or secular. In this post-Christian West, Catholic schools, which will probably have more students who belong to other religions than to Christianity, will need to renew their understanding of what it means to run a Catholic school.

Or, the tables may be turned altogether—as it has in many countries in Asia—where Catholics have no choice but to send their children to schools run by persons of other religions. Power need not always reside in Catholic hands! In some instances in Asia, the schools mandate all the students to take up Islamic studies or be exposed to Buddhist ritual practices or to adopt Hindu dress codes and dietary laws. These are all part and parcel of the school culture and every student, including Catholics, is subject to them. Catholic parents have complained that such practices are acts of proselytism and fear that their children might yield to the pressures and convert to those religions. Some have.

Sadly, unless one is on the "receiving end" and the subject of discriminatory policies, one sometimes fails to recognize that when one is in power one commits very much the same transgressions. The Golden Rule is instructive here: "Do not do unto others that which you do not want others to do unto you." This teaching, from the Chinese Master Kung Fu Tzu, is a welcome reminder to those who are in "power-positions" today. It is, of course, similar to Jesus’ admonition which also reminds that tomorrow when power no longer resides in the hands of Catholics, others may do unto us that which we Catholics are now doing unto them. This, by the way, is no more than ethics on the very base level of instrumental reciprocity. As disciples of Christ, surely there are higher standards by which we operate: Should Catholic schools, therefore, remain "Catholic" or "catholic"?

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