The debate about ‘faith schools’ returns with the assertion this week that: “Separating pupils on the basis of religion for education purposes in my view is not the best way of developing social cohesion.
Indeed ‘social cohesion’ is central to much of the policy of the present Government. It is an absolutely proper aim for any government that, as a society, we should progress along the pathway of mutual understanding and peaceful development.
But what exactly is involved in social cohesion, especially in an increasingly diverse society in which we have to respond to the fragmentation of shared values and the emergence of extremist action?
Today ‘social cohesion’ is promoted on the traditional basis of the autonomy of the individual, coupled now with the secular approach taken in all public affairs. This means we have largely accepted in practice the core ‘credo’ of liberal secular philosophy that society exists to keep the peace between people of quite divergent view who are potential or real enemies to each other.
This approach actually compounds our difficulties, and it does so in three ways.
Firstly it creates a moral vacuum. Secular individualism makes rational ethical discourse very difficult. The ‘good’ is what I choose it to be. ‘Tolerance’ is the only civic virtue. A society does not hold together easily on that basis. What is needed is moral education based on broad and sound principles.
Secondly, we often speak of our cultural endeavours as being the cement of society, and the lack of them as weakening our belonging to each other. This underlines the importance of our learning about other cultures and striving to become a multi-cultural society.
But multi-culturalism without regard for the spiritual roots of each culture is actually destructive of community cohesion. This is because it presents a culture as a collection of interesting phenomena while filtering out the real sources of that culture’s strength and significance.
To divorce culture from spirit is to deprive those whose culture it is of their true identity and to rob those who study it of the culture’s ability to enrich their lives.
When we remember that these cultural identities and characteristics are most profoundly spiritual, then our quest for social cohesion takes its third step.
The spiritual depth of the person is truly explored when religious belief lifts up the human spirit and opens it to the transcendent. The search for meaning and truth finds its response in religious belief.
Religious belief tutors the spirit and can bring the spirit to its true fulfilment because religious belief is the most profound spiritual quest of the human person. Indeed, the search for meaning, for truth, for goodness and freedom, which so often act as the driving force of cultural expression is, in the end, what makes up the religious quest.
Another way of saying this is that a peoples’ culture is only fully explored when the religious roots of that culture are acknowledged and accepted. Multi-cultural studies do not make full sense without an appreciation of the meaning and experience of religious belief.
The secular mind fails to understand the part played by faith in the whole of life. In failing in this regard, it attempts to strip out that faith, while wishing to have regard for a people’s culture and artistic expressions.
If multi-culturalism is to be life enhancing, then it needs to address these dimensions of every culture and encourage a growing awareness of their spiritual and religious roots. Then the moral, spiritual and religious traditions and insights of the people of this country can be truly brought into the search for a future harmonious society. They are its allies and not its enemies.
These three requirements for social cohesion are often found in ‘faith schools’. They are certainly found in Catholic schools.
Catholic education seeks to provide its pupils with the patterns of moral reasoning by which mature free choice can be exercised in the pursuit of lasting happiness.
It seeks to hand on, in a process of continual understanding and exploration, the moral and spiritual values that are fundamental to human well-being, sustained and enabled by a relationship to the Creator.
Catholic education equips its students to enter into a pluralist society with wisdom and discernment, with principles and virtues, rather than with the purely political values of tolerance and the suspension of personal judgement.
It helps its pupils to understand themselves correctly as members of a community, as nurtured and sustained by a community and as contributing to that community.
Catholic education explores the proper relationship between the individual and society. Catholic education helps its pupils to give an account of the faith that forms them, to speak of it with confidence and to know that, through it, they can meet with member of other faiths with sensitivity and insight.
Catholic education does not encourage its students to approach religious faith at arm’s length, as if it is something of which to be only suspicious, for such suspicion quickly corrodes the mutual understanding and esteem that true social cohesion actual requires.
In a Catholic school we acknowledge the societal nature of the human person, rather than his or her radical individualism. So a Catholic school always sees itself as assisting parents, those who shape the first community to which every person belongs. Parents are the primary educators of their children and the first religious educators, too.
Quite rightly parents look to the school to propose and model those values that it seeks to live within the community of the family. So a Catholic school understands that it exists in order to assist those parents and families who, through baptism, are part of that one community of Catholic faith, while at the same time wherever possible being welcoming to others who wish to take part in a Catholic education.
Social cohesion needs to be based on the recognition of these three observable characteristics of human nature: fundamentally we are meant to live in community, not as isolated individuals; secondly we are, by nature, spiritual beings; thirdly our spiritual nature finds fulfilment in religious belief. Education which recognises and serves these characteristics is rounded and sound. In these ways, ‘faith schools’ actually serve social cohesion properly understood and are a force for good in our society.