The Character and Culture of the Catholic School

The Character and Culture of the Catholic School

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Today, in the face of great change, Catholic educators need to ask whether there is a gap between the vision of Catholic education handed on through tradition, and the reality of church and school life.

This book considers the implications of the Catholic vision of education for the culture and life of the Catholic school. The author argues that to ensure that Catholic school culture preserves its special character, it is essential that the content of its founding tradition is fully integrated with the daily life and activity of the school. The Catholic School, as an ideal, is more than an educational institution - it is a community of faith.

From: The Character and Culture of the Catholic School, by Susan O'Donnell

Chapter 1 Catholic Educational Philosophy

REDDEN AND RYAN (1955) DEFINE “PHILOSOPHY” AS AN “outlook on life” that offers insight into the values, meanings, and purposes of a particular group of people. In order to understand Catholic education, we need first to consider its philosophical foundation since “all education is influenced by a particular concept of what it means to be a human person” (SCCE, 1982, Para. 18).

In common with other Christian traditions, Catholics believe that a benevolent, creative God created the world. The Bible is revered as God’s revelation of God’s self. The First Testament reveals a God who intervened and still intervenes in human life and history, in order to enter into a relationship with the human race. Life is revered as a gift from this God, to be valued, respected, and protected, because all life is good. Catholics believe that life continues after death; that life must be understood in the context of a reality beyond the material and physical dimensions of the world. There is a future for humanity beyond corporeal life. The ultimate revelation of God’s love for humanity and desire for human fulfilment is what Catholics call “the Incarnation”. It is the intervention of God in human existence through Jesus the Christ, a person both human and divine, the Son of God who gave his life for others, was put to death, but rose again after three days. He is at the centre of a Christian and Catholic worldview. His life, teachings, and actions constitute a model for living that his followers need to emulate in order to find happiness and meaning in life.

A Catholic philosophy of life is founded on the concept of human persons as inherently religious beings, whose search for meaning in life is a facet of that religiosity. Religious faith is understood to be a trust relationship with God, articulated through a unified belief system, expressed through the traditions of a church community, and lived out in the daily life of its members. This faith, a free gift from God, calls believers into total commitment to God. Belief in an intimate, personal, and loving God and in the humanity and divinity of Jesus prompts Christians to respect all people as persons “made in God’s image”. In other words, human creativity, a desire for goodness over evil, the ability and wish to relate, and the capacity to exercise free will, are all reflections, albeit limited, of a Creator God. The human person has:

…intelligence and will, freedom and feelings, the capacity to be an active and creative agent, a being endowed with both rights and duties, capable of interpersonal relationships, called to a specific mission in the world. (SCCE, 1988, Para. 55)

The resurrection of Jesus invites Christians to live their lives as if there is a future beyond death, providing a reason for living and for making meaning out of their daily actions. His teaching and life demonstrate and offer a morality that will ultimately bring goodness into a troubled world. It is the mission of Christians to improve this world by living a life dedicated to social action, thus continuing the work of Jesus. Through their sincere commitment to this mission, the values of Jesus, as revealed through the Gospels and, for Catholics, through the apostolic tradition of the Church, are transmitted to others. Christianity and Catholicism, therefore, are not separate from daily life; faith is meant to be a dynamic part of human reality. For Christians, to be a human person is to be a spiritual person, open to the mysteries of religious meaning:

The world of human culture and the world of religion are not like two parallel lines that never meet; points of contact are established within the human person. For a believer is both human and a person 1988, Para. 51)


In the context of Catholic philosophy, education is more than teaching and learning. For the human person, called into a spiritual relationship with God and others, the educational process is “a genuine Christian journey toward perfection” (SCCE, 1988, Para. 48). The metaphor of “journey” suggests growth, uncertainty, discovery, and the reaching out to an ultimate destination. As a Christian journey, the very nature of the education provided is inevitably influenced by a Christian outlook on life and learning.

The interrelationship of intellectual development, religious faith, and personal growth is central to the Catholic philosophy of education. The purpose of education is the “synthesis of faith and culture” (Vatican, 1971); that is, the integration of religious meaning and the way a person chooses to live their life. In other words, what is believed should find its fullest expression in how it is lived. If compartmentalised, separated from the realities of human culture, the authenticity of religious faith is compromised.

The aim of a Catholic education is to enable the student to develop a harmony between knowledge, understanding, personal values, and a Christian worldview by creating and maintaining a Catholic culture in an educational context:

The specific mission of the school … is a critical systematic transmission of culture in the light of faith and the bringing forth of the power of Christian virtue by the integration of culture with faith and of faith with living. (SCCE, 1977, Para. 49)

In this way, the person brings all of life together into a coherent whole. In short, this integration of life, learning, and faith is the fundamental goal of a Catholic education.

“The most important element in the educational endeavour is always the individual person” (SCCE, 1982, Para. 32): the development of the whole human person is the goal. Whilst every school can claim to be engaged in the physical, intellectual, social, emotional, aesthetic, and vocational aspects of each student’s life, the Catholic concept of a truly holistic approach to education includes the spiritual nature of the person. Flynn argues that:

In view of the spiritual nature of persons, a completely secular education which ignores the religious aspirations of people today will be an incomplete and inadequate development of the whole person. (Flynn, 1992, p. 16. Italics in the original.)

This has been, and continues to be, a strong argument in the Catholic Church’s case for the establishment of its own schools.

Education, however, is not only for the good of the individual; it is also for the good of society. As Christian persons develop skills, knowledge, maturity, and moral judgment, their commitment to religious faith demands affirmative action for the good of other members of society. Catholic Christian education is not merely a means to gaining well-paid employment or social status. It is also intended to equip the person in the mission of bringing about a world of justice, equality, and peace:

Education is not given for the purposes of gaining power, but as an aid toward a fuller understanding of and communion with [people], events and things … Knowledge is not to be considered as a means of material prosperity and success, but as a call to service and to be responsible for others. (SCCE, 1977, Para. 56)

Education from a Catholic perspective is more than a human enterprise: God is also involved. Catholics, in common with other Christians, believe in a personal, intimate, active God who continues to work in all aspects of people’s lives. Belief in the resurrection of Christ means that the believer can anticipate the guidance and action of Jesus in every aspect of their daily lives. Life is not ended with death, but changed. As a member of the Catholic Church committed to his or her faith, each person has a responsibility to carry on the work that Jesus began. Education is preparation for that responsibility:

True education is directed toward the formation of the human person in view of his final end and the good of that society to which he belongs and in the duties of which he will, as an adult have a share. (Vatican, 1971, Para. 1)

Finally, central to the Catholic school is a mission that is:

…educational in nature: to proclaim Christ’s teaching, the Good News that God has come amongst us, to all people and to show the relevance of this teaching to each succeeding generation. (Flynn, 1992, p. 18)

Through its involvement in education, the Church continues its evangelising goal, carrying out Christ’s instructions to his first followers to “teach all nations” the essential truths about God and life. Education– that is, the processes of learning and teaching– is one of the four basic elements of the Church’s identity alongside service, community, and worship (Treston, 1992). The Catholic school supports Catholic parents in their responsibility of educating their children in the Christian Catholic faith, embodying all four constitutional elements of the Church.


The Catholic school is committed to the development of the whole man [sic] since in Christ, the perfect man, all human values find their fulfilment and unity. Herein lies the specifically Catholic character of the school. (Vatican, 1977, Para. 34)

In Catholic education, the “whole” person means every aspect of what it means to be human; the intellectual, creative, moral, social, emotional, sexual, physical, active, and spiritual. The school is a “privileged environment for human formation” (SCCE, 1982, Para. 4); a place where the development of each student is nurtured and supported, enabling him or her to grow and mature as a fully integrated human person. As such:

A Catholic school must firstly be a religious place where the many energies of the school community are integrated into a holistic vision of what it means to be a human person, created by God in God’s image, living in a partnership covenant with all life forms of the earth. (Treston, 1992, p. 9)

Students are encouraged to develop a personal harmony between what they value, how they view the world, and how they should relate to that world, themselves, and other persons:

In developing their spirit, their mind, their body and their character, the Catholic school can help them to cultivate a set of values and a code of behaviour, along with a capacity to make sense of their world, to make judgments and to make a difference. (Vatican, 1965, Para. 54)

By integrating religious faith, human knowledge, and experience, a holistic approach to education is developed:

Knowledge, values, attitudes and behaviour fully integrated with faith will result in the student’s personal synthesis of life and faith. (SCCE, 1982, Para. 31)


Being a Catholic school impacts on the quality of relationships and the roles of stakeholders. All teachers working in a Catholic school are:

…obliged to respect that character and give their active support to it under the direction of those responsible. (SCCE, 1977, Para. 80)

They need to be aware of the values that underlie a Catholic education and Catholic way of life. These are not to be presented merely:

…as a set of abstract objectives to be admired … they must be presented as values which generate human attitudes and these attitudes must be encouraged in the students. (SCCE, 1982, Para. 30)

The quality and effectiveness of the Catholic school environment are largely dependent on the quality of relationships amongst stakeholders (SCCE, 1982) based upon the school’s core values and corresponding cultural norms. These give rise to strong expectations in terms of appropriate behaviour, and the tone of the school:

All teachers, whether Catholic or not, are part of this ‘whole school community’. Each teacher is therefore expected to use his or her specific skills to achieve the goals and purpose of the school. (NZCPCIS, 1995, p. 55)

It could be argued that the role of the teacher in a state school may not be very different, in essence, from the above. In the context of the Catholic school, however, the teaching role is more than a job or profession. It is a vocation or ministry; that is, a call to serve others. Teachers are significant role models of Christian values for their students. They:

…must know what they are trying to do and why. They must be able to articulate clearly the Christian view of the human person and the implications of this view for modern schooling. (Dwyer, 1986, p. 26)

Teachers in a Catholic school are expected to work as a team; to share professional skills not merely because it makes good professional sense but also because it is a model of the Christian community. In other words, the nature of the teaching role within the Catholic school has personal, professional, and spiritual implications for staff. Out of respect for the personal religious freedom of the individual, no teacher is required to act against his or her conscience. Nevertheless, those who cannot or will not live up to the demands of such a role face a very real potential for internal and external conflict.

Central to the vision of Catholic education is the concept of the school as a support for parents. The Catholic school does not replace the family as the primary culture for the education of children since:

The task of imparting education belongs primarily to the family, but it requires the help of society as a whole. (Vatican, 1965, Para. 3)

The rite of Christian baptism recognises that parents are the first educators. “Christian faith is born and grows inside a community” (SCCE, 1977, Para. 53), and the first community is family. The school community assists and complements that growth. The relationship between the school and the family is understood as a “partnership” (Ramsay and Clark, 1990) and the school consequently has a responsibility to communicate, co-operate, and work with the family.


All schools transmit and live a set of implicit core values, but those at the heart of Catholic education are distinctive insofar as they are explicit and predetermined by the religious tradition of the Catholic Church. They permeate behaviour; influence organisation, policies and structure; and determine the quality of interrelationships. Their source and inspiration is the person and teaching of Jesus.

It is the shared nature of these values and the specific manner in which they are integrated within the school’s life that give each school its own distinct character and Catholic identity:

The fact that in their own individual ways, all members of the school community share this Christian vision makes the school ‘Catholic’; principles of the Gospel in this manner become the educational norms since the school then has them as its internal motivation and final goal. (SCCE, 1977, Para. 34)

Amongst core values we can list respect for the individual, truth, and the environment; forgiveness and reconciliation; commitment to service; love of God and others; justice and compassion; and a love of prayer, worship, and community. Each school is also influenced by the specific set of values embedded in the spirit of its founding community. The values tradition of Marist Brothers schools, for example, expresses a commitment to serving the underprivileged and the poor; the Sisters of Mercy schools seek to show compassion; and the Dominican schools uphold the value of learning as the way to find truth and God:

Whatever be its origins – diocesan, religious or lay – each Catholic school can preserve its own specific character, spelled out in an educational philosophy, rationale or in its own pedagogy. (SCCE, 1982, Para. 39)

It is a truism that in relation to human values there is often a gap between the ideal and the reality. However, even in a situation where reality falls far short of the vision, the values nevertheless remain powerful motivators.


The Catholic school is more than an educational institution. It is a “community of faith” (SCCE, 1982); a group of people bound together by a shared religious worldview:

Community is the tie that binds students and teachers together in special ways to something more significant than themselves: shared values and ideals. (Sergiovanni, 1994, p. xiii)

For the Catholic school community, those bonds, values, and ideals are Christian, contained over the centuries within the traditions of the Catholic Church. It inherits an ideology that serves as a firm framework for the building of an authentic educational community.

However, to what degree can a school authentically call itself a faith community? When faced with the reality of life in New Zealand, characterised by a plurality of beliefs and religious experience, it cannot be presumed that all students, families, staff, Boards of Trustees, and other stakeholders are fully committed, practising Catholics, involved with the local parish church. In other words, the degree of commitment to religious faith of individual school members cannot be assessed. Given the diversity of faith positions that may be represented amongst stakeholders, a non-critical conceptualisation of the Catholic school as a “faith community” may hide a far more complex, and less than ideal, reality.


Church literature on education presents a rich, almost poetic, vision of what Catholic schools should be and why. The philosophy, values, and beliefs contained in official Church documents have a global quality, intended to inspire and guide Catholic educators world-wide, establishing a theoretical, religious understanding of the nature of Catholic education and its broad implications for schools and Church. Given this international audience, the literature does not specify how each Catholic school system within each nation should apply the broad philosophical principles set out in various Vatican documents.

Vatican documents refer to the “specific character of the Catholic school” (SCCE, 1977, Para. 33), followed by an outline of the features that constitute that character. This specific character is variously defined as a “quality”, an “environment”, a “climate” or “atmosphere”, and a “community”, but there seem to be no direct links with the concept of school culture. However, the emphasis in this literature on the centrality of philosophy and mission, the importance of shared values, their influence on school norms, and the significance of interpersonal relationships implicitly presents a concept of the school as more than an educational institution. It is clear that the specific character of individual Catholic schools relates closely to the communal life of the school as well as its educational activity. In other words, the concept of Catholic ethos or character is intrinsically bound to that of school culture.

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