Enhancing Catholic School Identity Project (ECSIP): Dialogue School in a Monologue Church?

Having just returned from a 3 day conference focusing on the Enhancing Catholic School Identity Project (ECSIP), I wanted to write a few reflections of assessing school identity in the broader context of the identity of the Catholic Church in Australia, and the world. The conference was led by the beautiful Teresa Brown of ACU and inspirational Chris Reed of Mother Theresa Catholic Primary School in Craigieburn, Victoria (and the adjectives could just as legitimately be used the other way around).

My own experience with ECSIP is very limited, having not been in a school which has participated in the project, but having attended sessions in the diocese about the basic ideas, and having discussed with other APREs their experiences. I don’t want to try to document the information provided in the conference sessions, but to think through some ideas that I have had which go beyond the content of the course. However, an understanding of the basic premises of the ECSIP is probably essential to understand my thinking. Without going into too much detail, there are three scales on which identity in school is assessed, to do with: 1. the individual beliefs of the members of the community (students, parents, staff) in the PCB scale; 2. the cultural approach the school has in the way it conveys its identity in the Melbourne Scale; and 3. the pedagogical, moral and organisational combinations that identify identity and solidarity in the Victorian Scale.

The ideal, according to the theologians of Leuven, is that a school 1. has post-critical believers; 2. recontextualises its expression of Catholicism through a hermeneutical approach which holds together religion and culture; and 3. is a dialogue school which engages meaningfully with beliefs outside of Catholicism, but unapologetically gives precedence to Catholicism.

I want to take this last point – that the ideal Catholic school is a Dialogue School – and think about it in the wider context. This ideal acknowledges the plurality of voices amongst the community, being receptive and open to the other, but giving a preferential option for Christianity. The pedagogical responsibility of such a school is the spiritual development of each member of the community. It is worth noting at this point, that a Dialogue School differs from a Monologue School, the latter being a school ‘for Catholics, by Catholics’ with a closed Christian narrative. A Monologue School stresses its Catholicism with little openness or receptivity to other beliefs. It has a tendency towards insularity and therefore may become out of touch with the world in which it exists.

So, ‘we’ want Catholic Schools to be Dialogue Schools. The Catholic school, as we know, is Church to many students. It is, for over half of students, their only regular experience of the Catholic faith. Moreover, in every Catholic school, there are students who are not Catholic, whose religious affiliation may for example be Anglican, Muslim, Sikh, etc. or they may have no religious affiliation. Acceptance and inclusivity is a basic level of acknowledging the dignity of each person in their beliefs, but schools are challenged to genuinely engage with the views of the other, in order for their own identity to be interrupted and therefore grow. Therefore, it makes sense for schools to engage meaningfully with the wide range of beliefs held by members of its community.

Schools are challenged to move into spaces of dialogue, but the experience of many Catholics teaching in these schools is of the Church as a Monologue institution. For long periods of its history, the Catholic Church systematically promoted a closed narrative of its teachings and beliefs, which the lay person could not possibly hope to engage with on a meaningful hermeneutical level, but was asked to accept. Some might argue that this is beginning to change, with the discussions of synodality coming to the fore, and with the Church in the Western World beginning to engage in receptive dialogue with lay members, an example of which is the Plenary Council in Australia in 2020. However, a justifiable position would be that these processes feed back into what continues to be a Monologue procedure, enacted by those who have the final say in the Church, bishops, cardinals and the Pope. Leaving aside how this meaningfully engages half of the population in hermeneutics (women, that is), Church structures have not yet changed to allow for hermeneutical dialogue with the lay population. In other words, a Catholic School is being asked to be a Dialogue School in a Monologue Church.

As every teacher knows, modelling is fundamental to processes of learning, and many schools are having to learn how to become Dialogue Schools – it is a challenge that requires great investment, strong leadership, and the commitment of a significant proportion of the community – and yet school leadership cannot look to the organisation in which it exists, the Catholic Church, for examples of how to do this. If, in the spirit of the Plenary Council 2020, we are to listen to the Spirit, what is it telling us about the way in which we lead Catholic schools in Australia? How does the more nuanced message Pope Francis is sending out inspire us to live out the Catholic identity of our schools?

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