I spoken on a panel about the purpose of RE at the "Am I Bothered?" RE conference. I shared something on what I believe the purpose of Catholic RE may be - it was deliberately provocative and resulted in various conversations during the day. I broadcast my contribution via Periscope:
Many, both Catholics and non-Catholics, presume that the core purpose of Religious Education in the Catholic school is either to bring unbelievers to the faith or to grow the faith of the baptised. Sometimes it is referred to a form of indoctrination, with the negative connotations that come with that term.
Good RE in the Catholic school can function as both evangelization and catechesis. This will largely depend on the state of those receiving the education, and it is important to note that neither of those aims are properly educational. Nor do we proselytise in RE; we are not trying claim the non-believer.
Whilst the whole school functions as a catechetical community, the purpose of RE within that community is to ensure that every pupil has a good knowledge, understanding and critical engagement with Catholicism, irrespective of their faith.
Many, both within the Church and outside of it, see RE as a form of moral education; an increased study of ethics is rooted in this. However moral formation is part of the whole school and curriculum. Many schools are talking about a need for “character education” and many are attempting to teach RE in a way that it becomes a religious version of good citizenship. But, as Paul Barber of the CES said: what others are calling “character education” is what Catholic schools have always simply called “education”.
RE may also be a catalyst for community cohesion; good RE leads to greater understanding of other religions and therefore to greater respect for those of other faiths. It may be an outcome, but it should not be an aim. Being respectful of difference and expressing difference in a way which is sensitive to the rights of others, is not a skill which is exclusive to RE.
The Catholic community are not immune from the debates surrounding breadth versus depth; one religion or many; religious studies from the outside versus religious education from the inside; theology versus sociology.
Is it as simple as RE improving religious literacy? This is the most commonly cited purpose recently, yet the term remains fiercely contested. Are we simply moving the question further down the road. What does it mean to be a religiously literate person? Knowledge, understanding of religious belief and commitment, respect for difference and acknowledgement of the important place religion plays in the lives of individuals and communities, as well as a critical engagement, and a thorough understanding of the religious or non-religious beliefs of the student.
Studying “The Big 6” of RS, in a “non-confessional” way, provides a set of beliefs and practices of others. This may lead to an assumption that all religions are basically the same and that the differences between them are cultural rather than substantive. Some call this an agnostic privilege; the study certainly appears as a form of anthropology, rather than delivering anything theological.
The ‘depth over breadth’ argument is often cited in RE. I recall Claire Fox telling me she thought her Catholic education served her well as at least she knew one religion really well! This is why many Catholic schools are happy to refer to RE as a study of theology. There is much depth to the rich intellectual heritage of the Catholic theological tradition.
For some, RE should be evolving to become a sociology of religion, asking questions about what religion itself is and analyzing the divergence within traditions and the interplay between politics, culture and religion – this is often called a study of the “real religious landscape”. This aims to detach the Church and other religions from the RE taking place, which some may claim is preferable.
Catholics have a distinctive vision of education, but we are not alone in our passion for educating. The wider world of RE in 2016 poses both challenges and opportunities. Catholic RE teachers are engaging now more than ever. We may not agree, but there is common ground. I finish with a quote from a friend and fellow Catholic educator: “We want to make sure that when the meal is served we have our seat at the table, even if we reserve the right to select our meal from the a la carte menu while everyone else has the dish of the day.”