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What is the point of Catholic education? In the UK we have many Catholic schools, and the Church has a clear view of what they are for. In summary, it is to provide a first rate education, but to construe education as being about more than simply providing children with knowledge. Like all schools, our Catholic schools encourage high aspirations, hard work, high levels of achievement and respect for others, but for us:

“Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News. First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.” 

That is not to confuse us with Madrassas, but in a Catholic school, the Church seeks to build the foundation for our spiritual development, so our learning and teaching should reflect the fact that Christ is at the centre of our lives. That does not mean that all the children in our schools should be Catholics, but it does mean that they and their parents should be open to the idea that there is more to life than ‘getting on’ – success is not merely about getting qualifications (though they matter), it is about how you get them, it is about your relations with other people, it is about the quality of those relationships. As the Vatican put it:

they are to be the communities where the spiritual, cultural and personal worlds within which we live are harmonised to form the roots from which grow our values, motivation, aspirations and the moral imperatives that inform our choices and actions as persons.

This is well understood, although there may well be times when this is honoured more in the breach than the observance.

Less well understood is the idea of a Catholic university, especially in the UK, where the idea has been foreign since the Reformation. The Catholic Church was the original provider of higher education in this country, but its institutions were taken over by the Church of England. Since then, and until recently, we have had no university in the UK which espouses a distinctively Catholic mission. We do, however, have this definition of what a Catholic University ought to do:

A Catholic foundation in higher education is understood as “an academic institution which in a rigorous and critical fashion assists in the advancement of human dignity and cultural heritage through research, teaching and services offered to local, national and international communities.”

(Source: Ex Corde Ecclesiae 1990 para 12: quoted in The Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland The Canon Law: Letter and Spirit, p 442)

It is, perhaps, hard to see what is particularly Catholic about such aims – my own university, very definitely not a religious foundation, would sign up to these aims like a shot. In a secular, and secularised academy, such aims are, perhaps, a way of not frightening people off. It is probably best to proceed carefully with defining what a Catholic university is for. Newman was quite clear – Catholic Universities should serve the cause of Revealed Truth. But again, this is a headline statement and not an account of how we should do that.

My own view is that it should ensure that a distinctively Catholic viewpoint is represented where that is possible. Too often, in our secularised academy, faith is taken in a reductive way, as though people in the past could not have meant what they said. But faith is real, and it should not be set to one side as though it were a separate part of our experience and had no effect on anything we do. That insight, if it is one, seems a good place to start.