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Why Educate for Justice in Catholic Schools

Michael Harrison, Padua College, Mornington Victoria

As far as the Church is concerned, the social message of the Gospel must not be considered a theory, but above all else a basis and a motivation for action. Inspired by this message, ? (Christian) men and women of all states of life devoted themselves to the needy and to those on the margins of society, convinced as they were that Christ's words "as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Mt 25:40) were not intended to remain a pious wish, but were meant to become a concrete life commitment. (John Paul II, Centissmus Annus, n.57)

Teachers in Catholic schools sometimes face the challenge of justifying why it is that their Catholic school should be putting time and energy into a properly resourced justice education program. The following material considers some of the major Vatican sources on this question.

Catholic schools educate for justice because justice is not a peripheral or dispensable issue. Justice is a core human value, and a foundational Christian concern. The rich vein of Catholic social theology and practice, from the gospels through to the social teaching of the Church in the past 100 years, attests to this concern within the Catholic tradition.

The teachings of the Second Vatican Council clarify and extend Catholic social theology and practice. The Council opened the way for the mainstream Church to consider itself a part of the world, rather than in conflict with it, and is unequivocal in its understanding that Catholics have an obligation to be actively involved in this world, especially where injustice is found. Its seminal document in this regard is the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), which states that it is the right and responsibility of the followers of Christ to strongly defend the essential dignity of each person.

everyone must consider his(her) every neighbour without exception as another self, taking into account first of all his(her) life and the means necessary to living it with dignity ? (G.S., n.27, see GS n.27-32 particularly)

Therefore the bishops argue that the Church cannot shirk its responsibilities for all people, particularly the poor and the needy:

when circumstances of time and place produce the need, she (the Church) can and indeed should initiate activities on behalf of all men (and women), especially those designed for the needy, such as the works of mercy and similar undertakings. (G.S., n.42)

Such teaching dismisses the notion that Christians live on two mutually exclusive planes, the spiritual and earthly. The bishops condemn those who would seek to:

? shirk their earthly responsibilities ? (or) who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age. (G.S.,n.43)

Paul VI oversaw the development of this teaching in the Council, and added to its direction in his own encyclicals. For instance, in Populorum Progressio he argued that:

peace is not simply the absence of warfare, based on a precarious balance of power; it is fashioned by efforts directed day after day toward the establishment of the ordered universe willed by God, with a more perfect form of justice among men (and women). (Paul VI, P.P., n.76)

Pope John Paul II has also expanded the breadth and depth of this teaching. For example, he writes that:

Today more than ever, the Church is aware that her social message will gain credibility more immediately from the witness of actions than as a result of its internal logic and consistency. (Centesimus Annus, n.57)

mention should also be made of the practical and as it were experiential dimension of this (social) teaching, which is to be found at the crossroads where Christian life and conscience come into contact with the real world. This teaching is seen in the efforts of individuals, families, people involved in cultural and social life, as well as politicians and statesmen to give it a concrete form and application in history. (C.A. n.59)

Even in its advanced years, John Paul II's pontificate continues to stress these concerns at very opportunity, particularly as the Church and the world reaches a new millenium. In the lineamenta for the Bishops of Oceania Special Assembly in 1999, the Vatican writes:

By walking the Way which is Christ, by telling His Truth and Living His Life, the Church contributes to the building of "a civilisation of love", where justice and peace reign. ? The Church's members are to be the leaven in the world so as to renew and transform every worthy part of society according to the will of Christ. (Synod of Bishops: Special Assembly for Oceania, Jesus Christ And The Peoples of Oceania: Walking His Way, Telling His Truth, Living His Life, n.25)

While conciliar and papal pronouncements have been significant in the development of Catholic Social teaching, many social theologians have also contributed to its depth and significance. The openness of the Council paved the way for the development of particular theologies clustering around the major social questions of the day - political theology, feminist theology, creation theology, and forms of liberation theology in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Key insights have developed throughout the Church's social teaching. The first and basic insight is that each person has an essential human dignity, which is God-given and immutable. This leads to the Church's significant support for human rights, and the right of individuals to adequate services and employment. The second equally basic insight is the communitarian view that all people must work for the common good. This notion implies the just distribution of resources and wealth, and ultimately a preferential option for the poor in social policy.

Such insights contained within the vast catalogue of the Church's social teaching provide a fundamental backdrop for all aspects of Catholic education.

Given the extent and importance of Catholic social teaching, it is not surprising that its key insights are echoed in significant Catholic educational documents. The General Directory for Catechesis restates the fundamentals of the Church's social teaching as a prelude to its extended discussion of the methods of catechesis:

What interests the Church is above all the integral development of the human person and of all peoples. Her vigorous insistence on respect for human rights and her decisive rejection of all their violations are clear expressions of that consciousness. The right to life, work, education, the foundation of a family, participation in public life, and to religious liberty are, today, demanded more than ever. (G.C.D., n.18)

The foundational principles of Catholic social teaching are also developed in more specifically educational terms. The person of Jesus is central to the vision and practice of Catholic schooling within the educational documents, and, following this incarnational premise, the essential dignity of each person is emphasised. The documents encourage school activities to be "intentionally directed to the growth of the whole person". A Catholic school "must be a community whose values are communicated through the interpersonal and sincere relationships of its members", and due importance needs to be given to the relationships existing "between all those who make up the educating community".

In terms of community, Catholic schools are called to be true communities of faith. The oft-quoted statement of Gravissimum Educationis, which is taken up in many of the Catholic educational documents that follow it, clearly states that:

What makes the Catholic school distinctive is its attempt to generate a community climate in the school that is permeated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and love. (GE n.8)

Therefore, the wider society should be able to see "from the Catholic school that it is possible to create true communities out of a common effort for the common good". (C.S., n.62)

Applying these insights more directly to education for justice, The Catholic School insists that Catholic schools must be

? truly Christian living and apostolic communities, equipped to make their own positive contribution, in a spirit of cooperation, to build up the secular society. For this reason the Church is prompted to mobilise her educational resources in the face of the materialism, pragmatism and technocracy of contemporary society. (C.S., n.12)

Therefore Catholic schools have the responsibility not simply to protect their students from the injustices of the wider society, but also to mobilise their resources to act against such injustice. In short, Catholic schools should educate their students towards taking a just stance on the central social issues of the day, and so become "an irreplaceable source of service, not only to the pupils and its other members, but also to society." (C.S., n.62)

In summary, this discussion has briefly examined the Vatican sources of Catholic social teaching and Catholic educational thought to show that justice must be a primary focus for Catholic education. Given the extent and insistence of this teaching, it is not only appropriate, but incumbent upon Catholic schools to educate all aspects of the person towards a commitment for justice.