By John Thavis
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — In a letter to bishops’ conferences around the world, the Vatican said true religious education in schools is at risk of being replaced with a more “neutral” teaching about religious ethics and culture.
The result is confusion and indifference among students, whose faith can sometimes be put in danger, said the letter, issued by the Congregation for Catholic Education.
“A form of education that ignores or marginalizes the moral and religious dimension of the person is a hindrance to full education,” it said.
Dated May 5, the letter was posted on the congregation’s Web site Sept. 9, just as most schools in Europe prepared to reopen. The text immediately ignited a debate in Italy over the proper balance between religious content and the secular nature of public schools.
The letter addressed the issue of the Catholic identity of church-run schools, but much of its attention was focused on religion classes in public schools. It said the nature and role of religious education in schools has become the object of debate.
“In some cases, it is now the object of new civil regulations, which tend to replace religious education with teaching about the religious phenomenon in a multidenominational sense, or about religious ethics and culture — even in a way that contrasts with the choices and educational aims that parents and the church intend for the formation of young people,” it said.
The letter warned that religious content in such classes can be downgraded to the point that students are led into error.
“Moreover, if religious education is limited to a presentation of the different religions, in a comparative and ‘neutral’ way, it creates confusion or generates religious relativism or indifferentism,” it said.
The letter quoted from a 1984 speech of Pope John Paul II, who strongly defended the rights of Catholics to religious education in all schools, whether Catholic or state-run.
“The families of believers have the right to such education; they must have the guarantee that the state school — precisely because it is open to all — not only will not put their children’s faith in peril, but will rather complete their integral formation with appropriate religious education,” the late pope said.
The letter said it was the church’s role to “establish the authentic contents of Catholic religious education in schools,” regardless of the nature of the schools, in order to guarantee that the education presented as Catholic is indeed authentic.
“The Catholic religious instruction and education which are imparted in any school are subject to the authority of the church,” it said.
It insisted that religious instruction have an equal place in the scholastic programs of schools.
“It must present the Christian message and the Christian event with the same seriousness and the same depth with which other disciplines present their knowledge. It should not be an accessory alongside of these disciplines,” it said.
The letter said religious education fits into the evangelizing mission of the church, although it is different from and complementary to catechesis on a parish or personal level.
The text did not explain in detail how, in a pluralistic society, public schools could satisfy its vision of authentic religious instruction. One informed Vatican source told Catholic News Service that the faith identity of teachers was an important aspect of the congregation’s concern.
“To be authentic, religious instruction on any faith needs to be taught by someone who lives it. It is true that the teacher in this situation does not aim to lead people to the faith, but in order to present the faith in its fullness he needs to be in harmony with what he is teaching,” he said.
“Content specific to the Catholic faith, such as a dogma like the Resurrection, must be explained by a believer; otherwise it could be presented as a myth,” he said.
In the United States, public schools can teach about religion as long as they do not provide religious training. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1963 distinguished between teaching about religion, which it said was permissible, and state-sponsored religious indoctrination, which it prohibited.
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