What is a Catholic School?

A Catholic School

Catholic National Schools are a specific type of state-funded primary school in Ireland. They are part of the National School system that was established in 1831 and which, together with the Special Schools, comprise all State-funded primary education in Ireland. All National Schools, whether Roman Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, Jewish or Educate Together schools are funded by the State on an equal basis. They operate the same National Curriculum, follow the same Rules for Boards of Management and are staffed by teachers who have the same level of professional qualifications and recognition.

What Makes Catholic Schools Different?

Where schools differ from each other is in their “ethos”. The ethos of a school describes its spirit and character. This is built upon its aims and objectives, its policies and procedures and should be reflected in all interactions within the school community. Thus, the ethos of a school impacts strongly on the kind of education delivered to its pupils.

The Patron and the Board of Management

Within the Irish National School System, responsibility for determining the ethos of a school rests with the “Patron”. The main legislation that governs education in Ireland (the Education Act 1998) confers significant powers on school patrons.

Among other powers, the Patron:

  • establishes a new school
  • sets up its Board of Management
  • selects the first Principal before the school opens
  • directly appoints two members of the Board, approves the selection of other members and
  • appoints the Chairperson
  • approves the appointment of all teaching staff
  • lays down the fundamental ethos base of the Board.

Under the Education Act, the Board of Management must undertake to run the school according to the ethos determined by the Patron. In addition, one half hour period of teaching per day for children in the school is reserved for the Patron’s exclusive religious curriculum.

What is a Catholic School anyway?

People often ask us: ‘What is a Catholic school?’ We find that the question is both a head question and a heart question. The head question is about being able to define and parse something; the heart question is more about feelings and memory. When it comes to Catholic schools many people have a good sense of the heart question, but they are not so sure about the head part, about how you put things in words. Despite all that is said in the Gospels, in the decrees of the Second Vatican Council, in the rich documents emanating from the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, people still don’t know, in their heads at least, what a Catholic school is. In the past maybe you didn’t need to know. The culture was one of obedience. Today’s culture, by contrast, is one of experience and immediacy. If you can’t explain who you are in a plain and forthright manner you are exposed to relativism and caricature – not a good foundation from which to cherish, advocate or preserve something. In a time when things are questioned and challenged, vagueness can be a cue to letting go easily and that is a real danger for Catholic schools in Ireland today. In the face of such a critical demand for clarity it may surprise people to realise that there is no one definition of a Catholic school and not one model found in reality. Many different versions of a Catholic school, primary and secondary, are found not only in Ireland north and south, but right around the world and there are debates everywhere about the nature of Catholic education.

So how do we make sense of a Catholic school? Perhaps all we can do is look at the ideal and point to the obvious. A Catholic school paints a picture of the world for the young person and among the most simple and obvious things we can say about that picture is that it is associated with Jesus Christ, with being Catholic, with the Catholic Church, and with Catholic ethos. Catholic schools gather first and foremost in the name of Jesus Christ. The picture finds its first reference and abiding inspiration in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus offered us a model for our lives and a way of liberation into true humanity. He showed us how to belong to one another, how to forgive, how to start again when things go wrong, how to pray in gratitude and in supplication. He painted a picture of a world whose heart was love. We were created by a loving God who waited for us like the father of a prodigal son, who sought us like a shepherd searching for lost sheep, who wanted us to be with Him for eternity. In response to this revelation we were asked to amend our lives and to believe the Gospel in the assurance that the Holy Spirit would be with us on our life-long journey back to God. And this is where being Catholic comes in. The message received and the response given is not so much with an individual in a vacuum as in a living historical community or Church. Catholicism is a Christian tradition, a way of life, a faith community. In that community children are nourished in Christian life primarily through the proclamation of God’s word, through sacramental encounter with Christ and in the communal celebration of liturgy, especially the Eucharist.

This leads us to where the Catholic school takes its place in the scheme of things. Catholic schools exist to transmit the Catholic tradition of faith and life. The call to every believer to evangelise (Mt 28:19) is at the heart of the Catholic vision of education. By evangelisation we meant that “process by which the Church, move by the Spirit proclaims and spreads the Gospel throughout the entire world” (General Directory for Catechesis n 48). It is a process now seen primarily in terms of living discipleship. The Catholic school emerges as the place where teacher and pupils enter into a living dialogue with the received wisdom of the Catholic tradition, where young people are introduced to its poetry, its beauty and its mystery. Without getting into the detail of whether the schools we know as ‘Catholic’ are Catholic in the manner outlined above, we have to acknowledge that Catholic schools are ideally, ‘Church’ schools. Ideally a Catholic school is the Church as community alive. It is the people of God educating its youth in faith and life. There is an undeniable ecclesiastical dimension to a school which purports to be Catholic and this includes legal recognition and ownership. A Catholic school is recognised by the local bishop and there is a legal framework protecting the trusteeship, ethos and characteristic spirit of such schools in Ireland. A Catholic school attempts to be faithful to its calling by firstly being a good school by any standards and then more. The ‘more’ involves putting special emphasis on the following: on spirituality (the core task, the more to life, that new depth, richer possibility, fuller understanding), on relationships (Christian love and care in action), on how the school relates to the young person (the extraordinary respect and welcome appropriate to a child of God), on justice (right relationship with self, with others, with the world), on community (building a community that is ultimately a faith community), on service to the poor (the Catholic school is a community of service which at its best despairs of no-one), on liturgy and ritual (we are a sacramental Church where good liturgy is good evangelisation), on iconography (we live in an image conscious age and we come from a hugely symbolic tradition). There is much to say on each of these emphases and much that a Catholic school has to think about in each of these regards.

One crucial part of the picture is that a message is caught as much as taught. This is where ethos appears. The picture is painted not only through what is learned but through what is experienced, and very importantly, through how people are treated. Ethos is not something written on paper; it is a quality in relationships and in lived lives. It emerges gradually in the patterns of interaction between people until it becomes the norm for what happens in behaviour, procedures, decisions, policies. It is found especially in prevailing attitudes and is something which needs to be continually nurtured, sustained and reestablished in the flux of school life and through various seasons and climates. 

Catholic schools are known finally through the young people they send out to the world inspired by an education which sought balance between academic, pastoral and spiritual priorities. By their fruits you shall know them (Mt 7:16). Critical and independent thinkers, they are autonomous, self possessed and caring individuals with a deep spiritual core. That is the ideal. ‘Men and women of God for others’, as the Jesuits put it. People who are ‘fit for the world but not unfit for heaven’ as Catherine McAuley once phrased it. Not much of a definition perhaps if you approach it only with the head. When it comes to Catholic schools it is difficult to separate the head from the heart.