Not totally unexpected, Archbishop Léonard’s comments about the quality of religious education in Catholic schools in Belgium trigggered criticism from teachers and school officials. He is accused of wanting to convert people and of being unwordly. Two days ago he commented on his critics:
“The reproaches made to me recently in the media are based on statements made by me in Rome on Friday 7 May, and which have been taken out of context. Just like my fellow bishops I agreed at the time with the various education plans for the religious education classes at the schools. Those plans – rightly – consider the religion classes as a course given to students and not as a catechism which must strengthen the faith of the pupils. Those Catholic education plans invite the teacher to make a connection between the course and the pupils’ own world, but at the same time the plans require that, just as in all other courses, they are handed a package of objective information about the Catholic faith, the Bible, the life and message of Jesus, the history and organisation of the Catholic Church, et cetera.
In a multicultural society in which many baptised pupils no longer have an active bond with the parish, religious classes are all the more useful for the pupils in community education who chose the course or for those who chose a Catholic school. Religious education classes offer the pupil the opportunity to discover the Christian message in a rational way, with all due respect for his or her personal convictions. At the very same press conference in Rome I underlined that the bishops of our country value and support the important work of the religion teachers. In the near future I hope to be able to continue the dialogue with them in personal contact and attentive policies, instead of via the media.”
The statement is chiefly a reminder that it is not very constructive to continue a dialogue via the media, when it is just as easy, perhaps even easier, to do so face to face. The archbishop also underlines his previous statements: religious education is not some social studies course, but must offer “a package of objective information about the Catholic faith”. When I consider the situation in the Netherlands (which, I admit, is not the same as in Belgium, where Catholic schools are much more in evidence), religious education courses attempt to offer a comprehensive overview of anything that could be considered religion or life philosophy. Consequently, the content of those classes becomes generalised, since there is not time to go into much detail. Added to that is the perceived notion that there must be a pastoral element in those classes too, and so there is an overlap with the work of priests, deacons and pastoral workers.
There is a need to keep an eye on the quality and content of religious education, especially if it falls under the authority of the Church. This may seem indoctrination, as one critic called it, or meddling or whatever you want to call it. In reality it is a case of the bishops taking responsibility: they are shepherds of their flock and it is their duty to make sure that the faithful in their dioceses know and understand their faith for what it is, objectively.