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An educational emergency
Catholic schools in and for Europe
Faced by an educational emergency, one of the preferred issues of Benedict XVI, and faced by the challenge of the New Evangelization, the Church in Europe has as its disposal in 2012 a total of 25,698 schools, attended by 7,637,700 students. Their teachers, their parents and their students can therefore represent a significant force in a continent seeking its own identity.
Let us first examine in more detail the very diversified landscape of Catholic schools.
In the countries of Northern Europe – Denmark, Norway and Sweden (Finland has no Catholic schools) -, the minority Catholic schools count for little more than 900 students. The schools in question are ecumenical (Catholic and Lutheran).
As regards the German-speaking countries, let us begin with Germany (872 schools, 300,000 students). The schools receive subsidies of varying size depending on the “Land” (regional authority) in which they are situated. In Austria, the 306 Catholic schools (66,692 students) provide an excellent education, are well run, and remain one of the strongest mainstays of the life of Austria’s ever more pluralist society. In Switzerland, 34 private Catholic schools do not obtain any subsidies from the cantons, with only two exceptions.
The Mediterranean countries have always been characterized by their sometimes very difficult links with the State. Portuguese Catholic schools (67,000 students, 158 schools) have to struggle to safeguard part of their own subsidies. Spain (1,399,490 students, 21.5% of the national total, in 2,630 schools) has had to defend its own course of religious education and its own pedagogical freedom when a course of civic education was imposed by the State. Fortunately, for both these countries, the recent elections have changed the figures. Spain has an excellent pastoral and educational service, whose scope also extends to other continents. In Greece, “Christian” schools (8,347 students) are attended by 90% Orthodox and provide a high quality education, thanks to the rich, partially French traditions of congregation-run schools. Catholic Italy has been fettered for decades to a phrase in the Constitution: “without costs for the State”, which rejects subsidies, even if there exist some exceptions for basic schooling and some solutions at the regional level, though these are wholly insufficient. The island of Malta, with its 50 private Catholic schools run by the religious congregations, contributes largely to the Catholic education of the island.
The Catholic schools of the North Sea, England and Wales (2,360 schools, 868,000 students), the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (400 schools, 190,000 students), accept more children of immigrant families than is generally thought. Ireland is going through a very difficult crisis which is causing difficulties for the traditional congregations and is prompting them to seek new forms of collaboration and fusion. Up till a few years ago, moreover, there was no real choice for non-believing families who wished to decide in favour of a fundamentally non-confessional school for their children. This situation has become untenable for Catholic schools. England and Scotland (direct link with the State) have reinforced their own Catholic schools and their religious education. There exists, however, a problem of the recruitment of high level teaching staff.
Belgium and the Netherlands are having to struggle against the backlash of strong secularization. The excellent subsidies provided to Catholic schools are insufficient. Even the number of Catholics, both in families and among teachers, is causing great challenges. In the Netherlands, the great autonomy of schools has led to tensions with the episcopate. France, for her part, can still boast of a very strong network of Catholic schools (2,034,010 students, 20% of the national total), and is trying to hold firm to its educational project within the constraints imposed by the country’s non-confessional state and foster the teaching of religious facts.
We now come to the countries of Eastern Europe. Catholic schools reborn after the collapse of Communism – “phoenix” schools they have been called – can count on families that have a living faith and choose Catholic schools for the education of their children. Hungary (52,350 students, 203 schools) and Poland (57,000 students, 500 schools) have their own secretariat and provide a good education. Lithuania (18,753 students, 33 schools), the Czech Republic (15,194 students; 76 schools) and Slovakia (39,200 students; 189 schools) have an educational centre subsidized by the State. Bosnia-Herzegovina (4,477 students) comprises 14 schools, which seek to contribute to peace, reconciliation and tolerance with their concept of pluralist schooling on the basis of Catholic faith. The 50 schools in Romania hope that future legislation may finally bring them a little peace. The 10 schools of Croatia, the schools of Slovenia (1,914 students; 5 schools), the Jesuit school of Kosovo, a few schools in Ukraine and the new 50 Catholic schools in Albania, many of which have links with Italy, testify to the flexibility of the Church and the will to preach the Good News.
The challenges of Catholic teaching in Europe are numerous. They include the need to accept immigrants without losing Christian witness; to respond in an intelligent way to the trend to replace traditional courses in religious education with courses of religious culture or civic education; to select more effectively and provide better training to teaching staff; to cater to those teachers who may opt for a basic theological training and training more specifically on charism; to read the Bible in schools; to educate in solidarity and social action in an ecumenical spirit; and, not least, to consolidate the spirit of community in contrast to individualism. Lastly, in the more deeply secularized countries, instead of leaving them to become anaesthetized, I suggest to the Bishops’ Conferences to totally reform their school pastoral approach and insert it in large part in a wider pastoral programme for adults. It should offer educators and families the spiritual life-blood to which they have a right and to which Europe in its crisis aspires. Is that not the age-old mission of the Church?
(*) general secretary of the ECCE - European Committee for Catholic Education
28/03/2012 - Etienne Verhack - ECCE (*)