The Congregation for Catholic Eucation published on 25 January 2022, Feast of the Conversion of St Paul, an Instruction called “The Identity of the Catholic School for a Culture of Dialogue”. The document is presented as an aid to reflection, with the aim of providing suitable criteria for addressing the challenges of our times. In fact, it contains more detailed and up-to-date guidelines concerning the Church’s schools throughout the world and the value of their Catholic identity.
Following the Church’s anthropological and pedagogical tradition, this Dicastery agreed to the various petitions that had reached it on the need for a clearer awareness and consistency in regard to Catholic identity. These queries – which had already surfaced during the 2015 World Congress at Castelgandolfo, Educating Today and Tomorrow: A Renewing Passion – were often the object of concern during the most recent Plenary Assemblies of the Congregation, as well as during our meetings with bishops in their ad limina visits.
Therefore, the Instruction is the result of consultation and study, on various authoritative levels. It aims to be a compass that can direct all those who work in the field of education and schooling, starting from bishops’ conferences, synod of bishops or council of hierarchs, to individual Ordinaries, superiors of institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life, as well as to movements, associations of the lay faithful and other organizations, and to individuals who exercise a pastoral care within education. The document, divided into three chapters, offers three viewpoints: ecclesiological, canonistic and socio-pedagogical (where some problems are analyzed).
The first chapter puts into context the discourse about the Church’s presence in the world of schooling, within the general framework of her mission to evangelize: the Church, as mother and teacher, in her historical development with the various emphases that have enhanced her work everywhere throughout the ages, up until our own time which is characterized by ethical pluralism and substantial secularization.
The second chapter is predominantly juridical in nature. It deals with the various subjects who act within the world of schooling, with their different roles which have been assigned and organized according to canonical norms in our Church that is rich in many charisms given to her by the Holy Spirit, but also in harmony with her hierarchical nature. The central point is that responsibility is shared among the whole school community, which, by realizing the school’s plan of Catholic education, is the primary expression of its ecclesial nature and its place within the community of the Church. Thus, people have the obligation to recognize, respect and witness to the school’s Catholic identity, which is laid out officially in its mission statement. This is valid not only for the teachers, non-teaching personnel and the school management, but also for the students themselves, their parents and their families. Therefore, the school is characterized and structured as an educating community, which ensures respect for the lives, dignity and freedom of the students and other members of the school. Furthermore, the school must have all necessary procedures put in place to promote and safeguard minors and those who are most vulnerable.
The daily work – be it teaching or administration – of the lay faithful, religious and clerics in the school is an authentic Church apostolate. It is a service requiring unity and communion with the Church, so as to be able to qualify the school as “Catholic” at all levels, from the governing body, to the school administration, to the teachers. Unity and communion with the Catholic Church are factually present when the school is governed by a public juridical person, such as, for example, in the case of an institute of consecrated life and, consequently, the school is considered ipso iure a Catholic school (q.v. can. 803 § 1 C.I.C.).
In the case of a school governed by a single member of the faithful or by a private association of the faithful, for it to be defined as a “Catholic school” it needs the recognition of the competent ecclesiastical authority. According to the dispositions of canon law, the diocesan/eparchal bishop has a central role in discerning the “Catholic” identity of a school by means of some specific acts. In practice, this means perforce a discernment on the part of the bishop, which then translates into his subsequent recognition of the school with his explicit written consent, upon request from the school’s promoters. Moreover, the Ordinary has the rights/obligations of invigilating that the regulations of universal and particular law on Catholic schools are applied; and of issuing ordinances regarding the general organization of Catholic schools in his diocese, included those founded or governed by institutes of consecrated life or societies of apostolic life, or by other public or private associations.
The Ordinary ensures the school’s ecclesial nature. This is demonstrated in its communion with the particular and universal Church, in the school’s pastoral activity, in its relationship with the parish, and in the conformity of the school’s educational plan to the doctrine or discipline of the Church. Furthermore, the local bishop has the right to appoint, or at least approve, for his own diocese the teachers of religion, and, conversely, if reasons of religion or morals require it, to remove them or demand that they be removed.
Beyond the purely juridical aspects, the diocesan bishop, as the pastor of the particular Church, must be known for his openness to dialogue with all those who cooperate in the educational mission of Catholic schools. Many problems can be resolved in mutual dialogue and conversation based on trust, without the need to intervene formally, but instead finding a solution that is shared by all parties.
The third chapter is dedicated to some problematic points that can spring up when integrating all the various aspects of education in schools within the everyday life of the Church; that is the experience of this Congregation when dealing with problems of which it is notified by particular Churches. The basic problem lies in the practical application of the qualifier “Catholic” – a term that is complex and not easily defined by criteria that are exclusively legal, formal and doctrinal. Tensions are especially caused by, on the one hand, a reductive or purely formal interpretation of the term; or, on the other hand, by a vague or closed-off idea of Catholic identity.
Over the course of the years, it has not been unusual to find that problems regarding juridical matters and matters of jurisdiction over Catholic educational institutions have arisen from overlapping regulatory frameworks: canonical and civil. The difference in purpose of the diverse legislatory structures can mean that the State imposes on Catholic institutions, functioning in the public sphere, jarring behaviours that put the Church’s doctrinal and disciplinary credibility in doubt. At times, too, public opinion makes it almost impossible to find solutions that align with the principles of Catholic moral teaching. Moreover, for reasons of transparency, Catholic schools must be furnished with a mission statement or else a code of conduct. These are tools for guaranteeing their institutional and professional quality. At the same time, educational institutions are recognized as having the possibility of furnishing themselves with a outline of values, that all are held to respect and share.
Catholic schools, inspired by the recent magisterium of Pope Francis, are called to interpret changes creatively, being aware that “time is greater than space”. Therefore, it is counterproductive to close in one oneself, and defend positions and spheres of power. On the contrary, one must initiate new processes, devising solutions on the nearest level possible, and involving those who are directly to be found within the local reality. The keystone of this dynamic vision is the principle that “realities are more important than ideas”. In this sense, Catholic schools form ideal laboratories for building unity, generating guidelines for developing service for the common good. Furthermore, by sharing experiences of responsability and prudence, the educational community is aware that “the whole is greater than the part”. On that solid base, we must consider the long-term view, lest we damage fruitful and trusting possibilites of cooperation among individuals and institutions, which rather must walk together and thus allow the Church to offer her educational service to the world.
In conclusion, this Instruction is not meant to be a comprehensive – or, even less, complete – treatise on the theme of Catholic identity; rather, it is an intentionally concise and practical tool that can serve to clarify some present-day issues and, especially, to prevent conflict and division in the vital area of education. In education, Catholic identity must form a field of encounter, a tool for an harmonious convergence of ideas and action. In this way, various points of view become a resourse and a fundamental principle for developing methodologies apt at resolving any problems in a shared manner, by finding solutions that are both real and lasting.
In fact, as Pope Francis has observed in the context of the Global Compact on Education, “to educate is to take a risk and to hold out to the present a hope that can shatter the determinism and fatalism that the selfishness of the strong, the conformism of the weak and the ideology of the utopians would convince us is the only way forward.” Only the shared, united action of the Church in the field of education – in a world that is ever more fragmented and in conflict – can contribute both to the evangelizing mission entrusted to her by Jesus and to the building up of a world where people feel that they are siblings, because “only with this awareness of being children, that we are not orphans, can we live in peace among ourselves.”
 Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 24 November 2013, 222-225
 Ibid., 231-233.
 Ibid., 234-237.