Conseil supérieur de l'éducation
Catholic Committee: RIGHTS and RELIGIONS in School

by Guy Côté,
President of the Catholic Committee


The debate reopened by the publication of the report of the task force on the role of religion in school will, once again, raise seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints. It has already resulted in dualist stands opposing the partisans of truth and the proponents of error. And yet the debate is laborious not because protagonists oppose rights or religion but because the issue is extremely complex, making it difficult to combine all of its components into a single, balanced solution.


Two fundamental viewpoints

The report quite rightly insists on the need for the entire education system to respect the fundamental rights defined in the charters and on the goal of social cohesion, which schools must also pursue. Others feel it is just as indispensable, from the viewpoint of integral humanism, to ensure that schools are able to meet young people's existential moral, spiritual and religious needs. Legal and civil logic stresses the principle of equality in a pluralist society; the humanist view, young people's quest for meaning in a context where widespread distress has attained alarming dimensions.

It does not seem inevitable that two such fundamental viewpoints would conflict. If we were to agree that religious instruction should meet both of these requirements – respect of fundamental rights and having the school curriculum take young people's spiritual needs into account – we would come closer to reaching a consensus on the role of religion in school. Clearly, this would presuppose some agreement on the interpretation of these rights and of the spiritual dimension in public schools.

Such an agreement would require a certain repositioning on both sides. Fuller respect of fundamental rights would lead the education system to ensure greater equity for the various religious denominations. Recognition of the spiritual dimension would presuppose that choices be offered in religious instruction. The Catholic Committee feels that the report has failed to explore all possible avenues in this regard and that the problems raised are not insurmountable. This will be further elaborated in due course.


Moral duty

This debate does not deal solely with the manner in which the principle of equality among citizens is respected, but with the very objectives of religious instruction. The humanities and social sciences of religion program advocated by the report clearly opens up an interesting avenue, from the point of view of mutual understanding. However, one of the program's shortcomings is that it is oriented mainly towards civic and cognitive goals, and not enough towards the existential questions young people ask themselves. Religious instruction threatens to remain highly theoretical and even to result in indifference by maintaining young people in a situation of observing religion from the outside.

What young people need most of all is to seek and discover reasons to live and to hope, to meet the challenges in their own lives head on, to ponder the important questions marking our human existence, and to be able to situate themselves personally vis-a-vis transcendence. In helping them along this path, school need not deviate from the mission specific to it or from the principles defined in the charters. On the other hand, it fulfils a fundamental moral duty. If we want to achieve a social pact as concerns the role of religion in school, we must find a better balance between legal principles, social objectives and young people's existential needs.

Panorama • Volume 4, Number 2 • May 1999


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