Educator’s Guide to Catholic Curriculum: Learning for ‘Fullness of Life’ Supplement 2

The Journey to Dialogue in Making Meaning

In the globalised world in which we work with students, dialogue is an essential skill in  meaning-making and also for living together successfully on this planet. The relationship between life, culture and faith is also a dialogical one. An appreciation that dialogue is a key social skill and also an essential modus operandi in both knowledge construction and meaning-making is relatively recent in human history.

The picture we are building looks as follows. Our personal worldview (personally appropriated understandings, feelings and values) provides us with the lens through which we see life and make sense of it. It is a student’s personal worldview which Catholic educators seek to influence.  This personal worldview is shaped by public worldviews that have currency in a particular society. Public worldviews stand behind personal worldviews and shape the pre-suppositions and taken-for-granted beliefs, feelings and values that we bring to the task of making sense of life.  As we have already discussed, the two public worldviews of importance to us, because they lie at the heart of the project of Catholic education, are the worldviews of culture and of faith.

Standing further back again is the worldview of the age which embodies the deep-seated aspirations growing out historical experience across a range of societies and cultures.

While it is relatively uncomplicated for a person to change his or her personal worldview, it is much harder to change the public worldviews (faith and culture) because they are embedded in social structures and organisational arrangements within a society. The worldview of the age changes even more slowly. Change usually occurs at glacial speed by comparison to the public worldviews of a particular society. However, when it does change as has occurred in our times, the effect is profound, since it initiates substantial changes in public worldviews like those of faith and of culture, and therefore in the way people make sense of life. A change in the worldview of the age means that the public worldviews of faith and culture have to be re-contextualised. This is occurring under the impact of globalisation in all its many manifestations – communications, movement of peoples, economic arrangements etc.  

The curriculum challenges facing Catholic school teachers today are framed by these changes.

Tracking Changes in the Worldview of the Age

It is impossible to make sense of all this, without understanding something of the history by which this peculiar relationship developed, and also some of its consequences. We need to understand the shifts involved as the worldview of the age has moved from pre-modern to modern to late-modern (sometimes called ‘postmodern’).

Public worldviews operate largely outside of awareness, so changes in them cause considerable confusion and anxiety. People find that what they assumed was an agreed way of seeing the world, is no longer so. What was once taken for granted has to be consciously re-negotiated and new structural arrangements put in place that reflect new understandings. This is a political process (involving the use of power) because people do not change long-held beliefs and values lightly.

The shift from the pre-modern to the modern worldview, in its early and late forms, has been particularly significant in understanding and making sense of developments in the worldview of faith.

Changing the Worldview of Faith

Like all worldviews, the worldview of faith is a human construct reflecting the cultural and historical contexts in which it is articulated. This worldview has been reconfigured across history since New Testament times.

If our contemporary students grew up anywhere in Europe in the pre-modern period, they would have lived with the social order of Christendom. In that age, captured imaginatively in historical novels for example, the social order (king, nobles, clergy, knights, peasants) was deemed to be divinely ordained.  People understood that they were born /into a fixed social position and had no expectation of rising above it. The world was ordered according to the principle of hierarchy.  This mode of social organisation provided relief from the chaotic anarchy of the Dark Ages. However, in such a social order people were neither free nor equal. All major decisions were made at the top and those at lower levels simply complied. Since many Church leaders came from the higher social orders, they were therefore unlikely to question the social order.  Neither were civil leaders whose positions were similarly justified by the prevailing social order.

Three developments led the pre-modern world of hierarchical order to gradually unravel:  the growth of commerce created a new merchant class that did not fit into this order; great explorers like Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) and Vasco Da Gama (1460-1524) situated Europe in a much bigger world; and with Galileo and the rise of empirical science the Catholic Church’s role as the guardian of truth was challenged. A new actor in the search for truth had entered the scene. At first there was closeness and collaboration between the guardians of faith and those of science, but in due course they diverged in their respective roles and claims.  It was to be centuries before each would see clearly again the complementarity of their roles in the search for truth.

As the cultural environment of Europe began to change, the new cultural outlook of modernity developed. People no longer took previous social arrangements for granted, but looked to reason in creating new ones.  The emergence of the United States contributed much to the progress of modernity.[1]

The Church’s role in legitimating the world of hierarchical order became highly problematic given the historical change in sensibility, but many Church leaders could not see this and resisted the change. They were so deeply located in the world of hierarchical order that they simply could not read the signs of the times.  Their response, though understandable given the hostility they faced in the chaos of changing times, was to retreat back into Christendom and place Catholic communities in a parallel cultural universe to that of modernity.  Catholics were invited to form a ‘counter society’ opposed to the new developments. As a consequence, during the modern period the ‘worldview of faith’ and the  ‘worldview of culture’ developed along separate trajectories to the detriment of both.

This development had two consequences: culture lost its role as gatekeeper for faith, and Church leaders saw the Catholic faith as above and unconnected with cultural developments, and so passed judgment on these developments in an often unenlightened manner. However, with the exception of modern Catholic social teaching that began in the late nineteenth century with Leo XIII’s encyclical On the Condition of the Working Classes (Rerum Novarum), which was to become much admired by many people of various political and religious persuasions, the views of Catholic leaders were largely ignored by the broader society as the modern era was born.

In the atmosphere that developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the dialogue between faith and culture central to re-contextualisation, could not occur. Successive popes formally condemned the ‘errors’ of modernity as if Catholics lived outside the cultural world that modernity had created. These ‘errors’ in the public sphere included democracy, human rights, freedom of the press, and freedom of conscience!  In the educational sphere they included co-education and sex education in schools – endeavours seen as morally deficient per se. By taking the view that they had little or nothing to learn from modernity, Church leaders projected Catholics into a world in which Christian faith and contemporary culture stood in more or less permanent opposition.  This was the world into which Catholic schooling in Australia was born!

Nurtured by devoted clergy and religious, many Catholics were quite content to live in their own closed cultural world. Within this world boundaries were tightly drawn – in fact boundary questions ceased to exist as ‘good’ Catholics were very clear on who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’, even within their own families. Tension points could be ignored in the face of ‘Catholic certainty’.

Catholic schools were caught in a no man’s land.  While to some extent they played an instrumental role in re-creating a limited edition of the world of hierarchical order, in another sense they helped Catholics contribute to society, and to prepare for what was to come.  Many students can recall being taught to think for themselves, to value the privileges of democracy, freedom and equality before the law, and the encouragement given to contribute positively to society once their schooling was completed.  Girls were encouraged to develop an imaginal horizon beyond traditional valued roles, and to recognise that they had gifts and capacities for service in the broader social arena as well as in the vital social institution of the family.

Re-contextualising the Worldview of Faith: Vatican II

Forced to choose between the old and the new social orders during the modern period, significant numbers of Catholics had abandoned religion so creating a major pastoral challenge. While many Church leaders came to view ‘culture’ as the enemy of ‘faith’ and strove to build the walls ever higher around their parishes and institutions, others more attuned to the historical nature of developments in all belief systems, began exploring an alternative approach.

In the twentieth century, as the social and human sciences developed, an appreciation also grew among theologians and some leaders that faith had much to learn from culture. Some of this breakthrough thinking occurred in cross-cultural mission situations. With the advantage of developments in biblical scholarship and associated historical research, leaders espousing this cause, while in the minority, won acceptance for their stance by pointing out that the worldview of faith had been reconfigured in the past and this offered a model of how to proceed in the present. They found allies in Pope John XXIII who convened the Second Vatican Council, and in his successor Pope Paul VI who in his encyclical (Ecclesiam Suam 1964) was the first pope officially to espouse ‘dialogue’ as the proper form of relationship between faith and culture. When Church leaders gathered in their working sessions at the Second Vatican Council, they soon found that any dialogue between faith and culture had to wrestle with related issues such as the relationship of the Catholic Church to other religions and other belief systems.

The relationship between faith and culture is dealt with in a number of Council documents, the most extensive treatment being given in the pastoral constitution, The Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). It is also addressed in the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church (Ad Gentes), the Declaration of the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), and the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae). These authoritative statements of belief made it possible for the Catholic worldview of faith to be re-contextualised and for a dialogue between faith and culture to be pursued.  However, there have been major disagreements among Church leaders about what these statements mean and so about what ‘re-contextualisation’ involves. ‘Dialogue’ and ‘re-contextualisation’ have become new tension points in the emergence of a Catholic worldview that is open to contemporary cultures.

While the Council took place over half a century ago we are still dealing with the questions it raised. As has been noted above, changes in public worldviews are political events and the recent history of the Catholic Church only emphasises this fact.

Dialogue as a Mode of Mission

The challenge of presenting the worldview of faith, heavily contextualised in Western thought, to peoples who do not share this cultural and historical background, has been recognised for a long period of time.  However, the issue has created new tension points within the worldview of Catholicism emerging from Vatican II.  Some of this drama is played out in Catholic schools and has great relevance for teaching programs.

The 21st century reality is that Western Catholics no longer have a privileged grasp on the worldview of faith. People from other cultural backgrounds are putting questions to the prevailing worldview of faith with its classicist biases.

Since cultures are ‘wholes’, the 21st century challenge is to find the appropriate  points of entry into cultures so that any effort to announce the Gospel and build up a Christian community is experienced as authentic both to Jesus’ mission and also to values central to a particular culture.

Inculturation is the process by which, in a particular cultural context and community, faith as a meaning-system enters into a dialogical relationship with culture as a meaning system to help people make sense of life and to express faith as a key element of life.

This puts the matter abstractly. In practice, inculturation is enabled to occur because people decide to come together and endeavour to understand one another by sharing life and experiences; by working together to achieve common goals; by talking issues through from the position of seeking to understand the other and being accepted and understood by the other; and by praying together.  In dialogue there is no privileged position, because people meet as equals. Teachers in Catholic schools will see immediately the potential for their curriculum work, carried out by means of suitable pedagogies, in furthering this dialogue between faith and culture.

Dialogue: Mission and the Kingdom of God Revisited

As expressing a new relationship between faith and culture, dialogue involves an expansive understanding of what Jesus meant by ‘the reign (kingdom) of God’, or God’s dream for humanity and the natural world. In postmodern societies, in order to effect the types of social change central to Jesus’ mission, it is necessary to build partnerships which means working with dialogue partners. This is not just a strategy in mission, but a principle of mission. In this understanding of mission, the reign of God is made present in history through the actions of people of good will, empowered by God’s Spirit in ways which are not always obvious or familiar, who commit themselves to shared goals and common purposes in the interest of others, particularly those who are marginalised in some way.

The reign of God comes about through the agency of human communities. In the modern period the parish was the main Catholic agency. Today, the parish remains the unit of organisation in Church life and an important agency through which many of its members experience community and so are enabled to fulfil their baptismal vocation to continue Jesus’ mission.  For others this agency may be provided through another expression of Christian community life. For many young families the local Catholic school is a vital agency through which the family experiences and contributes to Jesus’ ongoing mission in human affairs.

Schools are places where the much-needed dialogue between faith and culture is possible, but whether or not it actually occurs depends on how people understand re-contextualisation and its demands at both the level of culture and the level of faith. The curriculum is an obvious place where faith and culture must be in dialogue if God’s kingdom is to grow in society and culture.

As meaning systems, faith and culture each functions within its own parameters; sometimes these align; sometimes they challenge each other; and sometimes they run in different directions. A conversation can continue between them only if there is respect within disagreement, but disagreement cannot be allowed to be a permanent stance, otherwise dialogue becomes impossible. Dialogue implies partnership at a number of levels so that the relationship is strong enough to withstand disagreement. ‘Kingdom spaces’ are created in human life by collaborative efforts that transcend disagreements. This is the mystery of God at work.

Inter-Religious Dialogue

Dialogue between faith and culture carries over into dialogue between religions. Dialogue here takes the same forms as outlined above. Its aim is not to convert people from one religion to another, although from time to time people will make a change if they find the worldview of faith in one religious tradition makes more sense of their experience of faith than that of another tradition.

An aim of inter-religious dialogue is to understand how God is at work in the world and in our society and communities. It is not possible to enter into dialogue if we do not know and understand the particularity of our own religious tradition as a tradition of meaning which has something important to say in making sense of human experience, our own as well as that of others.

There is a view of what it means to be human standing behind the narrative we have been tracing. To be human is to be a person-in-community, to be a person-in-history, to be a person-in-culture and, as Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment (Laudato Si) makes clear, to be a person-in-nature. As humans, we cannot stand outside community, culture, history or nature.  This was a mistake of modernity and its construction of knowledge. There are many ways in which we can be human within community, culture, history and nature, and so there are many conceptions of what human flourishing entails. It is only through dialogue that we can constructively forge a new consensus and a new cultural outlook.

Relationship between Faith and Culture

The relationship between faith and culture is historically complex. Faith needs culture and culture needs faith if life is to be experienced as purposeful. Faith cannot tell the scientist how to do science or the anthropologist how to do anthropology any more than the scientist or anthropologist has a privileged position in interpreting religious experience.  Faith can, however, put to the scientist questions related to the moral purpose or outcomes of what is being undertaken. Such questions as:

  • Who benefits from this scientific work?
  • What is being done to prevent marginalisation?
  • Are the poor being given an honoured place?
  • How is sustainability of the earth being ensured in this development?

are all questions based soundly on Biblical principles.

Faith and culture come together in people as they seek to make sense of life. It is people, in our case young people, who have to forge a synthesis that is meaningful from sources that sometimes complement each other and sometimes challenge each other. This is no easy task in a media-driven secular culture.

Teachers cannot help their students do this if they have not themselves engaged with the issues.  Working with young people on a truly Catholic curriculum requires a degree of reflection to ponder such questions as:

  • How do I bring the wisdom of faith and the wisdom of culture together in making sense of life?
  • Do I know enough about my own culture to recognise the tension points and boundary questions that impact on students’ lives?
  • Do I know enough about the wisdom of faith carried in the Catholic community to recognise the tension points and boundary questions stretching the Catholic community to greater wisdom today?
  • Do I really care about these matters?

Dr Therese D’Orsa, 2016

[1] ‘Modernity’ is a term used of both the modern period, and of the cultural expressions of that period.