[Leonard Franchi] Being a Jesuit, it’s no surprise that Pope Francis has shown a keen interest in education. Since his election in 2013, he has expressed some highly practical ideas on how teachers and schools can develop a “culture of encounter” based on solidarity and mercy.
Hence paragraph six of his Message for the World Day of Prayer for Peace (2016) and his Address to Catholic School Parents in December 2015 where he details the importance of an integral, rather than ideological, education, and of bridge-building. He has put this into practice in his public backing of Scholas Occurrentes, an initiative born in his native Argentina, now a Foundation of Pontifical Right, that networks schools together across the world to improve educational opportunities, especially in poorer countries.
Among this teaching on education, Chapter Seven of his exhortation Amoris Laetitia stands out a great resource for parents, priests and teachers — worth reading again and again.
In the chapter, “Towards a Better Education of Children”, Pope Francis reiterates some of the fundamentals of Catholic thinking on the education of children in language that is pastorally sensitive yet challenging.
Three areas stand out: the primacy of the family, a necessary via media in discipline and the need for a pastoral approach to passing on the faith.
First, the family as the primary locus of education. Francis makes very little mention of the place of the school. While education and schooling are separate although connected issues, Pope Francis roots ‘education’ very much in the Latin sense of ‘good habits’. Educado in Spanish, like educato in Italian, refers to good manners and virtue, while ‘educated’ in English retains a sense of being successful in school or university.
This is not an insignificant difference. For Francis, the family is the school of good living, one that provides the training ground for the development of the good habits: ‘Without the conscious, free and valued repetition of certain patterns of good behaviour, moral education does not take place’ (266).
Francis is not downplaying the role of the school but calling for parents to take their responsibility as ‘first educators’ seriously, and reminding education professionals that they must work with not against the family.
His language is clear: the school must assist parents in their duties. This advice is particularly needed in countries where the state is seeking to gain increasing power over families and the rearing of children.
Second, Pope Francis reminds parents that their authority is not absolute; they must take a via media regarding areas such as discipline and free time. For example, discipline is a means to the end of moral progress and growth in virtue. This avoids the danger of situations where parents seek to impose their values and preferences on to children without due regard for their freedom. His words to this effect are pointed and worth quoting in full:
How do we ensure that discipline is a constructive limit placed on a child’s actions and not a barrier standing in the way of his or her growth? A balance has to be found between two equally harmful extremes. One would be to try to make everything revolve around the child’s desires; such children will grow up with a sense of their rights but not their responsibilities. The other would be to deprive the child of an aware- ness of his or her dignity, personal identity and rights; such children end up overwhelmed by their duties and a need to carry out other people’s wishes (270).
Finally, the family is the most appropriate locus for the passing on of the faith. This is not a surprise! Francis, however, leaves this topic until the end of the chapter. He spends much more time dealing with moral growth, the development of virtue and the norms of so-called ‘sex education’. This, surely, is a sign of his priorities: moral formation precedes catechesis, so that catechesis can build on the foundation stones of the human and supernatural virtues.
He takes a cautious approach to catechetical methods. As a teacher, he is aware of the danger of becoming an advocate of particular schools of thought in the ever-changing world of educational theory.
So he keeps his advice simple. Family prayer and acts of devotion can be more effective than more formal processes (288). This is part of the ‘orderly process of handing on the faith’ which we need today more than ever. Perhaps the most poignant part of the chapter is his recommendation that children should be encouraged to blow a kiss to Jesus and Our Lady (287). The chapter ends:
All of us should be able to say, thanks to the experience of our life in the family: “We come to believe in the love that God has for us” (1 Jn 4:16). Only on the basis of this experience will the Church’s pastoral care for families enable them to be both domestic churches and a leaven of evangelization in society.
[Leonard Franchi is Head of the St. Andrew’s Foundation for Catholic Teacher Education, University of Glasgow]