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A Theory of Catholic Education

reviewed by Frevonia Soumakis - May 31, 2017

coverTitle: A Theory of Catholic Education
Author(s): Sean Whittle
Publisher: Bloomsbury, London
ISBN: 1472581385, Pages: 216, Year: 2015
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Sean Whittle writes A Theory of Catholic Education from the perspective of a secondary school educator with over two decades of teaching experience. As such, his recently published doctoral thesis on Catholic education merits careful consideration. This book confronts Catholic education in twenty-first-century England with numerous challenges. As his title suggests, the author argues that a comprehensive theory of Catholic education grounded in Catholic theology is in order. Whittle visualizes his theory through the lens of Otto Neurath’s metaphor of a ship requiring repairs while at sea. From this, it is not the entirety of Catholic education that requires renovation, but only particular aspects of it. His work is organized around 10 chapters that are further divided into useful subheadings. In the first five chapters, the author considers the challenges facing Catholic education, analyzes formal church documents, and highlights the contributions of two leading Catholic figures, John Henry Newman (1801–1890) and Jacques Maritain (1882–1973). In the remaining chapters, Whittle constructs his theory of Catholic education within the philosophical framework of Karl Rahner (1904–1984), a leading twentieth-century Catholic theologian.

Whittle focuses his attention on schools in England and Wales where the Catholic church formed an educational partnership with the state during the mid-nineteenth-century. The Catholic hierarchy prioritized the construction of schools to promote Catholicism and educate the children of poor Irish Catholic immigrants. With the advent of a national system of education, a system of government supported schools and voluntary aided schools emerged. This development further cemented the relationship between church and state. Voluntary aided schools were funded by the government and by the denominations that sponsored them. By law, this allowed them to retain their distinct religious orientation. The amount funded by the state has increased over the years so that currently 90% of Catholic schools’ funding comes from the government.

What are the problems that Catholic education and schooling are facing today? According to Whittle’s first chapter, “Testing Times for Catholic Education,” these conflicts manifest themselves in external and internal “threats” (p. 5). Critics are increasingly disputing the state’s close relationship with religion in matters of education. They further charge that Catholic education serves a selective community, is divisive, strips students of personal autonomy, and is antithetical to the democratic impulses of public schooling or the common good. The perceived positive educational outcomes of a Catholic education have also come into question. The internal threats that Whittle identifies emerge from the wider Catholic community. He takes up various issues like declining church practice, Catholic identity, and the purpose of Catholic education. The author views Catholic education as being under “attack” (p. 25) and claims that a coherent theory of Catholic education would effectively eliminate or minimize these challenges to it.

Two significant official church pronouncements on education, Pope Pius XI’s papal encyclical Divini Illius Magistri (published in 1929) and the Second Vatican Council’s Gravissimum Educationis (published in 1965), affirm the importance of Catholic education. However, neither pronouncement articulates their ideas with the precision that Whittle seeks and are deemed bereft of a theory of education. He takes issue with the 1929 document mentioned above by arguing that the church does not provide theological justification for its involvement in education and control over the curriculum. The author criticizes Gravissimum Educationis for continuing to assert the church’s preeminent position in education without theological justification, but further contends that its positive language amounts to nothing more than generic statements. Whittle repeats his critique of the post-conciliar statements. He again emphasizes the lack of clarity in identifying the elements that make Catholic education distinct from other forms of education.

Whittle then turns to an extensive analysis of the works of three leading Catholic thinkers who were mentioned earlier: John Henry Newman, Jacques Maritain, and Karl Rahner. While he is inspired by their respective arguments, the author finds certain aspects of their work require further elaboration. To this end, Whittle seeks to “repair work to the theory of Catholic education” (p. 84) and the three major weaknesses within the “existing tradition or project of Catholic education” (p. 84). He identifies this tradition as the “vague slogan-like descriptors” (p. 85) that characterize Catholic education, the problematic confessional component, and the imprecise relationship between theology and education.

Drawing from Karl Rahner’s theology, Whittle’s reconfigured theory of Catholic education places the mystery of human existence at its center. The development of critical reasoning skills helps students identify and engage with unsolvable mysteries. In turn, this helps justify the introduction of philosophy into the primary and secondary school curriculum. This enables students to approach the “threshold of theology” (p. 180). This is where they could explore and question the limitations of reason without the need for faith formation or catechesis. In Chapter Nine, he details the practical application of his theory to the curriculum. For example, the author advocates that the study of religion should have as its goal an understanding of how religions “make sense of the mystery that permeates human existence” (p. 172). The subjects of physics, history, and mathematics also offer an opportunity for “engaging with the presence of unsolvable mystery in human experience” (p. 160).

Whittle does a fine job in A Theory of Catholic Education of carefully crafting his philosophical argument toward a reconstructed theory of Catholic education. In his final chapter, the author offers a positive assessment of his theory in light of the internal and external threats he enumerates at the outset. However, Whittle also raises the initial concerns that hold promise for a more plausible and imaginative construct, especially as he asserts that, “the implications for the theory of Catholic education in other regions of the world will quickly become apparent” (p. 3). In fact, neither the significance nor the implications of his theory for the future of Catholic education are readily discernible. Despite different historical contexts, Catholic schools, like public schools on both sides of the Atlantic, face similar urgent issues. These include, but are not limited to, adequate funding, (re)evaluation of their aims or purposes, educating the poor, addressing educational inequalities, and teaching ethnically, religiously, or racially diverse populations. Is Catholic education in need of a more "robust” (p. 5) theory grounded in the theology of mystery as a guide for the twenty-first-century? It remains to be seen if such a theory has the potential to engage with the critical issues affecting students, families, and communities. Bearing these limitations in mind, Whittle’s commitment to Catholic education should be lauded. His efforts should also inspire further constructive debate and discussion on the future of Catholic education in the U.K. or worldwide.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 31, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21999, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 3:47:57 PM

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About the Author
  • Frevonia Soumakis
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    FEVRONIA K. SOUMAKIS is Adjunct Assistant Professor in the History and Education Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research interests include history and education, nineteenth and twentieth century immigration and ethnicity, and religion and education. She is currently revising her dissertation, A Sacred Paideia: The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, Immigration, and Education in New York City, 1959-1979 for publication.
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