Moral education: teaching religion to a Faith-diverse student body

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Prospective parents, representing a myriad of faith backgrounds, often ask how the Northmount (a Catholic school in Toronto, Ontario) religion program works and which model is used. Evangelization through doctrinal insistence of faith, practice and dogmatic mantras is most definitely not the way to achieve effective delivery of religious education, whether to a homogeneous group of believers or a collective group of eager yet diverse minds. In fact, the delivery of a moral education, grounded in the truths and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, does not begin in the classroom at all. Its genesis lies in the atmosphere of the school and its own inalienable tenets of service and virtue through instruction and, more critically, through genuine example. 

Moral Education: Teaching Religion to a Faith-Diverse Study Body

If an institution cannot rest upon its own faith foundations, it cannot hope to transfer this commitment to principles to its constituency, writes Manfred J. von Vulte. ILLUSTRATION BY DAVE CUTLER

The Way

Persons of faith, regardless of denomination, sect or variance of belief, have nothing to fear from other persons of faith. However, the moral principles and religious goals of the institution with regard to its mandate must be clearly and unequivocally stated in print, electronic media and verbal transmission. Northmount School's statement of faith education is: "Northmount wishes each student to be the best adherent of the faith tradition of the family." Our single-faith school regards parents as the primary educators of their children; our partnership is thus echoed in academia, social graces, and the teaching, maintenance and fostering of religious conviction. A former headmaster was once asked, "Why would non-Catholic parents choose to send their sons to Northmount?" His answer: "For the roots, or the fruits."


Many would regard a faith-diverse student body and the nature of Catholic religious tradition as an insurmountable paradox. It is not. Vatican II stated that, 


The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions [monotheist and Eastern]. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself. The Church therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral [author's emphasis] as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.
NON-CATHOLIC PERSPECTIVES ON A CATHOLIC EDUCATION Why non-Catholic parents send their children: "Christians and others see the universal values we espouse. Attending Mass twice per week affords the boys time for reflection and moments of silence which many of today's youth are missing. They feel that their children need to find a sense of purpose beyond materialism. The installation and nurturing of a moral compass supersede any theological differences in our environment." —Anthony Yeow, dean of character education Why a non-Catholic parent chose the school: "Christian values are front and centre and a part of the daily operation of the school. The values are so transferable that their relation to theology is irrelevant for me. It is important to me that my son is given an example of how to grow in faith. It is also important to me that the staff all has some sort of faith background and lives it." —Christopher Ruch, Anglican parent Impressions from a non-Catholic student: "I feel a part of everything. The religion part isn't something that makes me feel separate from everyone else. I don't believe everything that is said in religion class, but I do listen and learn a lot. I don't ever feel like I am being converted to become a Catholic – I just learn more." —Spencer D., Grade 7 student Reactions of non-Catholic students to senior school religious instruction:  "They are often the most interested students, finding the information novel. Every child has a sense of the divine or the supernatural and a longing for it. Many of the students are intrigued by the concepts and the theology, and we have some of the greatest discussions and debates. It works because the students and the teachers internalize a great deal of the ethos for which the school stands." —Peter Bacardi, senior religion teacher  Reactions of non-Catholic students to junior school religious instruction: "All of the students really love the stories and are quite into the class discussions. I have a Grade 2 student whose parents are from two different religions, and neither is Catholic or Christian. His parents appreciate the lessons and the ability of their young son to take away aspects from the religion classes that will benefit him." —Michael Brisbois, kindergarten and Grade 2 religion teacher On being a non-Catholic head of a Catholic school: "I gain tremendous personal and spiritual enhancement. I am comforted and embraced in an environment where my faith difference is welcomed and accepted." —Glenn Domina, Northmount School's head of school, who is a member of the United Church of Canada

The fear of conversion or religious superiority is again raised as a countervailing reason for avoiding schools based on one religion's teachings. Vatican II sought to repair and reconcile the relationships between the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian and non- Christian faiths. The differences are there, upheld and accepted; our mission is to enter a legitimate conversation about the rule of God and how this can be interpreted and universally binding to everyone.

The Truth

Critics will suggest that this total acceptance of all faith traditions is only possible under the two following assumptions: that one Faith tradition is de facto superior and trumps all others leaving the individual to reconcile dogmatic differences and practices, and that a wholly artificial relativism exists that posits all faiths as equal with no room for a critical examination, which may yield positive or negative commentary (disingenuous political correctness).

The Northmount paradigm is different. It puts forth the foundation of a Catholic religious education, not steeped in evangelization but focused in the more cerebral delivery of history, theology and the consequences of a moral life. Grounded in the beliefs and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, it is easily transferable and inclusive of other faith traditions. Central to the atmosphere in a religion class are catechetical instruction for Roman Catholics, and the education of all students on Catholic culture and the universal values of love, kindness, compassion and respect for the dignity of life.

Relativism would compromise Northmount's core values and, more severely, dilute its own operational truths. Our living example is to hold true to Roman Catholic principles and standards. This causes a true hermeneutic circle of influence and meaning because student adherents of other faith traditions learn the same resolve.

Genuine discussions of faith can only occur when all parties hold true to their own principles and beliefs. Thus, the discussion evolves from a persuasive-/conversion-style dialogue to one that seeks genuine truth through approaches to moral living. What further develops is the advent of principled and balanced discussion anchored in the ethos of appreciation and encouragement of all faith traditions guided by their respective moral compasses. Simply put, a virtuous character educated by morality, guided by faith and practice, and resting on an unshakeable and non-negotiable foundation can only emerge.

The Life

Beyond the theological is the application of faith through practice. A central tenet of a school that espouses a particular faith yet welcomes all others is universal physical manifestations, of which all members of the community become emotional stakeholders.

Northmount School offers a program of social assistance within the context of the community, province, nation and globe. Helping the needy and visiting the aged and infirm are two such initiatives that, while certainly grounded in Catholic tradition, are explicitly stated in the practical behaviours of most of the world's faiths. Activities include giving food hampers, playing bingo with senior citizens, raising money and supplies for developing world literacy programs, and helping orphanages and institutions that support life and human dignity. For the student, it is replacing attitude with gratitude.

Lost in early 21st-century leadership are compassion and empathy that include a spiritual dimension. Faith-based schools incorporate the human qualities in their definition of leadership and governance. Arguably, the question of religious competition is quelled by a culture not simply of toleration (tacit secular approval) but of true acceptance of everyone as a child of God, having human dignity of incalculable value. The potential of a child is then measured not by the limited boundaries of academia but by the true unbounded nature of the spiritual realm.

Within a religious environment, notions of authority and consequence become factors in the formation of a moral character. The Catholic tradition is crystal clear about moral codes and discipline; Catholic education is known for its brand of corrective character nurturing. True morality, espoused by Northmount School to parents, is that their sons "must know the good, and do the good when no one is around." Accountability in a morally sound atmosphere is acceptance not just of the temporal authority (parent, teacher and administration), which can forgive and punish at the same time, but also of a spiritual consciousness that rewards, punishes and forgives in its own time (the temporal authorities are the only ones that can be negotiated with). Essentially, it is a mindset that embodies a "second thought of consequence" for the student. This pays huge dividends in the establishment of a culture of respect. All faiths recognize that a morally educated student should inherit a fear of authority–not an unhealthy cowering, but the notion that doing wrong would result in the disappointment of temporal and spiritual authorities. In essence, they develop an empathetic, self-regulating conscience.

At a pedagogical level, intervention comes by way of a Northmount adviser for each student and his family. As a coach of sorts, advisers work on a virtue, prescribed monthly for the entire school. Goals are set, verified, discussed and enacted by the student. There is a living conversation between the home and the school. Aside from academic goals being mirrored by both, once virtue and habit are in tandem, the degree of parallel objectives produces a student and an atmosphere that foster the drive to become extraordinary in every domain of life. Educators often comment that if one-on-one instruction can be delivered, the scope of understanding and internalizing of knowledge and wisdom will be much more prolific. Faith and virtue are no exception. Every individual has a very personal relationship with their own faith tradition. The promise of the Advisory Program is fulfilled in the emotional well-being of the student. Our boys feel that they belong, they contribute and they all have a voice that is heard–a testament to acceptance of their diversity.

A father recently told me that he wants two things for his son: to be successful in school and life, and to be someone he can be proud of as an adult. The twin tenets of leadership and service resonate with all of the faiths at Northmount School. Families wish their sons to become men of conviction, courage and resolute steadfastness to the truth. If an institution cannot rest upon its own faith foundations, it cannot hope to transfer this commitment to principles to its constituency. Libertas in Veritate–freedom in truth–is the school's motto. Security in one's standards and beliefs allows for the genuine dissemination and learning of a guiding morality and virtue that, while securely anchored in one faith tradition, shine a shepherding light down our diverse paths toward salvation and enlightenment.

—Manfred J. von Vulte
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