Sr. Prudence Allen

Teaching Truth with Grace is Worth the Struggle

Q: How do I teach Catholic Principles in a school when faculty, parents, and students disagree with Church teaching? – Amy

By: Sister Mary Prudence Allen, RSM., Phd.

A: For a new teacher, one of the most challenging situations is how to teach Catholic principles in a Catholic School when faculty, students, and parents disagree about these principles! Basically, there are three different communities of discourse, each with their own expectations and hopes. To further complicate the situation, within each of these communities of discourse there are also many individual differences of opinion about what principles are true.

Even though the Catechism of the Catholic Church offers a wonderful foundational structure for centering a discussion around a dispute about what really is the Church’s position on a particular theme, Catholic Theology is not like the sciences of mathematics or physics, where a basic text book can definitively settle all disputes.

It is important for a teacher not to get caught in the kind of arguing that pits students against their parents or one teacher against another teacher in a school. Yet the Catholic teacher has an obligation to do her best to be faithful to the trust that has been placed in her to speak according to her well-formed conscience. What can help someone facing this dilemma? I would like to suggest three different kinds of things.

Firstly, in 2007 the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome has published an important document titled,  Educating Together in Catholic SchoolsWhile this document is addressed to persons within lay and consecrated vocations, it also well serves priests and parents. In par. 13 of this document we read:

“The Catholic school, characterized mainly as an educating community, is a school for the person and of persons. In fact, it aims at forming the person in the integral unity of his being, using the tools of teaching and learning where «criteria of judgement, determining values, points of interest, lines of thought, sources of inspiration and models of life» are formed. Above all, they are involved in the dynamics of interpersonal relations that form and vivify the school community. “(Sept. 8, 2007)

The primary goal of the teacher should be more than imparting the facts of a particular academic subject. It should include above all fostering communion among the persons in the school especially in the classroom. How can fostering communion be done in the contemporary world? For example, teachers and administrators could study this document together and discuss it during one of their pedagogical or formation days. Parents could be encouraged to consider parts of it where relevant to their children. Schools run by religious communities could decide to study the document together.

Secondly, for those who are interested in broader principles of education, which may not be limited just to Catholic theological positions, I have written an article that considers how a philosophy of the transcendentals: unity, beauty, truth, and goodness can guide a teacher at four levels of education. These transcendentals are characteristics of God who is One, True, Beautiful, and Good. Everything in the world participates in these transcendentals to some degree. This philosophical approach has the advantage of being open to persons of all religions. It also gives examples of how a teacher can inadvertently act against one or another of the transcendentals, and thereby interfere with fostering communion. (See: Sr Prudence Allen, R.S.M., “How Catholic Philosophy can engage Secular Culture in Education,” Études maritainiennes – Maritain Studies, Vol. XX (2004): 106-147) (Email us for a copy of it!)

Thirdly, a teacher can broaden the context of the discussion among the different communities of discourse to include reflections on the history of women and education. What may be helpful for this purpose is to read and discuss sections of Allen, The Concept of Woman: Volume II, The Early Humanist Reformation (1250-1500*). The Index of this volume lists several pages according to the following topics: Education of children, of boys, and of girls; Education of women: in classical schools, in monasteries (or convent schools), in household, by father, by father-in-law, by mother; in humanist schools, by lay communities, by tutors, and theory of.[1]

 After great struggles in the western world, education became an important gift to girls and women of all classes. Therefore, it is worth the struggle today, when education is so available to everyone, to work with conflicts towards genuine dialogue, real communion among the persons involved, and real communities compatible with Catholic principles in the schools.

[1] Remember that Volume II was chopped into two parts, so that the first part has the table of contents and the first half of the text, and the second part has the index and bibliography with the second half of the text.

Sr. Mary Prudence Allen, R.S.M., Ph.D. entered the Religious Sisters of Mercy in 1983. She had received her Ph.D. in Philosophy in 1967 from Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, California. She taught philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada and was named Professor Emeritus in 1996. Her areas of specialization are: The Concept of Person in the History of Philosophy, Philosophy of Woman, Existentialism and Personalism. From 1998 to 2003 she served as Chair of Philosophy at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado. She was named to the Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. cap. Chair of Philosophy in 2011. She is also one of the founders of ENDOW (Educating on the Dignity and Nature of Woman), a Catholic woman’s organization to study in small groups. She has recently been appointed to the International Theological Commission.