Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 10, 1999
The undoing of Catholic schools
Catholic Education: The Future is Now., by James Mulligan, CSC, Novalis, Toronto, 1999. 219 pp.
Review by RALPH HIMSL
Special to the WCR
This vigorous blast comes timely on. Though the title has an urgency, with (a perhaps, inevitable) hint of the millennial in it, the text delivers.
The failure of Catholic education in Newfoundland and Quebec has lessons to teach, even in its passing there: "The most pathetic explanation for any defeat (of Catholic education) will be that we failed to read the signs of the times."
Though Father James Mulligan acknowledges the sharp turn both in Newfoundland and Quebec, he concentrates most of the study and reflection on the devastation (for Catholic education) in Newfoundland.
Catholic Education: The Future is Now presents inferences drawn from examination of the meaning of the author's personal experience as a teacher, a knowledge of Church documents, current research writings, and from the purposive enquiries the author describes as the "eavesdropping on conversation method of research."
The introduction notes the wish for reader friendliness. To this end, the book has no footnotes or endnotes. Consequently, the careful reader wanting quick access to meaningful passages and sources another time, will want a pencil to mark them: the accustomed aids are absent.
At first, the studied informality and contemporary style of the text might seem to belie the quality of the inferences based on the data cited: soon, however, the author's insights into his own methods, their limitations and his awareness of the style he has adopted, dull the skeptic's knife.
True to the declared aims of the book, the research supporting the conclusions has an authenticity about it, inasmuch as it emphasizes the current scene and the recent past.
Interviews with practising or recently retired professionals fuel the "eavesdropping on conversations;" few written references predate the 1990s.
Perhaps symbolically, or maybe by preference, a quote from Leonard Cohen describing the worrisome drift to chaos perceived by the author, tightens this focus on contemporary times.
In another context, such worry about things coming undone, would have called up William Butler Yeats with his solemn declaration that "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold."
To say that the chapter on the demise of Catholic education in Newfoundland captures the essence of the book, carries no implication of redundancy for the balance of the text, though much that comes elsewhere, starts here.
The chapter opens with a sentence that chills the marrow of those who value Catholic education: "September 1998 was the first September since the 1720s when no Catholic school in Newfoundland opened its doors to Catholic students."
Longevity and history guarantee nothing.
The description of that "object lesson," the undoing of the Catholic schools in Newfoundland and rumbles with the familiarity of its elements: no investment in preparation of teachers and principals for the specifics of their work in Catholic schools; no distinctive mark of Catholic schools; the lack of a dynamic, widely supported vision or philosophy for Catholic schools, the collapse of the home-school-parish myth.
And let it be said, as Mulligan acknowledges, Catholic schools had to absorb the impact of the clergy abuse scandals.
All that notwithstanding, the personal commitment and awareness of many individuals are evident from that data. Mulligan eavesdrops on a parish priest: "Our local situation fills me with . . . almost disgust. We had such a good thing, and it has been given away."
The forces in society, hostile to denominational education, recognized the internal weaknesses in the Catholic school system and struck. "The demise of Catholic education in Newfoundland is our warning signal," Mulligan counsels.
No one should miss the quotation from Judge Robert Sharpe, written in 1997. Sharpe argues the case for Roman Catholic denominational rights as set out in the Constitution Act of 1867.
Mulligan says the entire judgement should be required reading for every teacher in Catholic schools. Amen to that. It has never been done better.
Nearing his conclusion, Mulligan's sense of urgency and mission remain - he must do one more thing before he closes: he describes the signs that Catholic schools in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario would display in successful adaptation to the warning from the death rattle of Catholic education in Newfoundland and Quebec.
(Ralph Himsl is the former superintendent of Catholic schools in Lethbridge.)