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Published in Print: May 1, 2005, as Philosophical Differences

Philosophical Differences

The open-mindedness of publicly funded Catholic schools in Canada challenges American preconceptions.

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The lively class discussion was about gay marriage. And it took place at Immaculata High—yes, a Catholic school.

“I don’t see why the church can’t change its views; it’s like a pride issue,” argued Dylan Matheson, a 17-year-old senior. “Maybe when the pope gets de-popified.”

“You mean dies,” said 43-year-old Thomas Aquinas Conklin. He flicked on the fluorescent lights to brighten the room. Outside, a cold drizzle leaked from a slate-colored sky. It was Friday morning, December 10, a week before Christmas break and months before John Paul II would become deathly ill. “I think this pope acts on what he truly believes,” Conklin continued. “Remember, the church is very conservative and wants to be sure about changes.”

“I understand the church is trying to protect the structure of the family,” conceded 16-year-old Allegra Heney, who plans to major in political science after she graduates. “But as society has evolved over the last 50 years, don’t you think religion should be accommodating?”

“The practical definition [of marriage] has changed,” Conklin agreed. “Keep in mind: We don’t have to argue the Catholic position here, but we have to make sure we know it.”

Because this was a philosophy class (which qualifies as the required 12th grade religion credit at Immaculata), it’s possible this discussion could have taken place in other Catholic high schools. But what makes the grades 7-12 Immaculata different is that it’s located in Ottawa, where parochial education has been publicly funded since Canada was founded in 1867.

In Ontario, funding is never a problem for Catholic schools and the curriculum promotes tolerance and civic values.

That’s not the case everywhere in the country, which espouses religious tolerance but lacks the formal separation of church and state rooted in the U.S. Bill of Rights. Each province—the equivalent of a state in the United States—is free to configure its own educational system. Some, like Ontario (Ottawa’s province), fund Catholic schools; elsewhere, it’s Protestant and Jewish schools, among others. Half of Canada’s 10 provinces support only nonreligious public systems.

Which is the way it’s done in the United States, of course. Roughly 8,000 Catholic schools serve 2.5 million American students, according to the National Catholic Education Association. But they must charge tuition and engage in extensive fund raising to survive, and they constantly face the possibility of closing, as 22 Catholic schools in Brooklyn, New York, discovered in February, when the diocese announced they’d cease operations in June.

While closings are never desirable, there’s traditionally been no public funding source for parochial schools in the United States. “As a matter of conscience, we shouldn’t tax people to support the religious beliefs of others,” says Judith Schaeffer, deputy legal director of People for the American Way, a progressive advocacy foundation. “If you’re Jewish or non-Christian, for example, you shouldn’t have to fund people getting a Christian education.”

Ironically, in recent years, the most vulnerable Catholic schools—those in inner city areas—have been promoted as models for education reform because of their emphasis on academic basics in a disciplined environment. As a result, they’re considered cost-effective alternatives for many voucher students, both Catholic and non-Catholic.

But the church-state issue continues to be an explosive one in the United States. Every Christmastime, for example, newspapers are filled with stories about public schools not allowing Christian-themed music to be performed on their stages—and about the lawsuits that ensue. It seems an unbridgeable divide, one that also exists in those Canadian public schools that are nonreligious. So it’s worth taking a look at the Ontario system (and Immaculata High, in particular), where funding is never a problem for Catholic schools and the curriculum promotes tolerance and civic values.

First, it’s only fair to mention that Ontario’s Catholic schools don’t admit non-Catholic students until 9th grade. Currently, 32 percent of the province’s 2.1 million preK-12 students attend fully funded Catholic schools, according to Linda Nicolson, a spokeswoman for the Ontario Ministry of Education. Thomas D’Amico, principal at Immaculata High, says 20 percent of his school’s students are non-Catholic.

In Conklin’s philosophy class, this mix had an impact on the discussion about marriage and family. “I can’t think of anything more important than bringing a life into the world,” said Conklin, who constantly moves his hands as he speaks. His 23 students sat at tables that formed a rectangle around their theatrical teacher. “The church wants to ensure that parents make this decision powerfully,” he told them.

“I don’t understand why two men or two women couldn’t make such a thoughtful decision,” said Allegra, a non-Catholic student dressed, like the other girls, in a white blouse and gray-and-blue skirt.

“Absolutely they could,” Conklin said, “but this gets back to the definition of ‘marriage.’ ”

Conklin had initiated the discussion because one day earlier, the Supreme Court of Canada had handed down a decision declaring same-sex marriage constitutional. Gay marriages were already being performed in six of Canada’s provinces—including Ontario—and one of its three territories.

“I think it’s the joining of two people to make a family,” said Thomas Sullivan, an aspiring pharmacist, reflecting the traditional view.

Several students concurred with Thomas. “If procreation were intended for both [heterosexuals and homosexuals], then gay marriage would be OK,” reasoned Rafik Rady Ateya, an Egyptian-born Catholic. “But as we can see, it was only intended for one.”

“This comes back to the two basic approaches in philosophy,” said Conklin. “Is there an objective idea of marriage, or do we construct a definition from observation?”

“Hey, I’ve been here almost three years, and I’m open to it,” Kenyan-born George Wanjohi said in a baritone voice. He then quickly added: “But I’m not gay, of course. As a collectivist, if it makes them happy, it makes me happy.”

Similar discussions could well be happening today across Ontario, where a philosophy curriculum was instituted in 1994 and is now taught to about 28,000 students at 290 public high schools, both secular and Catholic, according to Ken Peglar, president of the Ontario Philosophy Teachers’ Association. It’s perhaps remarkable that Catholic schools allow the course; the textbook covers the entire range of modern philosophies that challenge religious belief. But a free exchange of ideas apparently is more important than dogma in Ontario.

“Open-mindedness requires reviewing the evidence and continuing to question, but [that doesn’t mean] one doesn’t hold a view,” says John Peter Portelli, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. “Like the Catholic [schools], public schools aren’t neutral. The question is whether the ideological framework hinders open argument.”

Because Catholic schools are part of a provincewide standardized system, the approach is consistent across Ontario. American Catholic schools, however, are part of regional dioceses run either by a religious order or a lay board of trustees; so tolerance of points of view diametrically opposed to the church’s varies depending on the view of those in charge and the makeup of the student body, which might include a significant number of non-Catholics.

Surprisingly unsurprised at their outspoken teacher, the students listened serenely as Conklin concluded, 'I can’t see Jesus speaking out against gays or gay marriage.'

Teaching philosophy at a Catholic school allows Conklin a distinct advantage. After encouraging his students to follow all possible logical twists in an issue and explore the full extent of secular thinking, he can pull back and add his own faith-based perspective, which, he points out, wouldn’t be tolerated at a public school.

Back in December, he gestured toward the blackboard, where he’d written the letters “WWJD.” “I hate to get corny, and this is more of a Protestant thing, but it works here,” he said. “What would Jesus do?”

With his neat haircut, dark-rimmed glasses, and handsome features, Conklin could pass for a televangelist. But he’s nothing like the devout, ruler-wielding sisters, brothers, and priests who staffed Catholic schools until the 1970s. They’ve almost entirely disappeared from the education scene in both Canada and the United States.

Surprisingly unsurprised at their outspoken teacher, the students listened serenely as Conklin concluded, “I can’t see Jesus speaking out against gays or gay marriage.”

Despite differing with the church’s official position, Conklin doesn’t fear being censured for his remarks. Unlike most of their American counterparts, Catholic school teachers in Canada are represented by a powerful union under the same umbrella as their public school peers. Written into Conklin’s collective bargaining agreement, however, is the requirement to support Catholic teachings and, with few exceptions, practice the faith.

“Teachers need to be sensitive regarding how to talk about issues in the classroom,” says Linus Shea, a chapter president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association. “A teacher can’t denounce church teachings, but discussion is encouraged as long as the Catholic position is brought forward in the debate.”

What would be expected at a Catholic school is apparent at Immaculata High: crucifixes in the classrooms, nativity scenes at Christmas, and other religious symbols throughout the building. The school day begins with a prayer and, if appropriate, what Sister Shelley Lawrence, the school chaplain and only member of a religious order on campus,calls “individual class celebrations.” She says, for example, that students “wrote and choreographed a blessing ceremony for a teacher going on maternity leave.”

“But since so many of our kids aren’t even Christian, let alone Catholic,” she adds, “our Catholic identity is focused on community: what we do together based on gospel values through social-justice activities, for the most part.”

One group of students, she says, has been raising money to help the Grey Sisters—members of the order that founded Immaculata in 1928—in the Dominican Republic with facilities they’ve built for the poor. And during spring break, students volunteered at medical clinics, a women’s center, and a seniors home.

The social-justice tradition evolved in Catholic schools throughout North America in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the gathering of bishops and cardinals in Rome in the early to mid-1960s that modernized the church and put emphasis on aiding the poor. Conklin was steeped in this new outlook while attending parochial school in Ottawa. “As an upper-middle-class kid—my father was a doctor and my mother a nurse—I wanted to be a lawyer and maybe go into politics,” he says. But as a senior at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Conklin realized he really wanted to help people in need. He completed a master’s degree in psychopedagogy at the University of Ottawa and taught for three years in Botswana, where he found his calling. Since then, he’s taught history, geography, and religion at Catholic schools in Ottawa. He’s now in his ninth year at Immaculata, and he’s completing an EdD in curriculum studies at the University of Toronto.

Although Conklin chose not to go the lawyer or doctor route, making a decent living became increasingly important after marrying another school teacher and having a son, now 8 years old. Fortunately, all of Ontario’s teachers receive the same pay and benefits, which compare favorably, when considering cost-of-living adjustments, with those of American big-city public school districts. Starting pay is the equivalent of $33,000 in the United States, the maximum about $62,000, according to Shea.

Conklin says he would have left the Catholic school system after a few years if it were not publicly funded. Ironically, this financial arrangement has eliminated interest in comparing outcomes between Catholic and secular public schools across Canada, according to Heather McLachlan, public affairs officer at the Alberta education ministry. After accounting for demographics, she says, it’s always been assumed that the two systems performed equally well. Instead, the emphasis is more on improving individual schools.

One thing’s for sure: Canadian students outperform their American counterparts by a significant margin. The Programme for International Student Assessment tests 15-year-olds in math, science, reading, and problem-solving. In 2003, in reading, Canada came in 3rd and the United States 18th out of 40 nations, and in math, the two countries ranked 7th and 28th, respectively.

As in the United States, Canadian Catholic schools sometimes offer an advantage in retaining at-risk students. With about half the 9thgrade class qualifying as economically disadvantaged, Immaculata is designated an inner city school. There’s a diverse ethnic and racial student body, with many students from immigrant families. About a quarter of Immaculata’s students are identified by principal D’Amico as needing extra attention. The sense of belonging, fostered by “the Catholic values that permeate school culture,” he says, keeps Immaculata’s dropout rate at 3 percent, on par with more affluent schools.

The challenge of inspiring young minds, however, is certainly aided by the physical plant, which by virtue of government moneys would be the envy of Catholic schools across America. Immaculata’s 1,000-plus students enjoy two gyms, six computer rooms with 300 computers, a music room, two art rooms, two drama rooms, and a spacious library, among other facilities.

Still, the fiscal stability that Ontario’s Catholic schools enjoy will eventually collapse if Catholics continue to drift away from the faith. As in the United States, church attendance has declined significantly in recent decades. In fact, government funding for Catholic schools was withdrawn in Quebec and Newfoundland during the past decade without encountering determined opposition.

This loss of faith is preventable, according to Conklin. “One problem in the church is, we tell young people what to believe, and at some point they’re going to question it,” he explains. But the philosophy classes offered at Catholic schools like Conklin’s give students “the opportunity to do it in a logical way with someone who believes,” he says. “No matter how much they turn faith inside out, they’ll find God if he’s there. Or whatever they come away believing will have a powerful foundation because they won’t be satisfied with apathy or glib materialism.”

What if life has no meaning and ‘God’ is just an excuse?” Allegra suggested back in December. This particular class was the culmination of a weeklong examination of “the meaning of life.”

Conklin acknowledged the possibility by saying “Absolutely.” His primary goal as philosophy instructor, he says, is to train his students to think methodically, to follow Albert Einstein’s dictum: “I want to know God’s thoughts; the rest are details.” As Conklin constantly sounds three of philosophy’s main themes—metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology—he drives his students, via questioning and logic, toward “the idea that there’s order at the heart of the universe whether or not you believe in God.”

“Maybe it’s an unconscious thing?” Allegra continued. “Like, since there’s really nothing else, we invented religion.”

One thing’s for sure: Canadian students outperform their American counterparts by a significant margin.

“What you’re saying is that we might create the idea of human nature and God to conceal the void,” Conklin suggested. He then connected Allegra’s hypothesis to one of the major subjects on the philosophy curriculum, saying, “That’s nihilism.”

Unlike most of her classmates, Allegra doesn’t believe in God. “I don’t have any faith or find comfort in it, and my family’s not religious,” she said later, after class. In choosing Immaculata in 9th grade, she exercised one option out of many in the public system, no more remarkable in Canada’s culture than deciding to go to an arts-oriented high school. “It was an education thing since religion was taboo at my public school and you can’t really understand history or literature without learning about it,” Allegra said. Since enrolling, she’s learned about Catholicism and other world religions.

This is all Conklin can really ask. Moments where students express deep insight, especially when it runs counter to their upbringing, provide his highest reward as a teacher. And it was obvious, outside of class, just how much they value his course.

“Philosophy questioned the biggest assumptions in my life, and I was very confused at first,” said Ruth Lobo, whose background contrasts starkly with Allegra’s. Ruth was born in India, then grew up in Canada in a traditional Catholic family. “But then I realized, it’s time to open up my mind and discover what I really believe rather than what my parents told me.”

“I don’t follow the Almighty God thing anymore,” confessed Kenyan-born Catherine Nabulime, who wants to become a neonatologist and return to Africa with Doctors Without Borders. “God isn’t something out there disconnected from humanity, like I used to believe, but a part of our conscience.”

“Mr. Conklin lets us struggle instead of giving solutions,” Ruth said. “In other classes, we regurgitate facts or theorems on tests to get good grades. Instead, he guides us to answers we’ll remember because we came to them on our own.”

But Conklin himself sees value in pursuing these answers in a Catholic school environment. “If education is about preparing students for life, we need philosophy and religion as much as math since they give young people a foundation,” he explained. “Whether we bring Catholicism or Hinduism or Buddhism into the discussion, religion provides insights into the issues students are deeply concerned about.”

Vol. 16, Issue 06, Pages 22-27

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