Religious Diversity in Catholic Schools

About this article

Jonathan Yü-Phelps, of Newton Country Day School in Massachusetts, hits the nail on the head when he explains how confronting religious pluralism in our classrooms can raise difficult issues for religious educators: "We may wish to be open and tolerant of other life-giving worldviews. We may especially wish to be welcoming to non-Christians in our schools and in our religion classrooms. But we may not know how to do that while witnessing to our faith. We may worry about asking our students to examine their belief in Jesus Christ while acknowledging that a majority of the world gets along quite well without him." This Connect article offers insights gained from the author's seven years of teaching classes in world religions.

Pluralism of religions is a reality in the United States. We see it in the newspaper, and we encounter it in our own classrooms. Through television, the Internet, and the changing religious landscape of our own country, our students encounter Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others. As religious educators, we need to address diversity issues regardless of how religiously diverse our particular school or community is. In fact, we are in a unique position to nurture our students' attitudes toward the world's religions. Our courses give students a framework for understanding not only the Catholic faith but other faiths as well. Social studies and English courses help form our student's perceptions of all the world's religions, Islam and Judaism in particular. As our students continue to encounter other religions in high school or in college, their perspectives will be formed in part by what we are teaching them now, intentionally or not.

Answering Objections

Have you ever heard this question: In a Catholic high school, why should time be taken away from the study of our own tradition and given to the study of other religions? We might answer with some questions of our own: Shouldn't we take time for the spiritual questions that our young people have? Shouldn't we provide an opportunity and an environment for students to feel comfortable posing challenging questions to adults who have the training to respond to them? In the context of a Bible or church history class, or in discussions about world news, I have found it useful to bring in the point of view, as I understand it, of Jews and Muslims. We cannot fully understand Christianity apart from the two other major Abrahamic faiths. But understanding these faiths is only a first step. After an initial question about Islam or Judaism, students will often ask for clarification about a corresponding belief or practice in the Christian faith.

Explorations into other religions are essential to laying down a basis for lifelong respect for difference. Too often our attitude toward other faiths, as Americans and as Catholics, has reflected ignorance and contempt. Even to-day, we are not free from that kind of bias. Nevertheless, the recent Jewish-Catholic movement toward better understanding of Judaism in Catholic education seems to be a Spirit-led and hope-filled sign that we are changing our perspectives on other religions. The Shoa, or Holocaust, has changed our understanding of ourselves forever. We now know with certainty that to be faithful to the Gospel, the church must witness against oppression and persecution. Violence between sides that are drawn up mostly along religious lines continues to dominate world news, and in the United States, the home of so many emigrants from these conflicts, we have an opportunity to be peacemakers and to train the peacemakers of tomorrow.

There is a clear mandate for this work from Pope Paul VI in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes, 1965): "Every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language, or religion . . . is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God's intent" (no. 29; emphasis added). Our social justice classes respond to Paul VI's call, but we cannot relegate the demand for justice to just one course. Part of our work is examining what we are already teaching about other religions not only in religion classes, but in the social studies and other departments. We have a responsibility to ensure that we are not passing on prejudices and biased information that is in direct contradiction to the spirit of Catholic social teaching.

Seizing Opportunities

The presence in our schools of students whose families practice Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, primal religions, Sikhism, or other religions is a great resource. Those students can be learners and teachers about their own traditions. When a classmate presents information about his or her own culture or religion, students not only are attentive but their questions reveal a genuine curiosity for the subject as well as sensitivity toward the classmate. Offering this opportunity is a first step in teaching our students to dialogue with one another.

In my world religions class, a Thai Buddhist student spoke about the rituals his family performed at his grandmother's death. His sharing had an authority that I, as a Roman Catholic, could never have, even though I am the teacher. At the same time, because this student is a friend and peer, the rest of the class found the practices of Thai Buddhism less strange and foreign than they otherwise might have. This created an opportunity for the class that no Roman Catholic religion teacher, no video, no Web site could ever provide.

Listening is a crucial skill in en-countering difference, and it's a skill that Jesus demonstrates in the Gospels. He listened to the Syro-Phoenician woman, and she changed his mind. He listened to the Roman centurion and found someone with great faith. He shared water with the Samaritan woman, and together they overcame the religious and cultural barriers between them. Jesus' example in these stories reminds us that too often we categorize people and expect them to fit into our categories. Listening means letting go of what we already think and paying attention to what we experience in a current encounter.

We can provide opportunities for dialogue among our own students of diverse religious backgrounds, or we can invite representatives (ministers, priests, rabbis, imams, and so on) of the religious traditions present in our student body. We can introduce our students to organizations that foster dialogue among youth. In the Boston area, the Anti-Defamation League operates a Muslim-Jewish-Christian interfaith youth group. Students who participated in this program say they loved meeting new people and learning about the religions of others. This is just a beginning. We can encourage students to organize days of awareness, to bring in speakers, to celebrate holidays, and to explore other ways to build bridges. We cannot see the world that our students will live in; we cannot imagine how the religious communities of tomorrow will be formed by interreligious dialogue today. But if we encourage our students to participate in it with a spirit of understanding and peacemaking, we earn the right to hope that the world may improve.

Working with Religious Pluralism in the School . . . and Beyond

Learning who is in our school is important. At Newton Country Day School, knowing that our student body includes young people from the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Buddhist traditions gives the whole school a context for announcing and learning about Diwali, Ramadan, and other holidays. Additionally, we invite students from those traditions to offer a song or reflection as part of our school-wide worship. We identify ideals such as peace, justice, or forgiveness that are shared by other religions, and find ways to bring another faith's perspective on them into our school. For example, bulletin boards in our school have had quotes from the sacred scriptures of the world's major faith traditions.

Like our Catholic Confirmation candidates, students from other traditions take part in ceremonies that have significance in their life. Jewish students may have recently been Bat/Bar Mitzvahed, Muslims may be planning to go on the Hajj, Native American students may be participating in their coming-of-age ceremonies. These can be held up as examples of commitment and faith. Students are usually aware of the rites of passage that go on in the lives of their classmates. We can choose to celebrate those moments as a faith community. Catholic students are often impressed and even motivated by the religious devotion of their friends in other traditions.

Boston is doubly blessed for the exploration of other religious traditions: it has a rich diversity, and it is home to educational institutions committed to increasing people's awareness of that diversity. The Pluralism Project at Harvard ( has made available a directory of religions that I use with my students. We have gone on trips to a Hindu temple, a Buddhist meditation center, and an Islamic center. Direct experience is a fundamental part of forming the skill of encountering other religions. For class projects, students have contacted Sikh gurdwaras, Zoroastrian fire temples, Jewish temples, Lutheran churches, and countless other worship centers. My students conduct an interview with someone of a religion different than their own as a final project. They provide visual aids or physical objects that are used in worship while they relate to us anecdotes of their subject's life as an adherent to another faith. This is the type of experience that breaks down the stereotypes that are so dangerous and tempting if we remain insular in our worldview. This assignment also provides my students with practical experience as ambassadors.

Not everyone teaches in a locale as rich in diversity as Boston, but many of us have access to the Internet, where students can contact adherents of other religions around the world. The Pluralism Project publishes a nationwide directory, in addition to the one for Boston. Listings of religious organizations are available in libraries and on the Internet. How to Be a Perfect Stranger, edited by Arthur J. Magida (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1999; reviewed in this issue) gives contact information for many official religious organizations in the United States.

When teachers think of interreligious dialogue, the images that come to mind may include a United Nations committee, a papal conference for prayer, or peace talks over disputed holy land. But the interreligious dialogue that our students will engage in will more likely be with their college roommate, with their auto mechanic, or with their employer. They will probably be engaging in much more of this dialogue than we can presently imagine. The question for Catholic educators is not whether to prepare our students for those encounters, but how we can most effectively do so.


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Published January 1, 2002.