Could Pope Francis Be the World’s Most Important Education Advocate?
Last week I found myself in the Vatican, taking part in a series of meetings on education, global citizenship, and peaceful co-existence. As a non-Catholic, this was new territory for me. Prior to the meeting, the little I knew about the Catholic Church could be captured on a flashcard, a mini, cliff-notes version of history. It all started in the first century A.D. during the Roman Empire when Jesus appointed Saint Peter as the church's leader (the first pope), many centuries of expansion and conflict followed, the Protestant reformation then occurred in the 1500s, a strong tradition of education among the Jesuits contributed to schooling expansion globally, and today divisive debates rage around abortion and the role of women. I knew similarly little about the Church's teachings. And the protocol materials sent prior to the meetings, while helpful because at least I knew what was expected, only served to reinforce the sound bites about the Church that you hear on the news. Women are to wear "pants and skirts below the knees, colorless nails, hair up and neat, without cleavage, shoulders covered, no tight clothes, dark colors."
Two Communities, One Human Family
Given my limited knowledge, I decided I should prepare for the meeting and luckily happened upon several articles about Catholic social teaching. In those pages, I discovered a very different Church than what usually makes the media headlines. The concepts of human dignity, human equality, the right of all people to fully participate in society, and hence the call to provide special protection to the poor and vulnerable and to act in the common good were all present. In many ways the principles and focus of Catholic social teaching are similar to those in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, perhaps the one document that has inspired me the most to work on issues related to global poverty. In both cases, there is the powerful idea that all people are part of one human family—no matter who you are, where you are from, what gender you are, or how rich or how poor. The origins of this idea are different, of course, with one relying on the belief that each person is created in the image of God (and hence we must treat everyone as we would treat the Lord) and the other skipping the divine altogether and starting with the belief in the inherent dignity of all people (and hence "the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family"). Here was, in my view, one of the best-kept secrets of the Catholic Church.
The ideas in Catholic social teaching were essential in giving me a frame of reference for my discussions at the Vatican. The meetings last week were convened by Scholas Occurentes, an Argentinian non-profit founded by Pope Francis when he was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and dedicated to connecting schools around the world in an effort to foster inter-cultural dialogue. Now, with Pope Francis sitting in Rome, the organization is seeking to broaden its scope, become more global, and take an ecumenical approach to the issues around global citizenship that Pope Francis has stated he wishes to continue to champion. Supporting the poor and vulnerable, focusing on human dignity and equality, ensuring everyone is part of and fully participating in society, were all principles strongly reflected in this work, as with much of the pope's actions throughout his life, and in Pope Francis's message at the meeting. "We will not change the world, if we do not change education," said the pope. Teachers must be honored, he went on, for carrying the burden of educating our children virtually alone, but it is time that all members of society actively lend their support to this important responsibility. Ultimately, he laid out a social vision based on harmony (both within society and within oneself) to which the education of the world's young people should contribute.
If my trip to the Vatican taught me one thing it is that there is far more common ground between the religious and global education communities than first meets the eye. But how can Pope Francis and his team translate the core values we share into practical solutions for children and youth in developing countries?