The national curriculum should reflect today’s reality

A more holistic national curriculum should place Ethics as a compulsory subject in all schools

23 March 2017, 10:19am
There is certainly room to teach religious studies as an optional subject
There is certainly room to teach religious studies as an optional subject
Archbishop Charles Scicluna’s appeal for more religious inclusivity in Church schools may have provoked a furore among certain quarters... but at the same time, his message is entirely consistent with the direction taken by the Church both locally and internationally in recent years. 

In his closing comments at the end of an event commemorating Archbishop Joseph Mercieca, who passed away last year, Scicluna said that Church schools should respect the religious freedom of all parents, irrespective of their faith.

“We are not afraid of religious inclusion,” he said. “We are all brothers, called to co-exist in peace and harmony.”

Admittedly this view was not always at the forefront of how the Church – or even the Maltese state, with which it was up to a point intertwined – has always approached the issue of education. Constitutionally, the Republic of Malta appoints the Church as its official guiding mentor in matters of moral education. Catholic education is mandated by Article 2 of the Constitution, which states that:

(1) The religion of Malta is the Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion.

(2) The authorities of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church have the duty and the right to teach which principles are right and which are wrong.

(3) Religious teaching of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Faith shall be provided in all State schools as part of compulsory education.”

In the past, efforts to amend these sections were met with fierce resistance. In the 1950s Prime Minister Dom Mintoff had toyed with the idea of banning religion (not just the subject, but even religious symbols) from the classroom. The backlash formed part of the fabric of the ‘Church-State’ conflict that characterised the next decade. 

From this perspective, it is refreshing to hear such a different and more conciliatory tone set by the Archbishop: a tone which Scicluna himself stresses is in harmony with recent papal documents, including ‘Amoris Laetitiae’.

Whether imposed from above by the Vatican, or the result of a change in outlook by the local Curia, Scicluna’s statements mark a distinct change in attitude which can be seen to reflect corresponding social changes within the country as a whole. 

Today’s reality is different from the one which reigned when the Constitution was written. On one level, Malta is simply no longer the bastion of Catholicism it once was. The social demographics have shifted considerably since the 1960s: Malta is now home to a much more diverse range of ethnicities and cultures. The country has also grown less insular and more attuned to its new status as an EU member state... i.e., part of a confraternity of nations that regard ‘unity in diversity’ as a defining principle.

There is, however, another level in which Malta has evolved since the 1960s. Article 2 is itself a reflection of how poorly understood the separation of Church and State was at the time: it was still regarded as self-evident that an Independent State would need a religious institution to keep it on the straight and narrow; and in such a broadly homogenously Catholic environment, no one really questioned what was clearly an intrusion of the Church into the functions of a supposedly secular State.  

Yet while it is welcome that the Church today explicitly acknowledges the need for a clearer separation from the State, the legal infrastructure underpinning the Maltese Republic remains trapped within the format chosen by another age... and which reflects a totally different reality from the one we experience today. 

Paradoxically, while the Church has come round to understanding the need for a revision of this situation... the organs of the State have not. As a result, the traditionally ‘conservative’ Church is now more willing to reform its own structures than the government and opposition are willing to reform the Constitution. Only one side of the equation seems to have responded to the historical changes witnessed over the past 70 years.

So far, there has been limited discussion on Constitutional reform. Admittedly there are other areas of greater urgency; but any such reform must look into revising Article Two, in part because religion can no longer claim to dictate the national curriculum as it once did. 

This is not to say that religion should be banned from schools altogether. There is certainly room to teach religious studies – be the focus on Catholicism, Islam or any other comparative approach – as an optional subject. 

But a more holistic national curriculum should place Ethics as a compulsory subject in all schools: state, church and independent. ‘Ethics’ after all exist independently of religious beliefs, and should ideally teach students to develop a mature, individual moral outlook and sensibility based on values which transcend individual religions. 

Already an important step has been taken with the establishment of Ethics as an option for those who opt out from Religious Studies. Subject to logistical considerations – whether, for instance, schools have enough teachers and resources to provide the necessary tuition – this should ideally be a first step towards a transition to an ethics-driven curriculum.

Hopefully Bishop Scicluna’s statements will pave the way to a long overdue discussion on reforming the Constitution in a way that reflects today’s realities.