Skip to content
Home » Reclaiming the Piazza » Introduction


Introduction: A Catholic Culture

To both the insider and the outsider, it can often seem that the world of education is one in which a medley of philosophically and culturally conditioned ideas take it in turns to serve as the dominating ideology. We recall the rise of mass education in the nineteenth century, driven as it often was by the need to supply a properly trained corps of workers for the factories of the industrial revolution and to contemporary education which, mutatis mutandis, seeks to train pupils for a so-called knowledge economy. Woven within these utilitarian views of education, we can glimpse other and more radical voices which looked to education as the space in which the pupil/student could encounter the radical ideas which would lead to the liberation of the working classes from the grip of harsh expressions of capitalism. Catholic thinking on education has not stood on the margins of these debates but has evolved to address the changing social conditions in which Catholic schools operate.  

In the light of the many-layered debates on the aims and purposes of education, both Catholic and public, there are, we suggest, two key questions underpinning the present volume: a) in what way can the Catholic school be conceptualised as a ‘cultural project’ and b) how can the Catholic school serve as the heart of the Church’s engagement with modern society?

The central message of this volume is that Catholic education is primarily a cultural project. It is a means of communicating the Gospel message effectively with a view to enriching the cultural atmosphere of the pluralist society. To do so requires a deep and lasting commitment to dialogue with those who do not share the Christian worldview.

In the introductory chapter, we explore first the scope and rationale of the present book. Following this, we explore what is understood by the term ‘Catholic culture’ in the context of Catholic schools and suggest that far from being simply a modifier added to other understandings of culture, it is a way of showing how the vision of the Christian Gospel is able to penetrate the life of the Catholic school.  Finally, the overview of the chapters knits together the key arguments of the book.

Scope and Rationale 

This book is designed to meet the needs of all with an interest in Catholic education in schools. This broad group includes school managers and those members of the Church who are charged with overseeing the operation of Catholic schools. The Church’s educational community is well served with a variety of writings on Catholic education’s role in the mission of the Church.[1] The present volume recognises the contribution of this work to the general success of Catholic education globally. 

Amongst the complex trends which scholars in various fields currently identify as defining characteristics of modern society in the West—Europe and North America, more precisely—is that of increasing secularisation[2] This development might best be encapsulated in the argument that religion is being forced to withdraw from the public space into a private, domestic sphere. However, a counter-argument has developed in parallel with this idea: an argument which says that, in fact, religion is not disappearing from the public sphere in the West at all but, rather, is merely experiencing transition in terms of levels of attachment to institutional forms.[3] Nevertheless, subscription to either argument has profound implications for one’s understanding of the relationship between Catholicism and modern culture. In an emerging society which is losing cognisance of Christian roots and, with it, a shared set of values and vocabulary when talking about the world, what exactly should the Catholic response be?

This volume argues that accepting retreat to a rump of self-referencing adherents—the creation of a Catholic ‘ghetto’, as it were, in the midst of society—is not an attractive option, nor is it likely to be sufficiently life-enhancing to the extent that Catholicism might be sustained as a basis for community in the future. Yet so often the perception can be that the Church’s response to issues of concern to the world can seem rarefied, enshrined in worthy documents with a limited audience. The Western media, especially in the Anglophone world, is often mute on the latest papal or episcopal document unless it matches a pre-determined select list of subjects of ‘general interest’. This book, therefore, asks a serious question: how might a ‘Catholic vision’ of society be articulated or lived out in such a way that it reaches out to society in general, addressing the ‘hopes and joys’ of people in speaking to their heart and minds in the present day? [4]What we seek to do in this volume is to offer the Anglophone world some glimpses of educational thought from another and quite different socio-cultural context. We suggest that Italy’s Progetto Culturale (henceforth Progetto) presents us with a major opportunity to consider how Catholic education can both meet the catechetical obligations it has to the Catholic community and the educational demands arising from the Catholic school’s locus at the heart of such a wide variety of educational systems and related socio-political contexts.

The experience of one European country (Italy) which is, arguably, ahead of the field in addressing the issue outlined above needs to be examined. The Progetto is the brainchild of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Italy and is intended to re-animate the Church’s encounter with the culture of that country.[5] In the broadest terms, the Progetto emerged from the Italian Church’s interesting relationship with the Italian state since the Second World War and needs to examined through the prism of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. The more recent thematic origins are found in two speeches of John Paul II. In his address to the Italian Bishops in 1994, he proposed the building of a new Europe in line with the Catholic vision of the founders of the European Union whose deep faith inspired them to carry out their ambitious plan. In the same vein, John Paul expressed concern about the ‘denial of Christianity’ as manifested in a supposed neutrality in values arising from a post-Enlightenment model of life.[6] We argue here that John Paul’s call for a cultural, moral and religious renewal applies not only to Italy, but to the rest of universal Church. 

In brief, the Progetto is a way of living Catholicism in the contemporary age. It seeks to make an impact on intellectual and popular culture through the diffusion of the Gospel using a variety of creative means. The Progettorecognises a substantial gap between the highly visible ‘Catholic culture’ of Italy—as manifested in the popularity of feast days devoted to local saints and the continuing visibility of Catholic religious symbolism in some public buildings—and a form of practical atheism in the actual reality of daily life. The Progetto’s logo of a ‘piazza’ encapsulates the key themes: the union of a church bell tower (campanile) and a public building (palazzo pubblico) is an image descended from the agorà of the Greeks.[7] The image of the piazza as the heart of a town emphasises the Progetto’s desire to place Christianity at the heart of society and allows the Christian vision of the human person to inform how people relate to each other in the shared institutions of public life. Of course, there is an assumption here of a traditional Italian-style Church-state relationship in which the footprint of the Church looms large in public debate.[8]

In terms of education, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Italy has made education the key theme of its ‘pastoral plan’ for the decade 2010-2020The rationale for this choice is set out in a lengthy document entitled Educare alla Vita Buona Del Vangelo.[9] A set of guidelines (Orientamenti) offers a substantial plan of action. In line with this long-term initiative, the most important publication produced by the Progetto, perhaps, is its volume dedicated to education: La Sfida Educativa (The Educational Challenge).[10] This deeply thought-provoking book reflects on a perceived ‘crisis’ in education which is exemplified through reference to a breakdown of ‘traditional values’ and a growing gulf between faith professed and faith lived. The analysis reflects the mind of Benedict XVI himself who has used the phrase ‘educational emergency’ to describe the educational reality in the West today.[11] The vision of education which pervades La Sfida Educativa includes but is not exclusive to the school: there are also chapters on family, the Christian community, work, information technology, the market, mass media, the world of entertainment, and sport. It is the wide-ranging, holistic view enshrined in La Sfida Educativa which prompts the critical ‘rethinking’ about Catholic education for an English-speaking audience which the present volume seeks to address. 

What Do We Mean by ‘Catholic Culture’?

The range of definitions afforded to the term ‘culture’ today ensures that its scope and meaning oscillate according to a broad and varied range of inter-related historical and social contexts. In the light of this, any considered exploration of what is inferred by the term ‘Catholic culture’ must draw on and illuminate appropriately the wider definitions of ‘culture’ available to us.

The English essayist and cultural critic of the 19th century, Matthew Arnold, offered a description of culture as the pursuit of perfection through engagement with the ‘best which has been thought and said in the world’.[12] This widely-referenced comment is a suitable starting-point for our discussion as it locates culture at the heart of the human person’s engagement with the world of ideas and their expression in the written word. Crucially, it reveals the human person as one whose search for truth and meaning lies at the heart of his or her identity. While Arnold’s definition of ‘culture’ does not have an explicit reference to Christian thought, the stated pursuit of perfection resonates with the Gospel call to ‘be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ although we admit that different ideals of perfection are competing here.[13] St Matthew’s Gospel shows that Gospel perfection is the fruit of following the Beatitudes and changing one’s heart in order to live a life animated by love. Arnold’s desired cultural perfection seems to be focussed more on the life of the mind as opposed to a more integrated vision which unites heart, mind and soul. 

This raises the interesting question of whether it is possible for a Christian to assent, even in broad terms, to the Arnoldian definition of cultural perfection. In one respect, we have to give a cautious ‘yes’ to this important question. The exploration of and rejoicing in the cultural achievements—artistic, medical and scientific—of the human race can be understood as the public affirmation of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. Christians are called to love the world but without become overly attached to the pursuit of material goods and what we can classify as overly materialistic conceptions of the human condition. This position avoids the latent danger in Arnold’s work which emerges when the pursuit of human perfection leaves little or no room for consideration of other and deeper dimensions to human life.

To enlarge, and perhaps complicate, our discussion, we recognise that any understanding of ‘culture’ depends very much on context.[14] Turning to what is understood by ‘Catholic culture’, the Second Vatican Council stands as a worthy, indeed indispensable, reference point for our time. Etymologically and theologically, ‘Catholic’ connotes a universality which cannot be aligned with any restricted understanding of culture: a Catholic culture in its broadest frame of reference avoids too close an identification with other expressions of culture especially when such expressions of culture emerge from particular national contexts.[15] Cardinal Camillo Ruini, a key figure in the Progetto, and a former President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Italy, drew on Gaudium et spes  to define culture as follows:

The term ‘culture’ is understood in its widest and most ‘anthropological’ sense. This embraces not only the world of ideas but the daily lived experience of individuals and society, the structures which underpin it and the values which shape it.[16]

What does this mean and what are the implications for Catholic life of this definition of culture from a senior figure in the Catholic world? We suggest that this broad exploration of the meaning of ‘culture’ locates our debate in the link between human endeavour and the ideas—political and artistic—which, in a sense, civilise and bring some form of order to daily life. In this respect, any exploration of the relationship between Catholicism and culture cannot avoid the asking of profound questions about the precise nature of the link between the civilisation of the West and Christian thought. 

Arguably, it was not until the Second Vatican Council that culture first found an identifiable domain in the Church’s magisterial corpus.[17] This more explicit recognition of the link between faith and culture is, perhaps, a response to the cultural reality of the twentieth century as manifested, for example, in the end of colonialism and opening of the ‘third world’ to commercial and educational opportunities. The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes) advocated the wider usage of the term ‘culture’ as alluded to above with a focus initially on the human person’s mental and physical achievements.[18] In this respect, it is not too far from the pursuit of perfection as proposed by Matthew Arnold, as we have noted above. Gaudium et spes goes on, however, to explore in some depth the link between faith and culture and proposed that human work is a participation in God’s providential plan for the human race.[19] The understanding of ‘human work’ cannot be narrowed to mean only some form of paid employment but is actually a shorthand term for the sum of human achievements in all aspects of our search for meaning.[20] Arnold’s definition of culture as the ‘best of what has been thought and said’ hence can be applied to human work and thus provides a point of contact, albeit opaque, between ‘Catholic’ and ‘secular’ understandings of culture.

The link between culture and education, while alluded to in Gaudium et spes, is more fully explained in the Council’s Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissimum educationis)This important document recognises that the promotion of culture in society is the responsibility of parents and the civic authorities.[21] Interestingly, it affords Catholic schools the mission of shaping culture to the ‘news of salvation’ thus preparing the terrain for the emergence of a rich corpus of Church teaching on the link between education and culture.[22]

Catholic culture, so-called, is hence a way of describing the explicit and implicit effects of Catholic thinking on the organisation of society. It addresses the human person’s search for meaning by offering a vision of society grounded in the mystery of the Trinity and the Incarnation. This is articulated by a positive interaction with the wider world of ideas. An authentic Catholic culture cannot lock itself behind ideological barriers, presumed or otherwise, but, in following the ‘great commission’, seeks to go to all nations to offer a leaven to humanity’s cultural endeavours.[23] Indeed, we argue that an understanding of Catholic culture which sought to draw sharp dividing lines between the ‘Church’ and the ‘world’ would not be an authentic representation of Catholic thought.

Drawing on this vision, we suggest that a Catholic educational culture should focus on two key fields of action. First, it should seek to improve all forms of education by sharing its well-trodden tradition of educational thought with all who are concerned with good education. Catholic thinking on education, in keeping with the outward vision articulated by Gaudium et spes, is not designed simply as a guide for the operation of a Catholic educational system. Second, it should offer the Catholic school an opportunity to act differently from other schools and to engage fruitfully with, and ‘speak truth’ to, the modern state’s far-reaching network of educational agencies. Given the myriad ways in which Catholicism is expressed globally, the culture of the Catholic school will reflect both the local and the international dimension and thus serve as a hub of the Church’s mission wherever it is found.


In Chapter One we set out some of the principal contemporary challenges to the Catholic school. Building on Benedict XVI’s claim that we are in the throes of an ‘educational emergency’, we first show how this diagnosis is manifested in the question of what is an appropriate ‘ecclesial identity’ for the Catholic school. In other words, what is the proper relationship between the Church and schools which are described as ‘Catholic’? We follow this by examining closely the relationship between catechesis and religious education and show how these processes support each other as necessarily distinctive but related parts of a wider Catholic educational project.

In Chapter Two we show how dialogue is an increasingly important feature of the Catholic educational tradition. As we do not wish to live in silos, we must find creative ways to engage with the views of those who do not share our vision of life and education. This is neither the recreation of a mythical past nor the construction of a brave new vision for the future. Rather, we seek to apply the many layers of the Catholic intellectual tradition to the challenges facing Catholic education today.

In Chapter Three, we make a bold leap to claim that the partnership of new media, education and culture is a necessary blueprint for the future. Catholic education is, at its root, a means of communication: as communications media evolve, so must the Church’s educational framework embrace the opportunities offered by technological advances while pointing out the challenges they pose to traditional means of interpersonal communication.

In Chapter Four, we shift the focus to the Progetto Culturale (Cultural Project), the Italian initiative designed to refocus the Church’s commitment to influencing the culture of modern Italy. It is not our intention to undertake an evaluation of the Progetto but simply to suggest that it has a degree of energy and creativity around it which is both attractive and challenging. We describe the key features of the initiative and suggest that it has the potential to make a substantial impact on Catholic education in other local contexts. 

In Chapter Five, we weave together the principal threads of our argument to show how the Progetto can act as a spur to the wider Church’s educational mission. We make a bold claim for Catholic education as the new paideia and offer some practical ideas as the means to achieve this. 

The Afterword sets the arguments of the volume within the context of the challenges presented to the Catholic vision of life and education by the intellectual forces clustered around modernity and the Enlightenment project. Here we glimpse the interconnectedness of these challenges which can only be addressed by a confident intellectual and pastoral vision.

There are two appendices. The first is the complete text of the Congregation for Catholic Education’s document Educating to Intercultural Dialogue in Catholic Schools: Living in Harmony for a Civilisation of Love [24] This document, issued in 2013, is a complete overview of the framework for Catholic education and articulates well with the present volume’s call for cultural dialogue to be placed at the heart of the mission of Catholic education. The second appendix is a short speech by Pope Francis on February 13 2014 to the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for Catholic Education which reinforces the importance of dialogue and appropriate teacher formation in Catholic education.

Note to the text

A number of the primary Italian sources for this book have no official translation. In such cases, we have provided our own translation.

[1] L. Franchi (Ed.), An Anthology of Catholic Teaching on Education (London: Sceptre, 2007).

[2] See, for example, S. Bruce, God is Dead: Secularization in the West (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002); D. Martin, On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005).

[3] There is an excellent summary of the various counter-arguments in U. Nowak, ‘Wall of Separation? Religion’s Presence in the Public Sphere of a Democratic State – Some Theoretical Reflections’ in I. Borowik and M. Zawiła (Eds), Religions and Identities in Transition (Krakow: Nomos, 2010), pp.119-30.

[4] Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, 1: ‘The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.’

[5] Website of the Progetto

[6] Pope John Paul II, Letter to Italian Bishops Working for Moral and Cultural Rebirth of Society (6 January 1994).

[7] In ancient Greek culture, the agorà was the open space in a city which served as a centre for artistic, sporting, political and cultural events.

[8] A key role is given to small local initiatives in the operational side of the Progetto. These centri culturali cattolici (Catholic cultural centres) are the engines of the project and allow for a strong local dimension to apply and concretize the energy arising from the centre. Although they have a local base, the centri culturali are encouraged to form networks with each other and thus increase their visibility and ultimately their effectiveness. The TV channel SAT 2000 is one of the arms of the Progetto. It offers a varied menu of programmes all of which are informed by the Progetto’s unique approach to culture. The related blog Nella Piazza offers wide-ranging and accessible material on religious and cultural issues.

[9] Translated as ‘To Educate for the Good News of the Gospel.’ There is no official translation available.

[10] Comitato per il Progetto Culturale della Conferenza Episcopale Italiana, La Sfida Educativa (Rome-Bari: Editori Laterza, 2009).

[11] Benedict XVI, Address to the Participants in the Convention of the Diocese of Rome (11 June 2007). 

[12] M. Arnold, Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism (1869) Kindle edition.

[13] Mt 5:48.

[14] The many definitions of culture available to us have in common some form of collective approach to understanding how the human person engages with others to create a good society.

[15] For example, the folklore of traditionally Catholic countries should not be too readily identified as expressions of a specifically Catholic culture although it is the case that many of these cultural expressions might have roots in Catholic ideas.

[16] C. Ruini, Una Prima Proposta di Lavoro (1997). The complete text (in Italian) is available at:

[17] R. J. Staudt, ‘ “Religion and Culture” and “Faith and Renewal of Society” in Christopher Dawson and Benedict XVI’ in LogosA Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 16/1 (Winter 2013) pp. 31-69.

[18] Gaudium et spes, 53, defines culture in the general sense refers as referring to all those things which go to the refining and developing of all man’s (sic) diverse material and physical endowments.

[19] Ibid. 57-60

[20] ‘Furthermore, when man (sic) works in the field of philosophy, history, mathematics, and science and cultivates the arts, he can greatly contribute towards bringing the human race to a higher understanding of truth, goodness and beauty, to points of view having universal value’ (Ibid. 57).

[21] Vatican II, Gravissimum educationis, 6.

[22] Ibid. 8; Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (1988) passim; The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium (1997) 14.

[23] ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age’ (Mt 28:19-20). 

[24] The Congregation for Catholic Education is the Holy See’s dicastery responsible for Catholic education worldwide.