On a Friday afternoon in late April, we entered the bustling hallways of New York’s St. Aloysius School in Harlem. Children were pouring out of the doorways into the sunshine, enjoying an early dismissal so their teachers could take part in our workshop on integrating religious diversity into their curriculum.
St. Aloysius is a small Jesuit school dedicated to educating a diverse population of at-risk inner city children in grades pre-kindergarten through eight. The school’s mission is shaped by Ignatian teaching and the Jesuit concept of cura personalis—care of the whole person: body, mind, and spirit.
At the time of our workshop, the school’s faculty and administration had been engaged in a year of reflection about how to best serve their Jesuit mission and make Ignatian teachings accessible to their students. They had been asking how they could both uphold their identity as a Catholic school and meet the needs of their diverse student body, only 20 percent of which is Catholic.
In the words of principal Daniel Perez: “We want to treat our diversity as an opportunity—an opportunity to be more inclusive and appreciative of differences. We see ourselves as a family. If we acknowledge and recognize the differences within our family—including different faith traditions—we can understand one another on a deeper level. We can have a deeper conversation about morality and faith development.”
That sense of family was evident as we began our workshop with the close-knit St. Aloysius faculty. Our discussion revealed professionals that were thoughtful, engaged, and ready to try new things. We discussed why it’s important to teach about diverse religions and belief systems, why it’s best to begin this teaching early in education, and ways to integrate this teaching into the larger curriculum.
The idea that Catholics should seek a deeper understanding of other faiths is not a new one. In 1965 the Second Vatican Council issued Nostra Aetate, a statement on the relationship between the Catholic Church and other religions. Despite its brevity, this five-paragraph document heralded a transformation in the church’s posture toward other religions—by rejecting anti-Semitism, expressing esteem for Muslims, and affirming its reverence for the “rays of truth” in other faiths.
Nostra Aetate did not just represent a change in attitude. It was a call for action in the form of “dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions.” Church leaders recognized the changes brought about by modern trends in immigration and technology—changes that have only accelerated in the 50 years since Vatican II.
Today’s K–12 students are the most diverse in our nation’s history, and Catholic school students are no exception. According to the National Catholic Educational Association, 20.4 percent of Catholic school students are racial minorities, and 16.9 percent are not Catholic. At some schools, like St. Aloysius, the statistics are much more dramatic. Today’s Catholic school students are growing up in a world much different from that of their predecessors. They will encounter people from a great variety of backgrounds and cultures with an array of religious beliefs, practices, and traditions. They must understand other religions if they are to understand other people, now and in the future.
Understanding other religions also empowers Catholic school students to comprehend the events they see unfolding in the larger world. In the post-9/11 age, it is impossible to shield students from the acts of violence that take place around them, often in the name of religion. Any time they turn on the TV or go online, they may hear about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Hindu nationalists in India, or Buddhist extremists in Sri Lanka.
For many children, the news and entertainment media are primary sources of information about less familiar religions, particularly Islam. Learning about religion in school gives students context for understanding the sensational events they see in the media and greater capacity to differentiate between the mainstream followers of a religion and its extremists.
The overarching reason for teaching about religious diversity is to prevent prejudice and overcome hate—a goal that is central to Catholic social justice teachings about the protection of human dignity, the pursuit of solidarity, and the promotion of peace and the common good.
For Perez, teaching students about religious differences supports the Jesuit mission of creating “men and women for others,” and the objective goes well beyond instilling tolerance. As he put it, “I have an issue with the word tolerance. We strive to embrace others, not just tolerate cultural differences. Tolerance is a minimum standard of how we can function. There has to be a sense of kinship and friendship. We have to love each other as children of God. The word tolerance sets the bar too low.”
Considerations like these underscore the growing importance of religious literacy for all students, Catholic and non-Catholic. As with other forms of literacy, the development of religious literacy should begin as early as possible. Too often, students are not exposed to different religious traditions until middle or high school. This is a missed opportunity.
During our discussion at St. Aloysius, teachers noted the openness of their younger students in contrast with the guardedness of their middle school students. Young children are curious about differences and interested in exploring their own and others’ identities. Lessons about religious differences can encourage this innate curiosity and cultivate a respectful approach to asking questions and learning about others, providing a foundation for more complex learning at the secondary level and preventing the development of misconceptions and stereotypes that can lead to prejudice and bullying.
In any setting, the idea of teaching about religious diversity can be intimidating for educators because few consider themselves experts in world religions. We emphasize that teachers don’t have to be experts as long as they follow good practices. We offer the following recommendations, rooted in Tanenbaum’s pedagogy, “The Seven Principles for Inclusive Education,” which offers a strategic framework for integrating religious diversity into the classroom.
Ensure a safe, inclusive classroom environment when discussing religious differences. Establish ground rules for respectful dialogue.
Communicate with parents about the learning goals and explain that their children will be learning about religious differences, not being indoctrinated into different religions.
Allow students to explore their own identities and recognize that this will better prepare them to understand the identities of others.
Show students the diversity within religions. Expose them to the “lived religion” of real people by letting them read religious texts, interact with guest speakers, interview community members, and take trips to houses of worship.
Explore the commonalities among different belief systems, as well as the differences. One example is the Golden Rule, which can be found in religious traditions and nonreligious philosophies all over the world.
Use theologian Krister Stendahl’s “three rules of religious understanding”: 1) When you are trying to understand another religion, ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies; 2) Don’t compare your best to their worst; 3) Leave room for “holy envy”—the idea that you might find something inspirational or valuable in a different faith.
At St. Aloysius we found a Catholic school that is taking a proactive approach to meeting the needs of its diverse student body and preparing students for an increasingly complex, multicultural, interconnected world. For Perez, “It stems from the Jesuit idea of magis—trying to do more for Christ and for others. Are we okay with just teaching [students] about Catholicism when we can empower them more?” We hope more schools will follow this example.
And the survey says…
1. All Catholic schools should teach students about other religions and spiritual practices.
Agree – 90%
Disagree – 10%
2. Catholic schools should teach students about other faiths beginning in:
Elementary school – 68%
Junior high school – 17%
High school – 12%
Never – 3%
3. Catholic school teachers should be required to complete a training or workshop on religious diversity and understanding.
Agree – 84%
Disagree – 16%
4. Religious tolerance does not go far enough as an ideal for interacting with people of different faiths.
Agree – 83%
Disagree – 17%
5. Learning about other faiths at an early age instills greater respect and understanding of other religions later in life.
Agree – 90%
Disagree – 10%
6. If my child were attending a Catholic school, I’d want him or her to learn about other faiths.
Agree – 91%
Disagree – 9%
7. Catholic schools should always teach that Catholicism is the only true religion.
Agree – 27%
Disagree – 73%
8. Teaching about other faiths is a way to prevent religious prejudice and bullying.
Agree – 90%
Disagree – 10%
9. Catholic school parents should be allowed to have their kids opt out of classes on other faiths.
Agree – 30%
Disagree – 70%
10. I worry that teaching Catholic children about other faiths will cause them to leave the church.
Agree – 7%
Disagree – 93%
11. Catholic schools offering classes on other religions may deter parents from choosing to send their kids there.
Agree – 33%
Disagree – 67%
Sounding Board is one person’s take on a many-sided subject and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.
This survey appeared in the September 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 9, pages 35–38). Results are based on survey responses from 241 USCatholic.org visitors.
Image: © Angela Cox