When Tony Blair famously said the priorities for a 21st Century economy were "Education. Education. Education", he said more than he meant, and New Labour delivered less than he promised. Long before him the Scottish Reformation Kirk aimed to have a school in every parish, an historic decision Pope Benedict XVI commended in his response to the Queen's welcome. Education remained closely related to the Church in its various expressions in the following centuries, Catholic, Established and Nonconformist, until from the mid 19th Century onwards the state increasingly took responsibility for universal education. The resources needed, and the economic implications of having an educated, skilled and trained population capable of competing in modern industrialised societies, made it increasingly necessary that Government rather than Voluntary Agencies should drive educational provision.
Alongside state provision in Britain, the Catholic Church has had its own established network of faith schools. Education remains a primary goal of Catholic social policy and theology today, and involves massive commitments of resources worldwide. When Benedict spoke on Friday to several thousand young people at St Mary's University College he spoke of those things that make life good and make for human happiness. To be happy is to be a friend of God. To live well there must be good models, those whose lives are worthy of imitation. There is much in Benedict's public discourse, and in his message here in Britain, that reflects the profound thinking of his encyclicals Deus Caritas Est and Caritas in Veritate. To be friends of God is a description of a relationship in which love is the exchange of divine grace and human response. He spoke of God's love, and God's desire for happiness and holiness as essentials of a full humanity, and did so as one who has thought profoundly, and spoke simply.
This is a Pope whose theological emphases decisively shape his public discourse, and he talks with ease and practised confidence about the love of God, but also about those cultural and intellectual trends that undermine and erode the humane goals of education as a humanly formative activity. To talk theologically, and with a heightened social conscience in a showpiece Catholic educational establishment, is to introduce a quite different level of discourse about the meaning, significance, purpose and practice of education. Whatever arguments there may be about the place of faith based schools in a pluralist culture, they provide an important corrective and in a democarcy a required alternative, to secularised education evacuated of religiously formative education.
John Henry Newman's Idea of a University reads today like an impractical, unaffordable, unwanted and idealistic educational utopia. Unless of course you want to challenge the prevailing secular view that education is a process whose primary goal is economic growth and development, student employability and mass produced graduates. But I'm reluctant to concede the inevitable and final necessity for such educational reductionism, or that these are the only or best educational goals. It may indeed be inevitable that state funded education in our universities has to bend to the economic priorities, and available funding of the Government of the day. But there will still be, in my own view, a place for those institutions which exist to serve more humanising ends, including religious instruction, moral formation, humanising values, intellectual humility, and these explored within a faith tradition both itself open to critique and yet critically aware of alternative worldviews.
Benedict has a similarly rich and humane view of the purpose of religious encounter between different faiths. Such meeting he said yesterday, is a necessary expression of human formation, cultural development and social interaction. Co-operation and dialogue engender mutual respect, and enable faith traditions to support each other in seeking freedom of worship. of conscience and of association. Nor should such co-operation and mutual understanding be selfish, but provide a platform from which faith groups can work for peace, mutual understanding and witness to the world. Living alongside each other and learning and growing in respect and knowledge of each other, provides a fertile soil for peace, justice and works of compassion to grow.
Whatever else can be said about this Papal visit, each time Benedict has spoken he has been generous in spirit, rigorous in intellect and both warm and dignified in his responsiveness. And the issues he deals with are of common concern to all humanity - justice and peace, the foundation of moral standards, religious freedom and freedom of conscience, the nature of education, the relations of faith and reason, and of spirituality and secularity. This is a man of courage, conviction and adamantine firmness on dogma; he is also a man of intellectual power, pastoral passion for the global church and ranks as one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the past 50 years. Interesting that the current Pope and the current Archbishop of Canterbury are both regarded as scholar theologians of the first class, at a time when intellectual range and depth are discounted in the markets of contemporary communication culture.