The Anscombe Bioethics Centre (formally called the Linacre Centre) was founded in 1977 by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales. Our focus is on healthcare ethics, and we approach this in a number of ways. We respond to consultations. We engage in research into new and challenging ethical questions. We provide healthcare practitioners and the public with a Catholic perspective on ethical issues, new and old.
Attitudes of professionals, policy-makers and the public are shaped by education and the school curriculum covers bioethical issues such as abortion and euthanasia. Hence, the Centre has embarked on a project specifically to support Catholic education in relation to ethics. This project will include the publication of a book on the ethos of a Catholic School and also a conference in Oxford taking place later this month.
The topic of ‘ethos’ is one that emerged from our work with teachers. Often we would be invited to a school to speak on a particular topic, such as the ethics of stem cell research. However, in discussion we frequently found that the questions became much broader: Was the Church opposed to scientific progress? Had she not been opposed to science in the past? Is morality ultimately subjective? How can the Church require people to agree with her moral teaching? Is teaching the truth of Catholic belief just indoctrination? These questions relate to fundamental questions of worldview: questions not just of ethics but of ethos.
In the context of the cultural diversity of British society, Catholics often find themselves having to justify the continued existence of Catholic Schools. This question is not only posed by prominent atheists but also by Christians, including some Catholics. What are Catholic Schools for?
Before answering this question it is worth asking another, perhaps overlooked question: What is any school for? Parents, pupils, teachers, universities, potential employers, politicians all look to schools to achieve different things: to deliver qualifications, to impart skills, to prepare pupils for further studies or employment or both. Schools also keep children off the streets and enable parents to work - a function that becomes very obvious during the school holidays.
Schools fulfil many purposes but their primary aim is, or ought to be, to educate. A school is a place of learning not only about this or that but learning aimed at becoming a certain kind of person: a person who can flourish in society, an ethical person. Understood in this way, the task of education is essentially concerned with ethics, with helping pupils learn what it is to think and feel and act in an ethical way. This is not just done through study; the character and atmosphere of the school also have a strong role to play.
The point of Catholic schools, therefore, is to educate children according to a Catholic understanding of ethics - a Catholic understanding of what it is to flourish as a human being. But this leads to another question. Is there any such thing as a Catholic understanding of ethics? Surely if an action is good or bad then it is good or bad for everyone, not just for Catholics. However, even if this is true (and it needs some qualification) it is clear that not everyone agrees about what is good or bad. The Catholic Church draws on a particular tradition of ethical wisdom, and it is this ethical wisdom that Catholic schools exist to foster.
The Anscombe Centre conference on Tuesday 30th October (10am-4pm at St Gregory the Great Catholic School, Oxford OX4 3DR) is an excellent opportunity to think about ethics, science and religion in the curriculum and across the school. Speakers include Fr Andrew Pinsent, Research Director at the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, and Fr Tim Gardner OP, a school chaplain and RE teacher who is Department Secretary (Catholic Education and Formation) at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. The day is for teachers, school leadership and others involved in education (such as school governors), and is initially, but not exclusively, geared towards those attached to Catholic Schools. Bookings and the latest updates are available at www.bioethics.org.uk and at goo.gl/Wx29dW or by phone on 01865 610 212.
Prof David Albert Jones is Director of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, Oxford.