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Nurturing Values in Catholic Education


Please note this cavaet:

This post is a publication of a research originally drafted in 2004. It is offered as a starting point for debate and conversation only. Current research and perspectives should be explored if researching this same area.

  1. Introduction:

The so-called “values debate” in Australian education was recently reignited as a variety of political figures, in the context of pre-election posturing, sought to promote, and differentiate, their ideas on the importance of values education for Australians[1]. While some recently made political comments accurately reflect a concern with a post-modern relativism suspicious “of claimants to absolute values and universal value systems” (EDLE620: Values and Ethics for Leadership Study Guide, 2004, p.2.1), such populist debates, often played out in the mainstream media and tailored for sound bites, reflect an “undisciplined flow of opinion” (Moran, 1995, p.29) and fail to reflect deeply upon the pivotal issues raised by a wider conversation in the educational community as to the importance of values in education. David Aspin (2002) explores some of the history of this conversation and raises the point that it is important for educators to continue to attempt to discern what are the most important values in our society and to our schools and education systems. Rather than being “values neutral”, schooling in Australia has become increasingly aware of the centrality of values in education. Aspin (2002, p.13) contends that “value matters and concerns are now so important for our community’s life” that schools have a special responsibility to further address values as “vital elements” in education.

There can be discerned from the wider conversations regarding values in education, three key issues of significance to this paper. Firstly, the very meaning of “values” as a term must be explored. Secondly, the issue of what may constitute core values for education requires examination. Modern Australian society is riven by competing values. In a culture that at its heart may be regarded as, sceptical and possibly hostile to religious based values, this issue is crucial for Catholic educators (Moran, 1995, p.28-30) and as such has been raised in significant Vatican documents[2]. Finally, as values require nurturing for there to exist an actualisation of them as a lived experience, strategies must be developed in Catholic schools. Such strategies must be grounded in a particular understanding of the nature of Catholic schooling. As Dwyer (1993, p. 52) states: “The Catholic school is not just a place where parents send their children for a good formal education plus instruction in the beliefs and practices of the Catholic faith. It is really so much more. Because it shares in the work and the life of the Church, the Catholic school must exist within a community of faith”. A survey of some possibly strategies helpful in nurturing the values in such an environment will be explored in this paper.

  1. The meaning of values:

valuesbeliefs of a person or social group in which they have an emotional investment (either for or against something); “he has very conservatives values (Webster’s Online Dictionary)

In some respects helpful, common definitions of values, such as the one above, need careful exploration and nuancing in an academic paper. In a social context in which Moran (1995, p.29) identifies a trend to blithely dismiss “expert” knowledge an in which “what may look like knowledge can be an undisciplined flow of opinion with no sifting out of clear solid ideas from absurd and idiosyncratic offerings”, it is important to offer a more precise definition of the term “values”. Common to more sophisticated definitions and explorations of values as a concept is the understanding that values are “more than” beliefs and convey an imperative of such importance to us that guide our actions and behaviours.

While there exists “philosophical debate” over a clear definition of the term values, O’Neill (1996, p.21) contends that values can be described as “those beliefs, ideas, norms and conventions that are consciously chosen, highly prized and are used as benchmarks for people’s behaviours”. He adds that values act as “guiding principles for the way we live our lives and the way in which we interact with others”. Such a view is reminiscent of Treston (in EDLE620: Values and Ethics for Leadership Study Guide, 2004, p.1.5) who identifies a number of similar components / descriptors of values (Refer to Table 1). Hall (1995), also exploring definitions of values, further emphasised the relationship between values and a person’s lived experience. Hall defined values as “the ideals that give significance to our lives, that are reflected through the priorities that we choose, and that we act on consistently and repeatedly” (1995, p. 21). Thus, values have a significant linkage to an individual’s dominant worldview. All three scholars both implicitly and explicitly link values to actions or behaviour. Thus, it can be surmised that values are the basis for action in the real world and that a clear consistency between core values held by individuals and/or groups and the behaviours performed should be established.

Table 1: Common elements of values as identified by O’Neill and Treston:

VW Table 1 2004

Emeritus Professor in education, values and ethics at Murdoch University, Brian Hall, developing this understanding of the concept of values further, extended his conceptualisation of values beyond the individual level and explored values as essentially “units of information”. Drawing upon the studies of the Values Clarification Movement, Kohlberg, Maslow and Rokeach, Hall gives numerous valuable insights into values suggesting that an inventory of universal core values can be identified across a range of individuals[3] and that values play a significant part in the construction of our lived reality[4]. Such an understanding and the development of inventories provides a useful tool for identifying what may be core values for Catholic Schools and in identifying strategies for nurturing such values.

This paper will draw upon the contributions of these writers in order to clarify the meaning of values. For the purposes of the remainder of this paper, however, values will be defined as: Those significant and highly-prized guiding principles, ideals and beliefs which provide for us standards by which we can determine our priorities, choose and undertake action, and judge and reflect upon our behaviour. Values reflect our worldview, provide for us a predisposition to future actions and carry with them an implied imperative that they become an integral part of our live reality.

  1. Core values for Catholic Education:

Any attempt to specify core values in Catholic Education must be embedded in recognition of existing Church structures, traditions, teaching and systems. Catholic schools and educational systems do not exist in a vacuum. Catholic education exists within and is an expression of the life of the Christ’s church. As such, it plays a key role in the fulfilment of the Jesus Dream and the establishment of the Kingdom[5]. Therefore, Catholic Church is an evangelising church and its faith tradition clearly articulates values that lie at the heart of its mission. Catholic schooling as part of this wider faith movement is underpinned by broader Church teachings espoused in documents such as The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium which clearly articulates a vision, and reference point, for the development of an authentic values framework for Catholic schools.

  • Some Key Characteristics of Catholic Education as explored by “The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium”:

Numerous aspects within Vatican document, The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, are significant when attempting to specify core values which should underpin Catholic Education as they set an agenda by which the characteristics of a truly Catholic school can be identified. Among many points, the document clearly articulates the following:

  • A Personal Dimension[6]: The need for Catholic schools to be life-enhancing communities “for the human person and of human persons” where all can build a living and vibrant relationship with Christ. “The person of each individual human being, in his or her material and spiritual needs, is at the heart of Christ’s teaching: this is why the promotion of the human person is the goal of the Catholic school“.
  • A Cosmic Dimension: A strong belief that Catholic schools move beyond the purely “technical and practical” aspects and to embrace the essential unity of creation based upon the “deeply meaningful values and vision” drawn from the Gospel. Central to any understanding of Gospel teachings is an engagement with the divine and the Jesus dream of building the Kingdom.
  • A Social Dimension: An “ecclesial identity” for Catholic schools based upon the concept of Christ based community of outreach. This ecclesial identity places upon Catholic education an uncompromising call to be an “organic” part of the authentic pastoral mission of the Church. (Looking Ahead, The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium)

Clearly, the central Vatican document underpinning Catholic Education places a central emphasis upon building the reign of God by meeting the spiritual and material needs of the human person, and enhancing humanity through an ecclesial approach which reflect the teachings of Christ. Thus, what is core in the values of Catholic Education must be what is essential in enhancing humanity. Such a view is supported in Brisbane Catholic Education documents such as the 1997 Guidelines for Religious Education which states:

The Catholic faith tradition gives prominence to life enhancing attitudes and values based upon the Good News of Jesus Christ. The cultivation of such attitudes aims to nurture Christian values in students. These values are expressed in efforts to live a truly Christian life in which love off God, self and neighbour are given daily expression, so that the individual, the Christian community and society at large can be transformed. (BCE, 1997, p15)

Such a view, supported by Vatican documents, has also been articulated by other scholarly writings. Canadian author and Catholic educator Larry Trafford (1993, p.49) states that the “salient features of what makes education Catholic” lie at the heart of the Good News teachings of Jesus Christ. Trafford (1993, p.49), echoing Vatican emphasis upon ecclesial identity, rightly characterises Catholic education as one in which the faith is lived and experienced in human relationships, where vocation is lived out through service to others in works of justice and peace, where the Jesus dream is evoked and aspired to and one in which the meta-narrative of Christian tradition is told. Thus, recognisable in the mission of the church, are the cosmic, social and personal dimensions entwining in the work of building the Kingdom of God. At the heart of all attempts to specify core values for Catholic Education must be the recognition of the values required for the creation this day of the central message of Jesus, the reign of God.

Utilising the three dimensions outlined above (and a deep understanding of the notion of ecclesiality) can assist in building a model for organising and conceptualising the core values of Catholic Education which serve the aim of building the Kingdom of God. Catholic schools have much in common with the notion of Church. Catholic schools are challenged to be communities of Christ’s followers called to perform a specific educational task in which they proclaim Christ’s message, serve others, give witness to the gospel in their actions and celebrate the Good News.

The central message of Jesus, the reign of God, offers a context for understanding church and its mission. The word ‘church’ is from the Greek ekklesia meaning a group of people called out to perform some task. The church is a community of followers who are gathered to proclaim (kergygma), serve (diakonia), witness to the values of relationships (koinonia or commuio) and celebrate (leitourgia) the Good News of the reign of God. (Treston, 2000, p.69)

It is a model based upon the Church’s ecclesial identity that will be utilised in the next section of this paper.

  • Specifying Core Values:

While commonly viewed by some sections of society as a monolithic institutionalised religion, Catholicism in the modern era should be seen as a faith tradition that “seems to embrace a plethora of coexisting beliefs and religious practices” (Treston, 1997, p.10). Therefore, attempting to specify “the character of modern Catholicism is no easy task”(Treston, 1997, p.10). Likewise, Catholicism embraces a wide range of values which are valuable in the building of the Kingdom. Such values, by definition, are difficult to limit to an exclusive set of core values unique to Catholicism. To specify a conclusive set of core values which should underpin Catholic Education would invariably lead to problems of omission and exclusivity[7]. Further it would reflect a misunderstanding of the way in which modern Catholics tend to live out their faith.

From my pastoral experiences in many countries, I can identify and specify a number of differing religious cultural stances and theologies emerging within the church. The previous façade in the post-Tridentine church of a coherent sub-group called “Catholic” has been well and truly shattered. I observe and encounter clusters of Catholics with dominant worldviews… (That may vary as adherents move through) various stages of their lives… according to how they choose to engage in living their Catholic faith. (Treston, 2000, pp 15-16)

Identifying a common set of Catholic core values, therefore, while a worthy objective, is a most challenging objective to achieve.

While numerous reputable and reflective authors[8] have sought to articulate lists of core values, these lists are often at variance while seeking to describe similar, if not identical, aims. Significant overlap can, and should exist between, lists of core values for Catholic schooling.

Figure 1:         The relationships between core values in Catholic education.

VW Figure 2004

Therefore, the model below is proffered as a means of developing an understanding of the core values which should underpin Catholic Education. In essence, this diagrammatic model recognises the broad nature of the values underpinning Catholic Education and the difficulty entailed in expressing and classifying the wide range of values that are essential elements in the Church’s mission of pursuing the Jesus Dream.

In the broadest sense we are all called to evangelise our culture, to identify and celebrate the humanising and enabling elements within it, and to offer the Gospel’s alternatives to those definitions of reality that oppress and enslave the human spirit. (Dwyer in Treston, 1997, p. 11)

Smith (1990), in her exploration of the kingdom theology in the modern world (“kingdom-spotting”), suggests that ultimately Christians – including Catholics – are working towards a sense of personal, social and cosmic unity (p.31)[9]. These three headings provide a useful tool for a diagrammatic model identifying core values for Catholic Education. Figure 1 indicates the relationship between the three major dimensions of core values.

When examining Figure 1, it is important to note the areas of overlap and connection between each dimension. The values identified within this space will be referred to as transcendent values as these values are of such importance to Catholicism that they transcend all divisions and reflect the sense of unity that the diagram seeks to describe. “Life” and “love” would be examples of two such “transcendent values” that move between, pervade, all dimensions and lie deep embedded within the core of the Catholic world view. Table 2 indicates core values typical of each dimension.

As Catholicism is essentially transformative in nature, so too are the values underpinning Catholic Education. As a result of this there is significant fluidity in the classification of core values by dimensions. Trafford discusses this fluidity between the personal and social values of Catholicism:

Transformation in Catholic education is both personal and social. Personal transformation is a calling to become more Christ-like in our relations with God, self, others and society. Social transformation is a calling to work for the reign of God. This central symbol of Christ’s message challenges both the church and its members to be agents of social change. (Trafford, 1993, p.39)

Likewise there are strong links between the personal and the social to the cosmic. Social transformation must acknowledge the importance of the divine. “One’s labour is a continuation of divine creativity and encourages resistance to economic and cultural oppression” (Trafford, 1993, p.40).

Through its message, community formation and language of ministry the distinctive framework of Catholic education begins to take shape. Its purpose is to direct the learner to the person of Jesus Christ as the centre from which relationships with the primordial community of being unfold. It provides learning that is holistic and links moral and spiritual development to the life experiences of the learner. And finally it promotes a way of life rooted in the Christian call to discipleship and service. (Trafford, 1993, p.40)

Table 2:          Core values of Catholic Education.

VW Table 2 2004


  • The Cosmic Dimension:

The values, identified as core, reflect an understanding that Catholic Education is challenged to embrace notions of unity in creation meaningful engage with the divine, the cosmic unity nature of creation. Catholic education challenges teachers to provide for students a way of learning that acknowledges what has been expressed as the “profundity and mystery of one’s life journey” (Treston, 1995, p.9). Such a view reflects the imperatives identified by Vatican documents relating to Catholic education such as Looking Ahead, The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium.

The core values of Catholic Education identified in this dimension recognise the missioning and visionary aspects of the Jesus dream and emphasise the need to schools to be universal communities of faith and learning. “Roman Catholicism can also be understood in terms of its distinctive vision. This vision recognises that the divine is at work in all that surrounds us and attention to this sacred order is critical to the Catholic ethos” (Trafford, 1993, p.35). In pursuing these values Catholic schools would place a central importance upon proclamation of the gospel and liturgical celebration.

A Catholic school, as a community of faith which recognises the unity of creation, which proclaims and celebrates the Jesus Dream and which recognises that the divine is at work in all that surrounds it “would have religious focus. Prayer would be extremely important, as would the celebration of liturgy generally and an experience of a living faith” (Dwyer, 1993, p.52). The living and life-giving aspects of the Catholic school as a faith community represent one aspect in which the transcendent value of life is represented within this dimension. Such a sense of life is at the heart of Jesus’ work. Teachers in such communities of faith can:

Be strengthened in their work if their teaching emanates from a world view which is in accord with the dream of Jesus: “I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10) (Treston, 1995, p.9)

  • The Personal Dimension:

The core Catholic values identified in what this paper describes as the personal dimension, reflect the centrality of humanity in all its diversity and brokenness within the Jesus dream. Looking Ahead, The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium reinforces the centrality of such values in recognising need for Catholic schools to be life-enhancing communities “for the human person and of human persons”. Catholic communities are challenges do be places where all can build a living and vibrant relationship with Christ. “The person of each individual human being, in his or her material and spiritual needs, is at the heart of Christ’s teaching: this is why the promotion of the human person is the goal of the Catholic school” (1997). Treston (1995), rightly, places great emphasis upon the importance of these personal values while Trafford connect such an emphasis with Catholicism vision of humanity.

A Roman Catholic vision understands that humanity is created in the image of God, created with dignity and freedom and yet capable of choosing contrary to God’s design. And so, the celebration of life and its bodiliness and sensuality is balanced by recognition of human sinfulness and the need for forgiveness. (Trafford, 1993, p.35)

It is necessary for Catholic educators to identify a set of values which embrace this understanding of humanity and its personal nature, to model a way of living the Jesus dream that emphasis values supportive of “life” and “love” of both self and others. Typical of such an understanding, Dwyer states that Catholic education should embrace values which build a “certain ease in relationships” and that are “characterised by mutual trust, an openness to new ideas, a tolerance of mistakes and an acceptance of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses” (Dwyer, 1993, p.53). Such an approach to the human person is consistent with the central and transcendent gospel values of life and love.

Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. (John 1: 8-11)

  • The Social Dimension:

The understanding provided by the social dimension identified in this paper describes the nature of Catholic schools as community of outreach. This, self-identified, ecclesial identity provides for Catholic education an uncompromising challenge to be an “organic” and vital part of the authentic pastoral mission of the Church (Looking Ahead, The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium). Catholic education is called to embrace values which underpin the outward looking tradition of wider Catholicism.

Roman Catholicism’s deep sense of community allows for the affirmation of different races, nations, and cultures in relation to its historical foundations. It recognises that to be Catholic is to be open to truth and grace wherever it may be found. (Trafford, 1993, p.35)

The social dimension to Catholic education value systems provides for and it based upon a deep sense of justice “and in the spirit of the Gospel, would reach out to those who are struggling to cope, who don’t feel as if they fully belong and who find involvement difficult for whatever reason” (Dwyer, 1993, p. 53). Perhaps it is in the social dimension of Catholic values where some extremely overt actions to pursue the Jesus dream are expressed by educators. The Catholic education system that embraced fully these values may be described as one that is “characterised by collaboration and partnership (the opposite to petty proprietorship) where home, parish and school work in harmony, and where parents, teachers, pastors, students and all others who are part of the life of the school, strive towards the achievement of a common vision” (Dwyer, 1993, pp. 52-53). This vision is the Jesus dream.

  1. Strategies for nurturing Core Values in Catholic Education:
  • The importance of a normative paradigm in building the Jesus Dream.

In order to actively and effectively pursue the Jesus dream within Catholic education it is crucial to identify strategies by which these values can be nurtured, internalised by all within the faith learning community and brought to fruition in the life of the community. These strategies can perhaps be best described as “carriers of meaning”. The ultimate effectiveness of all such strategies / carriers rest upon the creation and selection of appropriate normative paradigms which support the core values of Catholicism.

Carriers of meaning, therefore in a Catholic educational system as in all educational systems are always set within a paradigm. Which paradigm most adequately incarnates the Body of Christ is critical to the discussion of what makes education Catholic and the answer to that question largely depends on what the Catholic educational community believes the purpose of its educational system to be (Trafford 1993, p.46)

Perhaps ultimately the solution to creating effective strategies to underpin Catholic values is the creation of normative paradigms within communities that address the identification of core values themselves. Trafford (1993) defines normative paradigms as those that “provide a context from which commonalities for learning a common way of life can be identified and intentionally included as carriers”. These, almost dogmatic, normative paradigms act as a secure reference point from which individual Catholic schools in all their diversity can interact with the many differing, possibly opposing and even hostile world views, value systems or paradigms which confront it each day. The secure paradigm that underpins a Catholic education provides a base from which the Church may interact with the wider culture. The Catholic Church is, and has been traditionally, “involved with the culture of people, even when the culture has many elements in conflict with a Christian outlook” (Moran, 1995, p.29). Developing such a normative paradigm in itself however is challenging given the broad “plurality of paradigms regarding the perceived purpose of Catholic education” (Trafford, 1993, p.44). The construction of a broad normative paradigm of vales underpinning structures and strategies challenges educational leaders within the Catholic system to be both process and outcome oriented. The values underpinning developing paradigms themselves must be considered and liberal and conservative worldviews and understandings of Catholic education confronted. The journey towards the creation of a normative paradigm is of equal importance as the destination.

Leadership towards institutionalising a common set of normative Catholic values in education would require leadership that acts in manner that stresses genuine “ministry and service”, recognises “legitimate authority”, consults and highly values “consensus”. “Power would be shared and delegated where appropriate” (Dwyer, 1993, p.53). Once such a set of normative values is created within a community, structures can be set in place that are “characterised by collaboration and partnership (the opposite to petty proprietorship)” in order to create communities of faith and learning “where home, parish and school work in harmony, and where parents, teachers, pastors, students and all others who are part of the life of the school, strive towards the achievement of a common vision” (Dwyer, 1993, pp. 52-53).

  • Institutionalising the paradigms.

The core values of Catholic education must be institutionalised if they are to be resilient and effective. Perhaps the most significant organisational steps that may ensure the institutionalisation of values is an effective process of creating and reflecting upon school policies and documents that govern the institutional behaviours of the school or educational system.

The values that describe or underpin an organisation’s management system, the way it conducts it’s day-to-day business, actually become internalised in the personal value systems of the people who work in that organisation. This is the phenomenon  we came to call the Genesis Effect. (Hall, 1995, p.36)

As values are institutionalised and internalised both the Genesis Effect and a process of mimesis combine to nurture and encourage the strength and resilience of the values within the community.

The Greek word, mimesis, gets at the imitative feature in life, by which people tend to reproduce in themselves patterns of behaviour they have beheld in others. (Warren, 1988, p. 368)

Key documents that may need to be developed in order to institutionalise core values (perhaps utilising the Genesis Effect) include the Mission Statement and key policy and procedural documents. Some of these documents are listed in Table 3. These documents should endeavour to reflect upon the key transcendent values of Catholicism, the Jesus dream and the way in which values may be explored through cosmic, social and personal dimensions. It is in the way the values are described and articulate in language that creates and further develops the desired vision.

At the heart of the Genesis Effect is the way in which the values mediate the internal and external realities through the medium of language… what we communicate through the language of written words, such as personal letters, newspapers, is the ongoingness of the created order. It is language – the naming of things – that gives our inner vision outer life… There is something inherent within written and spoken languages that can alter a person’s consciousness. This something is values (Hall, 1995, pp37-39).

Thus in the communications of Catholic schools, the written documents have a direct impact upon supporting and nurturing the core values of not only Catholic education but of the Jesus dream itself. The Genesis Effect coupled with the widely accepted centrality of mimesis in “the lives of all persons” that provide the most promising avenues for affectively nurturing core Catholic values in schools.

Table 3:

VW Table 3 2004

5. Conclusion:

The Catholic school is cannot be seen as merely a place where parents send their children for a “good formal education” with some development of the Catholic faith as an “added extra”. The effective Catholic school is challenged to be much more than this rather limited understanding of Catholic education. Catholic schools are challenged to be and integral part of the Church’s mission in building the Jesus dream. Catholic schools are challenged to become authentic faith learning communities. To this end it is appropriate for schools to focus upon what truly are the specific core values which underpin their existence.

Values can be defined as those significant and highly-prized guiding principles, ideals and beliefs which provide for us standards by which we can determine our priorities, choose and undertake action, and judge and reflect upon our behaviour. Values reflect our worldview, provide for us a predisposition to future actions and carry with them an implied imperative that they become an integral part of our live reality.

It is significant for schools to recognise that while there are many “core” Catholic values, the transcendent values of “Life” and “Love” underpin all others. The Catholic school as part of a wider church is therefore challenged, as the Church itself is, to find a means of effectively expressing of a wide range of values supportive of Christ’s central liberating message. It is perhaps in part by careful discernment of the core values accepted by Catholic communities and by utilising the Genesis Effect that such values can be nurtured in Catholic schools.


  1. Aspin, D. (2002), An Ontology of Values and the Humanisation of Education. In Pascoe, S. (ed.), Values in Education: College Year Book, Australian College of Educators: ACT, pp. 12-24.
  2. Brisbane Catholic Education (1997), Guidelines for Religious Education: Curriculum Perspectives, BCE: Brisbane.
  3. Congregation for Catholic Education (1997), The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium (Online), Available at: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccatheduc/documents/rc_con_ccatheduc_doc_27041998_school2000_en.html, Accessed: July 16th , 2004.
  4. Crabb, A., Guerrera, O., PM queries values of state schools, The Age, January 20, 2004 (Online), Available at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/01/19/1074360697635.html, Accessed: August 10th , 2004.
  5. Duncan, D.J. (1990) Leadership and the Catholic School Culture. Visions and Directions, 3(3), 1-8 ACU.
  6. Hall, B.P. (1995). Values and the Quality of Daily life, Values Shift: How Individuals and Learners Develop, Twin Lights: Rockport MA.
  7. Moran, G. (1995). Trustworthy knowledge: finding what’s good in our culture, The Catholic World, 238, pp. 28-33.
  8. O’Neill, G. (1996), The Values Dimension of the National Curriculum: Moral and Social Dilemmas of Our Time, Catholic School Studies, 69(1), pp. 20-25.
  9. Treston, K. (1995) Five Paths of Teaching, Creation Enterprises: Brisbane.
  10. Treston, K. (1997) Ethos and Identity: foundational concerns for Catholic Schools. In Keane, R. and Riley, D. (Eds.), Quality Catholic Schools: Challenges for Leadership as Catholic Education Approaches the Third Millennium, (pp. 9-18), BCE: Brisbane.
  11. Treston, K. (2000) Visioning a Future Church, Creation Enterprises: Brisbane.
  12. Warren, M. (1988) The Electronically Imagined World and Religious Education, Religious Education, 83 (3), pp.367-383.
  13. Webster’s Online Dictionary (Online), Available at: http://www.webster-dictionary.org/definition/values, Accessed: July 28th, 2004.

[1] The Age newspaper reported the Prime Minister as claiming that parents were moving their children out of government schools because the existing system of state schooling is “too politically correct and too values-neutral”. Treston (EDLE620: Values and Ethics for Leadership Study Guide, 2004, p.1.5) rightly points out that “there is no such thing as neutral values because everything we do or say is permeated with values”.  O’Neill (1996, p.20) echoes this sentiment.

The Prime Minister’s comments were explicitly linked to budgetary considerations and come “at the beginning of an election year in which the Government is planning to introduce legislation expected to inject tens of billions of dollars into the coffers of private schools, while Labor campaigns to strengthen the public system”. The Prime Minister suggested that the recent growth in non-government school enrolments could be partly attributed to parental frustration with “the lack of traditional values in public schools” and an “incredibly antiseptic view taken about a whole range of things”. (Crabb, and Guerrera, 2004)

[2] “On the threshold of the third millennium education faces new challenges which are the result of a new socio-political and cultural context. First and foremost, we have a crisis of values which, in highly developed societies in particular, assumes the form, often exalted by the media, of subjectivism, moral relativism and nihilism”. (Introduction, The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium)

[3] See the Hall-Tonna Inventory in Hall, 1995, pp. 31- 34.

[4] Values are the ideals that give significance to our lives, that are reflected through the priorities that we choose, and that we act on consistently and repeatedly. They are designated by special code words in the spoken and written language, and experienced through our feelings and imagination, and they are experienced in individuals, institutions, and in the products of human effort… Values are units of information that mediate our inner reality into full expression in our everyday lives… Values stand as a brokerage unit that assesses information and enables the brain to synthesise it into everyday decision-making”. (Hall, 1995, p.39-40)

[5] Treston (1995, p.42) identifies the Jesus dream / reign of God as the central message of Christ’s teaching. “The theme… is used over 100 times in the gospels… (I)t would seem that Jesus was proclaiming a new world order which was to be characterised by right relationships which are founded upon love peace and justice”. There is a priority in the creation of this reign of God in our own time, thus any discussion of core values in Catholic education must be constantly focused upon this priority.

[6] Smith’s (1990, p. 30) three headings of Personal, Social and Cosmic Unity used to explore the Kingdom of God have been utlised in this section as useful integrating devices.

[7] Indeed the very word “Catholic” challenges us to move beyond exclusivity and omission as its etymology reveals that it grows from the Middle English catholik, (universally accepted), from Old French catholique, from Latin catholicus, (universal), from Greek katholikos, from katholou, (in general).

[8] Including the Edmund Rice Centre, Treston, and Hall.

[9] While beyond the scope of this paper, Duncan’s discussion of the underlying assumptions that may impact upon this model is quite informative. See Duncan, 1990, pp.3-4.


“Crises” of Modernity facing the Catholic Hierarchy?

single hand of drowning man in sea asking for help

Not drowning. Waving?

The definition of a crisis varies in sources and often the word crisis carries negative connotations. The some authors however point out that crises are very much part of the human experience (Coles & Gimpel, 2010, p. 128). In fact, a crisis is perhaps more appropriately viewed as an opportunity for growth. Robinson in fact argues that “the word crisis, frequently misused, means a turning point” and that “a crisis is an opportunity for growth” (Robinson, 2010, p. 158). Certainly, crises are, of course, not new in the history of Catholicism and from each period of crisis, the Church has grown and matured in its teachings relationships and theology.

The current crises facing the Church, in essence, stem from the hierarchical Church’s difficulty in dealing with the forces of modernity. The hierarchical Church faces the challenge of a Catholic response to Modernism. According to Robinson, the symptoms of this crisis are reflected in two areas which he refers to as “sex and power” (Robinson, 2010, p.148). These two areas reflect the Church’s current search for relevance in the lives of those living in westernised, educated and consumer oriented nations. Coles and Gimpel (2010, p.133) identify the symptoms of this crisis more specifically as (i) a shortage of priests (ii) tensions between the regional churches and Rome (iii) a diminished sense of institutional commitment and (iv) evangelisation. In the face of these symptoms, the Church has sometimes sought to emphasise the importance of the priesthood at the expense of reform or engagement with the laity, to centralise decision making structures when it should decentralise, to emphasise doctrine and orthodox in the face of declining “ecclesial loyalty”  (Rausch, 2010, p.137).

In my experience, the Church has yet to fully embrace or comprehend the sense of spiritual autonomy exercised and desired by Catholic in the developed Western world. Such a sense of autonomy has been confronting to a Church which has tended to rely on medieval based traditions and model of leadership. As the western world moves into a “post-Christian” epoch, educated modernist Catholics will expect a greater flexibility from the Church hierarchy centred in Rome and will seek to influence the running of their own smaller, local and more immediately relevant “churches”. These churches will seek to embrace the role of the laity and committed Catholics regardless of gender or sexuality. Collegiality will become a central factor in the shaping of the new Churches which will act in communion with others. Such group will emphasise the importance of inclusiveness and will focus on the core social justice mission of the Church – possibly at the expense of doctrine. Unless the hierarchical Church of Rome engages with these modernist understandings of Church, perhaps through what John Paul referred to as “re-evangelisation” (cited in Rausch, 2010, p. 138), it will risk becoming irrelevant to the lives of Catholics in the developed world.

Facing significant change in our lives takes confidence and optimism as well as the ability to let go of those parts of our lives that are lacking wholeness and embracing a new version of ourselves. Fear of the unknown can be a strong force of conservatism in a time when societies are in rapid change. For many Catholics, the known “traditional” ecclesiastic structures within the Church give stability and structure. They have provided for many a sense of certainty and security in a period of history characterised by rapid societal transformation and uncertainty. This challenge of modernity has confronted almost every institution of the modern western world since the Enlightenment. The onslaught of modernity has confronted religions, cultures and traditions across the globe. It is not surprising to note then that the hierarchical Church of Rome is confronted with substantial challenges to remain relevant and connected. The issues faced by the Catholic Church are similar to some other Christian denominations (and non-Christian faiths) but are not shared by all groups and sects in the same way. Some groups within the Church while offering security, stability and structure in an uncertain age have created what appears to be, at least in the short-term, a “laager mentality”[1] (WordSmith.org, 2010). It is this siege mentality that seems to grip the Roman curia. As with the Church of earlier eras, there is a tendency in the Church hierarchy to see the Church as a “perfect society” that does not “need outside influences or interference… This thinking came about as a form of self-preservation in the Reformation. But to continue to think like that in the twentieth” or twenty-first centuries was and is “totally inappropriate” (Coles & Gimpel, 2010, p. 132). At a time when precisely the opposite is called for, fear of the modern has led some in the Church to retreat into their known experience and to build what has become “ a fully centralised church governed by a completely sovereign papal monarchy”  (cited in Rausch, 2010, p. 136). Feeling the “threat” of rapid change and the intellectual challenes of modernity, papal conservatives and other centralising forces of the Church (such as Opus Dei) have retreated from true power sharing (utilising the principle of subsidiarity) into “the most centralised period of Church governance that has been known in history”, a period in which the worlds most economically complex and developed, democratic, dynamic and educated nations have had “ultra-conservative” clerics forced upon them  (Rausch, 2010, p. 136).

[1]  A South Africa term used to describe a way of thinking which reflects the practice of circling of wagons    in order to protect oneself from an external threat. WordSmith.org defines a laager as:“ A camp, especially one protected by a circle of wagons or armored vehicles. To enclose in a defensive encirclement… From the obsolete Afrikaans word lager (camp), from Dutch or German Lager (camp).”


(2010). The Third Christian Millenium. In J. Coles, & P. Gimpel, Module 1: Foundations (An Open Learning Course from IFE) (pp. 127-131). Brisbane: Faith and Life.

Rausch, T. P. (2010). The Future of the Catholic Church. In J. Coles, & P. Gimpel, Module 1: Foundations (An Open Learning Course from IFE) (pp. 133 – 145). Brisbane: Faith and Life.

Robinson, G. (2010). Vatican II: From Pause to Forward. In J. Coles, & P. Gimpel, Module I: Foundations (An Open learning Course from IFE) (pp. 147 – 159). Brisbane: Faith and Life.

WordSmith.org. (2010). A-Word-A-Day: Laager. Retrieved August 25, 2010, from WordSmith: http://wordsmith.org/words/laager.html



The Gospel according to Luke is best viewed as one “portion” of larger whole, the “missing half” being the Acts of the Apostles. The first “portion”, the Gospel, focuses its attention on the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ while the other, the Acts, focuses on the developing Church which grows out of the life of Jesus and the missionary zeal of the early Christian evangelists. “Virtually all contemporary scholars think that the Gospel and the Acts were conceived and executed as a single literary exercise” (Johnson & Harrington, 1991, p.1). Longenecker insists that any study of Luke should start with a reading of both texts together as a complete whole (2004, p.147). This “whole” is referred to in the literature as Luke-Acts. It is interesting to note that it’s been proposed that, given the closeness in literary structures and genres between the two volumes, Luke may have been emphasising that “Jesus’ ministry and the Church’s mission together constitute the fullness of God’s redemptive activity on behalf of humanity”  (Longenecker, 2004, p.147). This intriguing theme of the need to end division, to seek and work for wholeness and to “heal wounds” is recurrent in a study of Luke.

Luke’s gospel was written (probably by multiple authors and at a similar time and similar manner to the other synoptic gospels of Mark and Matthew) in Greek in around 75CE. It represented a recording of the proclaimed teachings of the evangelist Luke regarding the gospel[1] (rather than the actual writings of Luke). Therefore, the most correct name for Luke’s gospel is in actuality “the Gospel according to Luke”. By the time of its writing, the proclamation of the Jesus story had gone “beyond the confines of the predominantly Semitic world to the broader Hellenistic, Greek-speaking world of the gentiles” (Bucher, 2009, p.114). As such, each varying version of the one gospel, the good news, grew to reflect the specific needs of its audience and the key focus of its authorship. Little is known of the authorship of the gospel. The author of Luke’s gospel “like other the evangelists, recedes modestly behind his story” (Johnson & Harrington, 1991, p.3).While tradition holds that Luke was “the beloved physician” (Coles & Gimpel, 2009, p. 113), a doctor, this is far from certain.

Attempts to discover in Luke-Acts the distinctive style or outlook of a physician, for example, have repeatedly been refuted. More helpful insight into the author is provided by the character of the composition. His stylistic fluency is demonstrated by his facile use of several Greek styles. His Hellenistic education is shown by his use of rhetorical conventions. His wide reading in the Torah is manifested by his dense scriptural allusions… (the gospel reveals) an author of synthetic imagination who was able to make the story of Jesus and the story of Christianity’s beginnings into one coherent and interconnected narrative…  (Johnson & Harrington, 1991, p.3)

This imagination, Johnson and Harrington contest, is what allowed the author(s) of Luke to interweave the Jesus story with the experiences of a wider group of Gentile believers to build a coherent and relevant whole – a Church. In Luke’s gospel is a constant theme in which divisions vanish. While in terms of content and reach, Luke, as a synoptic gospel, is similar to the gospels of Mark and Matthew[2], it is in this healing message and in its literary genre and audience that important distinctions emerge.

Luke’s gospel appears to have been written for wider audience than either Matthew’s or Mark’s gospels (Bucher, 2009, p. 115). Luke’s “audience is predominantly Gentile, probably consisting of some of Paul’s coverts in Asia Minor and Greece… His is the earliest pastoral attempt to retell the story of Jesus to the broader Greco-Roman world” (Bucher, 2009, p.115). While in the prologue to his gospel Luke addresses a person called Theophilus, it is accepted that this person represents the wider Hellenistic[3] audience (Bucher, 2009, p.115).  While it is difficult to place either the location of writing or location of Luke’s readership with any certainty, it is widely believed that “Luke’s readers were Greek-speaking and sufficiently acquainted with scriptural traditions to grasp at least the gist of his many allusions. They were also obviously Christian[4]… (and) in all likelihood, Gentiles. A great deal of Luke-Acts, in fact would not make sense if its readers were not Gentile” (Johnson & Harrington, 1991, p.3). These readers sought to find connection with the roots of Jesus’ story and to be an accepted part of both their own society and the Judaic traditions of their relatively new Christian faith. Luke demonstrates and builds this wholeness through a careful selection of literary genres.

In terms of literary genre, it is possible to argue (as do Kugler and Hartin 2009, p.330) that all the gospels are, in essence, narratives. That point accepted, it is important to note that many other literary genres have been identified within the overall narrative of Luke’s gospel. (Further genres can be identified if Luke-Acts is taken as a whole volume.) It is important to be aware of these genres when reading Luke in order to fully comprehend the messages and issues that it treats and in order to fundamentally comprehend the healing and unifying images of Jesus presented. “If we can determine the generic characteristics of Luke-Acts… we are provided with important clues as to how it would have been read by its first readers – or at least how Luke would have wanted it to be understood” (Johnson & Harrington, 1991, p.5). Despite other options being proposed, Johnson and Harrington argue that Luke should be best viewed as a combination of Hellenistic history or biography and Jewish apology. By developing a structured prologue, by  claiming that the gospel seeks to provide a sustained and sequential” narrative (Luke 1:4) and by acknowledging oral and written sources and his own research beyond his text (Luke 1:1-3), the gospel conforms to the patterns of Hellenistic historical writing such as those by contemporaries such as Lucian and Josephus. This is further evidenced by references to specific localities and events throughout the text (Johnson & Harrington, 1991, p.5-6).

The emphasis of the gospel on the the life of Jesus raises academic argument that the genre also closely conforms to that of Hellenistic biography such as those written by Diogenes and Iamblichcus. Through this genre, popular at the time, the births, lives and achievements of great philosophers were often recounted (Johnson & Harrington, 1991, p.6-7). As such, Luke places Jesus alongside the great thinkers of the Gentile world in literary recognition and elveates him further in the minds of the Gentile faithful. The Gospel, however, moves beyond well the Hellenistic biographical genre by promoting the Christian mission to a wider audience. Johnson and Harrington point out that the Luke-Acts work serves a “political end” in an era of great opposition to evangelists such as Paul in some parts of the Roman empire. In a sense, as a Christian apologist (like those of the Jewish faith who had composed Jewish apologies before him), Luke takes a positive view of Gentiles and Roman officials in particular. Seeking to heal rifts with authorities and within communities, he seeks to move beyond narrative, history and biography to reassure the readers of his texts[5] that “Christians were politically harmless and shold be allowed the same freedoms given by Rome to the Jews” (Johnson & Harrington, 1991, p.8). It is argued that in this sense, Luke follows in a genre previously attempted by a number of writers including the Jewish historian and apologist Jospehus (notably in The Jewish War) (Johnson & Harrington, 1991, p.7-9). By chosing to write in this variety of styles, the author(s) of Luke’s Gospel have allowed the audience to connect the life of Jesus to a variety of styles and story narratives to which they were already familiar and to place a new story and religious paradigm into a literary tradition with which they were comfortable. By using devices such as summaries, speeches, prophecy and causality and parrallelism within these genres connections are made, points emphasised and arguments proposed within the guise of narrative  (Johnson & Harrington, 1991, p.10-14). Ultimately, from the gospel, a distinct image of Jesus emerges.

Reid identifies the key Jesus image to emerge from Luke as that of healer, discussing the traditional view that Luke was, himself, a physician. This image is constantly reinforced by the writing style and tone. She emphasises, however, that a common image of Jesus as purely a physical healer (a spiritual physician?) is far too limited. Reid points to Luke 4:18 as having no equivilent in other synotic gospels. She writes: “Jesus proclaims his mission (in Luke) to be not only one of preaching but also one of healing and releasing people from every kind of bondage” (Reid, 2009, p.118). Luke’s Jesus is one who heals all ills and social divisions. It is an inclusive Jesus welcoming of Jew and Gentile alike. Jesus in Luke embodies the redemptive plan of God for the whole of humanity, something that must have been welcome “good news” for the Gentile audience of Luke’s gospel. As Longenecker (2004, p.147) suggests, Luke’s emphasis on the healing of “Jesus’ ministry… (reflected) the fullness of God’s redemptive activity”.

Jesus, in fact, serves as a healer to the sick – those who by demonic possession, accident of birth, sin or whatever cause, lack physical wholeness… the sick are made well. (But more than this) the oppressed…are set free… Even Samaritans are not outside the reach of Jesus’ mission… Luke brackets his Gospel with references to the inclusion of Gentiles…  (Green, 1995, p. 89-90)

“Jesus the healer” in Luke brings a wholeness to creation and seeks to dissolve the “barriers that separate people” (Green, 1995, p.90). Green explores that semantics of Luke’s gospel to uncover an image of Jesus in which Jesus challenges society’s ills and seeks to make whole and to heal the rifts between the powerful and privileged and those who are oppressed and dispossessed. To the Jesus of Luke’s gospel, “people are not to be predetermined as insiders or outsiders by their sex, family heritage, financial position, location in the city or in rural environs, religious purity and so on. The message of Jesus (in Luke) is that such status markers are no longer binding. Anyone may freely recieve the grace of God. Anyone may join the community of Jesus followers. All are welcome”  (Green, 1995, p.82).


Bucher, O. (2009). The Gospel for the First Century World. In J. Coles, & P. Gimpel, Module 3: Foundations (An Open Learning Course from the IFE) (pp. 113 – 118). Brisbane: IFE.

Coles, J., & Gimpel, P. (2009). Module 3: Foundations (An Open Learning Course from the IFE). Brisbane: IFE.

Green, J. B. (1995). New Testamnt Theology: The Theology of the Gospel of Luke. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Johnson, L. T., & Harrington, D. J. (1991). Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke. Minnesota: Liturgical Press.

Kulger, R., & Hartin, P. (2009). An Introduction to the Bible. Michigan: Wm.B. Eerdmanns Publishing.

Longenecker, R. (2004). Studies in Paul, Exegetical and Theological. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press (Department of Biblical Studies, University of Sheffield).

Reid, B. (2009). Healing beyond the Physical: Luke’s Portrait of Jesus the healer. In J. Cole, & P. Gimpel, Module 3: Foundations (An Open Learning Course from the IFE) (pp. 118-122). Brisbane: IFE.

[1] It should always be remembered that there is in fact only ONE Gospel – that is to say, the ONE GOOD NEWS of Jesus, but, in common parlance, four authoritive written versions of that one gospel exist in the New Testament. Thus the one Gospel is proclaimed as the Gospel “according to” Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

[2] The gospel traces the life of Jesus, with particular interest concerning his birth, ministry, death, and resurrection. It concludes with an account of the ascension. The author is characteristically concerned with social ethics, the poor, women, and other oppressed groups within society and Jesus’ minsitry as healer to them.

[3] By Hellenistic, I refer to those of the era influenced by both the Greek language and culture. Hellenistic groups were much larger in number than those simply of Greek ethnicity.

[4] Luke 1:4 states that he writes to confirm their beliefs.

[5] It is suggested by some authors that Luke-Acts was published for audiences beyond the Christian communities.



Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is perhaps the earliest remaining and accessible source, chronologically, regarding the life of Jesus and the early Church of the New Testament. For that reason alone it is crucial in understanding the development of the Christian faith after the death and Resurrection of Christ. Hill states that it is in Thessalonica that the word Church is first used to describe the developing community of early Christians (2009, p.54).

 The word “church” is first used to refer to the Christian community in Thessalonica, a town in Macedonia where Paul established a community around the year 50 CE, some 15 years before mark’s gospel – the first of the four – was written. (Hill, 2009, p. 54)

The letters of Paul, including his First Letter to the Thessalonians, represent some of the earliest foundation documents of the Church. They provide an insight into the earliest traditions, issues and debates. They give some of the earliest perspectives into “Jesus’ teaching, the Eucharistic traditions, Jesus’ death and Resurrection, (and) the life and outlook of the early Christian communities” (Coles & Gimpel, 2009, p. 63). As such, understanding the context of the letter, (including the nature of its the audience) is extremely important to scholars who seek to understand, not only to Paul, but also the fledgling Christian Church’s foundations in the teachings of Jesus.

Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians was one of 2 letters to this community. The two letters are categorised as “early letters… (which) stress that the return of Jesus is imminent[1]” (Coles & Gimpel, 2009, p. 63) and give readers an insight into the thinking of early Christians who lived, worked and worshipped as a community in a Gentile setting (Coles & Gimpel, 2009, p. 75). Later letters give differing insights and perspectives.

As principle author[2] of the First Letter to the Thessalonians (other authors include Silas and Timothy), Paul was evangelising to the church in Thessalonica, Macedonia – a community composed primarily of Gentile converts “who faced strong opposition from their Jewish neighbours” (Hill B. , 2009, p. 77). Written in approximately 50-52CE most likely shortly after Paul’s arrival in Corinth, the letter sought to give reassurance and guidance to the Thessalonian community while also providing some answers to Jewish criticisms of the young Christian faith. The letter commences with expressions of joy and thanks for the efforts and commitment of the Thessalonians. It progresses to advise the Thessalonians on a range of practices (including sexual practises – an issue of importance at the time in Thessalonica) and duties which would, in time, “gain the respect of outsiders” (Smith, 2009).  A particular emphasis was on the nature of Christian love. Commentary on the First letter of Paul to the Thessalonians (4: 9-12) by Ian Mackervoy summarises some of the key Pauline teachings as:

Those who do not yet believe in Christ will see how Christians live (in Thessalonica). They will see the love that Christians have for each other. They will see how the Christians work and mind their own affairs. As Christians live like this, they will earn the respect of these people. Perhaps this will make people more ready to accept the good news about Jesus Christ. But if Christians do not love each other or are lazy, this will cause people to turn from the good news. Those who live as they should will not need to depend on anyone else. Instead, they will be able to support those who really are in need. The church should try to help those who are not able to work for themselves. But those who can work should do so. They should do so for the support of themselves and those who depend on them. (Mackervoy, 2003)

Such interpretation is supported by Boring and Craddock (Boring & Craddock, 2004).

Members of the Christian community had also asked Paul for advice as to what would happen to the dead Christians upon the return of Jesus. The letter seeks to provide some answer to these questions. In this section, Paul emphasises that the dead will rise with the second coming of Christ just as Christ himself rose at Easter. Paul emphasises that hope that Christians have in the resurrection and reassures the faithful that death is not finality in Christianity. Addressing the issue of “when” – the precise timing of the second coming of Jesus – Paul states that this is an unknown (1 Thessalonians 5:3). Christ’s return would come when it is least expected “like a thief in the night”. A great deal of commentary explores this point. This commentary also points to a paucity of representations of Jesus imagery in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians other than to suggest an awareness of the synoptic sources later to be important to Gospel writers (Saint Paul and the Historical Jesus, 2008).


Boring, M. E., & Craddock, F. B. (2004). The People’s New Testament Commentary. Louisville, Kentucy, USA: Westminster John Knox Press.

Coles, J., & Gimpel, P. (2009). Module 3: Foundations (An Open Learning Course from IFE). Brisbane: IFE.

Hill, B. (2009). Early Communities of Believers. In J. Coles, & P. Gimpel, Module 3: Foundations (An Open Learning Course from IFE) (pp. 54-61). Brisbane: IFE.

Hill, B. (2009). The Pauline Churches. In J. Coles, & P. Gimpel, Module 3: Foundations (An Open Learning Course from the IFE) (pp. 77-79). Brisbane: IFE.

Mackervoy, I. (2003, August). When Jesus Christ Comes: An EasyEnglish Commentary on Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. (Wycliffe Associates) Retrieved December 18, 2010, from http://www.easyenglish.info: http://www.easyenglish.info/bible-commentary/1thess-lbw.htm

Saint Paul and the Historical Jesus. (2008, October 8). Retrieved December 17, 2010, from Catholic.net: http://www.catholic.net/index.php?option=dedestaca&id=1148

Smith, B. D. (2009, October 16). The First Letter to the Thessalonians. (Crandell University – Religious Studies Department) Retrieved December 18, 2010, from The New Testament and Its Context: http://www.abu.nb.ca/courses/ntintro/1thess.htm


[1] Parousia

[2] Interestingly, some early debate existed as to the authorship of this letter but Boring and Craddock point out that “Critical study is long past that phase and today no scholar doubts that the letter was written by Paul”. (p.635)


Bible Matthew Gospel_blog

When considering the treatment of women in Matthew’s gospel[1], it is important to bear in mind that all studies of the New Testament are set within a methodological context of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is defined as the “science of interpretation” and especially relates to interpretations of scriptural texts (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 2012). Coles explores the term further and argues that the terms hermeneutics covers “the broad senses of interpretive translation, verbal explanation and written commentary” on the Bible (Coles, 2009, p. 20). As such, an examination of New Testament (NT) hermeneutics is crucial to any meaningful discourse on the meaning of it. One of the key hermeneutical responses to any study of women in the New Testament is a feminist interpretation. It is this interpretation which will be explored to some extent while studying exploring the treatment of women in Matthew’s gospel.

In the treatment of this discussion, it is tempting for readers of the Gospels to “construct” a feminist version of the historical Jesus that mirrors their own personal biases and preferences. A study of hermeneutics cautions readers of Matthew’s gospel against this approach. When examining Matthew’s treatment of women, the discourse must be grounded in historical-critical interpretations of the NT before it is supplemented with the significant personal “meaning-making” favoured by those with an existentialist bent.  Doing so may reduce the risk of interpreting Matthew’s gospels in such a way that might allow a reader to “make the Bible say anything you want it to say” regarding the place of women within his text. Without such critical and reflective foundations, some may suggest that it is appropriate to “read into the New Testament” without limitation and “make do with a Jesus of our own fashioning” (Coles, 2009, p.81). This is a danger of some feminist approaches to biblical study that emphasise a socially critical approach to the study of religion while de-emphasising the patriarchal context of both the authors of Matthew’s gospel[2] and the world in which Jesus lived and taught. Elaine Wainwright cautions against such errors by pointing out that while women are clearly identifiable as significant “players” within Matthew’s gospel, they were also often members of “the crowd” and that Jesus summons twelve male disciples. “The exclusive nature of this group around Jesus must certainly be given consideration in a feminist reading of the gospel” (Wainwright, 2011, p. 160).

Catherine Clark Kroeger and Mary Evans (2002) echo these observations as they point out that the text must be considered androcentric.

Clearly none of the Gospels was written as a feminist tract, and that it is inappropriate to judge them from such a framework. Nor were many of the questions that exercise us about the role of women in home, society and church issues that Matthew could have dreamed of. (Clark Kroeger & Evans, 2002, p. 519)

That point made, however, Clark Kroeger and Evans acknowledge that Matthew’s Gospel is significant in its attention to women and “the feminine” in general. They argue that such attention reflects a particular challenge to the patriarchal norms of his Judaic world that Jesus posed.

 …(G)iven the male domination of the culture at that time and the wholly male worldview of most contemporary literature, the extraordinary thing is how much Matthew draws attention to women as well as men from start to finish… He is reflecting the radical way in which Jesus included women, dignifying them with value equal to that of men. (Clark Kroeger & Evans, 2002, p. 519)

This is particularly of note in the academic discussions surrounding the inclusion of women within the genealogy of Jesus at the outset of Matthew (Matt 1:1-17).

The appearance of four women from the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and the wife of Uriah) in the Matthean genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1:1-17) has occasioned much discussion. In a patrilineal genealogy of this kind, women have no necessary place.  ( Bauckham, 2002, p.17)

To include these particular women in Matthew’s genealogy clearly represents a conscious decision by the author. While a full survey of this ongoing academic discussion is beyond the scope of this response, it is interesting to note that many scholars have identified the importance to Matthew of linking Jesus to not only women but a particular type of woman:

Gentile women (representing Jesus’ as messiah to a non-Jewish world)

  • Women who had lived outside the expectations of their communities (perhaps foreshadowing Mary’s pregnancy outside marriage)

Bauckham (2002) argues that all of these women provide “biblical precedent” for the acceptance of Jesus as Messiah of all.  In Matthew, through the use of these particular women in the genealogy, “the Messiah is also the descendant of Abraham who will bless the nations, the Jewish Messiah for Gentiles as well as for Jews… All four Gentile women joined the Israelite people of God, becoming themselves foremothers of the Messiah, even though the laws of the Torah, enforced to the letter, would seem clearly to prohibit this” ( Bauckham, 2002, p. 46)

Some feminist authors have added further interpretation to Matthew’s inclusion of these women to emphasise the agency of women within their world. For example, Brown states that:

Matthew most certainly intend to call attention to the fact that in order to bring about the birth of the Messiah, God made use of these women who were more active than their partners in very difficult situations where circumstances were stacked against them.  (in Bauckham, 2002, p.26)

While Wainwright “gives a feminist alternative within broadly this same approach” without denying the androcentric nature of the gospel.

The anomalous or dangerous situation of each of the women, at a certain point, places her outside of a patriarchal marriage or family structure. Each one’s actions threaten the structure further… While the patriarchal narrative quickly domesticates these actions, they can also be seen to encode aspects of women’s power. God’s messianic plan unfolds in and through such power.  (in Bauckham, 2002, p.26)

It is noteworthy that Wainwright returns to the point made by Clark Kroeger and Evans that the treatment of women in Matthew’s gospel is “domesticated” by being embedded within the “wholly male worldview” and patriarchal order of its time and context. While these interpretations give us an insight into the radical nature of Christ within the gospel, we cannot confuse Matthew’s gospel in anyway with a “feminist tract”. What is clear however is that the Gospel According to Matthew appears to become increasingly inclusive of all (including women) as it progresses. Wainwright points out that in Matt 8-9, Jesus’ interactions with the crowds indicates a special connection to “supplicants” both male and female, Gentile and Jew. While noting that references to women are somewhat muted by the “ancient androcentric perspective” that pervades the writing, Wainwright also notes that it is increasingly unclear in Matthew’s gospel whether the group of disciples who travel with Jesus is limited to the twelve males identified in the earlier chapters and whether “this group is limited by gender”  (Wainwright, 2011, p.161). Certainly, Matthew’s gospel contains significant examples of Jesus specifically ministering to women (often in a ritually unclean state) and where women enjoy a special connection to Jesus in which their marginalisation is overcome and their qualities elevated in a way not seen in other Gospels.

Tension is therefore created around those characters whose gender does not allow them to be named above the twelve or to be among the gender grouping considered principal recipients of the fruits of the Basileia and yet they demonstrate the necessary qualities for both. In fact, the qualities which they portray are praised over and above those of the male characters.  (Wainwright, 2011, p.172)

In conclusion, when considering the treatment of women in Matthew’s gospel, it is important to bear in mind that all studies of the New Testament are set within a methodological context of hermeneutics and that all the NT scriptural works are embedded within an androcentric worldview which pervades the test and both mutes the voice of women and shapes their depiction. While Matthew’s gospel raises numerous examples in which women are included and welcomed into the ministry of Christ, it remains clear that these examples need to be considered carefully and reflected upon from a historical-critical perspective before the full existential meanings of the text can become clear.


Bauckham, R. (2002). Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels. Michigan: T&T Clark.

Clark Kroeger, C., & Evans, M. (2002). The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary. USA: InterVarsity Press.

Talbott, R. (Spring, 2006). Imagining the Matthean Eunuch Community: Kyriarchy on the Chopping BlockAuthor. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 22(1), 21-43.

Wainwright, E. (2011). The Preaching of the Basileia. In P. Gimpel, Module 3 Foundations 2 (pp. 159-172). Brisbane: Faith and Life IFE.


[1] Matthew’s Gospel is perhaps better referred to as “the Gospel According to Matthew”. In teaching the Gospels, I am always at pains to point out that, although we often speak (and write) as though “Matthew” was an individual author (Matthew the Tax Collector), the authorship of Matthew’s gospel was almost certainly by at least one other person of those in the evangelist Matthew’s “circle” and that the text itself draws heavily upon the Gospel of Mark, Q source and writings attributed to Matthew himself. The Gospel was written somewhere within the first century – most likely in the 60s – early 70s – and originated in a Jewish-Christian community in Roman Syria.

[2] Interestingly Talbott (2006) argues that: “Women in Matthew’s time were hardly marginalized – they experienced equality and functioned as leaders – yet they sometimes met with antipathy from traditional power brokers. This tension surfaces rhetorically in Matthew 19:3-12, a passage in which Jesus argues with some Pharisees and confronts his own disciples about marriage, divorce, and remarriage”.



Hermeneutics can be defined as the “science of interpretation” and especially relates to interpretations of scriptural texts (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 2012). Coles explores the term further and argues that the terms hermeneutics covers “the broad senses of interpretive translation, verbal explanation and written commentary” on the Bible (Coles, 2009, p. 20). As such, an examination of New Testament hermeneutics is crucial to any meaningful discourse on the meaning of it.

A strong foundation in the consideration of New Testament hermeneutics is provided by Coles (2009) in readings written by American biblical scholar Russell Pregeant. Pregeant identifies four distinct types of New Testament interpretation. These are referred to as (i) The Historical-Critical Method (which includes a distinct sub-method / refinement that Pregeant refers to as the Social Scientific Method (ii) the Theological / Ideological Interpretation (iii) the Existentialist Interpretation and (iv)the Psychological Approach. While each interpretative approach provides a valid lens through which the New Testament can be studies, of these approaches, it is perhaps a combination of the Historical-Critical Method and that of Existentialists that is most appealing.

Without careful consideration of the hermeneutical approach taken when studying the New Testament (NT) scriptures, it is possible to fall into a trap of accepting all interpretations common in the community uncritically. It is in this context that one could be misled into believing that “You can make the Bible say anything you want it to say” and to believe a post-modernist argument that suggests that we can “read into the New Testament” without limitation and “make do with a Jesus of our own fashioning” (Coles, 2009, p.81). While Pregeant points out that the NT has been interpreted in “innumerable ways”, it is important to construct one’s own meaning relevant to modern living that is based in a sound understanding of the historical and social context in which the real Jesus carried out his ministry. To fail to recognise the limitations that context sets of NT hermeneutics would be tantamount to allowing a religious free-for-all on the core stories and “myths” of Christianity[1].

While debate and controversy surrounds almost all approaches, it is felt by this author that the Historical-Critical method provides a foundation for NT study and interpretation in which the “historical contexts in which they are written” is appropriately considered.

 … this approach to the Bible is now almost universally accepted as a valuable step toward objectivity.  Interpreters employing this method do not begin with such questions as “What does this mean to me?” or “What does my religion teach about what this means?” They seek first to determine when and where the work in question was written, who wrote it, for whom it was written, and for what purpose it was written. The assumption is that answers to these questions will enable us better to understand what the author meant and what the original readers would have understood  (Pregeant, 2009, p.26).

 By embracing the Historical-Critical Method as a starting point for NT study, appropriate limits on discourse can be placed. Through considering the questions above, it can soon be discerned that not only did biblical authors have “different answers” to life’s great questions at times but that they also, at times “were asking very different questions” (Pregeant, 2009, p.26). Such an approach requires the use of critical faculties in NT readers; an approach in which ideas and understandings are tested against the text for validity; where assumed understandings are questioned and dogmatic interpretations are sometimes challenged. Those who have refined the Historical-Critical Method have done so by increasing the level of attention paid to the socio-cultural aspects of NT life. Despite the obvious strong points inherent in the Historical-Critical method it is important to recognise that there is some danger in this approach ultimately becoming a bald academic exercise in which the NT is reduced to the level of “just another ancient text”. If the NT is truly the inspired “Word of God” as Catholicism dictates then it is surely more than an exercise in interpreting ancient literature. True engagement with religion demands a personal search for meaning and in this way the existentialist method of interpretation allows for this response by the readers of the NT texts.

Existentialist interpretations of the NT grow out of the works of German Theologian and biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann. Himself a defender of Historical Criticism, Bultman proposed that the “task of the interpreter is to “strip away the mythology and look beneath the ancient world-picture that determined the authors’ language and concepts” (Pregeant, 2009, p.37).  The existentialist interpreter is called upon to identify the “self-understanding” or “authentic human” truths contained in the text as they relate to the interpreters life and world (Pregeant, 2009, p.37).

 For Bultmann, the real meaning of the New Testament has to do not with the claims it makes regarding supernatural interventions into the normal course of events but with the basic attitude toward life, or understanding of the meaning of human existence, to which it points… To have faith on the New testament’s terms does not mean accepting an ancient world-picture or believing in miracles in any literal sense; it means embracing, as one’s own, the self-understanding the new testament presents  (Pregeant, 2009, p.37).

 To Bultmann, this process of search for self-understanding is merely a modern continuance of the process commenced by the NT authors themselves who “reveal” their own “existential intention” within their text.

 Through a combination of a range of hermeneutical approaches, it is possible to explore the NT texts in a meaningful and thoughtful manner: a manner in which pre-existing assumptions and limitations are challenged and considered. While all hermeneutical methods have points to commend them, it is the historical-critical method that provides a solid intellectual framework for interpretation and the existentialist model that provides a means by which personal theological reflections on authentic living can be considered. Without careful consideration of the hermeneutical approaches taken when studying the NT, it is possible to fall into a trap of accepting all scriptural interpretations uncritically. Therefore theological discourse regarding the NT should be grounded in historical and critical interpretations of the NT and supplemented with significant personal “meaning-making”. This may reduce the risk of interpretations developing that imply one might be able to “make the Bible say anything you want it to say”. Without such critical and reflective foundations, some may suggest that it is appropriate to “read into the New Testament” without limitation and “make do with a Jesus of our own fashioning” (Coles, 2009, p.81).


 Coles, J. (2009). Foundations 2: Module 3 – Engaging the New Testament. Brisbane: Faith and Life.

 Pregeant, R. (2009). Reading 1 (Part 2): Some Ways of Reading the Bible. In J. Coles, Foundations 2: Module 3 – Engaging The Bible (pp. 34-39). Brisbane: Faith and Life.

Pregeant, R. (2009). Reading 1 (Part 3): Some Ways of Reading the Bible. In J. Coles, Foundations 2: Module 3 – Engaging the Bible (pp. 43-48). Brisbane: Faith and Life.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. (2012). Hermeneutics. Retrieved April 1, 2012, from The Free Dictionary: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/hermeneutics

[1] Bultmann uses the term “myth” in this context not so as to downplay the importance of the stories and events but to find a correct word to express the religious values and understandings studied by scholars. Pregeant felt criticisms of Bultmann for the use of the term “myth” were “misdirected (Pregeant, 2009, p.38).

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