Religious Education in the European Union
Sorin Selaru & Geoge Valcu
In the past few years, a fiery debate has been going on in Romania concerning the role and status of Religious Education or lack thereof in the state school system. In this context, it has often been claimed that the current state of affairs, which provides for a weekly class of Religious Education in the primary and secondary cycles, is in obvious contradiction with European realities and trends, and thus hinders the democratic evolution and the progress in knowledge of the society. On the other hand, more than a few citizens regard Europe rather suspiciously, and consider that if Religious Education will eventually be x-out, this will certainly be an outcome of the way too enthusiastic obedience to the omnipotent orders and directives coming from Brussels. Yet even a hasty overview of the facts reveals, quite to the contrary, that the presence of Religious Education is even being consolidated at both communitarian and national level throughout the EU.
Situating it in the wider frame of European common policies, one can see that, according to the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, the field of education is neither among those falling under the exclusive responsibility of the European institutions, nor among those for which the responsibility is to be shared with the member states. It remains that the organization of education lies fully in the hands of national governments. The EU can, however, contribute to the process at the level of secondary legislation, only through recommendations or opinions (which member states have the freedom to follow or not).
In the same time, the recommendations of another European institution - the Council of Europe - are far from suggesting the necessity to eliminate Religious Education from public schools. In fact, given the ever-increasing cultural and therewith religious diversity on the continent, the CoE seems to have slightly altered its stance on the topic, going as far as recommending to its member states to provide for the organization of (non-confessional) Religious Education in all schools. A more or less similar trend can be ascribed to the European Court of Human Rights, which, while vigorously defending the unnegociability of both parents’ and children’s religious freedom, has find it appropriate to leave the issue of Religious Education at the discretion of each national government.
Going further, at the national level, one will discover a wide range of approaches in terms of designation, structuring, financing, training and appointing of teachers, as well as a variety of issues and debates which are particular to the specific historical, cultural, or confessional setting of a certain country or region. Nonetheless, beyond this at times even discouraging diversity, a series of evolutions or tendencies can be pointed out to, which are representative for all (or most) of the countries under observation. Thus, for instance, one can see a slight shift in the motivation laying at the basis of the presence of Religious Education in public schools, from the conscience of the necessity thereof for any child towards more pragmatic reasons, e.g. combating religious fundamentalism, facilitating the understanding of a given historic and cultural heritage a.o. In a similar fashion a certain inner secularization of the curriculum for Religious Education is easily observable, in the sense that priority is being given increasingly to an as objective as possible outlook on the major religious traditions of the world. It is then not hard to see that the aim of Religious Education is not any longer to form faithful adherents for one specific confessional community, but to educate citizens able to live in a pluralistic world.