By Francesco Carta
The book by Filippo Binini, a Catholic religion teacher in primary school, is divided into two parts. The first is dedicated to a brief examination of Catholic Religious Education (IRC) in Italy. The author provides a brief reconstruction of the history of the IRC and then concentrates, with the support of the most recent scientific historiography, on the analysis of the current Italian socio-religious reality, characterised by an increasingly marked pluralism, in which this teaching is inserted. Binini then contextualises IRC within the European reality, comparing it to the different proposals for teaching the religious fact and presenting the most recent international reflections and debates on the subject.
Finally, he presents, with a certain critical vein, the situation in which IRC in Italian schools finds itself today. The picture that emerges from this last part is that of a teaching that fails to adapt fully to the plural reality in which it is offered. It suffers, in fact, according to the author, from the weight of the denominational management of teachers and programmes: despite the fact that teaching is to all intents and purposes included within the public school ‘the actual management of “religious knowledge” continues, however, to depend on the regulatory and discretionary power of the Church, which trains teachers, establishes their suitability or otherwise to teach, and establishes the programmes’ (p. 35).
From the picture outlined, therefore, emerges a critical situation whose most emblematic fact is the constant growth in the number of non-adopters (the tables in the book make this clear) to whom the Italian school is unable, in most cases, to guarantee a real alternative, with the increasingly real risk of isolating minorities. The author also brings out the problem of the assessment of those who have taken advantage of it, which, as is well known, is not decisive for the student’s final score. The consequence is a minimal commitment on the part of the pupils who see in the hour of religion a moment of defatigue, according to a perception, the author notes, often shared by the teachers themselves who, not bound by a defined syllabus, end up assuming the role of “students’ confidants” (p. 34) and deal with topics that are the fruit of improvisation.
It is within this framework that the proposal that occupies the entire second part of the book is placed. It is the description of a programme designed for teachers of Catholic religion in the upper secondary school. For each class, a general theme is identified to be carried out
during the year and the contents of the various lessons are briefly presented (then taken up in useful summary diagrams in the appendix). The first classes are offered a reflection on the great questions that man has asked himself since the dawn of history (Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?) and an introduction to the concept of religion; the second classes are offered an analysis of the relationship between culture and religion and an introduction to the two majority faiths on the European continent, Christianity and Islam; the third classes are given an in-depth look at Eastern religions. For all the faiths dealt with, a first of all historical contextualisation is proposed, which then helps to present the respective faith contents, and a general approach that stimulates students to learn by reading the respective sacred texts and listening to direct witnesses, to be sought, first of all, within the classes themselves. An analysis of contemporary reality is proposed to fourth and fifth grade students, and they are called upon to confront the great phenomena that characterise it: secularisation, scientific atheism, agnosticism, religious pluralism, the phenomenon of ‘religions from within’, the birth and development of charismatic movements, and religious fundamentalism. Fifth grade students will also be asked to reflect on the problem of evil, anti-Semitism and the Shoah.
These and other contents are presented by Binini with a careful eye not to isolate the teaching of the Catholic religion: repeated and constant is the invitation to grasp all the potential that these themes can have if treated in relation to other disciplines such as literature, philosophy and history, with which the invitation to collaboration is always recurrent.
Especially in this second part, the author chooses a ‘didactic’ tone. In fact, he does not limit himself exclusively to listing which contents are to be addressed, but deals with them in brief (as in the case of oriental religions) by exemplifying some paths. Clearly, Binini believes he has to deal with these topics because he realises that the audience he prefers to address, namely his colleagues in upper secondary schools, is not trained in this regard. It is precisely the lack of training on these topics on the part of the majority of current teachers of religion that constitutes an obvious limitation of the book’s proposal. This limitation is moreover emphasised in the concluding phase by the author himself: in order to be implemented, this programme implies a surplus of training on the part of the teachers, who, often, have a solid scientific basis exclusively with regard to the Christian religion.
This limitation actually evokes another, more general one. In the writer’s opinion, Binini does not draw the true conclusions from his analysis to the end, namely that the thoughtful programme he proposes can only really be adopted after reforming the current teaching of the Catholic religion and/or its teachers. I envisage two different possibilities. The first, strongly conservative, would consist of a change in the training paths of teachers who would have to acquire, even exclusively within pontifical universities, all the skills to present a Catholic religion teaching attentive to the plurality of religions and, in general, to the religious fact.
The second, more courageous and decisive, is to transform the IRC into a teaching on the religious fact, with a non-denominational matrix. The training of teachers could easily be guaranteed by the state through university courses that, moreover, already exist, such as the Master’s degree in the Science of Religion. This would also make it much easier to guarantee a high level of selection through public competitions. It seems to me, moreover, that this is the only way that, by making the subject compulsory, would make it possible to solve the problem of non-adopters who, at present, risk remaining in a condition of almost religious illiteracy. Binini, not by chance, tackles the problem again at the end of the book, proposing a strategy to involve them within specific teaching units agreed upon between the teaching of Catholic religion and the holders of other teachings. The proposal can be read from two points of view: on the one hand, it could be a necessary stratagem to make the students acquire competences which they would not otherwise attain (and which are all the more important the more they are aimed at the construction of a citizen who faces adult life in a plural reality); on the other hand, it could be experienced as a sort of ‘deception’ for the non-accepting students who could simply claim the right to obtain the same competences from a teacher who is not a Catholic.
The book, in short, presents a fine programme and a stimulating read for all Catholic Religious Education teachers who could draw much advice on planning for the coming years. The writer is left only with the doubt as to whether, in order to move ‘towards a teaching of religions’ in the public school, as the title of the second part of the book states, a teacher not chosen and trained by a denominational institution is more desirable.