Moral education, especially in schools, deserves sensitive attention in a world divided along the fault lines of religious, irreligious and cultural diversity. Choosing how to make personal moral decisions requires an ability that is acquired, not implanted by nature. Helping individuals to make moral decisions is arguably a catechetical priority in Catholic education, but in schools, confessional or secular, this is not always considered to be a priority in an already crowded curriculum. A belief that human beings are free to do what they want to do within broadly utilitarian limits is already well established and virtually undisputed in a secular society. Liberalism tends to replace traditional religious beliefs about the source of ultimate and decisive moral authority with a utilitarian ethic based upon an unchallenged advocacy of autonomy and the virtues of relativism. The notion that there are moral absolutes to be acknowledged in the regulation of human affairs, as taught by the Catholic Church, is denied with dogmatic vehemence by advocates of moral relativism. Questions about the importance of the family, human relationships, or human rights and responsibilities, are thus approached in the spirit of non-interference. Learning to discriminate (a dangerous word) between the utility, the validity, not to mention the truth, of different responses to moral questions is discouraged if not forbidden in schools. ‘Multiculturalism’, once commended because it was said to promote the ‘enrichment of culture’ through an empathetic study of religious and cultural diversity, has begun to trivialise the religious and cultural traditions it was intended to affirm and celebrate.
Without guidance in their formative years, many people find themselves unable to think clearly about the important moral decisions they have to make, incapable of reflecting thoughtfully about the issues rather than merely disinclined to do so. The sceptical critic and the curious inquirer alike are thus deprived of a coherent account of the essential guidance offered, not least by the Church. It is tempting for teachers to employ an ostensibly ‘non-indoctrinatory’ method in the classroom in order to promote openness, objectivity, fairness and balance. This approach, paradoxically, curtails the education of the critical faculty. Were students to be left without guidance and advocacy in the rest of the educational curriculum ‘to choose for themselves’, it would rightly be judged to be an abdication of the teacher’s responsibility. A laissez faire approach in moral education shows a failure of nerve. The resulting face-off between those who favour a faith oriented approach to morality and those who favour a secular approach to ethics without reference to religion is of little use in developing the critical faculty. A ‘hands off’ approach is often justified on the grounds that ‘indoctrination’ is to be avoided, but in educational terms the resulting neglect is culpable. Fear of being accused of indoctrination makes teachers cautious about any approach to moral questions that might be prescriptive and didactic, yet an ostensibly ‘neutral’ description of what is acceptable to different groups of people can, and often does, conceal its own dogmatic ideological agenda.