'Professional', a lá carte Catholicism and its papier màché schools

'Professional', a lá carte Catholicism and its papier màché schools

Andrew T. Kania

Dr Andrew Thomas Kania is Director of Spirituality at a Catholic college in Perth, WA. Prior to this appointment Dr Kania was a lecturer for the School of Religious Education at the University of Notre Dame Australia as well as for the Catholic Institute of Western Australia at Edith Cowan and Curtin Universities.

He is the author of seventy published articles, belongs to the Ukrainian Church and is interested in ecumenical issues as well as contemporary problems facing religious educators.

It has often been said that Australia's Catholics are living in a time of greater material affluence and of better Church infrastructure than at any other time in our nation's history. Our hospitals are among the finest health care facilities provided in Australia and many of our Catholic schools are similarly among the finest in terms of academic and sporting prowess.

But despite the eminent presence of the Catholic Church's social institutions in our nation, Pope Benedict XVI in July 2005 is quoted as having said that Australia is a "Godless" nation and that "the mainstream churches appear moribund. This is so in Australia, above all É".

However, according to Paul Collins in a Sydney Morning Herald article (23 August 2005), "Australians are not Godless, they're hungry". Australians, he believes, are still a religious people despite the fact that overall church attendances among all denominations have dropped from above 60 percent over the last four decades to 13 percent weekly.

One of the reasons he offers for this claim is that we have a Catholic school system which educates 20-25 percent of Australia's students. Collins argues there must be an inherent religious reason for parents to invest in such an education.

But can attendance at Catholic schools really equate with an individual "practising Catholicism", or do parents invest in a Catholic education as an on-average cheaper private school alternative?

A study, Catholic Schools 2000 (1998) by Dr Marcellin Flynn and Dr Magdalena Mok revealed a number of interesting findings regarding the responses of Year 12 students at NSW and ACT Catholic schools to matters of faith. It found that regular attendance at Mass and confession by the students is becoming less frequent, that personal prayer life is decreasing among students and that they are becoming increasingly negative towards the subject of religious education.

Flynn and Fok also noted that the greatest influences on the religious attitudes of students are now parents and their own student peers, rather than the school. This point is particularly interesting, given that the parents who choose to send their children to Catholic schools are part of a Catholic population of which only about 15 percent attend Mass with any degree of regularity.

The question which is thus posed is why would parents who have little or no commitment to one of the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church - weekly attendance at Sunday Mass - send their children to Catholic schools?

Sadly it would seem that the answer lies not in the specific faith dimension of the schools but in what each school offers in areas outside the faith dimension.

Pick-and-choose faith

The parents may be sympathetic to some of the tenets of Catholicism, but this may be a case of Catholicism a lá carte rather than of Catholicism in toto, with the parents picking and choosing what they want, and mediating to their children what they accept or do not accept from among the Church's teachings.

Moreover the choice to submit their children to a faith education which is not affirmed at home may be, to draw on another culinary expression, Catholicism alfresco: participating in the Church from outside.

Dr Marcellin Flynn's earlier research in The Culture of Catholic Schools: A Study of Catholic Schools, 1972-1993 cast a further spotlight on the apparent disparity that exists in the motivations of teachers employed in Catholic schools. The first, and seemingly a swelling group, sees its role as a profession as any other profession; the second, a much smaller group, perceives its role in traditional Catholic terms as a vocation.

This notion of "professional Catholicism" connects with Flynn's other findings which showed that in many cases "the influence of teachers was found to be having a negative impact on students' religious beliefs and values, as well as on their moral and social justice values" (p. 406).

Flynn postulated some reasons for this negative effect and concluded, "If we are really going to have Catholic schools whose religious character supports the developing faith of students, then the teachers whom principals employ will make an important difference. Is it reasonable to expect a non-believer, or an angry, alienated Catholic teacher to listen to the religious questions of youth and respond to them sensitively? Is it possible for a staff member who is explicitly not living a life of faith, to be able to witness to points of contact between faith and life? It would appear that if we are serious about having Catholic schools whose religious character makes them distinctive, then the quality of the teachers whom principals employ makes an important difference" (p. 406).

Flynn's concern was that although Catholic Schools were being equipped with teachers of outstanding aptitude and professional excellence, the notion of a "vocation" of teaching in a Catholic School seemed to be a dying art. Flynn wrote of the majority of teachers who participated in his study that "their motivation was primarily professional and educational. They had a love for teaching, an appreciation of their own subject discipline and a personal interest in students. This group of teachers tended to view teaching principally in terms of a profession" (p. 404).

This being said, it would seem that a chasm will soon appear between the basic mandate of Catholic educators to practise the wholeness of their vocation, and the reality of the "professional Catholic".

Disparity

This disparity is even more stark when one notes the description given by the Congregation for Catholic Education (1997), in The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium. Here they point out: "In the Catholic school, 'prime responsibility for creating this unique Christian school climate rests with the teachers, as individuals and as a community'. Teaching has an extraordinary moral depth and is one of man's most excellent and creative activities, for the teacher does not write on inanimate material, but on the very spirits of human beings.

"The personal relations between the teacher and the students, therefore, assume an enormous importance and are not limited simply to giving and taking. Moreover, we must remember that teachers and educators fulfil a specific Christian vocation and share an equally specific participation in the mission of the Church, to the extent that 'it depends chiefly on them whether the Catholic school achieves its purpose'." (Congregation for Catholic Education, 1997, par 19)

Another critical issue regarding the future of Catholic education in Australia is that prospective teachers in Catholic schools are recruited from an increasingly non-practising Catholic population, which includes the parents of students at the schools.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that most students who study to be teachers in the Catholic education system are "unchurched", or at what theologians describe as "pre- evangelisation". This is not the prospective teacher's fault, but partly the result of a lack of exposure to Catholic doctrine and practice during their childhood and adolescent years.

For these prospective teachers the units they are required to complete for accreditation to be employed in the Catholic school system become the sum total of their Church life. Thus they graduate with the licence to teach and be "professional Catholics".

"Professional Catholicism" and "Catholicism à la carte" continue to undermine the Catholic education system because a prevailing culture is being created within the schools of parents who do not believe in, or prioritise the Catholic faith. One need only consider how many parents choose to attend parent-teacher interviews on religious education. This is combined with teachers who, as Flynn has suggested, are paid to believe. Secular materialism and cynicism can thus easily become part of the culture of some schools and infect the faith development of their students.

As the schools are now almost totally emptied of their brothers, priests and nuns, how are we to ensure that the next generation of lay teachers who replace those who have set once solid spiritual foundations are actually not only good professionals but practising Catholics as well, or at the very least, people who unequivocally support the Catholic ethos? [Editor: See survey results below].

Additionally, the culture of the Catholic school relies heavily on both its students and, more importantly, the parents. If parents are not willing to embrace or support the basic tenets of the Faith, then why should the Catholic school offer a place?

That may not necessarily mean that all students must come from Catholic backgrounds, but both parent and children need to be fully aware of the fundamental beliefs of the Catholic Church and the specific orientation of a Catholic education and do nothing, overtly or covertly, to hinder the spiritual program.

The journey of Catholic education spans some two thousand years, from the etchings on the walls of the catacombs through to the monasteries and schools of the Middle Ages, up to the present day where magnificent buildings and grounds are among the most spectacular edifices of our nation.

Yet, as the heirs of this profound legacy, we must ensure that all the good work of the past is not reduced to a papier màché facade behind which the very reason for a Catholic school's existence is non-existent. We have, in effect, magnificent multi- million dollar educational shells that lack a living and thriving Gospel sustaining the body of the faith from within.

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