Australia's Catholic school systems: the case for radical surgery

Australia's Catholic school systems: the case for radical surgery

Michael Gilchrist

As another school year begins, one is prompted to ask what might seem a preposterous question. Have Australia's Catholic schools outlived their usefulness as far as handing on the faith is concerned? If so, short of scrapping them altogether, is any radical surgery possible?

To teach the faith in its fullness in most Catholic secondary schools today has become a virtual mission impossible.

This is the general picture, which is clear from the statistical surveys. Of course the situation varies markedly from place to place and classroom to classroom and there are positive exceptions to the broader pattern.

In recent years, the weekly Mass attendance rate of school leavers has been estimated by professional surveys as at somewhere between three and six percent. Such dismal statistics confirm the fact that Catholic schools as a whole are failing miserably in the task for which they were established in the first place, namely to pass on the faith to each new generation.

Catholic culture

That was the reason the Catholic school systems were set up in the late 19th century Australian Colonies when State Aid was withdrawn. The bishops made it clear then that providing for a daily RE lesson was not enough. A Catholic "atmosphere" or culture had to permeate every aspect of school life if there was to be any prospect of successfully catechising the young.

There was no suggestion then that producing future AFL or rugby champions, having the latest curriculum resources, or achieving high examination results might serve as substitutes for any effective religion teaching. Today, however, most parents, teachers and students seem to regard the specifics of Catholicism as of relatively little importance.

Admittedly, Catholic schools in the past, however well run, never enjoyed anywhere near a 100 percent "strike rate" with their graduates, human nature being what it is. But estimates of Mass attendances in the 1950s and 1960s ranged between 50 and 75 percent - and Mass attendance is a reliable litmus test of other indicators of belief and practice.

Surveys taken in the 1960s found that belief and practice levels among Catholic school educated Catholics were significantly higher than state school educated Catholics. However, a survey in 1989 revealed there was little if any difference.

These days, not a few Catholic parents, serious about the faith of their children, see Catholic schools as more of a hindrance than a help, and send their sons and daughters to other independent schools or the better state schools while providing some religious input at home.

By 2001 the national average weekly attendance rate was down to just over 13 percent and still falling since the younger the age category the lower the attendance rate. While it is about 30 percent for those over 60, it is only 5-6 percent for those in their 20s.

The inability of Catholic schools to form future practising Catholics - their reason for existence - is contributing to this downward spiral that shows no sign of levelling out.

The reasons for this comprehensive failure are doubtless many and complex.

One of them has been the shallow, doctrinally challenged RE programs dominating Catholic class- rooms since the 1970s. These have contributed to the religious illiteracy of generations of future Catholic teachers and parents, aggravating the process of diminishing returns.

The recent RE texts that Archbishop (later Cardinal) Pell initiated in Melbourne and Sydney have been a positive step but on their own are insufficient to achieve a turnaround.

For just when the pressures of a secular culture are impacting more than ever before on young Catholics, the vital factors that might steer them in the right direction are lacking: the witness of practising parents, teachers, role models and fellow students.

Today, most of the Church's educational facilities have become unproductive dead weights as far as transmitting the faith effectively is concerned, with accountability virtually non-existent. In spiritual cost benefit terms, there is almost nothing to show for the vast investments of human and material resources.

The Church now finds itself saddled with failed education systems it has inherited from the past and either can't or won't do anything to fix or scrap them.

Two-tier system

There is a strong case for setting up a two-tier system of schools: one for the vast majority of parents and teachers who are content with a dumbed-down Catholicism where the bar is continually lowered; and the other for those who are serious about the faith. The latter need supportive Catholic cultures where the faith of students is fostered rather than diluted or undermined.

At present, most Catholic schools merely offer an affordable alternative to government schools. Increasing numbers of non-Catholics are choosing them for this reason.

Ideally, the minority of practising teachers, parents and students should be concentrated into fewer schools with genuinely Catholic spiritual environments conducive to the nurturing of new generations of practising Catholics.

The political and administrative obstacles to achieving this are daunting and would require exceptionally courageous leadership from any bishop.

But what is the alternative? The continuing downward trend in belief and practice will continue, even as many of our leaders and educators avert their gaze or deny there is any crisis of faith.

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