Australian bishops tell Catholic teachers what to teach

Australian bishops tell Catholic teachers what to teach

Msgr John P. Kelly

Monsignor John P. Kelly is parish priest of Garran (Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese) and has had a long and distinguished career in Catholic education.

The Word Dwells Among Us, sub-titled A Summary of Catholic Beliefs and Practices for Teachers in Schools and Parishes, is published over the name of the Education Committee of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference by Collins Dove, Melbourne, with a foreword by the Committee Chairman, Bishop P. L. Murphy.

The book has, understandably, taken quite a while to produce. Written for an episcopal committee, there would have been, presumably, a lengthy process of drafting for consideration, consultation and amendment. This protracted process would account for there being no reference to Christifideles Laici or the imminent Universal Catechism. Its appearance is welcome, being, in itself, a recognition that Religious Education is in need of improvement and guidance and it contains much of value for that purpose.

This book is of real value. Scattered among its pages one will find statements, albeit in just a few words at times, affirming that sacred Tradition is a vehicle for revelation; that interpretation of the Scriptures (and Tradition) must be subject to its authentic interpretation by the Magisterium; that the Pope is infallible; the truth of Jesus' resurrection; that the risen Jesus offers Himself to the Father today (particularly) "through the Sacrament of the Eucharist, also called 'the Mass'"; that Eucharistic (school or class) liturgies are not purely affective experiences; genuflection as adoration and reverence; the meaning of Transubstantiation; the obligation to attend Sunday and Holy Day Mass; that first Confession precedes first Communion; the necessity, after grave sin, of sacramental Absolution before receiving Communion; the distinction between venial and grave (or mortal) sin; the reality of Original Sin; the Ten Commandments; that abortion is wrong, that artificial contraception is "inconsistent with a Christian understanding of human sexuality"; that homosexual actions are "not Christian love"; the existence of judgement, Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, angels and devils.

Such affirmations by the bishops will empower parents who wish to exercise their right to oversee what is being taught to their children, will support and encourage priests in their pastoral work, and will help deliver dedicated teachers from the confusion, uncertainty and fads which "experts" have imposed on them.

The book's subtitle, nevertheless, is something of a misnomer. Its 240 pages, plus Foreword, Prologue and Index follow a style that is diffusive and repetitious, using terms whose clear meanings will not generally be easily understood. There is a tendency to elevate some terms (e.g., "celebrate") to jargon, tenaciously using them even when clarity would suggest alternatives. While there is a majestic overall view of a truly Christian life lived within the Catholic Church, and many noble expressions of Christian truth, the absence of simplicity and clarity in expression, definition and organisation detract from its value.

By way of illustration, at paragraph 6.8, we have this definition of Sacrament: "Within the Church, a Sacrament is a community celebration by Christ's followers through which they recognise his presence in their midst, and receive through signs, the power of Salvation that he offers them. With this power, they can fulfil the Mission they share, as well as their individual vocations in human society."

This over-complicated explanation of Christian life, making clear retention and recall difficult, might be contrasted with the simplicity and directness of approach by fundamentalist sects which seems to be so effective with some young people.

Perhaps the complication arises necessarily from the chosen method of approach in this book. While the current absurdities (including values clarification, see 8.15) of some psychologists are rejected, the psychological approach is itself retained. To express it succinctly after the manner of Descartes, the whole summary starts from "sic sum, ergo credo"; a better structured, more coherent and much simpler summary would emerge from "credo, ergo sic sum", without losing the obvious value of seeing how human needs are met by Christian truth.

Starting from these needs, however, can elevate the human above the divine (effectively abolishing such virtues as humility and obedience); can lead to excessive introspection and self-centredness, and stimulate the very uncertainty and soul-searching that it aims to eradicate. Suicide among Catholic high school students is a recent phenomenon that requires some explanation.

This approach also explains the absence of a real affirmation of law (the alternative to which is not freedom, but anarchy and enslavement) and duty and obligation.

In different places, the book comes close to asserting that to be a Christian is to be a spreader of the Faith, a very welcome positive approach. A young person, convinced of having possession of a value and of the need to share it, will be more likely to keep and practise the Faith than if it is seen primarily in terms of "what's in it for me?" Again we may be able to learn something from the methods of some sects.

Peer pressure

It is surprising, then, that the book sees peer pressure as always being downward. Surely there should be, and every effort should be made to develop within a Catholic school, upward and supportive pressure. There is also some assumption of social determinism, discouraging, by implication, a confident confrontation of whatever is dehumanising in current patterns of human behaviour.

This acceptance of society as it is and the consequent need to react to it as it is, and as it is unlikely to change, is quite strange in the light of the rapidity with which society has changed in recent times. True, in the areas of social justice and the environment the book does insist on working for change, but this is not found in its attitude to the dehumanising of the person in the current pop culture.

By far the shortest chapter (four pages, one being the Nicene Creed) is that on "Celebrating Doctrine". It does point out as many have done since St Vincent Lerins, that doctrine can develop but can never contradict itself, that it is the role of the Magisterium to proclaim what is the official teaching of the Church with a certainty that theological opinion lacks; and that doctrine should be taught in a systematic manner. However, many will see the brevity of the treatment (conscience and dissent are treated elsewhere) and the lack of emphasis on the necessity of precise knowledge, as failing to remedy the present situation. Precisely because doctrine can develop, there is need for the Magisterium constantly to inform the faithful as to what is official doctrine and what is opinion.

With the publication of The Word Dwells Among Us, two questions now arise. Will the Bishops be able to ensure that this document is accepted by the teachers in Catholic schools, colleges and tertiary institutes and given priority over resources that would contradict its doctrine? And will experience with this document, including critical analysis, help the bishops to make more effective use of the Universal Catechism when it appears? I believe it should.

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