Research involving experienced Australian Catholic principals concluded that "these principals had a practical tolerant view of Catholicism that was more about establishing relationships through service and less on law. All principals privately held views contrary to current Vatican teachings on priestly celibacy, married clergy, female priesthood and artificial birth control."
- Professor Denis McLaughlin
A survey of the beliefs, values and practices of Catholic student teachers, carried out by Professor Denis McLaughlin of Australian Catholic University (ACU), has found that most of them do not accept Church teaching on abortion, contraception, transubstantiation and women priests.
The survey questioned 647 first and final year student teachers at ACU campuses in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. ACU was established in 1991 as a result of the amalgamation of eight former Catholic teachers' colleges, and is now, according to McLaughlin, "the largest single supplier of teachers for Catholic schools."
A disturbing revelation in Professor McLaughlin's research report is the fact that he found no significant differences between first year and final year students. In other words, ACU was making little or no difference to its students' religious beliefs and practices. Students who entered ACU religiously impoverished in their understanding of the faith, graduated three or four years later in much the same condition, despite passing in the various theology and religion curriculum subjects required for employment in Catholic schools as religion teachers.
The following are a few of McLaughlin's findings:
* Just on one-third of student teachers interviewed believed that the bread and wine become Christ's body and blood (transubstantiation) during Mass.
* 50 percent said they attended formal worship at least monthly (34 percent weekly or more).
* 2 percent accepted the Church's teaching on contraception, with 89 percent indicating it was a personal matter for the couple involved. The same figures occurred on acceptance of Church teaching on divorce.
* 14 percent accepted the Church's teaching on abortion, with 37 percent believing it to be justified in extreme circumstances and 35 percent that it was a personal matter for the couple involved. 10 percent accepted the Church's teaching on premarital sex.
* 50 percent of students understood God as meaning the Blessed Trinity.
* 62 percent believed that the priesthood should be open to women.
* 47 percent indicated that Catholic schools should aim to bring children to a knowledge of the Catholic faith, but only 12 percent cited commitment and 16 percent practice of the faith.
The above figures might suggest that Catholic schools, as a whole, have been largely ineffectual in communicating the Catholic faith to their students, notwithstanding the vast outlays of human and monetary resources. Yet these figures are a good deal more flattering than for the beliefs and practices of young Australian Catholics generally.
Student teachers, however, are the pick of the crop, those individuals committing themselves to become future Catholic teachers responsible for educating a new generation in the Faith, e.g., sacramental preparation in the primary school or inculcating moral values in the secondary school.
Professor McLaughlin's findings gain further significance, given concerns about the condition of Catholic education expressed in the Statement of Conclusions almost 18 months ago (see February 1999 AD2000).
At the tertiary education level, the Statement called on bishops to be "attentive to safeguarding the university's Catholic identity." This call applied essentially to Australian Catholic University since, aside from the relatively small Notre Dame University in Fremantle (WA), it is Australia's only Catholic university.
The centrality of ACU in Australia's large Catholic education system cannot be over-emphasised, given that it is, in Professor McLaughlin's words, "the largest single supplier of teachers for Catholic schools". The orthodoxy and/or effectiveness of ACU's lecturing staffs and religion course contents is therefore central to the on-going spiritual health of the Catholic education system.
This was acknowledged in the Statement of Conclusions: "The local ecclesiastical authority, who may seek the assistance of the Holy See in the matter, should follow with understanding and with active concern the question of doctrinal soundness of the theological formation given either in departments of theology in Catholic universities or in other theological centres, called 'theological faculties' in Australia." This need for orthodoxy also applied to "the publications by their professors."
The Statement then turned to the matter of Catholic teacher training. Catholic teachers, it said, "must be properly formed in the Faith, especially principals and those who teach religion." Maintaining the Catholic identity and atmosphere of schools and colleges was also essential: "Students should know as soon as they set foot in a Catholic school that they are in a different environment, one illuminated by the light of faith and having its own unique characteristics."
The Pope's 1990 document on Catholic universities - Ex Corde Ecclesiae - prompted considerable debate in the United States, with its over 200 universities, and led eventually to the US bishops endorsing the need for lecturers in theology to obtain a bishop's "mandate" to teach. By contrast, there has been little if any public discussion on the subject in Australia.
However, in light of the disturbing findings of McLaughlin's survey of Catholic student teachers, the need for bishops to address the question of ACU's accountability to the Church - given its virtual monopoly of Catholic teacher education - becomes especially urgent.
If the bishops are unable to regulate the orthodoxy of lecturers and course contents at the campuses of ACU, one wonders how otherwise the downward spiral of belief and practice across the whole Australian Catholic community can be arrested, let alone reversed.