Beliefs and practices of Catholic students: the decline continues

Beliefs and practices of Catholic students: the decline continues

Michael Gilchrist

The just published findings of research conducted in 1998 on the religious beliefs and practices of Year 12 Catholic students indicate that the decline of the past 30 years continues.

Br Marcellin Flynn, the premier researcher on Catholic secondary schools in Australia, has been interviewing thousands of Year 12 students and teachers since 1972 and making his findings available in a series of thought-provoking publications. These remain essential reading for Church authorities and all Catholics concerned about the religious character of their schools.

Eight years ago, at the time Br Flynn's The Culture of Catholic Schools was published, AD2000 published a review article titled "How 'Catholic' are Catholic schools?" (February 1994). It quoted Br Flynn's conclusion: "A consistent, rapid decline in the religious dimension of the [Catholic] schools has taken place over this period [1972-1990] and ... there are no signs that it is about to be arrested".

Catholic character

The sequel to this study - Catholic Schools 2000: A Longitudinal Study of Year 12 Students in Catholic Schools 1972-1982-1990-1998 - is based on the responses of 8,310 Year 12 students and 1,657 teachers at 70 schools in NSW and the ACT. It was co-authored by Br Flynn and Dr Magdalena Mok.

While one might query the inclusion of many quotes from writers like Thomas Groome and Fr Richard McBrien - given their dissenting positions on some Catholic teachings (and the Australian and US Bishops' criticism of McBrien's Catholicism) - the value of Catholic Schools 2000 transcends such reservations.

This lies in the masses of statistical findings, particularly those regarding the "Catholic" character of these schools, which confirm Br Flynn's earlier prediction of a "consistent, rapid decline".

This clearly prompted the initiative of the Melbourne Archdiocese under Archbishop George Pell to introduce a set of religion texts based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church - with these texts now being introduced as well in the Sydney Archdiocese, since Dr Pell became its new Archbishop in 2001.

Given the Flynn-Mok research was undertaken in 1998, it would be premature to estimate the long-term impact of the new RE texts, which are still in process of being introduced into schools.

As the co-authors remind us (p. 82), "Catholic schools have no reason to exist apart from the Church," and a Catholic education "cannot be called Catholic if it is not faithful to the Catholic Church and its living traditions" (p. 270).

The latest figure for regular Mass attendance by young Catholics in the 16-25 age group (as revealed in the 1996 Catholic Church Life Survey) of less than 5 percent does not reflect well on the impact of a Catholic education - nor, for that matter, the condition of the Australian Catholic community generally.

Flynn and Mok's conclusion certainly underlines this (p. 321): "There is little evidence at present that the drift of youth away from active participation in the life of the Church is about to be arrested ... the alienation of adults and youth from the Catholic Church today remains one of the most pressing pastoral problems of our time."

While the drawing power of Catholic schools remains as strong as ever - with almost 20 percent of the Australian school age population attending Catholic schools - the reasons most students are sent to these schools have little connection with their specific Catholicity. The priorities of today's Catholic parents (and students) are overwhelmingly secular: vocational, academic, personal and social development are all preferred to religious development.

A telling statistic is that, with Australia's Catholic population at about 27 percent of the national total, and about 20 percent of the total school population attending Catholic schools, roughly 75 percent of Catholic parents are currently sending their children to Catholic schools. However, the rate of regular church attendance across the country is between 15-20 percent, which means only a small proportion of parents sending their children to Catholic schools are regular Mass-goers. That hardly eases the task of even the most committed, practising Catholic teachers - armed with the best possible RE texts - to cultivate in students a love and acceptance of the Faith.

Parental influence

Flynn and Mok found that the influence on religious development most cited as important by students - at 71 percent - was "the example and lives of parents". The second highest influence - the Catholic school - scored 36 percent (p. 239). In answer to the question, "My parents expect me to go to Mass on Sundays", only 34 percent responded in the affirmative, compared with 83 percent in 1972 (p. 250).

In other words, the law of diminishing returns is at work, with most parents (and teachers) of today's students in Catholic schools being the products (in some measure at least) of earlier deficiencies in the Catholic system.

In fact, much of the space in the present publication (as in its predecessors) is devoted to demonstrating that on non-specifically Catholic indicators, Catholic schools are "good", and widely supported by both Catholics and even non-Catholics. The sense of community, the professionalism and commitment of teachers, classroom atmosphere and discipline, all scored well in the statistics.

(Although recent Year 12 examination results for Victorian secondary schools suggest that academic standards in many Catholic schools are no better than comparable State schools.)

But in regard to students' expectations of Catholic schools, 11 of the 12 lowest rated expectations proved to be in the religion area, e.g., only 36 percent thought it "very important" that students should be taught to be "guided by the teachings of the Church on moral issues." The figure for teachers on this question was 62 percent.

Moral questions

Interestingly, while earlier publications of Brother Flynn's research covered acceptance levels on specific moral questions, in the present edition, these are omitted. The Culture of Catholic Schools (1994) found a generally low acceptance rate among students of the Church's moral teachings, e.g., only 20 percent thought sex outside of marriage morally wrong; while in the case of teachers only 43 percent believed euthanasia morally wrong.

On the basis of trends revealed in other areas of Catholic teaching in the current research findings, one can safely assume the acceptance level of the Church's moral teachings has also further declined.

Sunday Mass attendance, which stood at 69 percent in the 1972 findings, and had fallen to 38 percent in 1990, was down to 23 percent in 1998. Confession - in line with general trends in the Church - has virtually disappeared from the lives of Catholic students. Whereas 37 percent went at least once a month in 1972, this figure was down to three percent in 1998. In 1972, 23 percent went "rarely or never" to confession; in 1998 the figure was 58 percent.

The decline was also evident in basic Catholic beliefs. In 1982, 70 percent believed Jesus to be truly God; in 1998, the figure was 51 percent. In 1982, 59 percent believed Jesus Christ to be truly present in the Eucharist; in 1998, the figure was 51 percent, although it is unclear what meaning is attached to this presence. In 1982, 44 percent accepted the proposition, "I try to base my life on the teaching and example of Jesus"; in 1998, the figure was 37 percent.

In light of such alarming - but hardly surprising - findings, Flynn and Mok urge that "wise leadership by committed Catholic teachers is required in order to challenge the marginalisation of religious education and religious practice in the minds of many students."

If any levelling-out or even turnaround is to reverse the present potentially terminal decline, strong, imaginative and courageous action will be needed at all levels of the Church.

'Catholic Schools 2000' by Dr Marcellin Flynn and Dr Magdalena Mok can be obtained for $25.00 plus postage from Catholic Education Office (Sydney), PO Box 217, Leichhardt 2040, fax (02) 9568 8422, tel (02) 9568 8221.

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