Call for urgent action on Religious Education


A lay discussion group called New Perspectives for Catholic Education, convened by John Kennedy, with members from six parishes and four dioceses in New South Wales has written to the Catholic bishops of Australia, urging urgent action on deficiencies in religious education in Catholic schools. This is their letter.

A lay discussion group called New Perspectives for Catholic Education, convened by John Kennedy, with members from six parishes and four dioceses in New South Wales has written to the Catholic bishops of Australia, urging urgent action on deficiencies in religious education in Catholic schools. This is their letter.

We firmly believe that the Church has a major problem with its delivery of religious education in her school system and think that urgent action is required to improve her performance.

The Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, in an article in the Catholic Weekly (24 -31 May 2015), revealed the following very worrying statistics for the Sydney Archdiocese:

  • Only one in five children from Catholic schools attends Mass on Sunday;
  • Only one in four ever attends Mass held at school (Why isn’t it compulsory?);
  • Half of our school children attend reconciliation annually but 25% never go at all;
  • Of the Australian youth who attend Church as youngsters, “72 per cent of them drop out as they grow older.  One social scientist describes the 18-29 age bracket in Australia as the ‘black hole of Church attendance’.”

The above indicates that a mere 20% of students in the Catholic school system attend Mass on Sunday during their schooling but 72% of them stop practising their faith by the time they are 29 years of age.

Alarmingly, the net percentage of children in the system who remain practising Catholics after the age of 29 years is only 5.6%.

We think it fair to say that most Catholics are unaware of the crisis the Church is facing.

However, they must surely be aware that there is some kind of problem since their churches are patronised predominately by people over the age of 50 years!

Figures published in 2013 by the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference for the four years to 2011 show a 17% drop in the rate of Mass attendance. This may be due to older Catholics dying and not being replaced by younger ones.

We sincerely hope that the Bishops will face up to this undeniable problem and devise a workable strategy to solve it.

As Catholic laity are major stakeholders in this problem, we feel that congregations should be made aware of the huge crisis in our school system. The resolution of this problem should be the Church’s number one priority. 

It is suggested that the Bishops should create a peak body covering all dioceses to drive the search for a more effective religious education system.

The Church has adopted a decentralised system whereby each diocese has its own Catholic Education Office and system. This may work for the school system generally, however, for religious education, this has led to a piecemeal disorganised approach.

For example, not all dioceses statistically measure their failure or success in providing religious education.

We believe that religious education could be provided more effectively if the performance of individual schools and dioceses were measured statistically and if surveys were conducted to determine the reasons why practising former students stop practising their faith.

The top-performing school’s approach to religious education could then be adopted by poorer performing schools.

Surveys could be used to track students after they leave school to highlight the major reasons why 72% of them in the 18 to 29 year age bracket stop practising their faith.

A solution to our problems lies in the objective investigation of the problem and not in subjectively guessing the causes of the failures.

The crisis in Catholic education suggests that the curriculum is lacking. Children need to be made familiar with the Catholic Catechism, the Bible references and the importance of going to Mass every Sunday at the very least.

Ideally, they should be so engaged at their Scripture lessons that they leave wondering how they can use what they’ve learned that day in school, at home and when they go to Mass.

Through learning the Catechism and the Bible, children can begin to see the relevance of it in their own lives and it gives them a chance to have a personal relationship with Jesus.

We should ask, “Is the curriculum orientated towards encouraging children to practice their faith and how can it be made more so?” We should critique the curriculum in the first instance.

The Archbishop, in the Catholic Weekly article referred to above, described a conversation with a prominent non-practising Jewish friend who once taught trainee teachers with him:

“He told me he was mystified that children at Jewish schools emerged well-versed in the theology and traditions, customs and heroes of the Jewish religion – whether or not they believed or practised Judaism – but that so many of the Catholic school graduates we were then preparing to be teachers knew so little about their tradition, and Catholic leaders and systems seemed resigned to that. We must aspire to better.”

The comment demonstrates that there is something drastically wrong with the curriculum and the way it is being taught.

The Archbishop has announced some steps to improve the situation in his archdiocese, but much more action is required for the system nationwide.

While the school factor appears to be the major factor causing students and ex-students to stop practising their faith, other factors also contribute such as the family situation, mass media especially TV and social media.

The lack of cooperation of parents in getting their children to practise the Faith is a major obstacle in getting our religious education system to work successfully. One solution is to require that at least one parent enter into an agreement to co-operate in assisting their children to practise the Faith as a prerequisite to the child’s admission into the Sacramental Programs.

The idea is that a parent, who wishes to have a child brought up in the Faith at a Catholic School, would have to agree to accompany the child on their journey of faith.

They would have to agree to bring their child to Mass on Sunday, and ensure they attended Reconciliation four times a year and demonstrate participation in at least one Church activity of their choice: a reader; altar server; Eucharistic minister; join the SVDP; assist with the Youth Group or Children’s liturgy or in some other way participate and serve the parish community.

We sincerely urge the Bishops to take immediate action to address this crisis, as, if numbers continue to drop at the current rate, in 10 or 20 years, the Church will be in a state of collapse in Australia.

In this connection, we would really appreciate the creation of an ongoing dialogue between the Bishops and the laity at the parish level so that we can be kept fully informed of any measures being undertaken and of any progress made.

New Perspectives in Catholic Education includes John Kennedy (Convenor), John Taylor, Garrick Small, Catharine Chu, Dr. Leonard Chu, James Manwaring, Reg Wong, Peter Beswick, Warren Roche, Terry Kennedy, Royce Crittle and Mitchell Crittle.

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