Catholic religion courses and the challenge of relativism

Catholic religion courses and the challenge of relativism

Audrey English

Relativism is a philosophy that sees no absolutes and which, ignoring God, sees ideas, values and attitudes to be conditioned by time, place, and ultimately by the individual. This is the philosophy which has permeated the Western world, the moral philosophy which Pope Benedict continually deplores.

Relativism has completely influenced education for a number of decades and has somehow penetrated into religion. Its impact is seen in the statistics for Generation Y in relation, for instance, to church attendance or to attitudes about moral issues such as abortion, cohabitation outside marriage, etc.

The philosophy is not new. After all, the children of Generation Y are the children of parents who themselves often have little religious allegiance other than a cultural attachment. The influence of their parents - those who are now grandparents still actively involved in the Church - and a remnant of vague understanding, is possibly what motivates them to have their own children baptised, confirmed, etc, more as a rite of passage than through definite conviction.

Cult of change

In the '70s and the '80s, Catholics were bombarded with the cult of change, a cult which had for its motto "old is bad, new is good". This was often done in the name of Vatican II or "the spirit of Vatican II". Changes in the liturgy such as Mass in the vernacular were readily accepted and indeed welcomed. Many, however, became unable to distinguish between what could or could not be changed. The climate of change extended to all areas. The majority of Catholics were unable or unwilling to disagree when the 'experts' presented new ideas.

Whatever the causes - and these are multiple - it is a fact that for the past 40 years church attendances have progressively declined, providing the appalling results of surveys like the one on Generation Y.

Deploring the situation will not achieve any results. It is time to reconsider methods and content where education is concerned.

School curriculums encourage evaluation and discussion. For instance, the study of literature in NSW is directed to ideas and themes rather than towards an appreciation of a text as a whole. Comparison is constantly made between a particular text and the treatment of a similar theme in another age. Similarly, in history, topics are discussed and students are invited to analyse the way a particular topic, e.g., World War I, is presented at different times.

Such a system encourages a broad perspective of ideas and students come to a personal evaluation rather than to a received notion; consequently they become much more autonomous in their thinking.

This approach, however, has the effect of creating the understanding that all ideas are influenced by the current culture. Thus nothing is seen as permanent but only as dependent on the current culture.

This approach - insofar as it extends to other subjects - provides the foundation for the philosophy of relativism. Everything is seen as change- able. If ideas and values can change it is not possible to say that there are certain absolutes which apply forever. An example of this is the progressive deterioration of the concept of the value of a human life.

Because this philosophy has influenced religious education, it is not surprising that many Catholics - in all age groups but markedly in the younger ones - believe that abortion is "controversial", that they can "disagree with the Church on matters of faith and morals", that "it is right for me if I think it is right", and that religion and science are irreconcilable.

But the Catholic Faith consists of truths which God has revealed: these are unchangeable and are not a matter of selective choice among doctrines.

In the name of multiculturalism or of tolerance, in religious studies courses, primary school students visit Buddhist and Hindu temples and mosques where a favourable presentation of this faith is often given and where they may even participate in some activities. It is not surprising many adolescents believe that one religion is as good as another.

Catholic schools are very successful in instilling principles of social justice into students who continue to hold ideas of fair-mindedness and tolerance even when they have abandoned the Church. With religion, however, love of God must have priority and tolerance does not mean indifference about religion.

Certainly we do not want to return to the sectarianism of the past and there is a need to accept that other people can differ. However, most "pre-Vatican II" Catholics still believe that the Catholic Church is the only one which holds the full truth, that the Eucharistic celebration is more than a community gathering, that the Mass is a sacrifice and that the consecrated host is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ the God-Man.


There is a great need to reintroduce apologetics into Catholic secondary schools. Many who hear the word "apologetics" think this means apologising for the past mistakes of the Catholic Church.

Apologetics is the explanation of Catholic doctrines and a defence of these against objections. It can easily be integrated into the presentation of a particular doctrine. This is an essential requirement for senior students who must acquire a very sophisticated knowledge of the subjects they study, including that of other religions. The study of the Catholic Faith at a correspondingly deep level must parallel that of secular subjects.

We know that the Catholic Faith is the pearl of great price. We must also be on our guard not to allow it to be blemished by false interpretations.

Audrey English is a former school teacher who works at Holy Family Education Centre and the Centre for Thomistic Studies in Sydney.

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