Catholic schools: Do they make enough difference?

Catholic schools: Do they make enough difference?

Br John Moylan CFC

Br John Moylan of Rostrevor College (Adelaide, SA) argues that while there are powerful factors outside Catholic schools drawing students away from a lively faith, it should not be assumed that these schools cannot be made an effective means of reversing a decline in central Catholic practice. His article questions whether all the means available to schools have been used to help students love, understand, appreciate and practise their Baptismal faith.

The article concludes with suggestions about how a twenty-year old trend might be reversed

Br Moylan, whose article first appeared in the Christian Brothers journal, ‘Catholic School Studies,’ recently received praise for his article from the Headmaster of a Catholic school in England (St Ambrose’s College), who asked for permission to photocopy the article and circulate it among his school staff: "I write to thank you for your article ... and to say how much I admired it ... [It] gives me great hope."

The article is reprinted in ‘AD2000’ with Br Moylan’s permission.

Br Marcellin Flynn’s research provides strong evidence to suggest that there has been a striking decline in the orthodox practice of the Catholic faith by senior secondary students in Catholic schools since 1972. Importantly, he found there is a strong correlation between weekly Sunday Mass attendance and acceptance of Catholic moral teaching.

Relevant to these findings are those of renowned United States researcher, Merton Strommen, and his wife, Irene. They have pointed to numerous studies showing a high correlation between both regular Church attendance by adolescents and strong Christian moral beliefs, and between strong Christian moral beliefs and Christian moral practice (Five Cries of Parents, Harper & Row, 1985, Ch 5).

Vatican II teaches that the Eucharist is the "source and summit of the Christian life." So important is participation in the Sunday Eucharist that the Church requires its members to participate, where reasonably possible. No wonder then that there are some Catholic educators who are concerned about the decline evidenced by research.

Some Catholic educational leaders blame other educational agencies outside the school for the apparently spiralling downward direction of the religious development of Catholic school students. In the whole Western world, there has been a decline of religious practice accompanied by a general increase in adolescent crime and, as Australian youth suicide rates indicate, an increase in despair.

Some take the view that Australian Catholic schools can do very little to counter false messages consciously and unconsciously received from educational agencies outside and intertwined with the school. Others believe that Catholic schools are not using all possible means to fulfil their primary purpose.

In the 19th century, the Australian Catholic Bishops took the position that Catholic schools could effectively help instruct, preserve and strengthen Catholic students in the faith of their Baptism. So strongly did the Australian Bishops hold this that, for many decades, it was well-known that failure to send Catholic children to Catholic schools incurred excommunication.

In the past, tens of thousands of Australian Catholic men and women have vowed their lives to serve God as teachers in Catholic schools. They did so in the belief that Catholic schools had an essential part to play in enlightening, preserving and strengthening the faith of young Catholics.

The morale of religious Brothers was then very high, and I have no reason to doubt that the morale of teaching nuns and other teaching male congregations was any lower. Teaching religious shared the belief that through instruction, and more particularly through the culture of the school, young Catholics would learn to understand, value and practise the faith given to them as a gift in Baptism.

Today that confidence in Catholic schools’ ability to effectively fulfil their primary function has subsided. For example, Sr Carmel Leavey concluded from her research on the faith development of Catholic senior school girls (Sponsoring Faith in Adolescence, E. J. Dwyer, Chs 9, 13, 14) that, unlike the 19th century, today’s Catholic schools may not be the best way of socialising adolescents in the faith.


If the Catholic schools are not socialising Catholic students in the faith, what are today’s Catholic schools teaching students through their culture? Are they, through the example of well-liked teachers and peers, teaching that prayer, frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance - as called for by our Supreme Pastor - and at least weekly Eucharistic practice are really not important? Are these educational institutions conditioning students through daily, extended contact with teachers and peers into the belief that one’s moral code is a matter of personal choice (or personal desire)?

Do the students see their teachers and peers valuing the liturgical year and the feast days of Mary and the saints? How are the liturgical feasts, not only the major ones, celebrated in the schools - and how are the students encouraged to celebrate them individually and with their families? What are the students learning about the relevance of the liturgy, if the liturgical seasons and feasts, including those of the Mother of God and the saints, are not woven into the fabric of school life and practice on a daily basis?

What kinds of things are prayed for in the school? Is the school day punctuated with prayers, as a matter of urgency, for sinners, missioners, vocations, our spiritual leaders, Christian unity, conversions to the Catholic Church, the dead, etc, or are prayers, if said in more than a perfunctory way daily, concentrated on justice in the world and the relief of poverty or physical pain - as important as these prayers are? Is this saying anything about the importance of the spiritual realm which instructs and strengthens external action?

Are there daily prayers of faith, hope, charity, thanks, praise, adoration, love, sorrow in each classroom? What is likely to happen to a person’s prayer life if it is not enriched by proper and frequent expressions appropriate to a loving relationship between a Christian and Christ, and between the Christian and the Mother of God and the saints?

Vatican II recommended private devotions which should lead to and flow from the liturgy. What devotions are strongly promoted and practised in the institutions founded for the education and formation of young Catholics? Are students educated to understand, and led to practise, devotions which for generations have stood in good stead our predecessors? Can school staffs, let alone the whole Church in Australia, agree what devotions, hymns, etc, should be encouraged, how to go about encouraging them, and why we should be encouraging them?

Function of educators

A renowned Jesuit psychologist and youth minister, Charles Shelton (Morality and the Adolescent: A Pastoral Psychology Approach, Crossroads, 1989, Ch 4), stressed the importance of lovingly challenging adolescents. One of the chief functions of educators is to challenge their charges firmly, lovingly and continually. How are the young individually and collectively challenged in Catholic schools today? Are students in Catholic schools challenged in such a way as to make the Catholic faith relevant in their quest for their own salvation and the salvation of the world?

There are profound educational messages forthcoming when students are challenged about their behaviour in ways highlighting the harm that beha- viour will cause to their personal growth, their reputation, the good name of the school, their self-interest, parental embarrassment, or to the rights and welfare of others, but no, little or even minor reference is made to their Baptismal calling.

If the Catholic school does not use the teachable moment at times of challenge to reinforce the Christian message and give it its priority, could not stu- dents be learning that a relationship with Christ is theoretical and irrelevant?

Parents, Religious and the Church, who have invested so much in several ways in Catholic schools in the belief that they are necessary for the religious formation of their students, have a right to expect that these schools are giving an authentic, effective Catholic religious education. As their founders have dearly seen, any religious instruction in these schools will not be effective unless the culture of the school speaks to the relationship between the students and God through the Church.

Indeed, if the culture of the school does not say to its Catholic students that the most valuable thing in life is a living Catholic faith with all that this implies, by that very fact it is giving these students a false education which could be teaching them that religion and the Church are irrelevant; sacramental, liturgical and private prayer is unnecessary; and that one is at liberty to choose one’s own moral code.

For Catholic schools to give their students a complete Catholic education it is necessary that prayer, celebration of feasts and the minor and major events of the liturgical year, and the daily interactions of the school should be such as to emphasise the value the school places on each student’s growth in a loving relationship with God and His Church. The school needs to be constantly monitoring, and be seen to be monitoring, how it is carrying out, or failing to carry out, this most important of its activities.

If a Catholic school, through its day-to-day operations, downplays the centrality and the priority of the Church, and, either by omission or marginalisation, neglects to use all possible means of prayer, sacred symbols, sacraments, feasts, liturgical celebrations, religious societies, etc, it can be damaging the Catholic faith of even the most committed of its students. Neglect in such ways teaches students that in practice the Catholic faith is not of utmost importance, lacks relevance, and may be either false or doubtful.

All that has been said implies careful screening and careful, continual spiritual and theological formation and pro-active recruiting of staff. Staff prayer and retreats seem essential.

The interaction of students among themselves is such a powerful factor in their acquiring of meaning and values, that the meaning and values acquired in Catholic schools need continual research, questioning and courageous action. This action may be painful to some, but a source of hope for others. If nothing changes, even radically, we must ask how the decline in orthodox religious practice of those leaving Catholic schools will be reversed.

A number of further questions need to be asked. Are today’s Catholic schools failing to make strong demands of those who have the privilege of a Catholic education? What are the likely consequences if Catholic schools fail to make substantial demands and tolerate a solid number of students who are disaffected by, or indifferent to, the Church which is educating them? Is the presence of a substantial number of religiously indifferent or disaffected people in Catholic schools, people who do not accept that the Church has a right to teach and be obeyed, setting the agenda for Catholic schools? If this is so, is this not detrimental to those who are struggling to be loyal to Christ’s teaching Church?

Pertinent questions

Internationally renowned lecturer on matters concerned with the faith journeys of youth and young people, Fr Michael Gallagher SJ, asks pertinent questions which, like those above, require courageous answers if the Catholic school’s purposes are to be fulfilled. He wrote (Struggles of Faith: Essays, Dublin: Columba, 1990, p. 82):

"In this whole new situation, how can the schools best serve not only the students but the parents?

Since there is often a strong desire from the parents to have their children in Catholic schools, cannot the schools make certain conditions, about parent involvement, parent education and faith development? If the values of the school are out of harmony with the non-verbals of the home (where religion may come across as marginal, immature or simply unhappy) there will be little hope of the school serving the long-term future faith of the student."

It is my belief that Catholic schools are the best and only practical way of necessarily supplementing the Catholic education given in the family - primarily - and in the worshipping parish.

If there is not change and hard decisions are avoided, could it not be the case that these schools in the not-too-distant future will be Catholic only in name, and be serving a community of only nominal Catholics supplemented by others who choose these schools for a variety of reasons, possibly unconnected with religion?

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