The low belief and practice rate of Australian Catholic school leavers is well-documented and since the effective formation of young Catholics in the faith remains the central reason for existence of Catholic schools, coming to grips with this serious deficiency has to have top priority.
The Diocese of Sandhurst, based in Bendigo, Victoria, had a golden opportunity in this regard when it organised a massive education conference involving all primary and secondary school teachers. Titled "Creating Our Future Together", it is to be held on 15-16 March 2007 in the regional centre of Shepparton.
Here was the chance to select keynote speakers of impeccable orthodoxy, solid grasp of the faith and insights into classroom situations. The lectures, seminars and workshops could help strengthen Catholic teachers in their own faith lives and in their classroom presentations. While the secular curriculum areas doubtless merit attention, the urgent shortfall is in RE.
However, the detailed contents of the Sandhurst conference booklet indicate a different scenario.
Despite two keynote speakers imported from overseas, numerous guest speakers from around Australia, and 36 seminars and 70 workshops that leave no educational stone unturned, at no doubt huge expense for this relatively small rural diocese, there is little if anything that seriously addresses the crisis of faith.
This is hardly surprising, given that the Sandhurst Catholic Education Office prefers a Thomas Groome-inspired RE curriculum, titled "Source of Life", to the solid texts initiated by Cardinal George Pell in Melbourne and Sydney over the past decade, and now in use in several other dioceses.
Sandhurst, along with the Sale, Ballarat and Hobart dioceses, has drawn inspiration from the program used in the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese (examined in AD2000, June 2006) which is based on the methodology of the theological dissenter Thomas Groome.
Philomena Billington, who used to work in the Parramatta Diocese where the Thomas Groome program was first introduced, later moved to Canberra-Goulburn where she helped write "Treasures Old and New" with its Thomas Groome underpinning. Now she is Director of Religious Education in Sandhurst and has been involved in consultations with Sale, Ballarat and Hobart to utilise the Thomas Groome approach in their programs. She has also helped organise the present Sandhurst conference, including the choice of speakers.
One of the two keynote speakers is Margaret Wheatley, described as "President Emerita of The Berkana Institute [in the US]" which "serves the vision of a world where all people can experience themselves as whole, healthy, sacred and free". Her main goal is said to be helping to create "healthy working communities".
Amongst her writings, we read in "Reclaiming Gaia, Reclaiming Life" in The Fabric of the Future (1998), "Throughout all time and in all societies, this goddess of creation has been known ... She is the created universe, the mother of all life, the great partner of chaos and creativity ... She is the feminine energy that compels us to care about the future of Earth ... I hear Gaia speaking quietly and forcefully through many women these days ... We hear Gaia's story in primal wisdom traditions, in today's indigenous tribes, in most spiritual thought, and in poets old and new."
There is much more in this vein, none of which seems likely to fortify the Catholic faith of teachers attending the conference.
The other keynote speaker is the Irish Columban priest Fr Seán McDonagh, who is thoroughly immersed in green issues, having written a host of books, with titles like Greening the Christian Millennium, Why are We Deaf to the Cry of the Earth, To Care for the Earth and The Death of Life: The Horror of Extinction.
He was due to speak at the conference on "issues such as biodiversity and global warming".
Important as these issues may be, they are hardly at the centre of the Catholic educational enterprise. There is no one "orthodox" position on how to address climate change, species extinction, land degradation or poverty. And given the saturation coverage of such issues in the secular media, it is a case of taking coal to Newcastle (Shepparton) at enormous expense.
More deserving of attention is the widespread moral pollution - abortion, cloning, "gay marriage" - on which the Church has much to say and about which most Catholics, including teachers and parents, are ignorant or misinformed.
The choice of Bishop Pat Power, an auxiliary bishop of Canberra- Goulburn Archdiocese, as one of the speakers seems unlikely to help in this regard since Bishop Power has been publicly critical of Church teachings, including on a male priesthood and in the general area of sexuality.
In the April 2002 edition of The Mix, the official publication of Catalyst for Renewal, Bishop Power wrote, "The 1997 Vatican Instruction on the Relationship of the Non-ordained with the Ordained, the 1998 Statement of Conclusions, Dominus Iesus (2000) and most recently Liturgiam Authenticam, all, to my mind, represent a deliberate regression from the teaching and spirit of Vatican II."
While the seminars and workshops on secular subjects - the vast majority - will no doubt prove valuable as far as they go, an opportunity will be lost to strike a blow where it most counts.
Meanwhile, the choice of such questionable speakers underlines why all Australian bishops need to take complete ownership of their CEOs if the crisis of faith in schools is to be addressed with relevant and effective strategies.