How to fix Australia's Catholic schools and colleges

How to fix Australia's Catholic schools and colleges

Br Barry Coldrey

In Australia, there is continuing concern that most Catholic schools are doing little to foster the Catholic faith in all its dimensions in their pupils.

Some secularised principals and staff seem to settle for -

* encouraging the pupils in sound, caring, sensitive relationships - which is fine, but with ordinary human chemistry there is little need to encourage relationships, as they encourage themselves;

* working at instilling and fostering a concern for the poor, deprived, marginalised and excluded. This is fine, too, but it is only one facet of the Christian life; there are also the vital matters of belief, worship and lifestyle.

Moreover concern for the deprived and marginalised is often viewed in material terms alone.

There have been major professional studies over the last ten years which are unanimous that at least 90-95 percent of pupils who leave Catholic schools after Years 11 and 12 are no longer practising Catholics.

This situation is symptomatic of the state of the Catholic population, given that the staffs at Catholic schools and colleges are part of the Catholic community and reflect that community's spiritual condition early in the third millennium.

'New' Catholic

However, those who are concerned need to be aware that a new type of Catholic has emerged in Catholic colleges and tertiary institutions, as well as in the bureaucracies which support these. These are the Catholics who are prepared to conform on special occasions, such as a Commencement or Graduation Mass, but who are not practising Catholics in their private lives. At a Graduation Eucharist, the faculty and students may attend and stream forward to Communion, but don't live as practising Catholics throughout the year.

Since they are prepared to conform on public, high-profile occasions, wishful thinking church leaders often place these people down as practising and enthusiastic Catholics. They are not, for commonly,

* they do not practise regularly and normally in their own parishes; and/or

* they are in relationships which the Church does not bless; and/or

* they openly deride core Catholic teachings among and around their chosen circles.

We have to face up to this phenomenon of what might be described as 'the bad news trying to proclaim the Good News'.

Yet many refuse to face the problem. I was at a Mass recently for a specialist group of highly-educated Catholics and the Bishop mentioned the awkward studies above and advised his congregation not to explore them.

At the outset, then, it would help if Church leaders faced squarely the fact that there is a problem, namely that the vast, expensive Catholic education system, constructed out of the 'blood, sweat and raffles' of so many Catholics in times past, is, or appears to be, a failure in critical areas.

In light of this, realistically, can anything be done?

* The Bishops need to issue a strong, confident statement on the purpose of Catholic schools and colleges, one which states unambiguously that there are other relevant levels than 'encouraging sound relationships', and 'concern for the marginalised', good as those these values are.

* When individuals are chosen for key appointments in Catholic education their actual practice needs to be determined. This can require investigation. References, word-of-mouth and interviews are not enough. Professional investigation is necessary. The person interviewed can easily lie; facts can be hard to come by in an interview, but easily found by an investigator.

* If and when reforming principals do survive the selection process and are appointed, they need to set goals as to what is actually achievable. These might be the modest, useful and winnable goals for the first year or so:

1. Do a good job at running the place so that staff are broadly supportive. (A reformer who is no good at the basics does have an understandably rough passage.)

2. Make sure the religious education department has the same sort of resources, e.g., office, library, secretary, meeting room, as the other major departments, like mathematics, science or languages. It's a start and is winnable.

3. Make sure that the head of religious studies is really an active Catholic (not merely a conformer at official social/religious functions) and once appointed is given generous support.

4. Encourage the angry, anti-Catholic 'Catholics', or some of them, to seek other career options.

5. When appointing staff, especially key staff such as form co-ordinators, investigate to get staff who are supportive of the reforming norms.

6. Try to obtain the services of at least a part-time chaplain to offer class Masses or leadership to sodalities such as a Legion of Mary conference or a St Vincent de Paul youth branch. It is helpful to pay the prospective chaplain, especially if he is an impecunious assistant priest.

7. Encourage (i.e., with specific cash grants) the librarians to purchase sound, up-to-date, relevant religious literature for the library.

8. Update the college website to highlight its religious side - truthfully.

There are some things one can do, granted that it's far from a perfect educational world and many Catholics have settled for the values of the post-modern, secular society.

Dr Barry Coldrey CFC has taught in secondary schools and universities around Australia and overseas for many years. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including The Contribution of the Christian Brothers to the Development of Irish Nationalism, 1801-1921.

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