Marist Brother Luke Saker has recently conducted research on the beliefs and practices of Catholic undergraduate students intending to teach religion in Catholic schools. His research project, titled, 'A Study of 1st and 2nd Year Catholic University Students' Perceptions of their Senior Religious Education Classes in Catholic Schools in Western Australia', 2004, is available from Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia.
Despite the obvious successes of many Catholic schools in the academic and sporting fields, one needs to ask whether these schools are as successful in carrying out the prime reason for their existence, the Catholic education of their students?
It was during his lecturing in Catholic Studies to undergraduate students who wish to teach in Catholic schools and to teach religious education that Br Luke Saker became aware that these undergraduates, who had just completed their Year 12 studies at Catholic schools, knew very little of their Catholic Faith, its doctrines and dogmas.
And from this position of ignorance, they are quick to reject Catholic teachings.
It was because of the above observations that Br Saker conducted some research with first and second year university students who had just completed secondary school and had studied religious education in Catholic schools in years 11 and 12. The study included both quantitative (chapter 5) and qualitative (chapter 6) research.
In his study Br Saker acknowledged that parents, peers, teachers, the media and societal values all play a part in determining students' religious beliefs. But he was interested in finding out what influence the Catholic school and, in particular, senior students' religious education classes played in Catholic students' religious development and acceptance of the Church into which they were baptised.
Br Saker firstly looked at key Vatican documents on Catholic education, as well as those issued by the Bishops of Western Australia, to ascertain if Catholic schools were, in fact, carrying out what was articulated in these documents as the primary purpose of or for these schools.
This article can only provide a brief snapshot of Br Saker's extensive quantitative and qualitative data, which indicate that the majority of Catholic students attending Edith Cowan University completed Year 12 with little or no idea of the basic tenets of their Catholic Faith. The following are a few of the findings from the study:
* 12.1 percent of students agreed or strongly agreed that senior religious education classes were taken seriously by senior students;
* 12.8 percent reported that they attended Mass every Sunday;
* 82 percent stated that they rarely or never went to the Sacrament of Reconciliation;
* 9 percent saw the use of contraception as sinful;
* 12 percent saw themselves as practising Catholics.
According to Br Saker's qualitative study all students interviewed saw the Church as out of date with contemporary society and, in particular, were most critical of the Church's moral teachings.
More alarming still was the fact that they could not state why the Church took such a strong stance on abortion, contraception, euthanasia, in vitro fertilisation and homosexuality.
The major findings of the study were as follows:
* Catholic Schools would appear not to be carrying out the primary purpose for their existence, that is, the Catholic education of their students.
* Students did not see that they gained anything from their religious education classes nor did they see these classes assisting them in their religious development.
* Students are rejecting most of the doctrinal teachings of the Catholic Church, for example, Sunday Mass attendance, contraception and divorce and re-marriage.
* Students saw their lived exper- iences as being opposed to the Catholic Church's teaching especially in the area of moral theology.
* Students saw the Church as out of date with modern society and no longer having any impact on their lives.
Br Saker's major recommendations were:
* The pedagogy of senior religious education classes should be reviewed.
* The framers of religious education curricula (especially for years 11 and 12) should take a closer look at the methodology they use in the writing of the various units.
* Senior religious education curricula should have at its core the imparting of religious knowledge.
* Catechesis should play a role in religious education classes but not at the expense of religious knowledge. Religious education, as the name implies, should be taught in the same manner as science, mathematics, etc.
* Parents should, where possible, be offered re-evangelisation programs in their parish or at the Catholic school their child attends.
* The teacher training at universities should be such that those intending to teach religious education in Catholic schools should have a sound Catholic theological background. One cannot teach effectively from ignorance.
Br Saker's findings indicate that there are many challenges ahead if religious education is to be taught successfully in Catholic schools.
Whether those responsible for the spiritual well-being of students attending Catholic schools address these challenges remains to be seen. The relative lack of action following earlier, similar research findings by Br Marcellin Flynn and others over the past few decades does not fill one with optimism.
Dr Saker is a lecturer in Catholic Studies at Edith Cowan University.