Professor Denis McLaughlin of Australian Catholic University (McAuley Campus, Brisbane) made a number of revealing observations about the beliefs and practices of teachers in Catholic schools during his address at the second national conference of the Association of Principals of Catholic Secondary Schools at the Gold Coast, from 2-5 October 2002.
These observations followed his earlier survey into the beliefs, values and practices of Catholic student teachers attending Australian Catholic University (see AD2000, May 2000, p.3). That survey found most student teachers did not accept Church teaching on such areas as abortion, contraception, the Eucharist and women's ordination, and on these there were no significant differences between first year and final year students.
This kind of thinking, according to Professor McLaughlin, is also to be found among practising Catholic school teachers, indicating the downward spiral of belief and practice in the general Catholic population shows no sign of levelling out. "I believe," he said, "the vast majority [of teachers] ... have reservations about the contemporary Catholic Church, their employer."
These teachers, along with most Australian Catholics, constituted, he said, a "parallel Church", which largely disregarded the teachings of the "institutional Catholic Church, the Vatican, the Magisterium". In practice: "If they agree with the Church on an issue, it is because the Church position makes sense to them and they actively decide to agree. If a Church teaching does not make sense to them, they will refuse to agree, no matter how often or how clearly or how authoritatively the Church has spoken on it."
As such people see it, this "institution" is more and more out of touch with reality, focusing too much on law, power and authority and too little on service, justice and compassion.
Such muddled thinking is hardly surprising, given the prevalence of the lightweight "new catechetics" - spearheaded by such experts as Thomas Groome and Gabriel Moran - over the past 30 years or so in most Australian dioceses. The cult of individualism and subjectivism, so prevalent in modern Western culture, has also had its impact on religious education.
This has led to the present widespread ignorance of the basics of the faith and their intellectual and historical underpinnings, making an already difficult situation for any religious faith commitment close to impossible. It is no wonder so many Catholics have made their peace with secularism and materialism under a thin veneer of cultural Catholicity. Their views on "gay" rights, divorce, abortion or women priests are indistinguishable from those of the rest of the population.
This group, says Professor McLaughlin, now includes "ordinary mums and dads whose own parents were probably regular church-goers" who, while "very much at home with the Catholic tradition ... unlike their own parents, ignore many rules the institution sees as important." These people criticise what they perceive as a "lack of relevancy between what the Church thinks is important and their lived experience."
Given the present mind-set towards religion of most Catholic school teachers and principals, it is significant that, according to Professor McLaughlin, few young Catholics ever consult a priest on any matter, and that Catholic school principals and teachers are the only "Christ" figures most young Catholics will ever meet. "By default, it is the principal ... and other approachable teachers, who have been given the unofficial leadership of local Catholic communities.
"They are the only God/Church persons the vast majority of Catholics ever meet regularly and the evidence is that Catholic kids do find some religious meaning, not in parishes, but in Catholic schools."
The results of such "religious meaning" are evident, with the professor's own ACU research confirming findings from other sources such as the Catholic Church Life Survey and Brother Marcellin Flynn: "Data obtained by ACU researchers in Sydney found that 97 per cent of young Catholics abandoned the practice of their faith within 12 months of completing high school".
He adds: "This year, with some of my Masters students, I explored the beliefs and values of Year 12 students. We found the dominant spirituality of the young is more creation- focused than redemption-centred. Most do not believe in original sin, they do not accept that at birth they and others are de facto in a state of alienation from God. Consequently, they do not believe that Jesus' prime mission was a sacrifice for their sins and the sins of others.
"To put it bluntly, the world in which young Australians live is so alien from the world of churchmen as to make formal religion appear irrelevant for them."
In other words, despite up to 13 years of religious education, most young Catholics reject the very foundations of the Faith.
This situation is further aggravated by the increasing presence of non-Catholic students in Catholic schools, which represent a more 'affordable' alternative to government schools. McLaughlin found: "In some Catholic secondary schools, over 40 per cent of the population is non-Catholic. Their presence makes the school viable. In some places, this changing parent population wants the Catholic school to welcome a Grammar-type school culture. The point I am making is that the financial tail could well wag the Catholic dog up the semi-elitist path."
More seriously, such a trend makes the urgent task of strengthening the Catholic identity of schools well nigh impossible.
The recent introduction of much improved religion texts into Catholic schools in some dioceses - notably Melbourne and Sydney - has been a step in the right direction. But the future effectiveness of these texts will depend on Church authorities also addressing the deep-seated issues Professor McLaughlin raises.