New studies raise question: How 'Catholic' are Catholic schools?

New studies raise question: How 'Catholic' are Catholic schools?

Michael Gilchrist

A new study by Br Marcellin Flynn FMS, The Culture of Catholic Schools - A Study of Catholic Schools: 1972-1993, (St Paul Publications, RRP $17.95), confirms concerns expressed about the 'Catholic' character of many Catholic schools in Australia. The study, which involved 6,000 Catholic Year 12 students, their parents and teachers, in N.S.W. and the A.C.T., follows three earlier studies carried out by Br Flynn over a period of 20 years.

Br Flynn is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Religious Education, Australian Catholic University, Strathfield, N.S.W., and a recognised leader in his field. His conclusion: "A consistent, rapid decline in the religious dimension of the [Catholic] schools has taken place over this period [1972-1990] and ... there are no signs that it is about to be arrested" (p. 1).

A quite different estimate was reported on the front page of The Sydney Catholic Weekly (8 December 1993) arising from a much smaller survey conducted by another academic from Australian Catholic University, Professor Gideon Goosen. Headed "Religion wins over students", the report dealt with a survey of 330 senior students in three Sydney Catholic schools which examined their attitudes to religion after completing the H.S.C. Studies in Religion course.

Dr Goosen said he found it "very gratifying" that Catholic students had an increased openness to Aboriginal spirituality. He noted also that students had an increased "perception" as to the "importance of religion in giving people an identity" and had "an increased conviction" regarding the influence of religions in Australian society. Dr Goosen said that while he wanted to "stress the positive things", "just one negative thing" to emerge from his survey was that the students "were more inclined to agree that what people believe is not important as long as they believe something and that all religions are equally good or bad."

Put simply, the net result of 12 years' exposure to the faith in Catholic schools for young Catholics is - religious indifferentism! But Dr Goosen is still able to look on the bright side.

However, while Br Flynn has positive things to say about the non-specifically Catholic qualities of the schools he surveyed, he admits there are serious problems in the religious domain. We learn, for example, that of the Catholic students surveyed, only 29% thought it very important "to be a practising member of the Catholic Church" (p.103) and 34% said they "feel at home in the Church" (p.31 1).

The number attending Sunday Mass according to the survey fell from 69% in 1972 to 38% in 1990 (p. 111); 53% said their parents expected them to attend Mass (compared with 83% in 1972) (p.298). The general Mass attendance rates around Australia are 20% or less, bolstered by older age groups, with few Catholics at universities or in the young to middle aged 'single' category now going to Mass. (Br Flynn found close correlations between Mass attendance and a wide range of religious beliefs and practices).

In the matter of the Catholic Church's moral teachings,

  • 70% of Year 12 students believed it was alright for "people who are not married to live together" [i.e., 'shack up'] (up from 58% in 1982);
  • 58% said abortion was alright if pregnancy was the result of rape (41% in 1982);
  • 19% accepted the Church's teaching on birth control (27% in 1982);
  • 20% thought sexual intercourse outside of marriage was morally wrong (28% in 1972) (p.312).

The most telling indictment comes with Br Flynn's revelation that his test of "knowledge of the Catholic faith" consisting of 24 multiple-choice questions had to be shelved because of the students' ignorance of basic religious terminology: "It quickly became apparent that Year 12 students were not familiar at all with the theological concepts and language used. (One person asked: 'Who is this person Grace?')."

The average number of correct responses was 11 out of 24, but in multiple-choice tests (ticking the correct alternative of 3-4 suggested answers) one can often guess up to that number without any knowledge of the subject. In fact, only one student out of the 6,000 surveyed of all 24 answers right! (p.430). (It would have been even more interesting to know what the questions were which 'stumped' so many Catholic students).

One might think that the above statistics would be solid cause for concern among Catholic parents. Many of them, however, are themselves products of the content-light religion programs of the past 20 years. Br Flynn records: "In four areas of school life - personal development, academic expectations, preparation for employment and social development - the level of parents' expectations of Catholic schools has significantly increased over the period 1982-1990. In the case of religious development, however, their expectations have shown a marked decline. Parents today do not have high religious expectations of the schools".

Parents unhappy with the poor quality of many of today's R.E. programs remain a small minority - only 16% surveyed in 1990 were either "concerned" (13%) or "very concerned" (3%) about the teaching of R.E. at school (p.247). Yet at the same time only 18% of teachers in the same survey thought students knew the faith well enough (p.257).

Remedial action?

The likelihood of remedial action is remote. The Church's educational bureaucrats are well entrenched and few bishops seem prepared to take them on. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church, which the Pope has had published because of the poor quality of religion programs worldwide, is unlikely to make much difference in Australia once it becomes available, for the above reasons.

The problem, according to Br Flynn, is also linked to those who teach.

As recently as 1970, over half the teachers in Catholic schools were members of religious orders. By 1990, only 5% were. And many of today's younger lay teachers are products of the 'new catechetics' and unsound teacher education courses.

Teachers Br Flynn surveyed in 1990 produced the following kinds of statistics. Only

  • 43% thought euthanasia was morally wrong;
  • 49% thought abortion worse than the birth of an unwanted child (p.321);
  • 62% believed that "Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist";
  • 50% agreed that "Going to Mass on Sunday is important to me" (p.320).

Br Flynn acknowledges that "the religious development of staff may well be one of the most urgent tasks facing administrators in Catholic schools. Many teachers and parents ... referred to the lack of any religious commitment amongst some staff members in Catholic schools, as well as amongst recent graduates of Catholic teachers' colleges" (p.428).

In the light of Br Flynn's findings, the question the Catholic Church needs to confront very soon, if the decline persists, is how much worse must things get before maintenance of a separate system of Catholic schools loses its justification?

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