Rediscovering the real history of Australian Catholic education

Rediscovering the real history of Australian Catholic education

Eamonn Keane

The 6 June 2007 edition of CathNews carried an article authored by Dr Graham English analysing Catholic education in Australia, past and present. Dr English is a senior lecturer in religious education at the Australian Catholic University (National).

After stating that the Catholic bishops of Australia in the 1880s established Catholic schools in order to serve as 'the primary socialising influence to make children into Catholics and to form a particular kind of Catholic community based on the model set up by Cardinal Cullen in Ireland,' Dr English went on to add:

'By using religious sisters and brothers they were able to do this for about eighty years because they were working with a Catholic population that was mainly Irish-descended and in many ways socially homogenous. Almost all the Catholics were working class, poorly educated and were prone to accept the bishops' will. The sisters and brothers who taught in the schools were also working class, poorly educated and trained to do as they were told. The bishops had societal and cultural pressure that they could bring to bear on Catholics to ensure that they sent their children to Catholic schools: especially fear, peer pressure and the need for identity and security.'

Such a sweeping appraisal calls for a response.

In my view, it is erroneous to assert that fear was a key ingredient used on an uneducated laity by uneducated sisters and brothers who had been trained to blindly obey bishops. Further, I consider it to be egregiously false to suggest that bishops were, by and large, harsh, overbearing and unfeeling individuals; and equally false to suggest that religious teachers were not smart enough to teach sound Catholic doctrine, nor virtuous enough to practise it properly, being motivated largely by fear and not love.

It is true that fear can be a potent motive that stimulates certain actions. If fear of bad habits, of Satan and of an eternal Hell prompts people to pray and to practise virtue, that is not a bad thing. Fear of sin and its consequences can prompt penitence and recourse to the Sacrament of Penance. Of course, the ultimate objective of conversion and the pursuit of virtue is that they lead to a loving embrace of God and neighbour.

The assertion that Irish Catholics who came to Australia in the 19th and 20th centuries - as well as the religious brothers and sisters who served them - were a servile mob motivated largely by cultural insecurity suggests a certain ignorance of the place of Catholic faith in the history of Ireland and of its influence on the Irish diaspora.

Labour movement

While the majority of Irish Catholic immigrants to Australia in the 19th and early 20th centuries were under-educated, as were their class counterparts in other European nations, they were nevertheless anything but servile. They were intolerant of unjust social conventions, hence their influence on the development of the labour movement in Australia. They were counted among those who strove to implement democratic processes such as the universal franchise.

Indeed, in the December 1978 edition of Quadrant, the late Professor Patrick O'Farrell argued that it was due to 'the Irish determination not to be put down' that 'the balance was at last tipped in favour of a plural society and against an exclusivist and homogenous one'.

Along with their contribution to building a just society, the majority of Irish Catholic immigrants were determined to pass their faith on to their children. This was not a faith based on ignorance. Rather it was steeped in the memory of how their forebears had been brutalised for their tenacity in holding to the Catholic faith which had been passed down to them through a long line of saints and martyrs. Yes it was very devotional, but a devotion that was anchored in the central mysteries of the faith.

Many Irish immigrants in the period under review brought with them a distrust of public education. Based on their experience in Ireland under British and Protestant hegemony, many of them were fearful of placing their children in public schools lest they be weaned away from the 'faith of their fathers.' Hence the establishment of Catholic schools in Australia answered one of their most heartfelt needs.

In his homily at a St Patrick's Day Mass in St Mary's Cathedral in 2002, Cardinal Pell paid tribute to the contribution of Irish nuns and brothers to the establishment of Catholic schooling in Australia: '[I]t was the arrival of hundreds of Irish teaching nuns and brothers after the removal of government funding for Church schools in the 1870s that accelerated the steady development and improvement of the Catholic community.'

Referring to how the folk poetry of John O'Brien immortalised these achievements, Cardinal Pell said, 'This is not only the language of faith, but of self-confidence; confidence in the Irish Australian identity and the personal and intellectual adequacy of Catholicism.'

Cardinal Pell then pointed out: 'The great missionary expansion of Irish Catholicism in the 19th and 20th centuries which took the faith not only to Australia, but to the United States, New Zealand, Canada and many parts of Asia and Africa too, [was] only a rerun of Irish missionary activity in the sixth to the eighth centuries, which saw the conversion of Northern Europe ...'.

Dr English in fact attributes excessive weight to the Irish factor in the development of Catholic education and life in Australia. An influential Catholic who can hardly be described as Irish was Blessed Mary MacKillop, being but one among many. There was significant input also from the French teaching orders, e.g., the De La Salle and Marist Brothers. One could also add the Marist Fathers, and in Victoria and Queensland, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Likewise, the distinct imprint of Jesuit educators on generations of Australian youth defies ownership by any one cultural or national group.

Dr English makes no reference to the many educated and influential lay Catholics who were key players during the colonial era. William Augustine Duncan, an aristocratic Scottish Catholic, immediately comes to mind. His influence in both the civil and ecclesial domains would be hard to overestimate. Another such layperson was Caroline Chisholm.

Comparative religion

After saying that Catholic religious education in Australia today 'is about evangelisation and, when possible, catechesis,' Dr English adds, 'It is also about teaching children to read and value Scripture, to know the religions of their fellow Australians, to take part as Catholics in the wider community ... It helps them develop values and meaning in life.'

There are good grounds for believing that religious education departments in many Australian Catholic schools are staffed by lay teachers with poor preparation in catechetics, many of whom graduated from the ACU. A consequence of this, as well as of the proliferation of comparative religion courses in the senior years of high school, is that there has been a retreat from an integral education in Catholic doctrine.

In his article, Dr English stresses what he sees as an abrupt severance between pre- and post-Vatican II Catholic education. As in many current commentaries on Catholic education, Dr English is enthusiastic about change; but he omits to mention the most obvious change which is a major disaster area: that the vast majority of students graduating from Catholic schools and colleges neither know what Christ mandated his Church to teach nor practise it.

Eamonn Keane is a Sydney-based school teacher and author.

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