More than any other single factor, the presence of strong, orthodox priests is crucial to the calibre of religious education in Australia's Catholic schools. Canonically, parish priests are the local teachers of the faith, even if, for many reasons, few exercise this role as they are entitled.
Catholic schools need to be - as the recent Pastoral Letter of the Bishops of NSW and the ACT (Catholic Schools at a Crossroads) put it - 'centres of the new evangelisation'. To foster this, the Letter called for closer ties between schools and parishes.
With belief and practice rates in continuing decline, the Church needs an infusion of holy, capable and energetic young priests who can connect with the 'unchurched' in parishes and exert a positive influence over the Catholic culture of the schools in their locality, both primary and secondary.
Thanks to the seminary reforms in several dioceses in recent years, there has been an encouraging beginning in this direction.
However, the overall situation today continues to reflect what has occurred since the early 1970s, when the role of Catholic Education Offices expanded immensely, even to the extent of dictating the content and method of diocesan RE courses in primary and secondary schools as well as effectively marginalising the educational role of parish priests.
Priests critical of the doctrinal inadequacies of officially mandated curricula or seeking to remedy deficiencies themselves have often come off second best when bishops side with the CEO bureaucrats (or school staffs) in any disputes. Other priests have learned from this to keep their peace, whatever their reservations.
To address this situation, today's seminaries need to include programs for future priests that help them to understand the school situation in their diocese and provide them with the knowledge and skills to make an effective contribution.
The canonical justification for a more interventionist role for parish priests was set out in a paper written by Rev Dr Ian Waters of the Melbourne Archdiocese at the invitation of the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria (CECV) in 2006.
Fr Waters' paper, titled 'The Canon Law of Governance in Victorian Catholic Primary Schools' was later published as an appendix in the CECV report 'Governance in Victorian Catholic Primary Schools'. The document can be found on the CECV website and needs to be read in full to understand the nuances of Fr Waters' argument.
Fr Waters points out that the power of governance in the Church derives from Christ through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, imparting 'to bishops, priests and deacons the sacred powers of teaching (e.g., preaching, catechising), sanctifying (e.g., celebrating Mass and the sacraments) and governing (administering and directing the social life of the Church).'
Once appointed, Fr Waters explains, a parish priest's role is determined by Canon Law which makes clear he 'is not an agent of the bishop such that he has a retainer that can be terminated; he is not an employee of the bishop such that he can be dismissed with or without notice; he is not a delegate of the bishop such that his delegation can be revoked.'
The responsible ecclesiastical authority in the case of a parish school is the parish priest. Canon law 'determines that he alone - not the diocesan bishop - acts in the person of the parish in all juridical matters. He alone is responsible not only for the sacraments, liturgy, doctrinal formation, etc., but also for the civil, administrative and penal aspects.'
Despite the enormous role played by CEOs in recent decades, the authority of Canon Law remains. Fr Waters argues, 'As regards governance, the parish priest is ultimately responsible. It is difficult to see how he could be exercising his role of governance if he did not control the appointment and removal of the principal, and hold at least the right to approve or reject the appointment of all teachers and of the chief administrative officers.
'Only in this way could he personally ensure the Catholicity, the ethos, the local patrimony, and the parish and school policies, for which he - and not the bishop or officers of the Catholic Education Office - is ultimately responsible for all.'
Moreover, 'the parish priest is ultimately responsible within the parish faith community not only for governance, but also for sanctifying and teaching' and 'it is difficult to see how he could be responsible for those who teach religion within his parish (in religious education classes and in preparation for the sacraments) unless he has the power to appoint or approve those teachers of religion, and to remove them or demand that they be removed if they are not fulfilling their obligations to impart Catholic doctrine.'
Fr Waters concedes 'there is no problem with the Catholic Education Office administering schools' as long as 'the right of the parish priest to control and govern the school is not infringed'. This right cannot be usurped even by the local bishop: 'If he were to do so, leaving the parish priest as the mere chaplain in his parish school, the parish priest could have recourse to the Holy See who would most certainly find in favour of the parish priest.'
These are strong words and run counter to the present trend in Australian Catholic dioceses. But if the present parlous situation is to be addressed from the ground up, future priests need to be made aware of their canonical rights and responsibilies in regard to religious education and provided with suitable seminary training to exercise these effectively.
Archbishop Barry Hickey of Perth clearly understands the situation having announced measures in April 2007 to strengthen the role of parish priests in Catholic schools with each Catholic primary and secondary school 'to be accountable to the parish priest in its locality for its religious activities, including the teaching of RE.'
The detailed measures to give effect to this were set out in the June AD2000 (page 4).