Since his installation as Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr George Pell has attracted intermittent criticisms in the media, e.g., for changes in the seminary and "politically incorrect" stances on a range of ethical issues. The latest controversy, highlighted in a recent in-depth report in The Sunday Age (23 May 1999) centres on the Archbishop's planned reforms to the religious education curriculum.
On one level, this is a controversy that should not have arisen. Drafts of the syllabus and other associated papers have been circulated, it would seem, on restricted access, to a "select number of teachers and theologians for comment". How, one might ask, did such material on restricted access - that The Sunday Age describes as being "tightly held documents" - come into the hands of third parties, including the Sunday Age?
The bulk of the comments cited by the Sunday Age were critical of the proposed reforms. The paper's columnist even suggested they constituted a rejection of Vatican II, which, the reader is told, occurred in 1968 (!) and a return to the "Dark Ages" - not the period of the seventh and eight centuries, but the 1940s and 1950s.
Ironically, during these "dark ages" the Catholic Church was on "a high" in terms of the knowledge, understanding and practice of the faith and vocations to the priesthood and religious life. One needs only to observe the average age of priests, religious and practising laity to realise that the Catholic church in this country is still benefiting from this heritage, though with increasing difficulty as the years progress.
Virtually the only voice cited that had something positive to offer was a Uniting Church theologian, Dr Rufus Black. While calling for a broadening of the proposed curriculum, Black acknowledges that what is offered is "a very real opportunity for the necessary reform of religious education because there are significant gains to what is proposed ... Crucially, what is offered is a substantial and systematic introduction to the Christian tradition".
On the other hand, former priest Michael Morwood, whose recent work, Tomorrow's Catholic, was censured for calling into question basic Christian truths such as the divinity of Christ and the Trinity, is highly critical (as are other contributors invited by the Sunday Age like Fr Paul Collins, Robert Crotty and Brian Scarlett).
One problem Michael Morwood has is with the following proposition: "by his sacrifice on the cross, Jesus became our redeemer". He describes this as "terrible stuff" and "a narrow interpretation of Jesus' role as redeemer; - the traditional understanding of Redemption (the belief that Christ died to redeem mankind from its sins) consigns Christianity to the museum". Presumably texts such as the New Testament and the documents of Vatican II would also be exhibits in Morwood's museum, as both speak of Christ's death in these terms.
Other criticisms of the doctrinal content of the draft syllabus include suggestions that Catholics will be taught that all other Christians are "second class citizens". Perhaps what the critics are hinting at is that students will actually be taught that the Catholic Church does not teach that one religion is as good as another - an impression held by all too many graduates of Catholic Schools - but, instead, that Vatican II teaches: a) the fullness of the deposit of faith is to be found in the Catholic Church, and; b) the Church founded by Jesus Christ subsists in the Catholic Chuch (cf. Lumen Gentium paras. 8 and 15).
Other critiques cited, such as that of Sr Brigid Arthur, a member of the Brigidine Congregation, focus on questions of methodology. She rightly argues that "all good education must begin with the students [and] with their stages of development." However, Sr Brigid argues that much of the course material is unsuitable for small children, for example, the Trinity and the Papacy, as it requires abstract thought, of which these children are incapable; any attempts to teach such concepts to small children would trivialise the concepts.
If the same logic were to be applied to mathematics, then one would have to assume that most primary children should not be taught mathematics, since mathematics is inherently abstract. The fact is, mathematics is taught to small children. It is taught in a concrete fashion that small children can grasp, even though educationalists may run the risk of trivialising, for example, Euclid through a coloured shape collection and other such teaching aids.
Mgr Peter Elliott, who is overseeing the development of the new Melbourne curriculum, makes clear he has no intention of jettisoning any positive aspects of RE methodology developed over the last 30 years: "We are not trying to abandon the emphasis on life and human experience". But the bottom line was ensuring Catholic students actually understand what the Church teaches.
At the conclusion of Year 12, students who have studied Mathematics are expected to be proficient in complex algebra and geometry; likewise, we expect English students to have good text analysis skills and to have read challenging works such as Macbeth and Hamlet. However, in the case of RE, thanks in part to the "progressive" methods used, few Catholic students in recent decades have graduated with more than the most rudimentary grasp of their faith, despite exposure to up to 13 years of RE lessons.
Given this situation, the urgent need for a radically reformed approach - as is planned in the Melbourne Archdiocese - would seem to be self-evident.