Teaching Christian doctrine in Catholic primary schools

Teaching Christian doctrine in Catholic primary schools

Gerard Gaskin

On 16 October 1979, Pope John Paul II issued his Apostolic Exhortation, 'Catechesi Tradendae.' This work was the outcome of the Fourth General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops convened by Pope Paul VI, in October 1977. The document, timely in issue, comprehensive in its coverage, and clear in its prescriptive directives, addressed the entire question of catechesis in our time. It drew directly from its precursor, the General Catechetical Directory which remains, "... the basic document for encouraging and guiding catechetical renewal throughout the Church" ('Catechesi Tradendae,' n. 4).

St Clare's Catholic primary school, Box Hill North, in the Archdiocese of Melbourne, has addressed itself to the directives of the Holy Father and sought to implement them fully within its religious education curriculum. In this article Mr Gerard Gaskin, Principal of St Clare's, discusses the implementation of the Holy Father's directives on the tenth anniversary of the publication of 'Catechesi Tradendae.'

Catechesi Tradendae charted the course for authentic catechetical renewal within the Universal Church. The document is rich in advice for catechists working in every educational setting in the modern Church. Yet it has not been given the prominence it deserves in educational circles. Although it is a personal exhortation of the Holy Father to all teachers of the Faith, very few Catholic teachers today seem to be aware even of its existence.

In this document the Holy Father emphasises six key themes:

1. Christocentric catechesis: "Christocentricity in catechesis also means the intention to transmit not one's own teaching or that of some other master, but the teaching of Jesus Christ ... the Truth that he is" (n.6).

2. Catechesis must be systematic: Pope John Paul drew attention to the "... absolute need for a systematic catechesis ... not improvised but programmed to reach a precise goal; it must deal with essentials" (n.21 ).

3. The integrity of content: The Pope asserts the "... right (of the person being catechised) to receive the 'word of faith' not in a mutilated, falsified form but whole and entire ... there is no valid pretext for refusing him any part whatever of that knowledge" (n.30).

4. Orthodoxy versus orthopraxis: "It is useless to play off orthopraxis (right actions) against orthodoxy (right beliefs): Christianity is inseparably both." The Pope attacks the "either or" argument, that the doctrinal formation of children will in some way be done at the expense of teaching them to lead good lives: "firm and well-thought-out convictions lead to courageous and upright action" (n.22).

5. Life experience: "It is also quite useless to campaign for the abandonment of serious and orderly study of the message of Christ in the name of a message concentrating on life experience. No one can arrive at the whole truth on the basis solely of some simple private experience" (n.22).

6. Methodology - memorisation: Whilst acknowledging that memorisation can lead to, "reducing all knowledge to formulas that are repeated without being properly understood", the Holy Father regrets the, "definitive suppression of memorisation in catechesis." He asks, "Should we not attempt to put this faculty back into use in an intelligent and even an original way in catechesis ... We must be realists. The blossoms, if we may call them that, of faith and piety do not grow in the desert places of a memory-less catechesis" (n.55).

The specific task which the Holy Father set for the primary school was the motivation for formulating a Religious Education Program for St Clare's School that would embody both diocesan directives and those of Catechesi Tradendae in a formal, systematic framework. Referring specifically to children in the primary school, His Holiness indicated that at this age the catechesis would be:

  • "didactic in character... " (characterised by giving instruction),
  • "directed towards the giving of witness in the faith",
  • "an initial catechesis but not a fragmentary one, since it will have to reveal, although in an elementary way, all the principal mysteries of faith and their effects on the child's moral and religious life...",
  • "a catechesis that gives meaning to the sacraments (and) communicates to the child the joy of being a witness to Christ in ordinary life" (n. 37).


Canon Law states that catechetical formation must ensure that the children, according to their character, capability, age and circumstances in life, "... may be more fully steeped in Catholic teaching and prepared to put it into practice", (n. 779). The General Catechetical Directory had indicated the necessity of statements, or formulas: "Formulas permit the thoughts of the mind to be expressed accurately, are appropriate for a correct exposition of the faith, and, when committed to memory, help towards the firm possession of truth" (n. 73).

With all the above prescriptions in mind we set out to formulate a Religious Education Program for the school. The parish priest of St Clare's, Father Leo Kelly, DCL, encouraged and participated in this project with enthusiasm and a great deal of good advice.

Traditionally, summaries of Catholic Doctrine arranged the doctrinal statements under the sequence of the various themes of the Creeds: God, Creation, Incarnation, Sin, Redemption, the Church, Sacraments, etc. I considered it beneficial to adopt the same arrangement of themes in framing the St Clare's program.

Using a number of authoritative resources, some 150 statements of Catholic doctrine, practice, devotion and life were selected. These were then grouped, under each of the above themes into systematic order, graduating from simple brief statements for the infant grades, to more complex explanations for the senior years. Accordingly, each year each theme would reappear. The statements grouped under the theme would reinforce and deepen the ones which had preceded them in earlier years.

For example, on the theme of "Baptism and The Church", there are 25 statements spread through the seven years of the primary school.

In Grade Prep the children learn: "When we are Baptised as Catholics we become part of God's family. This family is called the Catholic Church". Grade One reinforces the statement learnt in Prep.

In Grade Two this has developed into three further statements, one of which is: "Baptism is a sign of love from God who calls us into His family. It makes us members of His Church and able to receive the sacraments."

In the First Communion year, Grade Three, the idea of Redemption and Original Sin is introduced in four statements, emphasising the need for Baptism. For example: "The sin of Adam comes down to us and is called Original Sin. We are all born with it. Baptism takes away Original Sin by infusing the life of God's grace into our souls."

By Grade Four the concept of the Church's role is expanded in six statements, one of which is: "Jesus gave His authority to the Church and we must believe what it teaches. Jesus said: 'All power is given to Me in Heaven and on earth ... Go therefore and teach all nations... and behold I am with you all days, even to the end of the world' (Matt. 28:18- 20)."

In Grade Five, among eleven statements covering such topics as the four marks of the Church, the promise of the everlasting Church, membership of the Church and the Mystical Body, we have: "]esus promised that His Church would teach the truth always, so when the Pope speaks as God's representative, about what we must believe and how we should live, he cannot be wrong. This means that the Pope is infallible."

The Grade Six level revises all these concepts and encourages a deeper understanding of them.

On average, the program requires each child to learn 21 statements per school year, approximately one statement every two school weeks. This makes it possible to plan two-week units of work made up of various activities directed at teaching a particular doctrinal point. The General Catechetical Directory had made it clear that, "Formulas (statements) are generally presented when the lesson or inquiry has reached the point of synthesis" (n. 73). Accordingly, the statements, or formulas, are only introduced for learning after the concepts presented in the lessons and units of work are fully understood.

An overview, at the beginning of each Grade section, indicates the sequence of statements and themes. It aims at complementing the Diocesan guidelines for Religious Education. In addition the program includes a list of prayers to be learnt, along with a detailed introduction, descriptions of appropriate teaching methods, and relevant quotations from Catechesi Tradendae and the Code of Canon Law.

After many hours of staff consultation and discussion the final draft, entitled St Clare's Religious Education Program: Truth in Charity, was submitted to the Archdiocese for Imprimatur. This it received, along with the Nihil Obstat, in July 1985.

Two effects

The Holy Father had said: "What is essential is that the texts that are memorised must at the same time be taken in and gradually understood in depth, in order to become a source of Christian life on the personal level and the community level" (n. 55). The teacher therefore must stimulate the child's intellect. Not to do so is a denial of the true nature of education. As G.K. Chesterton once said: "Education is only truth in a state of transmission."

The only effective means of bringing the mind of the child to an adequate understanding of the truths of the Church is one which places the intellect in its true place. Thus, all catechetical methods must aim to produce two effects in the child.

The first effect is intellectual: to deepen the child's knowledge, understanding, and ultimately, belief in the truths of our faith, and of God's wishes for us. The second effect is on the will, namely that, flowing from this knowledge and understanding comes a desire and an intention to live one's life according to this belief. In the words of Frank Sheed, "For the soul's full functioning we need a Catholic intellect as well as a Catholic will."

There is a religion lesson in every class every day. Every day begins and ends with prayer. The whole school stops at midday for the recitation of the Angelus. Every classroom has a crucifix.

The Rosary and devotion to the Brown Scapula are promoted. Regular daily visits to the Blessed Sacrament are encouraged. The whole school attends First Friday Mass. The school operates a program of education in the human virtues. In accordance with the directives of Canon Law the obligation on all Catholics to do Friday Penance is emphasised, along with the supernatural virtues.

The school encourages a strong personal relationship between the parent, the teacher and the child which expresses a genuine friendship based on mutual respect. Patents participate in the school sacramental program. A school Mass is held on special Sundays, thus involving parents in the liturgy. A future direction is the formulation of a program to enable parents to participate, at home, in the development of the particular RE topic being taught at school.

Standards of discipline are high and every child wears full school uniform. The school maintains a high academic standard, attracting many enrolments from great distances.

By Grade Six the children have a deep understanding of the doctrines of grace, the sacraments, the marks of the Catholic Church; they can recite and explain the Ten Commandments; can explain the meanings of words such as "transubstantiation", "supernatural", "Trinity", "Beatific Vision". They have a simple understanding of the distinction between the material world and the world of the spirit. Most can give a simple proof for the existence of God and all know the difference between a Mortal and a Venial sin. They know the meaning of Original Sin and the consequent need for Redemption and can explain how the Mass is the sacrifice of the Cross.

The school program teaches the children to be alert to the essential difference between human opinion and the authoritative teaching of the Church, and the response that such teaching requires of them.

One cannot predict with any certainty whether this depth of religious knowledge will result in St Clare's children leading the life of virtue which culminates in eternal happiness. What is certain, however, is that without this formation they would have far less chance of doing so.

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