The condition of Catholic teacher training in Australia

The condition of Catholic teacher training in Australia

Michael Gilchrist

It is the mark of today's increasingly bureaucratised society that day-to-day organisational and developmental considerations tend to crowd out fundamental ideals and purposes. The Catholic Church is no exception, particularly in education, where, especially since the advent of State Aid, her administrators, professionals, specialists and teachers have become de facto participants in the wider government sector; doctrinal purity, specific Vatican directives, important traditions or Catholic identity have tended to be marginalised or diluted as attention focuses on the latest educational theory, capital works programs, course accreditations, population patterns, job vacancies or recent government legislation and policy statements.

In Victoria, the scene of the action as far as this writer is concerned, Equal Opportunity legislation has generated a feverish rash of committee meetings, surveys, elections and paper work which no Papal statement on education could possibly hope to rival. The possibility of Canberra forcing amalgamations on small Catholic teachers' colleges has precipitated numerous printed responses and urgent high level discussions. At the same time, Magisterial documents on the needs of Catholic education continue to gather dust.

Unfortunately, the ever-present danger of secularisation of our colleges is aggravated by the pervasive influences of neo-modernism among lecturers in such departments as Scripture, theology and religious education, with key props of Catholicism such as Divine Revelation, hierarchical authority and immutable truths tending to be de-emphasised or diluted.

And as time goes on, a process of spiritual in-breeding gathers momentum, as faculty heads select new staff with 'correct' post-conciliar thought patterns. A fair proportion of staff members also is non-Catholic and not all of them necessarily understand or support Catholic beliefs and ideals, e.g., whether or not a given student or teacher's public lifestyle is the business of Catholic authorities.

The former situation is not surprising when many religious experts at Australian Catholic teachers' colleges [now amalgamated into Australian Catholic University] have gained their post-graduate qualifications at the feet of prominent modernists commanding the theological heights at Catholic University of America, Fordham University or Boston College. Their subsequent course outlines, lists of recommended readings, handout materials or magazine subscriptions reveal preferences for Fr Richard McBrien, Thomas Groome, Fr Matthew Fox OP, Commonweal or National Catholic Reporter.

Australia's Catholic schools, now overwhelmingly staffed by lay teachers, have been facing an ongoing crisis of identity of faith. Recent research, incidentally, has shown that most parents' prime motives for patronising Catholic schools and colleges are not specifically Catholic; rather they involve more general considerations of morals, discipline, sporting and academic achievement, children's job prospects or a more dedicated, caring staff.

Catholic schools are perceived to be better than State schools, and most are certainly far cheaper than other private schools. No wonder that so many non-Catholics seek admission; there is relatively little, in any case, to offend their children's sensibilities in religion classes where many of the distinctive contours of the Catholic faith have long since been blurred.

Lay staff who have taken over from religious during the past twenty years include many non-Catholics and also some non-practising Catholics. This is not to overlook the still large component of devout, skilled and dedicated Catholic staff members in Catholic schools, but the sheer logistics of finding so many lay teachers for so many government- funded classrooms has created a crisis of quality: how many soundly motivated, orthodox, devout, practising, Catholic teachers are there to be found among the pool of potential recruits?

These recruits after all, are drawn from a community which has massively departed from the Church's official moral teachings and of which only about 25% attend regular Sunday Mass.

Recent research undertaken among students at a Sydney Catholic teachers' college found that barely half of these prospective Catholic teachers attended Sunday Mass, while over half, on average did not support the Church's various moral teachings.

And these, presumably, were the pick of vast numbers of applicants seeking the relatively few teachers' college places. However, one gets the impression that Catholic educational authorities are more concerned about mounting new courses or about funding new building programs than about grappling with such basic issues, assuming that they are aware of them.

If we are to take seriously such Papal and Vatican statements on education as the Credo of the People of God, General Catechectical Directory or Catechesi Tradendae, it is quite clear that programmes used in many Catholic primary and secondary schools continue to be inadequate, whatever lip-service may be paid to them. The fact that Catholic pupils more than ever before are exposed to community influences inimical to Catholic beliefs and spiritual values might imply the need for a bigger than ever emphasis on more effective teaching of the basic ingredients of the faith.

Instead, Catholic student teachers are exhorted to emphasise process and method over content and experience in preference to Revelation.

The experiences of interviewers of teachers' college applicants confirm what recent research surveys have demonstrated about widespread religious illiteracy.

Few, if any, graduates of our Catholic schools appear to grasp what makes Catholicism distinctive; there is only the barest understanding of the role of the Papacy, the supernatural, of the sacrifice of the Mass, of the need for an informed conscience or of the Church's rich history.

Indeed, student knowledge and understanding of the Catholic faith appeared so abysmal that it even became out-of-order for interviewers to ask too specific questions about the faith lest it unnerve applicants.

In any case, many of the interviewers were themselves non- Catholic. Recent changes in the selection procedures may have modified some of these problems but, I suggest, only marginally, since the root of the problem goes back into many of the Catholic schools.

We might expect, under these circumstances, that our Catholic teachers' colleges would have, as an urgent priority, the development of special courses in basic Catholicism, including a simple outline of the essentials of the faith and units say, on apologetics and Church History.

Beyond this, we might also expect serious, concerted efforts to foster more appreciation and enthusiasm for the Catholic faith, its beliefs, practices and traditions: daily Masses, easy availability and encouragement of individual confession, exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, special devotion to Mary (including Rosaries), regular visits to the chapel and prayers before classes.

Local authorities and faculty members could lead by example in these matters.

Keeping in mind the maturity of our student teachers, we might also expect regular reminders of the kinds of lifestyles and behaviour seen to be consistent or inconsistent with being Catholic, let along with being worthy of a future Catholic teacher.

It would be reassuring to learn that such practices are commonplace at even one Australian Catholic teachers' college.

My general impression however, is that this is far from the case, despite the occasional community Mass, reflection day or dignified graduation ceremony. These appear peripheral to college life which, on the whole, seems highly secularised with Catholicism, such as it is, worn lightly, aside from the general pleasantness and camaraderie normal in any smallish communities of whatever religious or professional hue.

This is not to overlook the deeply committed Catholicism of individual students and faculty members, just as there are some exceptionally good Catholic schools and colleges despite general problems with the system.

Likewise, this is not to suggest that the vast majority of students and staff are not very nice people; indeed, one would have to look far and wide to find a more pleasant working environment for staff and students alike, than a Catholic teachers' college.

Nevertheless, there is relatively little to identify these colleges as specifically Catholic; for example, on most days, the chapel tends to be empty, Rosaries non-existent, Masses infrequent and few official reminders to staff and students about their collective responsibilities in the context of the Catholic Church and Catholic education, especially in the light of recent Papal statements on the subject.

So much appears to be taken for granted.

To be frank, the question of Catholic identity has become marginal to that of finding a job; to that of ensuring continued government funding; to keeping in tune with current government policies.

For example, until the recent tightening up of career opportunities in Catholic schools and colleges, there was a veritable bonanza of positions available by comparison with the State system. The Catholic teachers' college was, and still is, to some extent, one of the surest avenues to well-paid, secure, pleasant and generously-vacationed employment.

A generation ago, most budding Catholic teachers took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, lived in religious communities, wore distinctive habits, and taught huge classes. The challenge of finding such single-minded commitment to the faith among our growing army of lay teachers and professionals is awesome indeed.

Unless there is a stronger input from within the colleges themselves or, failing that, from without, to re- educate, to facilitate an urgent growth in knowledge, appreciation and commitment to authentic Catholicism, in full accord with the Magisterium, there will continue to be spiritual erosion throughout the Church via teachers, pupils and parents, notwithstanding external veneers of niceness and pleasantness.

There will continue to be widespread vagueness, confusion or indifference on the significance and obligations of being a Catholic, not to mention of being a Catholic teacher.

The prospects of such input depend very much on how many members of these Colleges' governing bodies and how many of their directors are in touch with the Catholic faith and the current state of the Church. Is it to be left to some courageous bishop to bite the bullet?

Catholicism, for many now involved in teacher education, appears to constitute little more than community-building, caring and sharing, or interest in fashionable peace and justice topics; worthy enough pursuits, up to a point, but hardly enough to justify a separate system of schools and teachers' colleges. On the other hand, sin, repentance, redemption, sacrifice, Church authority and the supernatural mysteries hardly get a look in, other than in superficial or even trivialised versions.

Our children and our budding teachers continue to be sold short of their religious heritage. In one college, recent staff-student meetings and researches to discover their identity led to a recommendation that morning recess be restored to the campus time-table!

If this cycle is to be broken, it is important that, in one way or another, Church authorities intervene to ensure that students are adequately and soundly grounded in their Catholic faith, and that they are familiarised with catechetical programs which are not only up-to-date, but thorough, balanced and accurate in their presentations of doctrines, social and moral teachings, disciplines, sacraments and liturgy.

For those who care to look, there are several very suitable programs from the US produced by the Daughters of St Paul (Boston) as well as the Ignatius Press Faith and Life series. It would be interesting to know if either of these was given prominence at any Australian Catholic teachers' college. The release of the Vatican's Universal Catechism in 1992 should be an occasion for serious rethinking on the part of our religious education experts.

First-hand observations of lessons during college teaching rounds underline the urgency of such rethinking. Many so-called religion lessons are indistinguishable from social studies or drama.

There may be inventive use of role play, miming, dancing, group activities, discussions, singing or art work, but little of substance relevant to the Catholic faith, even allowing for the age of the pupils.

Familiar topics, of course, are covered, e.g., Easter, the Eucharist, the Mass, Our Lady or the Gospels, but too often these are emptied of their all-important supernatural significance. Jesus' miraculous cures of the sick prove that he cared, or that he was our friend rather than that he was the Divine Redeemer.

There is a conspicuous lack of emphasis on what the official Church teaches or instructs in the areas of doctrines, Scripture, morals, catechetics and liturgy.

In the primary sector, graduating students are doubtless as well qualified as their opposite numbers in secular colleges. In religious terms, however, it is questionable whether there is as much difference as there could and should be.

It is just possible that a knowledgeable practising, Catholic, armed with a secular college diploma or degree, could prove more of an asset to a Catholic school than many graduates from Catholic teachers' colleges.

At least such individuals have been spared the confusion of speculative theologies and induction into heavily experiential catechetics programs.

This article does not offer any easy solutions to the aforementioned problems in Catholic education, or teachers' colleges, in particular. It is just that there seems to be a widespread assumption that all, or nearly all, is well; or that, in any case, it does not particularly matter one way or the other, as long as student placements and government dollars are in hand.

An explicit sense of spiritual priority is lacking among those responsible for the system; too much is taken for granted, particularly as regards the soundness of catechetical programs and the needs for thoroughly orthodox theological formation and appropriate lifestyles of Catholic student teachers, e.g., as regards excessive drinking or shacking up.

It is one thing for the Holy Father to address Catholic educators on the need for sound and solid religious teachings, and for leaders to pay lip service to the Pope's clear instructions.

It is quite another for Church authorities to come to grips with the situation, making it clear to all involved that there must be no compromises with what the official Church expects of teachers and programs.

There is a lack of explicit evidence of any serious follow-up of the Pope's message to Australian Catholic educators during his 1986 visit, save the usual self-congratulatory statements about a prospering system.

Someone in authority needs to start the ball rolling. Not everyone will listen or obey; but at least the effort will have been made and the result, at least, could mean less confusion or misunderstanding, even if the usual human condition limits the prospects of any overnight improvements.

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