The religious character of Catholic schools: how can it be enhanced?

The religious character of Catholic schools: how can it be enhanced?

Br Paul Macrossan CFC

Br Paul Macrossan, who provides this analysis of present-day religious education in Catholic schools, is the Diocesan Director of Catholic Missions in Darwin. He has taught in Catholic schools in Zimbabwe and helped in the training of teachers in southern Sudan (Tombura-Yambio Diocese) for six years with in-service courses for untrained teachers. He has taught in Australian Christian Brothers' schools for many years.

The editorial by Michael Gilchrist in the February issue of AD2000, "What is the Purpose of Catholic Schools?", goes to the heart of an important question for the Catholic Church in Australia. It is not a new question: for decades the amount of money that the Church has poured in to sustain the schools has been questioned by many vis-a-vis the religious results obtained, as judged by the graduates' apparent commitment to living their faith.

A new perspective on the matter is provided by the emerging fact that a big majority of parents now choose to send their children to a Catholic school, not primarily for a religious motive, but for secular ones, including examination results, discipline, interest by teachers or social advancement.

This finding is easily seen to be related to other findings: only about three percent of graduates of Catholic schools practise some important demands of their faith like regular Mass attendance, and many of their teachers, too, graduates in the faculty of education at Australian Catholic University, find that they cannot subscribe to essential teachings of the Church's Magisterium such as the authority of the Pope to pronounce on questions of morality or faith, or the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, or the unlawfulness of abortion or divorce, or the invalidity of gay marriages, etc. (cf Survey of Professor McLaughlin at ACU 2002, inter alia).

Michael Gilchrist's editorial was highlighting the fact that reliably orthodox texts are being introduced into the archdioceses of Sydney, Melbourne and elsewhere, a welcome change from some school texts which are light on content or unsupportive of the Church's Magisterium or not calculated to strengthen the Catholic faith of the students.

The commonsense remark in the study of Catholic Schools by co-authors, Br Marcellin Flynn and Dr Magdalena Mok (AD2000, August 2002), to the effect that a Catholic education "cannot be called Catholic if it is not faithful to the Catholic Church and its living tradition" is very appropriate here.

How these new school texts will be used with students is another matter. If teachers are really convinced of the truths expounded in the new orthodox texts, and are seen to be knowledgeable enough to explain the reasons behind the doctrines, there will be a greater likelihood that the students' faith commitment and practice will improve. If teachers are not really convinced of the validity or importance of what they profess neither will be many of the students.

Rocks of stability

So widespread has become the resurgent idea that "One religion is as good as another", and that moral truth is largely impossible to know, the battle to transmit the faith through a Catholic education is rendered more difficult. Our world is a very fast-moving one, change is constant, insecurities beset us all, particularly the young, whose suicide rates are a national problem. The flourishing counselling industry and an abundance of counsellors seem powerless to offset the difficulties of living. Parents primarily, but teachers also, are in a pre-eminent position to be rocks of stability for troubled youth if they radiate the balance that the Christian faith can provide

The effects of First World living, whose ethic is often based on instant satisfaction, doing it my way, or worshipping the wealthy or the beautiful, give rise to much malaise and discontent, often seen even in the young. Instead of presenting a Christianity that panders overly much to this ethic, the love of youth for a challenge might be used to good effect in schools by presenting some counter-cultural advice about the benefits of the neglected sacrament of Reconciliation, or discussion about the meaning of some of the "hard" sayings of Jesus on the conditions of discipleship, such as His words, "If anyone would be a follower of mine, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me".

The generosity of youth will sometimes provide fertile ground for such seeds of true wisdom whose fruit is one of the aims of a Christian education. Then the meagre figure of 37 percent among Year 12 school students in 1998 (Flynn-Mok research) who accepted the proposition, "I try to base my life on the teaching and example of Jesus", might increase.

Certainly the new texts provide some hope for improvement, but, as said above, their efficacy largely depends on how its content is presented and treated by classroom teachers. The attitude of the teachers is strongly influenced by their own previous lecturers in the education faculties of the universities.


People who are not convinced about ignorance of the faith in most graduating pupils in Australian Catholic schools today might like to ponder the results of such surveys as above. The days when diocesan inspectors went into schools to ascertain the knowledge and practice of the pupils' faith seem to have all but disappeared, and with them one concrete way of knowing if Catholic education is alive and well.

We regularly read of dwindling teaching congregations handing over to others the running of their schools with the stipulation that the charisms of founders and traditions of congregations are to be maintained. These elusive charisms do not necessarily permeate "flourishing" schools whose academic results or sporting achievements give cause for jubilation.

Even if students laudably collect money or devote time to helping the disadvantaged (as many in government schools also do today) something may be still missing. That could be the most important part of the charisms of founders, namely a spirit which aims at God and bases a worthwhile life on His service, and regards a knowledge of the Catholic faith and Church teachings as relevant and of basic importance.

I have not suggested a solution to the problems for Catholic education, problems not confined to this country, but any solution must embrace staffing in the education faculties of Catholic universities and the religion departments of schools. Faced with an even greater difficulty in early 19th century Ireland, when laws on the statute books prohibited Catholics from the teaching profession and Catholic schools for the poor were practically non-existent, Blessed Edmund Rice strove to start his system of Catholic schools.

When it seemed that all was lost because of overwhelming financial difficulties and new laws forbidding anyone joining a religious congregation after 1829, he was forced to put all his trust in divine aid. He encouraged his companions with a saying that became well-known amongst them, "Providence is our inheritance". Providence looked after the matter as time passed. Providence today is moved by our prayers which are always needed for the good of the Church and the spread of the Christian faith.

Of course "Religion is caught, not taught," and of even greater importance than the content of religion texts for encouraging the actual practices of the Christian life is the example of parents and teachers. A mutually respectful pupil-teacher relationship can make up for many deficiencies in other areas of the profession. The saying of St Francis de Sales that you can catch more flies with a jar of honey than with a barrel of vinegar is essential wisdom for teachers trying to raise interest and enthusiasm for a cause, secular or religious. In this area I think that present-day teachers in Catholic schools by and large rate much above their recent predecessors' levels in knowledge of the faith and knowledge of Church teachings.


Such has been the volume of unorthodox views published on religious matters in the last few decades by some authors with a penchant for expressing their ideas in print that it is easy to feel sympathy for teachers desiring to impart true Catholic doctrine. Now, after the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, their task has become much easier.

It was an outcome that Pope John Paul had in view when ordering the publication of the Catechism for all members of the Church trying to make sense of the welter of conflicting opinions on theological and Church matters that has been an unintended result of Vatican II. Having easy recourse to this text is really a "must" for teachers of religion in the schools and the education faculties of universities.

People who are uneasy about the missing generations in the Church's liturgical celebrations these days, and suspect faulty religious teaching in Catholic schools but feel hampered by a lack of learning in the matter, should not hesitate to speak their minds when occasions arise in discussions with others, learned or unlearned. Simple disobedience on the part of the learned to Church directives is usually easily perceptible to the unlearned and learned alike.

If discussions seem to fail to resolve the matter, recourse can always fruitfully be had to prayer which Jesus promised would be heard. However, fortunately now there seem to be growing grounds for hope that at least in the schools the wheel is turning towards surer doctrinal foundations.

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