The Spirit of Generation Y: the challenge for Catholic schools

The Spirit of Generation Y: the challenge for Catholic schools

Cardinal George Pell

This article is a part of Cardinal George Pell's address at the National Catholic Education Conference in Sydney on 28 September 2006.

Catholics have always been the most significant and interesting minority in Australian history. Whether the long established Irish-Australians are more interesting than the Maronites or the recently arrived Vietnamese is a moot point as is the unanswerable question of whether race or religion is more powerful.

Catholic history in Australia extends for little more than 200 years and for at least one hundred years of that story Catholic schools did more to change Australian hearts and minds than even the extraordinary network of parishes. One challenge is to continue to believe in the capacity of our schools to change minds and hearts and so keep Catholics in Australia interesting - and for the right reasons.

In the 2001 census Catholics constituted 26.7% of the Australian population, a percentage which has not varied much for forty years. Catholics replaced Anglicans as the largest denomination in 1986 and our numbers increased by 202,000 between 1996 and 2001, reflecting the steady increase in Australia's population.

Catholic migration

However this increase, a percentage decline in 2001 of just over one-third of one percent for Catholics, masked a significant exodus as Catholic migration should have pushed the percentage higher. Another significant change, also little noticed, was that the percentage of self-declared irreligious declined from 16.6% to 15.5% in 2001, the first such decline for 100 years. Most Australians are still Christian (68%) and there is no inevitable progression to majority secularism despite the political correctness and irreligion which dominate most of the media.

All of us are aware of the steady decline in regular worship among Catholics from an estimated high point of 50% in 1950, to the present rate of 16%. I had concluded from these different sets of figures until quite recently that few Catholics were opting out explicitly even when they did little that was Catholic to justify the title. As there had been a big opt-out between 1971-1976, this conclusion was wobbly and a recent survey has further dented my carefully circumscribed optimism.

A research project completed by Redemptorist Father Michael Mason and his co-workers, The Spirit of Generation Y, surveys the beliefs and practices of Australians aged from 13 to 29 years. Not surprisingly there was a mixed bag of good, bad and indifferent news. Three-quarters believe in God variously defined, but only about half identify with a religion, considerably below the national average.

An old Irish-Australian woman, when talking kindly about young people, told me once that what is in the cat comes out in the kitten. There is much truth in this. Parents remain the most powerful influence on their children, as this survey found little difference in belief and practice between continuing Generation Y Christians and their baby-boom Christian parents, but there are two particularly important developments.

About thirty percent of Generation Y are moving away from their Christian origins. Some have reduced their attendance at worship or stopped attending altogether. Others no longer identify with a religious denomination or no longer believe in God.

By the time Generation Y reach the age of 29 twenty-five percent of those who used to belong to a church are already ex-members. The number for Catholics is 29%, higher than any other denomination.

Another historically significant finding is that young women are no more religious than young men. This has enormous consequences for the future. Generations of children across most ethnic groups in Australia had the faith passed on to them and nurtured by the devotion of their mothers. It remains to be seen how many Generation Y women revert to this role once they have children of their own.

Three other findings surprised me. Only 10% of young Catholics believe ‘only one religion is true’, against a national average of 11% and a rate of 34% for other Christians, excluding Anglicans. The question is capable of being understood in several ways, but the pressures on young Catholics beyond tolerance and ecumenism and towards muddle are evident here, channeled sometimes through the ill-effects of courses in comparative religion.

Disturbing finding

Worse is to come. Seventy-five percent of young Catholics believe it is ‘OK to pick and choose beliefs’ against a national average of 36%. While the national average is meaningless, because (for some strange reason) nine out of ten non- identifiers were not asked the question, this is still a particularly disturbing finding for Catholic educators indicating a malaise and confusion in the general approach to life rather than a few isolated points of heresy or unbelief.

This finding is paralleled by the fact that 56% of young Catholics believe ‘morals are relative’, almost exactly mirroring the national average of 57% and being much higher than other Christians (40%) and even the Anglicans (39%).

Too many young Catholics have been led by the pressures of contemporary propaganda, whatever might be said about the inadequacies of family life and Catholic religious education, so that their religious confusion is worse than that of all other young Australian Christians. Why is this so?

They are also poorly equipped for any return to the fold when they have little instinct for or understanding that there are truths of faith and morals, which are to be sought after and judged according to rational criteria. More of them seem to believe that life offers a smorgasbord of options from which they choose items that best suit their passing fancies and their changing circumstances.

The Generation Y Survey was not able to detect any religious effect of attendance at Church schools, although a majority of those who believe in God and attend Church schools say the religious education is helpful. Neither was I surprised to learn that about a third of the more religiously committed students (fewer at Catholic schools, only 19%) reported being made fun of at school because of their religion, confirming anecdotes I have heard off and on for twenty years. This parallels a small number of religiously committed parents who choose to send their children to non-Catholic schools claiming that their children's religious practice was more likely to survive intact there.

Like the Holy Father citing a comment about Mohammed in his recent Regensburg address I too cite this example without endorsement!

Christian slippage

The Spirit of Generation Y is a thoroughly professional survey, which makes no claims to infallibility. Neither do I know what margins of error the authors might estimate, but there are no professional reasons to reject its findings.

In some ways it does not square exactly with the official 2001 census and a better context will be provided by the results of the 2006 census. But there is some chance that we are experiencing an acceleration in the Christian slippage, with Catholics slipping faster, even though they have bigger numbers on the slope.

Catholic school enrolments do not necessarily contradict such an hypothesis. Across the nation we now educate 677,659 students, 20% of the nation's children, an increase of 201,229 since 1965. Most of the growth is at secondary level, with primary enrolments almost steady in New South Wales and declining each year since 2000 in Victoria.

Three factors however are important in reflecting the changing place of Catholics in the national profile.

Twenty-three percent of Catholic school students are not Catholics, with Tasmania (44%) and South Australia (36%) having the highest non- Catholic participation - a tribute to the perceived qualities of our schools, a result of the blessing of ecumenism and cementing our place as an accepted part of the Australian mainstream. In NSW all enrolment growth for the last 20 years has come from non-Catholic pupils. Without them enrolments would have declined.

47,115 young Catholics are at non-Catholic private schools (five percent of Catholics attending school) for a variety of reasons. Better academic standards and more powerful social networks are two possibilities. Once or twice in par- ishes I have found that all the teenage altar servers have been from such non-Catholic schools, but Anglican chaplains have explained that most Catholics in their schools are not excessively committed to the devotion of the fifty-two consecutive Sunday Masses.

This year Professor James Franklin of the University of New South Wales produced a brilliant little book entitled Catholic Values and Australian Realities.

The introduction begins with these words, ‘Australian Catholics have had a distinctive image: Irish tribal loyalties, Labor but anti- communist politics, childhoods full of guilt and incense. There is more to their distinctiveness than that. Their central contribution to Australian thinking is an objective view of ethics’ (p. 1).

Guilt will always be with us, even when it is unrecognised and emerging as hatred of self or society, burning incense too continues at Catholic funerals and in our cathedrals, but an objective view of ethics among most Generation Y Catholics has disappeared as completely as Irish tribal loyalties. Our situation is changing.

In five years I have visited more than 100 of our 163 schools in the Sydney archdiocese. Overwhelmingly these are happy places of learning, serving and basically satisfying their constituencies, generally in good facilities where the Federal Government provides 50% of the capital money and the NSW Government covers the interest on the money contributed by the local community and the System. There is no crisis of morale in the Catholic schools and testing results reflect the quality of these schools and the socio-economic makeup of the pupils, being regularly better than national averages.

I also realise that I am not talking to a local parish group, but to the leaders of Catholic education across Australia who deserve the bad news with the good. We are in a complex and turbulent process of change. Tomorrow Generation Z will be different again just as older generations have their own particularities.

Central Concern

We Catholics are likely to remain around one-quarter of the population in an increasingly secular Australia. While ours is a God of surprises we have only a limited capacity to transmit our tradition and preserve our identity. We should clarify our goals, try to learn from our mistakes.

Secularists strive to remove religion from the public domain and restrict it to private life, where individual religious choices reflect personal preferences unrelated to truth and general principles. They see religion as another area for consumer choice.

For us as Catholics our central concern is the presentation of the person of Jesus Christ, with his call to repent and believe. We espouse crucifixion Christianity which leads to the resurrection and believe that everyone stands under the four last things of death and judgement, heaven and hell. Catholicism calls to faith and reason as well as love and hope. This is now profoundly countercultural.

The decisions to believe in Christ are mysterious and individual. But schools can impart religious knowledge, encourage patterns of clear thinking, constructive enquiry and a thirst for answers. We need to inculcate a respect for reason and tradition as well as call to faith, hope and love.

These are mighty tasks, but attempting them is a wonderful vocation. Especially in our challenging environment, catechesis, and envangelisation are not only a duty, but an adventure and challenge, truly one great work of the Holy Spirit.

Questions

I conclude with a series of questions to help focus our thinking and discussion.

* Do Catholic schools retain today a capacity to strengthen the faith and improve the morals of their students, as they did in the past?

* Are Catholic truths presented to your students sequentially and comprehensively over the 13 years of schooling? Do students know what are the four or five fundamental truths of our faith? What is the place of student text books in religious education?

* What strategies would overturn the assumption that all morality is relative? How can the truths about life, marriage, family and social justice be defended?

* What strategies might be adopted to strengthen the Christian faith and perhaps make converts among the 23% of non-Catholic students in our schools?

* What strategies would make Catholic schools more accessible to lower income families? Should our ‘elite’ colleges offer more scholarships to the disadvantaged?

* Is it a concern that few Catholic schools are listed among the best academic schools?

* Is there sufficient diversity among Catholic schools?

* Should more be done for the religious education of Catholics in state schools?

* What must we do to prepare the next generation of leaders for truly Catholic schools?

* How can we attract committed Catholic school graduates into the teaching profession?

Pope John Paul II should have the last word from his message at the start of the third Christian millennium: ‘Duc in altum! These words ring out for us today, and they invite us to remember the past with gratitude, live the present with enthusiasm and to look to the future with confidence: 'Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever' (Heb 13:8).’

Amen to that.

The full text of Cardinal Pell's address is available at www.sydney.catholic.org.au

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