Each year, billions of dollars are spent on maintaining Catholic schools, whose primary function in this country is supposed to be the nurturing of the faith of its (Catholic) students. Despite this massive outlay, church attendance rates, particularly amongst young people, are at an all time low. This is accompanied by a lack of knowledge of the Catholic faith on the part of many school leavers, coupled with hostility in some cases towards the Church or aspects of Church teaching.
How can this problem be addressed? Some initiatives - which, hopefully, with time will bear fruit - have already begun. In the Archdiocese of Melbourne, for example, a series of religious education textbooks, based upon the Catechism of the Catholic Church is under preparation. However, beyond the task of producing appropriate classroom texts there remain major challenges.
Whilst the vast majority of students in Catholic schools would put "Catholic" on the census form, increasing numbers of them have less and less active affiliation with the Church. Many children come from families in which the parents themselves are products of now-discredited "innovative" RE teaching theories that allowed for little doctrinal content. Nationwide, the average weekly Mass attendance rate is down to 18 percent.
A prep grade Catholic teacher remarked recently that the vast bulk of her students arrive at school not knowing how to bless themselves or say the Our Father and Hail Mary. At the same time, these young people live in an environment that is increasingly secular - even anti-Catholic. By the time they reach adolescence, many of them have come to dismiss out of hand any suggestion of "moral absolutes" or of the necessity of believing certain core teachings, if one wishes to call oneself a Catholic
Given these realities, the following suggestions are offered for consideration in any 'reform' approach, particularly at the secondary level, where the major challenge lies.
* A rationale (justification) for the teaching of RE should be provided, noting the school's religious identity and reason for existence. The influence of Christianity on Western Civilisation and culture (thought, literature, art, etc) could be explored, along with its role as a major world religion, with a billion adherents worldwide, and as Australia's largest religious body. Finally, as students begin grappling with such "big questions" as "the meaning of life" and "good and evil", they could be alerted to the fact that the Church has offered answers to these for 2,000 years and continues to develop its thinking on them. For those students who take their faith seriously, RE courses should be a catalyst to enrich this faith.
* The RE content needs to have academic depth, appropriate for the year level. Students will quickly "switch off" during interminable, shallow discussions of "feelings," etc.
* The subject material and activities should be as varied and imaginative as possible.
* Care should be taken - depending on the students' backgrounds - with the choice of words. Even in a Catholic school, a teacher can no longer assume faith on the part of all or most students. Rather than "our faith" or "we believe this," phrases such as "Catholics (Christians) believe that ..." or "The Church teaches that ..." might be more effective. The author's experience has been that using the latter type of expression elicits more positive student responses, even from the less religiously committed.
As far as teachers are concerned, the Statement of Conclusions noted that if there is to be a genuine renewal of the teaching of RE, it must begin, not only with the provision of sound RE textbooks and other teaching resources, but with RE teachers who, as the report says, "must be properly formed in the Faith".
The challenges here are considerable. Many of these teachers themselves are critical of some Church teachings. In the case of younger teachers particularly, this criticism is coupled with ignorance of the faith and, dare one say, a lack of faith. Sunday Mass attendance may not be the sole criterion of anyone's level of faith, but it is disturbing to note that around two-thirds of those training to be RE teachers are irregular in their Mass attendance.
The other challenge lies in the preparation of future teachers of RE. Criticisms of the contents of some RE courses have been raised from time to time, particularly in regard to texts that do not accurately reflect Catholic teaching. Also of concern, given the lack of background knowledge of so many trainee teachers, is the brevity of RE courses, particularly for those undertaking secondary teaching.
Thus, there is already a discrepancy in the academic prerequisites for teaching RE and teaching other subjects: whereas future secondary teachers have to undertake a minimum of two years tertiary study in the disciplines they are training to teach, their RE studies in the single rushed Dip Ed year are inevitably sketchy, and generally built on little prior knowledge of the areas covered. Yet, in theory, these trainees could be, as first year teachers, expected to take Years 11 or 12 religious education.
A few trainee teachers have completed a theology degree (whose value can vary considerably) and thus have comparable academic standards to those studying other methods (e.g., Maths, English). There is a small but growing number of Catholic schools that try to employ, where possible, teachers of RE who have theology degrees.
Hopefully, with moves to increase the Diploma of Education course to two years, Catholic universities will be able to devote more curriculum space to teaching theological and Scripture subjects that are also closely aligned with the Church's thinking in these departments.
In short, implementing the Statement of Conclusions, as regards improving the impact of RE teaching in Catholic schools, will be a long-term proposition, if any significant progress is to be contemplated.
Michael Daniel teaches at an Independent School.