The crisis in Catholic religious education, highlighted by Professor Denis McLaughlin in his address at the 2002 National Conference of the Association of Principals of Catholic Secondary Schools of Australia last October (see report on page 6), becomes more intelligible when we note the continuing influence of Thomas Groome over the thinking of leading Australian Catholic educators.
Groome, a keynote speaker at the same conference addressed by Professor McLaughlin, is a laicised priest, prolific author of RE books and professor of theology and religious education at Boston College. He has made no secret of his dissent from a wide range of Church teachings.
Groome's method of religious education is known as "shared Christian praxis", and the Diocese of Parramatta's religious education curriculum Sharing Our Story is explicitly based on it. This curriculum is also used in other Australian dioceses.
In 1997, members of the religious education department of the Parramatta CEO authored an article which stated that Groome's method is "by far the most admirable faith-forming religious education model available today because of its educational and theological precision." It went on to call for the professional development of teachers along lines that would enable them to undertake an "implementation" of shared Christian praxis that would be "faithful to Groome's thinking".
The Core Document of the revised version of Sharing Our Story, published in 1999, lauds Groome for having developed "an overarching approach to religious education and ministry" and it states that "approaches to assessment should support and strengthen the commitment to shared Christian praxis which sets the overarching style in this syllabus".
Groome often exhibits an anti-Roman attitude. For example, when Pope John Paul II issued Ad Tuendam Fidem, which he said was intended "to protect the faith of the Catholic Church" against errors arising "especially from among those dedicated to the various disciplines of sacred theology," Groome responded to it by saying it was "a pretentious attempt by the present Pope to stifle conversation and dialogue", adding, "I read the blessed thing and without being too melodramatic, I was on the verge of tears. It is a very sad day".
Shared Christian praxis is predicated on a deeply embedded scepticism in regard to the doctrinal content of Catholicism. Groome has constructed his methodology around five "Movements" and into the third of these he introduces the concept of "Christian Story/ Vision".
By "Christian Story" he means "scripture and tradition". In this regard, he says that "revelation as doctrine" which "understands revelation as 'divinely authoritative doctrine inerrantly proposed as God's word by the Bible or by official Church teaching' ... is not appropriate to movement 3 of shared Christian praxis" (Sharing Faith, pp. 218-19).
Asserting that "there have been distortions and corruptions reflected in Christian Story/Vision," Groome recommends "religious educators should approach the faith tradition with a healthy suspicion" (Sharing Faith, pp. 232-33). Elsewhere, in speaking of the need to view Catholic tradition with a "critical consciousness", he writes: "Such a 'critical consciousness' seems theologically appropriate to Catholic tradition, given how much untruth is in every statement of faith" (Educating for Life, p. 142).
This erroneous view often leads Groome to subject dogmatic and definitive teachings of the Church to reductionist and contradictory reinterpretations. In the the interests of brevity, I will cite but a few examples.
In regard to the teaching authority of the Pope, Groome writes: "In mainstream Catholic understanding of papal magisterium, however, the pope, as bishop of Rome, must teach in consultation and collegiality with the bishops of the world and represent the consensus faith of the whole Church, in fidelity to Scripture and Tradition" (Educating for Life, p. 240).
However, according to Vatican I's Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, which defined Papal Infallibility, dogmatic statements made by the Pope in the exercise of his extraordinary magisterium "are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church". This was reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council (see Lumen Gentium, n. 25).
Groome is most vocal in his dissent against the Church's doctrine on the male-only ministerial priesthood. In his book Sharing Faith (1991), from which the Core Document for Parramatta's Sharing Our Story draws heavily in prescribing shared Christian praxis as the method to be used in teaching the curriculum, Groome asserts that "the exclusion of women from ordained ministry is the result of a patriarchal mind-set and culture and is not of Christian faith" (p. 328).
Even after Pope John Paul II proclaimed the definitive nature of the Church's doctrine on the male-only ministerial priesthood in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994), Groome in his 1995 book Language for a Catholic Church (revised edition) asserted that "the continued exclusion of women from ordained ministry in the Catholic Church is seen by fair-minded scholars as without theological or biblical warrant" (p. 31).
In this same work, Groome posited that it would be "helpful to reduce reliance on gender-based pronouns" when referring to Jesus in order "to emphasise his humanity rather than his maleness" (pp. 26-27). Here, Groome was targeting what he sees as a flaw in the Church's teaching that in the Mass the ordained priest must be a man, as he has to sacramentally represent Christ in terms of his spousal relationship to the Church, which is that of Bridegroom to Bride.
Groome penned a laudatory foreword to Michael Morwood's book Tomorrow's Catholic: Understanding God and Jesus in a New Millennium. A "Notice" regarding Morwood's book was issued by Archbishop Pell in 1998 which said that it "must not be used as a text in any of our Catholic schools and is not to be displayed, sold, or distributed in any of our Churches." This was because the book "presents Christ, the Trinity and Redemption in terms which can not be reconciled with the doctrine of the Church."
However, in his foreword to Tomorrow's Catholic, Groome wrote: "He [Morwood] is convinced, and rightly so, that the 'package' of Catholicism we received from the previous era is no longer adequate to the challenges of this age. To refashion Catholicism to meet the challenges of this new era requires imagination and courage, and Morwood demonstrates both ... Tomorrow's Catholic invites us to take some bold steps in the right direction."
More recently, Groome has been a featured speaker at Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) gatherings in the US and a signatory to its "Theologian Petition". Among other signatories of this statement were some of the leading proponents of a "reconstructed" Church, such as Leonard Swidler of Temple University and pro-abortionist, feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza.
VOTF has seized upon the clergy sex abuse scandals to campaign for the restructuring of the Church along democratic lines - which for Groome would require "that we reconstruct the Catholic priesthood" so as to facilitate "women as priests and bishops" (Boston Globe, 19 May 2002).
As of 15 October, US bishops in Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey have declared that VOTF is not eligible to meet on Church property.
In the Archdiocese of Newark, NJ, Archbishop John Myers banned the group from meeting on Church property, saying VOTF is "anti-Church and, ultimately, anti-Catholic." Issuing a similar ban in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Bishop William Lori stated that it threatened to tear the Church apart by promoting "private dissenting opinions."
The fact that senior personnel in the Catholic education system are willing to act as conduits for the propagation of Groome's ideas is clear evidence of a deep crisis of integrity within Catholic education in Australia.
Ultimately, bishops of dioceses using Groome's methodology have a grave responsibility to inform parents and teachers of the contradictions of Catholic doctrine contained in his works.
Eamonn Keane is the author of 'A Generation Betrayed', which is available through AD Books.