Three problems for Catholic schools

Three problems for Catholic schools

Michael Gilchrist

This is an abridged text of a lecture given by Michael Gilchrist during a recent tour of Queensland in which he addressed audiences numbering many hundreds in Cairns, Innisfail, Ingham, Townsville, Mackay, Rockhampton, Toowoomba, Brisbane and Gold Coast.

The fundamental problems facing Catholic schooling in Australia today are not, as they were until a generation ago, predominantly financial; today, they might be classified as doctrinal, administrative and political.

Doctrinally, Catholic schools in general have lost their way; administratively, they are locked into bureaucratic structures both of Church and State, which have tended to erode the contours of the Catholic faith while obstructing efforts at fundamental reform; politically, those possessed of the knowledge and concern necessary to fuel calls for such reform are still a small minority.

Lest anyone consider this writer narrow or one-sided, let me make the following observations at the outset.

It is still true that there are many outstanding Catholic teachers, principals and schools; I have seen them at first hand. It is simply that there are not enough of them to go around. It is also true that Catholic education is not confined to the school; far more crucial is the role of the family, not to mention the local parish and the mass media.

To give credit where it is due, the so-called formational aspects of Catholic education, including, for example, more individualised care of students, a cooperative classroom atmosphere, and concern about the day-today practice of general Christian virtues, have been rightfully emphasised in all or most Catholic schools. It is the informational dimension of the Faith which has been found wanting.

That there is a serious crisis in the Catholic school, insofar as that is a major agent of Catholic education, is no longer a matter of personal opinion or unwarranted pessimism. We have this as hard fact from the highest levels of the Church.

The Final Report of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome, held in 1985 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the conclusion of Vatican II, treated the crisis in catechesis, the transmission of the faith in Catholic schools, in particular, as worldwide: "Everywhere on earth today the transmission to the young of the faith and the moral values deriving from the Gospel is endangered ... The knowledge of the faith and the acceptance of the moral order are often reduced to the minimum".

Having accepted this fact, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, singled out the causes during an address to senior American Bishops in Rome on 5 March 5: "To a large extent, the area of catechesis in the post-conciliar period has been turned over to the so-called professional. This, in turn, has led to an excess of experimentation ... On the whole the result has to be seen as one of uncertainty and confusion: the contours of the faith are vanishing behind reflections which ought to be illuminating it".

In essence, the erosion of the "contours of the faith" is the work of "the so-called professional" indulging in "an excess of experimentation". Here we have the link between the doctrinal and the administrative problems within the catechetics crisis.

That Australian Catholic schools shared in this crisis was underlined in late 1988 by Hobart's Archbishop Eric D'Arcy, one of the most experienced educationalists within the hierarchy. Archbishop D'Arcy acknowledged positive developments in the formational area of Catholic education, but expressed serious misgivings about the vital question of sound content: "We urgently need a renaissance in the doctrinal dimension of the education-in-faith".

The Archbishop contended that Catholic systems of education had failed to teach "the specific doctrines of the Church, both on faith and morals", along with their rational and historical underpinnings, and to "stock and train" the memory as directed in Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Catechesi Tradendae, s.55.

Even more significant was Archbishop D'Arcy's reference to "deep and systematic flaws in the Experientialist Model Catechetic itself" and in those "curricula, theories and programs built upon it". In this, he was simply echoing what the present Pope had said in Catechesi Tradendae, that it was "quite useless to campaign for the abandonment of serious and orderly study of the message of Christ in the name of a method concentrating on life experience".

Who was it who implanted such a "flawed" approach to catechetics, one criticised by the Pope ten years ago as a "useless" exercise? Archbishop D'Arcy provides a clue when he refers to "influential people in religious education departments" calling a halt "around 1970" to teaching about the seriousness of Sunday Mass obligation There was no basis for such a fundamental about-turn in any Vatican II document, let alone any papal statement of the past 25 years.

Here was a classic case of bureaucratic policy-making, the "experimentation" by "so-called professionals" referred to by Cardinal Ratzinger. These people, for the most part, were equipped for their position by study in this or that overseas university, at the feet of predominantly radical theologians and education experts. From the early 1970s, beginning with the likes of Come Alive, the "so- called professionals" have produced materials more in tune with the Dutch Catechism and the discredited ideas of Lawrence Kohlberg than with Pope Paul Vl's Credo of the People of God. The latter, published in 1968, did not rate a mention in any of the Melbourne guidelines for religious education until as recently as 1985, although the Credo had been singled out by Pope John Paul II in 1979 as a "sure point and reference" for the content of catechesis.

The theological preferences of those who design the catechetical guidelines in major Australian dioceses can be readily ascertained by a close examination of s recommended readings for teachers. Nowhere in either the Melbourne or Brisbane guidelines do we find the works of outstanding orthodox scholars such as John A. Hardon SJ or books from the catalogue of Ignatius Press. On the other hand, we find - in the case of Brisbane, as a recommended book for teachers, Fr Richard McBrien's Catholicism, despite the fact that this book was seriously criticised by both the Australian and American hierarchies as an unsuitable guide to the Catholic faith.

In the face of such glaring contradictions, the chief teachers of the faith, the bishops, and the first educators in the faith, the parents, seem helpless and impotent.

That the problems facing Catholic schools were not merely internal was recently underlined in a statement published in the Melbourne Herald last April. This statement, by Br Kelvin Canavan, executive director of schools, Catholic Education Office, Sydney, at the top level of management of one of Australia's largest CEOs, pointed alarmingly to the CEO itself as the essential mechanism whereby secular equivalents could exact control over the entire Catholic system of education in Australia.

According to Br Canavan: "A letter or telephone call from the Department of Employment and Training to the National Catholic Education Commission can begin an involvement with every Catholic school in this country". Whatever the existing safeguards to the integrity of Catholic education, Br. Canavan is suggesting that not all government "involvement" might be benevolent; otherwise, why draw attention to this phenomenon? He confirms this by adding: "Governments would be more restrained if they were faced with consulting each of the 2,400 non-government schools".

It would seem from this that if the Church won its long battle for State Aid in the 1960s as a result of the initiative of the Democratic Labor Party and other bodies it is in real danger of losing the longer term war for the hearts and minds of Catholic children. With its heavy dependence on bulk funding via CEOs to the tune of $700-800 million annually the system is increasingly vulnerable to calls for accountability from secularist/ Marxist teachers' unions and government social engineers. The unholy alliance between the nation's two major teachers' unions and Catholic education offices in opposition to the small Teachers' Association of Australia, the sole union sympathetic to the aspirations of independent schools, is just another dimension of the present crisis.

The Church's larger CEOs, in particular, have therefore become effective conduits for secularism from outside and radical ideas from within. Whatever the intentions of individual "influential people", the net result has been a continued erosion of Catholic identity in the schools linked to serious gaps in the "doctrinal dimension of the education-in-faith".

My own experiences during 15 years in teacher education have confirmed Archbishop D'Arcy's worst fears. Interviews with young Catholics seeking teaching careers in the Catholic system indicated that after thirteen years in this system, most were blissfully ignorant of any distinctive features of Catholicism, let alone its rational and historical justifications. Catholicism, Christianity in general and overall niceness were virtually synonymous; indeed, all religions were viewed as being much the same. Tests administered to the successful first-year entrants confirmed this picture. Yet these young people were supposed to be the 'pick of the crop' from Catholic schools. No wonder so many of the others have left the Church altogether.

Here was an overwhelming case for some 'remedial religion'. In the case of gaps in the basics of literacy and numeracy, such remedial instruction is provided for incoming students; but not, apparently, in religion, to judge from my observations of students' practice religion lessons all over Victoria. It was difficult, at times, to determine whether one was observing a religion or a social studies lesson.

But if it is a case of the blind leading the blind in many classrooms, the dimension of the problem widens when we consider that many present-day Catholic parents are products of the seriously flawed "Experientialist Model Catechetic". In political terms then, the question is: Who is going to shake up the existing system, a system held in place by government bulk funding? Apart from the long-term benefits of prayer and the continuing efforts of good Catholic parents and teachers, where are the "numbers" to come from?

So many Catholics now happily immerse themselves in the prevailing secularism while others have accepted the 'new church' as a welcome soft-option Catholicism. In Melbourne, weekly Mass attendance is down to 25% and in Adelaide, 21%. With smaller classes the norm, and pressures to retain all students to Year 12, there are simply not enough solidly Catholic teachers to go around.

For many non-Catholics the Catholic school represents a modestly priced private education subsidised by the government with fees in Catholic schools only a fraction of those in other private schools. It is not surprising that up to one-third of some enrolments are from non-Catholics. In addition, the pressure for places in Catholic schools remains intense, especially at secondary levels.

Since trends in modern catechetics have come largely from the United States it is to be hoped that Australian authorities take close note of what occurred at a high level meeting in California, last April. There, Bishop Raymond Lucker of Minnesota addressed a convention of the National Conference of Diocesan Directors of Religious Education.

Bishop Lucker was commenting on criticisms of current catechetical practices made by Cardinal Ratzinger and Cardinal John O'Connor of New York during the March meeting in Rome between American Cardinals and Archbishops, the Pope and senior Vatican officials. Bishop Lucker described these criticisms as "devastating" and went on to say that "if what the two Cardinals say is true, then there is no catechetical renewal and we have to go back to the '50s".

Cardinal O'Connor had spoken of "an entire generation in a state of ambiguity" and of bishops being "browbeaten by directors of religious education or teachers of religion whom they perceive to be much more authoritative than themselves". Cardinal Ratzinger referred to "theologians in many parts of the world" taking "the place of the bishop as teacher".

Bishop Lucker, hitherto an enthusiastic supporter of the new catechetics, the "Experientialist Model Catechetic", concluded, on the basis of such high level criticisms: "This puts before us an agenda which we can't ignore".

It would be reassuring if those "influential persons" in Australia, still committed to discredited, outdated, catechetical approaches, shared Bishop Lucker's view. In the meantime, what can be done, if anything?

As indicated at the beginning of this article, the problem revolves around adequate doctrinal content, bureaucratic control, both inside and outside the Church, and the lack of "numbers" committed to reform.

In the first instance, the imminent publication of the Universal Catechism, called for by the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, may represent an opportunity for close scrutiny of current texts, programs and guidelines and for the design of more doctrinally accurate and complete materials. However, if bishops simply assign this task to their "influential persons", the end result is likely to be cosmetic.

In the meantime, interested laity, religious and clergy might identify existing materials likely to match the Universal Catechism, which will cover in detail the doctrines of the Creeds, the moral teachings of the Ten Commandments and the Sacraments and Liturgy. Meetings and conferences designed to focus attention on the requirements of the Universal Catechism and the inadequacies of present materials should be organised in the months up to and following publication of the Catechism.

A long-term solution to the administrative problem could emerge through introduction of a voucher system. This would benefit parents in both State and independent school systems since the voucher system allows parents to nominate preferred schools as receivers of per capita "credits" - say $2000 for each student - from governments. In theory, schools delivering the 'goods' would attract more financial support and this, in turn, would put pressure on other schools to improve their standards.

Most significantly, State and Church bureaucracies would be by- passed and power over schooling thereby radically decentralised. Parents and other concerned people need to campaign vigorously for the introduction of vouchers despite predictable opposition from bureaucrats and teachers' unions.

This would also be a moment of opportunity for bishops to exercise more prominently their role as chief teachers of the faith. Through regular preaching, pastoral letters and other forms of communication, they could underline the continuity and strength of currently ignored or diluted doctrines and moral teachings. Their words could be quoted to good effect to counter misinformation within the system.

Bishops might also work towards the reintroduction of uniform, solidly orthodox, religion texts for all levels of the school, and for the regular examination of religious content. The present school-based curricula should be phased out. Of course, once the stipulated core content has been adequately covered, individual schools could continue to provide the 'frills'. Such uniformity, freed of gimmicky, mystifying language, would enable parents, parish priests and bishops to monitor progress.

Politically speaking, if I may use that much-abused expression, those Catholics alert to the present situation should be organising themselves, supporting one another, educating others and using positive pressures on schools to adopt better, or even some, texts, e.g., the Faith and Life series from Ignatius Press or the Daughters of St Paul series.

Those responsible for theology and religious education units at Catholic teachers' colleges [now Australian Catholic University], along with CEO experts, will need to update their thinking to bring it into line with the requirements of the forthcoming Universal Catechism. The Vatican's newly formulated profession of faith and oath of fidelity to all the official teachings and disciplines of the Church will provide an opportunity for a public affirmation of solidarity with the Pope and Magisterium.

In the United States, the entire theology faculty of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, became the first to make the profession of faith and take the oath of fidelity. There are more theology majors at this small university than in any other in the United States.

The university president, Fr Michael Scanlan, stated that this profession would give assurance to parents and future students that the university's theological teaching was submitted to Church authority. He hoped others would follow this example. It would certainly be a positive move if Australians did likewise, if necessary, with the inducement of local bishops.

In the end, the Catholic people will get the schools, courses and teachers that they deserve. If the majority remains secularised, indifferent and non-practising, content to leave it all to the schools, the present situation is unlikely to improve, short of a miracle.

In that event, the Australian Bishops should consider closing down the existing systems and look for more effective means of communicating the Catholic faith.

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