If further evidence is needed to support my position ( AD2000, March 2014) that religious education (RE) catechesis programs used in (some) Catholic schools have been seriously flawed, the disturbing results of a recent survey among parishioners of St Columba's Parish, Ballarat North, Victoria, reported in the Ballarat Courier (15 July 2014) should leave us in little doubt.
Purporting to obtain that parish community's views on the Catholic family in preparation for the forthcoming Synod of Bishops in Rome later this year, the survey revealed a serious gap between Church teachings and their acceptance among the mostly adult respondents.
More than 50% of survey participants favour gay marriage, contraception, alternative means of conception, divorcees' remarriage without annulment, homosexual sexual relations and de facto relationships.
Flawed RE catechesis
To be charitable it can be assumed the survey answers resulted from ignorance of Church teachings rather than any mischievous attempt to change them, as no human has that authority, especially in relation to the behaviour model that guarantees eternal salvation.
The reasons why so-called Catholic believers can be so abysmally ignorant have to include a (grossly) inadequate religious formation during their primary and secondary education, of which the Catholic school system must take much of the blame. To that can be added subsequent poor faith formation during adulthood.
As the blogs commenting on the survey results indicate, I am not alone in pondering the role of diocesan Church leadership in allowing RE coordinators to dumb down the content of the RE catechesis curricula since the 1970s by softening/excising the (doctrinal) 'hard stuff' and replacing it with a 'warm and fuzzy' version of the faith.
Coupled with replacing the hitherto direct teaching of RE with the experiential teaching method, this softer version of the Faith may have produced 'nice' people but it has left them, with few exceptions, without much knowledge of Catholic doctrine.
Thus poorly prepared, they were unable either to withstand the tsunami of de-Christianising influences engulfing society since the 1960s nor to defend in the public arena the standards of moral behaviour demanded by Christ of His faithful adherents.
That Victoria has such appalling abortion legislation can be attributed to the failure of those who should have known better to stand up to that evil legislation at the time. Despite some leadership direction, too many Catholics sat on their hands!
A diocesan priest confirms that the Ballarat parish survey outcomes are not unique: "I think the catechetical crisis is absolutely a factor in the present apostasy and informal schism. But of course, the catechetical crisis is itself symptomatic of something else: how is it that destructive and pernicious winds blew through so many religious institutes and presbyterates when the windows were opened to 'the winds of change' after Vatican II? I'm sure much of it was diabolical."
Without claiming to be particularly virtuous, during the education of our four children in Ballarat diocesan schools in the '70s and '80s, this writer became conscious that RE catechesis was below our expectations. In response to specific questions about RE content at parent-teacher meetings the teacher responses were often merely evasive 'trust us' generalities.
Realising that, in the face of the overwhelming anti-Christian forces in society, Catholic parents needed additional (pastoral) support to assist their roles as the prime educators of their children, in collaboration with the former Director of Catholic Education in the Diocese of Ballarat, Peter Teggelove, this writer proposed a school-funded family-catechesis program that would help parents to communicate the faith.
First presented to the Sixth Catholic Family Life Education Conference (Canberra, July 1987), the scheme was subsequently proposed to diocesan authorities for their consideration; but nothing came of it. That some parents opted for home-schooling and others saw the Catholic school system as little better than the State system is further evidence of these parents' distrust of RE catechesis orthodoxy in the diocesan schools.
More recently, in correspondence with Ballarat diocesan authorities on this issue, the Ballarat Diocesan Director of Religious Education, Dr Liam Davidson, claims that since 2005 the application of Awakenings, the RE catechesis guidelines used in the three rural Victorian dioceses and the Archdiocese of Tasmania, is in accord with Vatican II principles.
However, he provides no evidence of their behavioural impact on the students, in particular that they are willing and equipped to undertake their evangelical role in the family and society, as expected by Pope Francis in Gaudium evangelii.
Catechetical restoration is underway, though, certainly in the archdioceses where pastoral strategies and RE programs are being revised. It is in rural dioceses where this review process seems to be lagging.
Archbishop Julian Porteous of the Archdiocese of Tasmania outlines his approach to what he sees as a crisis in the transmission of faith in his new book, New Evangelisation: Pastoral strategy for the Church at the beginning of the third millennium, in which he envisions "schools as the centres of the new evangelisation".
Restoration is taking another form with the international spread of the Catholic Grandparents Association, whose mission is to help grandparents pass on the faith and keep prayer in the heart of family life.
Driven by Catherine Wiley, from its beginnings in 2009 in Ireland and with Vatican approval, it has reached Australia's shores where it is being promoted to parishes by the Australian Catholic Family & Marriage Centre under the auspices of the ACBC.
Peter Finlayson is a retired agricultural scientist who has recently moved to Bunbury, WA, from the Diocese of Ballarat, Victoria, where the family resided for 40 years, educating four children and being involved in Church affairs at parish, diocesan and international levels.