Whither religious education in Australian Catholic schools?

Whither religious education in Australian Catholic schools?

Peter Finlayson

It was refreshing to read (December-January AD2000) Paul McCormack's, albeit edited, address delivered at a Catholic men's conference in July 2013, "Catholic school education: returning to our roots." It complemented Bishop Serratelli's article in the same edition about the need for thorough catechesis in the formation of new believers and the extracts from Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe's lecture on the future of Catholic Education given at Notre Dame, Fremantle (November 2013).

In the context that a Catholic school is indeed "Catholic first and a school second", Paul McCormack succinctly defines in specific terms the Magisterium - and doctrinal - based ethos and character of a Catholic school, presumably based on standard practice at the St Mary MacKillop Colleges, Wagga Wagga, NSW, where he is deputy principal. According to their promotional flyer, the P-12 RE curriculum is firmly based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Inadequate quality

Mr McCormack's view is that many so-called Catholic schools fail to conform to these standards and practice and the reasons for this situation resonate with ours and other grandparents' experiences as evidenced by the inadequate quality of the graduates (children and grandchildren) who have emerged from the Catholic school system over the past 30-40 years. It produced nice, even charitable and caring people, albeit bereft of much knowledge of Church doctrine and authority.

The "hard stuff", like sin, papal authority, Christ's salvific mission, regular liturgical practice, seems to have been excised from the curriculum and replaced with "soft" topics such as the environment, which substitution, presumably, seeks to "incorporate and accommodate the values of society ".

Apart from the lower priority of environmental issues in Christ's teachings, the danger of this politically correct focus is students can become sympathetic to Green ideology while being poorly equipped to discern its (Marxist-driven) atheistic and anti-Catholic agenda. Such Catholic schools may thus be part of the problem instead of the solution.

From private correspondence and the public utterances of several bishops on this issue it is clear that the sub-standard performance of the Catholic education system is recognised by Church leadership and strenuous efforts are being made to reverse the situation in several dioceses. Archbishop Costelloe refers to the "yawning gap between where we are and where we are called to be". However, unless I have missed something, there does not appear to be a coherent national approach.

In that context, Mr McCormack's article raises issues for which he or other AD2000 readers may be able to provide answers.

The first is the (lack of) purpose or goal of the Catholic education system, especially its RE component. As the Cheshire Cat counselled Alice as she sought an exit from the magic forest, "If you don't know where you are going, any path will get you there." The goal can become the framework for a consistent vision/mission statement for all Catholic schools, including the order-run ones. Adelaide's Archbishop Philip Wilson is on record as stating that the main purpose of Catholic schools is to produce saints!

Notwithstanding that ideal, surely the main purpose of Catholic education must accord with John Paul II's exhortation Christifidelis Laici and the current Pope's Evangelii Gaudium with their calls for a renewed focus on evangelisation, including of society. This involves training the next generation of coal-face "warriors" (activist evangelists) who can and are willing to explain and defend their faith in public, and in the process increase their own worthiness to enter eternal life at the hands of "He who is seated at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty."

Given the current miniscule level of religious practice, the general indifference to doctrinal authority, even among practising Catholics, and a declining Christian culture in our society, together with the growing influence of anti-Christian forces railing against Catholicity in particular, meeting this challenge will be a formidable task for the Catholic education system. Training and equipping effective evangelists will need a strong formation in Catechism-inspired doctrine and role of the Magisterium, like the Wagga Wagga MacKillop Colleges' model among others, and a nurtured love of liturgical and prayerful practice.

Low expectations

Because of the often minority of practising Catholic parents and families with low expectations or indifference to the religious aspects of their children's education in school communities, coupled with the "comfort zone" factor in our (flawed) human nature, the home environment cannot be relied on to support a doctrinally-based RE orientation. Thus, evangelist formation becomes the almost total responsibility of the Catholic school system, mainly through its RE catechesis programs, hopefully with parish pastoral support.

However, anecdotal views of teachers in the system suggest this lack of parental support for doctrinal catechesis along with other priorities is difficult or even impossible to overcome and beyond the system's available resources. This constraint raises several questions:

i) How do the MacKillop Colleges maintain their RE standards in the face of (some) parental indifference?

ii) How do we deal with the problem of teaching a non-ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) Catholic RE program in years 11 and 12 (surely a critical formation period) in the face of the (benign) ATAR-scoring RE course imposed by state education authorities?

iii) How important should be environmental studies in the RE curriculum, if at all?

iv) What is the best, most feasible way to teach RE: by a) accredited multi-subject teachers, or b) highly trained specialist RE teachers?

v) How (in terms of resources) is RE taught at the MacKillop Colleges and is that model replicable, e.g., used in other diocesan schools and beyond?

vi) If we are serious about tackling the evangelisation challenge, be it at household, local community or societal level, and since RE policy and implementation decisions are made at diocesan level and we know there are various RE catechesis models being used throughout the Church in Australia, is there not a strong case for a more coordinated national approach to RE catechesis? Or have I missed something?

To this end, is the impact on the beneficiaries of the range of RE approaches used in Catholic schools being measured and monitored to determine their effectiveness, starting with knowledge testing at school and follow-up behavioural monitoring post-schooling?

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