An article contributed to the Australasian Catholic Record titled "Religious Belief in Australia" by Archbishop D'Arcy of Hobart, offers a doubly valuable contribution to the discussion on religious teaching in Catholic schools. His analysis is cogent. The author, being an archbishop, is in a position to help in the solution of the problem he analyses.
While giving credit where credit is due, the Archbishop deals with the major deficiency in the field of catechetical instruction in Australia since the beginning of the 70s.
There is, admittedly, far more to success or failure in the area of religion than there is in that of business. Yet when one considers the immense financial investment which has gone and goes into Catholic schools - in public and private funds it must amount to over $1 billion a year - one is driven to ask the question - "If the single purpose which justifies a separate Catholic system is that it produces Catholics, where is the value for the money?"
That the Archbishop entertains legitimate doubts may be deduced from his statement "We urgently need a renaissance in the doctrinal dimension of education-in-faith".
The catechetical methods of the past two decades, as he points out, have been based on the experientialist "Development not Information" educational theory, largely the creation of John Dewey, which was translated from the field of secular into that of religious education by those who have had control of Catholic education since the 70s.
The Catholic system, writes Dr D'Arcy, "was failing to do those very things which the high school classroom is best equipped to do: viz
- teach the specific doctrines of the Church, both on faith and morals, and their meaning and significance;
- incorporate those beliefs, both rationally and imaginatively, into the student's world-view and life-vision;
- initiate pupils into the reasons which support those doctrines, and into the weaknesses in modern secularist attacks upon them;
- feed, and thus at once both stock and train, the memory on such Christian riches as those summarised in Catechesi Tradendae, s. 55;
- develop the faith-potential of the imaginative sensibility, by feeding it on the patrimony of Christian culture - the Christian equivalent of Dewey's "funded capital".
The absence of these essentials from curricula inspired by experientalist model catechetics has had baneful consequences, even while devoted work was being lavished on other areas of faith-education."
If this is so - and at least two generations of largely non-practising religious "illiterates" (in the strict rather than caricatured meaning of that word) attests that it is - who is responsible for the twenty wasted years?
"Teachers are not to blame for this," writes the Archbishop, "parents still less so. The fault lies in deep and systematic flaws in the experientialist model catechetic itself; in some of its philosophical assumptions; and, consequently, throughout the curricula, theories, and programs built upon it."
Yes, but who introduced those disastrous principles into the Catholic school system? Or did it just happen by accident, force majeure or "act of God"? Hardly.
Perhaps the Archbishop himself provides the answer when he refers to the characteristic teaching in Catholic schools on the obligation to attend Mass each Sunday.
"Every Australian child in a Catholic school had always been taught, 'It's a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sunday, unless you have a serious reason'. Around 1970, influential people in religious education departments quietly decided to make it known that that was to stop. Gradually, often reluctantly, teachers were persuaded accordingly. How can we be puzzled if their pupils' practice has changed accordingly ?"
Who were the "influential people"? Who permitted them to exercise the influence they did - and still do? These questions are not directed towards a witch-hunt, but to a practical issue arising in the immediate future.
The 1985 Extraordinary Synod requested the production of a "Universal Catechism or Compendium of Church doctrines, both in Faith and Morals". Since it will not appear until 1992, and will then be referred to national episcopal conferences for necessary adaptation, it can be said that any reform will take almost a decade from the formulation of the initial proposal to the final outcome.
When, however, it reaches national episcopal conferences, to whom will it be referred for adaptation? Will it be to precisely the same catechetical "experts" who, if teachers and parents are not responsible, must be responsible for the classic mess of the past two decades? Will it go to those who ensured that the orthodox beliefs contained in the Universal Catholic Directory, issued by the Holy See more than a decade ago, might as well have remained deposited on the steps of St Peter's? Will it go to those who deliberately ignored the content of the encyclical Catechesi Tradendae from the moment of its publication?
Or is some different method of administrative control proposed which will guarantee that the same vicious circle will not merely be repeated? That the question of administration is hardly less important than that of policy may be illustrated from a brief chronological examination. The Second Vatican Council ended in 1965. From the Dutch Catechism which followed on immediately afterwards down to the present day - 24 years later - a series of texts, some defective, some plainly heretical, have been widely used in Catholic schools. Their themes have now sunk deeply, not merely into the minds of teachers, but of the teachers of the teachers.
Granted that by 1995, a satisfactory Australian text will have appeared, how long will it be before the "influential people in religious education departments" will have been replaced by successors more deserving of influence?