and the Catholic Secondary School
:an Australian Perspective
Catholic Education is close to the heart of every Catholic who cherishes and wishes to see God’s precious gift of faith and life in Christ passed on intact to our children. While the process begins in the home and is enhanced by the liturgy and the Catholic community, it is the Catholic school that has long been regarded as the place where formal religious instruction, true to the teachings of Christ and the Church is first given. The Church treasures its schools and spends heavily on them, so that those who attend them might receive both their secular and religious instruction in a morally safe and healthy Catholic environment.
The Present Predicament
Today, many older Catholics are perturbed by the rapidly growing numbers of young people, educated in Catholic schools, who have turned their backs on the Church, given up the reception of the Sacraments and the public practice of their faith, and have adopted the permissive lifestyles of the world, and substituted counterfeit and shifting values for the teaching and wisdom of Christ and his Church. Such lack of understanding of the faith shows up both at higher secondary school levels and even more when they leave home for work or for higher studies.
On the positive side, the attentive Catholic school-leaver today may carry with her or him an awareness of a merciful God, a sense of the spiritual, and fairly sound social values relating to the public good, justice and fairplay. However, before long, most become RCs (retired Catholics). At the other end of the spectrum, some young people who desire a closer walk with their Lord turn to fundamentalist churches or to other religions for spiritual meaning and fulfilment.
Thus despite all the effort put into religious education Catholic schools seem to produce well-meaning humanists and good citizens; each being her/his own moral authority: fair dinkum Aussies.
Not surprisingly, some parents wonder whether their own efforts at showing their children the Catholic way have been undermined within the Catholic school, and ask whether RE in the Catholic school should be questioned. Others argue that it is the home environment and parental attitudes and practices that have to be re-evangelised. Many blame the electronic media and the consumer society ‘out there’. Others blame the Church. And the excuses go on.
Attempts to address the problem
In response to this haemorrhaging, with its grave implications for the Catholic Church in Australia, and the realisation that something has to be done about it, Religious Education curricula for Catholic schools have been redrawn in many dioceses. These aim to be faithful to God and to people, and to present Jesus Christ, the Gospel and Christian teaching in a manner that is relevant to young people who face the realities of the 21st century.
Programmes are elegantly and skillfully crafted, and based on what is deemed to be the best in current educational theory. They are said to be open to continuing development in which parent, school, parish and diocese participate. Content-wise they claim to draw from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and other Church documents. The stated ideal is an integrated, well-balanced, responsible religious education that caters to the spiritual, the religious and the social dimensions and needs of school-goers. All this can only be applauded. Furthermore, those co-ordinators of RE whom I know personally are dedicated to their mission which they discharge with quiet zeal and unquestionable integrity.
In the face of all this promise, what more is there to be said or asked for?
Questions and Points to Ponder
I believe that a few things can and should be said. I speak as a forward-looking and committed Catholic, a parent, and a grandparent, and a person with decades of experience in teaching at tertiary level and for a few years at secondary school level.
- Should not the idea of the responsible Catholic school, and not only the RE programmes, be examined more closely?
- How committed is the school to Christ, the Church and the faith of its charges; how much to catering to popular demand (academic and sporting prowess), and to survival as an economically viable institution? What are its real priorities?
- To what extent is religious instruction compromised through the compliance with governmental regulations and the school’s own momentum and complacency and reluctance to admit or to deal with such problems?
Thus, of the RE programmes of today and/or in their implementation, it is asked:
- To what extent is there a melding of fidelity to God, fidelity to Jesus Christ, fidelity to the Church founded by Christ, fidelity to people, and fidelity to the child?
- Is Catholic Education compromised in any way by “the latest in educational theory”, time-tabling, the teaching methods employed, the emphases of the syllabus, and the teachers themselves?
- Is the officially prescribed approach to RE too cerebral, treated as something ‘out there’, something remote, but not ‘in here’ as well, and therefore impersonal, somewhat sterile and easily forgotten?
- Can head and heart be brought together as indeed they should in a subject such as RE? If so, how?
- Is keeping them apart in the name of objectivity, consistent with the very best and latest in educational theory recognised / admitted by those who draw up the curricula?
- What, if at all, may be done to redress existing imbalances?
- Do such attempts have the support of the Local Ordinary (the Bishop), the Catholic Schools Office and the School Principal?
- Is the RE syllabus too vast, resulting in the superficial treatment of topics that deserve much fuller and more careful consideration?
This is a pivotal question that needs to be examined very carefully, and expeditiously addressed, not dismissed on grounds of inconvenience.
- Furthermore, is RE too anthropocentric, geared heavily to social needs and human relationships, but insufficiently concerned with the Divine Will for the individual person? Do God’s love and its purpose and manifestation in our lives, God’s will and our need for trusting submission to it, and the importance of the Divine call to holiness receive proper attention?
- Are the attitudes to God and to Christ that are generated in the classroom reverential, or casual and patronising?
- Is Jesus Christ clearly proclaimed as the Son of God, true man, but also true God, the living Word of God; or as little more than a nice-natured guy, a good sort, who smiles upon “me” regardless of whatever I choose to serve up?
- Is the Biblical account shown to be a mix of stories and tales, which might offer some useful lessons, as many other stories do (eg: ‘Aesop’s Fables’, ‘The Little Prince’, ‘The Lion King’, etc.) and which may be taken or disregarded according to the preferences of the listener?
- Are the Commandments or God and of the Church presented as vital, authoritative guides and the most realistic prescriptions for abundant life and happiness, justice and peace in our day; and which may be ignored only to our personal and collective detriment?
- Are these and the teachings of Jesus presented as idealistic counsels, but impractical and open to dilution and modification?
- Is there adequate recognition of the complex world the child/young person lives in with its many insidious, mischievous, corrupt and false messages?
- Are these identified and clearly spelled out, or not? Is the child taught how to face up to these perils and challenges? In short, is the child/young person taught how to distinguish between right and wrong? Is not to do so being faithful either to God or to young people?
- If God is presented as loving, merciful and forgiving of our sins, are the ways in which this good God can be sinned against made very clear, or not?
For surely, would not the child who wants to love God sincerely, need to know not only how to be good, but also what s/he should not do, out of love for God and for people?
- Are the danger, malice and folly of sin which sullies, erodes and eventually destroys human ability to relate justly to one another and to God, and which frustrates our lasting happiness and the building of the Kingdom of God here on earth adequately highlighted, or are these ignored or glossed over?
- How is education on sexual matters undertaken? In mixed classes? Is such education placed in the perspective of God’s purpose and plan for people, and in terms of human dignity and awe of God’s creation which is good, and with reference to the commandments of God and Christ’s teaching? Or is it given as no more than a biology lesson? If so, is such an approach balanced and prudent? I think, not.
- Are the virtues of self-control, virginity until marriage and chastity at all times in thought word and deed taught to those who so desperately need to be given such awareness, especially in a permissive world which celebrates sin, debases human union, and invites people to sexploitation and life everlusting?
- Are the God-given means, the beacons and signposts for life’s journey to God, overlooked or placed under wraps, and the young person left to her/his own wits and immature conscience to decide on the right road to follow?
- What is done to impress upon the child the value and necessity of loving God, of coming closer to God, of being captivated by God and of wanting to love and serve God without reservation, and never to be separated from the Lord?
- What is said about Mary? Is it too little? Is present RE dismissive of her?
- What is said and done to emphasise prayer and worship in the life of the student?
- Is the Catholic faith proclaimed by the Church portrayed as just one among many, or as something unique and without equal?
- What is said of the Catholic Church and its Christ-given role as custodian of truth?
- Is its teaching authority undermined or ignored in the educational process?
- Is there any downplaying of the special character of Christ and the Church and its teaching, because there happen to be children who are members of other Christian denominations or of other religions in the Catholic school, or because parents might be upset?
- Despite the effort and investment that has gone into the development of the latest RE curricula, the latter should be re-examined and adjusted where desirable, and thereby be true to the rhetoric that preface the programmes drawn up.
- Specialised RE teachers should be appointed within each school, &/or mobile teams within each diocese who, as visitors, would deal with aspects of RE that the school cannot handle.
- The RE should be entrusted to teachers whose lifestyle matches RE objectives.
Regarding teaching/learning methods:
- Time-wise, some aspects of RE could be presented in a ‘once-off’ manner with benefit: and left at that.
- Others would need re-iteration and expansion, using a ‘concentric’ approach to topics concerned, developing more fully the core matter introduced on earlier occasions.
- Some would require an ongoing, experiential approach to them to give the students fuller appreciation (Mass, sacraments, prayer, etc.)
- An “apologetics” approach should also be adopted especially at upper secondary school levels, so that students will acquire a rational understanding of their faith, and enable them to give suitable answers and explanations to questions and challenges they encounter.
- The beauty and duty of spreading the word of God should be encouraged, and with it, enthusiasm for the Catholic faith. The development of a logically thinking and Catholic ‘elite’ should be encouraged, though not in an elitist sense of superiority, but rather in terms of service to God and to people; ones committed to carrying the ‘baton’ of faith and practice for the future generation. An extra class, eg. once a fortnight, for those with some potential in this direction should be broached and implemented. Worth a try. Meetings could be conducted on a chat, think and pray basis for any who are interested.
- Non-Catholics could be given “ethics” lessons when strictly Catholic classes are held (unless they have their parents’ permission to attend and wish to participate in such classes of their own volition).
- For the home, as a means of keeping in touch, especially with those who do not value or attend Sunday Mass, a brief flier carrying a thought, or a word of encouragement or the like should be sent to parents every month, to engage/re-engage their interest and attention?
- Where possible, children should be urged to invite their parents to take them or accompany them to Sunday Mass.
- Advantage should be taken of the forthcoming World Youth Day, in Sydney, in July 2008, and the preparations for it.
Underpinning all this, would have to be the appreciation and recognition that RE must be life-giving and life-transforming: a closer walk with God who is Love, and Christ His Beloved Son.
These are matters that need to be looked into, urgently, especially for the strengthening of hearts and minds, and for helping to build the Kingdom of God in our midst.