Catholic schools are delivering the goods

Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Photo: Giovanni Portelli

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s Gravissimum Educationis, the Declaration on Christian Education. This seminal document provided a clear articulation of the nature and purpose of education, highlighting the unique vision and mission of Catholic schools. It has long been considered the ‘bedrock’ upon which Catholic schools have drawn their inspiration, evolved and flourished.

Gravissimum Educationis not only explored the philosophical underpinnings and complexities of education, it affirmed every person’s inalienable right to quality education. Through education young people not only acquire knowledge, they can also learn to exercise personal freedom responsibly, to contribute to society through service, to develop their capacity for critical thinking and moral reasoning, and to nurture their talents, interests and personality.

Gravissimum Educationis highlighted that a Christian education extends beyond these goals so that young people are “introduced to the knowledge of the mystery of salvation, become more aware of the gift of faith they have received”, learn how to worship God through liturgical action and learn how to conform their personal lives to religious truths.

The Declaration on Christian Education acknowledged that the mission of Catholic schools rested upon the partnership between the home and the school and for this to be effective and bear fruit both teachers and parents needed to be fully committed. Teachers in particular were called upon to be authentic witnesses, both in work and life, and to be endowed with an apostolic zeal. The pre-eminent role of teachers and the primary role of parents have been salient and recurring themes in many of the Church’s core documents relating to Catholic education.

In the years following Gravissimum Educationis, the Church has sought periodically to rearticulate the primary goals of Catholic education. This has largely been necessitated by the way in which cultural post-modernity has impacted upon the place and practice of religion in society.

According to Pope Francis, the secularism that has characterised post-modernity has tended to “reduce the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and personal” and given rise to an increase in relativism. To this end, the Church has sought to remind schools that they are ‘counter-cultural’ in nature, and must continue to discern and respond to the signs of the times in order to effectively contribute to the evangelising and catechising mission of the Church.

Within the particular context of Australian society much has also been written about Catholic education. A document of particular significance is Catholic Schools at a Crossroads (2007), a Pastoral Letter of the Bishops of NSW and the ACT. While acknowledging the system of schools is one of the ‘jewels in the crown’ of the wider Catholic community, the bishops challenged those working in education to dedicate themselves to ensuring that Catholic schools:
• are truly Catholic in their identity and life
• are centres of the ‘new evangelisation’
• enable our students to achieve high levels of ‘Catholic religious literacy’ and practice, and
• are led and staffed by people who will contribute to these goals.

Catholic Schools at a Crossroads has been a seminal document in the local context. Schools and systems of schools have made it a key point of reference and have adapted their strategic directions accordingly, especially in regards to the ‘Critical Indicators of Progress’ that the Pastoral Letter identifies. Significant progress has been made in urban and rural dioceses alike. This is borne out in:
• the diverse range of individual and communal prayer experiences made available to students, including Adoration, the Rosary and Christian meditation – the Angelus
• the strengthening of the religious education curriculum
• systematic approaches to the testing of religious literacy
• student and teacher participation in the international World Youth Days and the Australian Catholic Youth Festivals
• innovative approaches to youth ministry and family evangelisation
• the prioritisation of staff faith formation, including retreat, pilgrimage and immersion experiences.

Notwithstanding these developments, many challenges still exist.

Recently, The Catholic Weekly featured two articles which identified some of these challenges. Jonathon Doyle reaffirmed the need for Catholic schools to be staffed by people who “provide profound and heroic witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ”.

This call reiterates the challenge enunciated in Gravissimum Educationis, which also acknowledged that “the Catholic school depends upon them [teachers] almost entirely for the accomplishment of its goals and programs”.

The ‘personal witness’ of teachers is taken very seriously by Catholic educational authorities throughout Australia, all of whom are seeking ways to strengthen approaches to the faith formation of staff. One laudable example is that of FIDES (Forming Intentional Disciples in Every School) co-ordinated by the Catholic Education Office in the diocese of Parramatta.

Amid the various programs for teachers, students and their families, there is no panacea which will bring immediate and universal success. Catholic schools operate within a very challenging social context and can be affected by the prevailing cultural milieu.

In addition to the article by Jonathon Doyle, a group of concerned Catholics put forward the view that there was a “disturbing crisis in religious education” which necessitated an overhaul of Catholic education by the bishops. Much of the concern arose from some sociological research conducted by the Catholic Education Office in the Archdiocese of Sydney in 2014 as well as some longitudinal data from the Pastoral Research Office of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

While acknowledging that this article was motivated by a genuine desire of the authors to see approaches to Catholic education strengthened, it is important to clarify a number of the points raised and to reiterate the nature and raison d’être of Catholic schools.

While statistics can validate a particular argument, they can on occasions be misinterpreted, or create the wrong impression. To this end, there is a need to clarify a number of the statistics cited. The reference to “only one in five children from Catholic schools attends Mass on Sunday” refers to those who go each and every Sunday.

This does not mean that four in five never attend. For many, their attendance is regular but not weekly. Reference was made to “only one in four ever attends Mass held at school” and the question was raised about why Mass isn’t compulsory in Catholic schools. In fact, all students enrolled in Catholic schools are required to participate in the liturgical life of their school.

In the case of the 2014 survey of ‘Student Religious Attitudes and Practices’, the results indicated that young people in Catholic schools had a more developed sense of religiosity and higher levels of religious commitment, evidenced by practice, when compared with findings of sociological research conducted with young people in the mainstream.

This should come as no surprise, given the faith-based nature of Catholic schools. At the same time, we should not be consoled by this comparison but actively seek out ways to provide an environment which is conducive to the promotion of religious plausibility, opportunities for religious socialisation and to strengthen the religious commitment of young people.

Catholic schools do not exist within a social vacuum.

While the group, New Perspectives for Catholic Education (NPCE), has linked family situations, the mass media and social media with the decline in religious practice among students, it proposes that “the school factor appears to be the major factor causing students and ex-students to stop practising their faith”. I would vehemently contest this assertion and suggest that there is a range of causal factors, a view asserted by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium n.70.

Cultural post-modernity has given rise to individualisation and ‘detraditionalisation’, both of which have impacted upon religious beliefs and practices throughout the Western world. As with many other social institutions, the authority of the Christian churches, and the plausibility of their teachings have been challenged.

Increasingly, people have constructed their own social norms and values. In some instances the drift away from many churches has not arisen from people’s lack of belief, but a perceived incompatibility between the individual’s values and those espoused by a church.

Mason, Singleton and Webber (2007) argued the points of disconnection often varied according to the generational grouping. Among youth, this disconnection often takes the form of a ‘loose affiliation’. Typically, this religious nominalism is accentuated in later life, often to the point of abandonment of all religious practice.

Catholic Schools at a Crossroads highlighted the need for school communities to become centres of the ‘new evangelisation’ in recognition of the new social and cultural realities they faced. The ‘new evangelisation’ was conceived as a dynamic missionary response to the spread of religious nominalism and indifference, seeking to engage Christians who have lost their sense of faith and “live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel” (Redemptoris Missio, n.33).

To this end, Catholic schools are not the exclusive domain of those who are already deeply committed to their faith as the NPCE group seem to imply they should be.

Catholic schools are distinguished by their religious dimension, characterised by the transmission of faith, the inter-relationship between faith and culture, and an atmosphere which promotes the authentic development of the whole person.

Central to this development is the priority given to religious instruction, enabling young people to know, understand, celebrate and live-out the Catholic faith.

Catholic schools offer an education which is transformative, fostering the personal and spiritual growth of each person, drawing them towards ‘fullness of life’.