A series of articles published in The Catholic Weekly since May are based on serious misconceptions about the research being undertaken by the Catholic University of Leuven in a number of dioceses around Australia.
It is important that the record be corrected, not only because the articles cast a slur on the bishops of the dioceses where the research is being undertaken but also because they undermine the very authentic efforts being made to strengthen the religious identity of our Catholic schools.
Those who have read the articles in question in The Catholic Weekly will recognise I address criticisms that have been raised about the work that we are doing.
It is obvious that Fr Flader has failed to understand the context and use of the expression ‘post-critical belief’ when he wrote that belief in Christ and the teachings of the Church has been replaced by ‘post-critical belief’.
No school that I am aware of has ever advanced such a position or could ever do so and be recognised as a Catholic school by their bishop.
Those who are familiar with the Leuven research will know that the real and true presence of Christ is affirmed in the Eucharist, in prayer, in Scripture, in the person of the priest when celebrating the Sacraments, in Sacred Scripture, in the desire for justice and in loving relationships in the family, the Church and more broadly in the world.
The research directly and unambiguously challenges Catholic educators to create formative spaces for students where they might experience and appreciate the myriad ways in which Christ is present to them in mediations such as these.
The importance of prayer, liturgy and Scripture as fundamental sources for faith is particularly underlined in the research findings.
The research clearly and directly challenges forms of Religious Education that are relativist or reductionist in their orientation, not only because such approaches are incompatible with the claims of Catholic faith but also because the empirical evidence clearly demonstrates that Catholic identity is weakened when teachers are relativist in their approach or substitute humanist values for Catholic teaching and belief.
A key finding from the research is that Catholic educators need to structure spaces for their students that engage them more directly with the sacred texts and doctrines of Catholic faith as well as providing more explicit experiences of Catholic liturgy, prayer and the sacraments.
The unique power of these elements of our Catholic faith is affirmed in the research and educators are challenged to invite students again and again into experiences where the potency of these elements might be experienced and appreciated.
For example, those who understand the Leuven analysis know that experiences of social justice need to be illuminated by an engagement with the social teaching of the Church and a concern for the environment needs to be illuminated by a Catholic understanding of creation.
Professor Pollefeyt from Leuven rather beautifully expressed the significance of Catholic faith for this research when he said during his recent visit: “the Catholic tradition is, from my perspective, the most powerful, the most deep, the most authentic and the most thorough way of relating to reality and to the Divine”.
The research affirms the importance of the witness that teachers provide to students about their own faith, the importance of teacher knowledge about Catholic beliefs, texts and practices and the importance of the skills necessary to create formative spaces for students that engage them directly and explicitly with these elements of Catholic faith.
The findings from the research align well with what our recent national census has to tell us about Church attendance, religious practice and belief.
Traditional religious beliefs and practices are diminishing in Australia and young people are unlikely therefore to accept Catholic truths simply because they are proclaimed by a teacher, a parish or a school.
Research shows that young people engage with Catholic truths much more deeply when their questions, beliefs and issues are taken seriously and when they are treated with respect, even if they should express views which run contrary to Catholic faith.
If a dialogue is to be real, it is never a matter of simply accepting what the other person has to say; it certainly is a matter of listening deeply to them and responding sensitively and honestly to their issues but it is also a matter of challenging them with the truth as we understand it.
In a Catholic school students must always be confronted with the truth of Catholic faith in a genuine dialogue. Dialogue and proclamation are two sides of the one evangelical coin.
Dialogue is not just an effective pastoral strategy, it is a reflection of the Second Vatican Council’s understanding of revelation and its vision of the Church’s relationship with the world.
Our approach reflects papal teaching advanced in documents such as Paul VI’s Ecclesium Suam, Pope John Paul’s repeated call to a New Evangelisation and Benedict XVI’s establishment of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelisation.
Our approach reflects Pope Francis’ challenge to take on the “smell of the sheep” to the point where the sheep are willing to hear our voices because we stand with them at every step of the way.
The Leuven research embodies the principles of interpretation used generally by Catholic theologians and a starting point for understanding some of these principles is the Catechism and documents such as Pope Benedict’s Verbum Domini.
It is only through following such principles that the truth of the Gospels and other sacred texts is able to be grasped and understood properly.
In our context in Melbourne we use the Religious Education texts that were initiated by Cardinal Pell, continued under Archbishop Hart and closely supervised by Bishop Elliott and we find that these texts provide a very firm and reliable foundation for passing on the Catholic faith to our students.
The To Know, Worship and Love texts and are used in the Archdioceses of both Melbourne and Sydney and in a range of other dioceses around the country.
Our Religious Education Framework addresses topics which have been raised by recent writers to The Catholic Weekly such as grace, sin, virtue, redemption, holiness and sanctity.
A dialogue with students only becomes Catholic and educational when it draws from authentic sources and provides students with the information needed to make their learning meaningful.
Good teachers know how to move sensitively between direct instruction and learning activities which challenge students to explore the meaning and truth of the information they are studying.
In a Catholic school this truth and this meaning will only be found when the educational process is illuminated by Catholic faith, by its teachings, by its rituals and by its beliefs about the ways we should live our lives.
It would be foolish to think that every teacher or every family in Melbourne or in any other jurisdiction was living up to all the ideals that have been expressed here.
One of the reasons for the research we are currently undertaking is that we believe it is essential that we serve the communities we actually have, not the ones we think we have or wished we had.
It is only by profiling our communities and understanding the religious options they are taking that we move beyond anecdotes to gather the evidence that allows us to understand how best to proclaim the Gospel to those we are called to serve.