Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Open Letter to Youth Impact: A Concern...

Below is the letter I sent to Youth Impact earlier today.

The reason behind the letter was a matter of concern I had regarding a way they recommended our Year 10 students yesterday to get involved in social justice directives and make a difference. One such way they suggested was to write letters through Amnesty International. You'll learn more as you read the letter:
To whom it may concern,
My name is Stephen Spiteri and I am the Head of Senior Religious Education at Irene McCormack Catholic College.
Yesterday the first group of Year 10 students from Irene McCormack Catholic College attended an encounter day with Youth Impact at the Butler Community Centre. I am pleased to say that the students gained a great deal from the day and enjoyed it overall. They appreciated the energy and enthusiasm of the day leaders and this allowed them to engage with the underlying message of the encounter.
I am, however, concerned that as part of the “What you can do” (sic.) component of the program students were encouraged to get involved with numerous outreaches and organisations established to help those less fortunate, one of which was Amnesty International. Perhaps it is something the Youth Impact leadership body is unaware of but Catholic schools across Australia have severed ties with Amnesty International due to their change of stance on the abortion issue which occurred in 2007/08. Amnesty International are no longer supportive of a pro-life ethic especially where the unborn are concerned. This is contradictory to the teachings of the Catholic Church and diametrically opposed to divine and moral law.
As a Catholic school we have to uphold and live by the Catholic ethos and be faithful to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church as to avoid scandal and provide for our students and consistent Catholic education. As a Catholic educator I cannot in good conscience recommend my students be involved with Amnesty International.
In response to Amnesty International’s changed stance on the abortion issue, Catholic schools have affiliated themselves with the Benenson Society whom which uphold pro-life values especially where the unborn are concerned (more information about the Beneson Society can be found here:
I am in no way personally affiliated with the Benenson Society, but Youth Impact may want to consider this alternative to Amnesty International so as to remain consistent with what it is the Catholic Church teaches and maintain a consistent approach to the preservation and protection of the unborn.
In charity,
Stephen Spiteri
As I indicated in the letter, it may be the case that the Youth Impact team were unaware of Amnesty International's change of stance on the abortion issue, but that in itself would be surprising considering they have now maintained this anti-life stance since 2007/08. This might then suggest that the material Youth Impact is using has gone unchanged for a number of years and is simply being rehashed, or that the Youth Impact volunteers are failing to take the initiative themselves and read up on organisations like Amnesty International to ensure their goals and mission statement adhere to Catholic teachings. Youth Impact are a Catholic ministry after all and so it's important that they themselves remain faithful to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church as you would expect a Catholic school or other educational institution to.

More information about Amnesty International's abortion policy change can be found here: - The Age, May 28, 2007

And for more information about the Catholic Church's stance on abortion, go here:

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I received a reply email from the Managing Director of Youth Impact moments ago. They, Youth Impact, will no longer be making any mention of Amnesty International (AI) in their presentations in schools where they operate (WA and SA).

What was even more alarming about the issue is that I was apparently the first and only teacher in a Catholic school to
question and challenge Youth Impact's "endorsement" of Amnesty International. What this means is that no one else has questioned or challenged this affiliation since 2007 and each year DOZENS of schools would have heard this endorsement of Amnesty International by Youth Impact. Shocking!!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Infallibility: What it is, and What it's Not

A friend of mine asked me today:

"What's 'infallibility'? I can't find the word in the Bible anywhere and I don't know what it means. Is it something that the Catholic Church just made up?"

Before I addressed the question, it was important to point out that there are many words used by Catholics and by non-Catholic Christians alike that do not appear or are mentioned in the Bible (Sacred Scripture). For example: the words "trinity", "pope", "incarnation", or "Eucharist" don't appear in the Bible yet as Christians we believe in the triune nature of God (the trinity), we as Catholics believe in the apostolic authority of the Church and that Jesus established a visible Church with St. Peter as its head (Matthew 16:18), we believe that Jesus is God in the flesh (the incarnation, John 10:30), and we partake in the sacrament of the Eucharist as Christ instructed us to at the Last Supper (Luke 22:19).

While certain words commonly used by Christians are not found in the Bible, they're used (i.e. coined) because they allow us to describe doctrines and concepts revealed to us in scripture. Basically, the word itself might not be there in the Bible, but the framework and evidence for it is.

So what's "infallibility"? In short, "infallibility" refers to the Church's ability to teach on matters of faith and morals infallibly. To teach infallibly means to teach with the guarantee that there is no error in the teaching and that it has not been taught in error.

Christ himself instructed the disciples to go out and teach and that He would be with them until the end of time (Matthew 28:19-20). Jesus would send the disciples His spirit to be with them and guide them in their teaching:

"But when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will teach you all truth. For he shall not speak of himself; but what things soever he shall hear, he shall speak; and the things that are to come, he shall shew you." - John 16:13

Christ bestowed upon St. Peter the authority to lead the visible church and the authority to "bind" and "loose" (Matthew 16:19) which refers to teaching authority.

"He that heareth you, heareth me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth me; and he that despiseth me, despiseth him that sent me." - Luke 10:16

Christ also, as we read in John 21:15-17, instructed St. Peter to feed His lambs/sheep. In other words, Christ entrusted St. Peter with the responsibility to guide all in Christ as a shepherd does his flock.

The Church is known as the "pillar and bulwark of truth" (1 Timothy 3:15) because the Holy Spirit guides it, and when the Church teaches infallibly it does so because the Holy Spirit has enabled it to. The teaching authority of the Catholic Church is known as the "Magisterium", taken from the Latin word "magister" which means "teacher" and this responsibility to teach is emphasised in Christ's instruction to the disciples to baptise and teach all nations as we read in Matthew 28:19-20.

The Church teaches infallibly when the pope declares an infallible teaching. When the pope does this, they are known to be speaking "ex cathedra" which means that they are speaking from the chair of St. Peter again referring to the authority given to St. Peter by Christ and the ability to "bind and loose". This does not, however, mean that the pope himself is infallible. The pope is a just a man; an ordinary human like you and me, only he has an extraordinary role as a successor of St. Peter and charged with the responsibility of leading the visible church as St. Peter did from around 33AD. Fundamentalists often make the mistake that the word "infallibility" refers to the pope himself and not to what the pope is charged with, that is to "bind and loose".

A particular instance of this "speaking from the chair of St. Peter" was exemplified at the Council of Chalcedon (circa 451AD) when Pope Leo and the bishops met to speak against Monophysitism, a belief that dictated that Christ only had one nature or a "half-half" nature (as opposed to the two distinct natures of Christ that we believe in known as the Hypostatic Union: fully human and fully divine; fully man and fully God). When Pope Leo presented his tome, it was declared:

"This is the faith of the fathers! This is the faith of the Apostles! So we all believe! thus the orthodox believe! Anathema to him who does not thus believe! Peter has spoken thus through Leo! ...This is the true faith!" - Acts of the Council, session 2

An example of an infallible teaching (a teaching without error) is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity (the triune nature of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). This doctrine was declared infallible at the Council of Nicea (circa 325AD). Now, this is not to say that the Holy Trinity only existed from that point, no. What's this tells us is that at the Council of Nicea in 325AD, those in attendance at the council came to the conclusion that it was absolutely beyond doubt and beyond mere faith that God existed in three natures. Belief in the Trinity was held by the early Christians and the Early Church Fathers (St. Irenaeus, St. Hippolytus of Rome, and St. Origen for instance) and this was a teaching that was commonly agreed upon, but only declared infallible in that year because the council was finally convinced (epiphanised, if you will) that his teaching was truly inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit. A "Eureka!" ("I've found it!") moment if you will.

Other infallible teachings include (in no particular order) the Hypostatic Union (Christ as a fully human and fully divine being; true man and true God), Mary's Immaculate Conception, the Beatific Vision (the eternal and direct visual perception of God), just to name a few.

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So in summary "infallibility" refers to the Catholic Church's teaching authority (the Magisterium) and the Church's capacity to teach infallibly, that is to guarantee that a particular teaching/doctrine is free from error. Papal Infallibility does not mean that the pope himself is infallible or that he is impeccable, no, but under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and through the Church the pope may declare a teaching infallible when he speaks "ex cathedra".

For some further reading and more information on infallibility, have a read of the following article over at

Sunday, June 06, 2010

A Crisis in Australian Catholic Religious Education: Part I of II

What I will be blogging about today could potentially get me into a lot of trouble. Some of these things I touched on in a previous blog entry, but in this entry today I broaden the argument a bit further and examine the core issues surrounding Religious Education in Catholic college classrooms today. This blog entry will be divided into two parts: Part I, the "problems"; and Part II, the "solutions". Part II will come next week.

Firstly, the problem: a majority of children born in to Catholic families that go through the Catholic education system discontinue going to church and practising their faith beyond the high school years. Catholic secondary schools to a reasonable job at encouraging a church-going culture (e.g. through school Mass) during the years of adolescence, but how many students after their final year of high school continue going to Mass after their graduation? A figure that was thrown at me when I looked into the matter myself (and I'm still looking for citation) was something in the field of nine to 10 per cent. So in a graduating class of 180 students, only 16 to 18 of those students will continue going to Mass beyond their high school years. When I think of the cohort that I graduated with back in 1998 - and I believe there was about 160 to 170 of us that graduated from high school that year - I could tell you by name the people that continue to attend Mass and that number would equate to nine to 10 per cent of the class of '98. This figure, of course, does not take into account students that come from non-Catholic backgrounds or who do not pertain to any particular religion.

Why is this happening? I pointed out a couple of problems in that previous blog entry I mentioned earlier (link above), but I would like to make it clear that I do not believe that the Catholic education system itself is entirely to blame from the problem (I will discuss that in detail later), but I think it would be appropriate to highlight some key areas of concern:

1.) Lack of specialist Religious Education teachers: At the school I work at currently, I am one of two specialist Religious Education teachers in a department consisting of 14 other staff members. In another metropolitan Catholic private school that I am familiar with, this school also has two specialist Religious Education teachers but in a department consisting of 36 other staff members. While that school's population is much larger, it does make you wonder why there are not more specialists teaching Religious Education as their core subject. Think about it: they have mathematics specialists [teachers] in the Mathematics department, science specialists in the Science department, literature specialists in the English department, and so on. Yet in Religious Education departments across the country, the majority of the Religious Education department consists mainly of "part-timers"; those who have an accreditation to teach Religious Education in a Catholic school, but only take the one class to fill gaps in the timetable.

2.) Lack of testimony: One of the most effective ways I have been able to teach my students about the faith and how the Lord can work in a person's life, is through the sharing of my own faith journey. I remember back to the Year 12 retreat in New Norcia I attended last school term, and on the second evening of the retreat I was to give a talk on the impact of God's love in my life. I was given a sort of "formula" to follow with the talk but I thought that if I did that the students would pick up on the "forced-ness" of what I had to say. What I did instead was share about tragedies and triumphs (less of the latter) and where God fit in with all of that. I had several students coming up to me later on in the evening and over breakfast the next day making comment first of all on what I had been through and how they were amazed at how I pulled through it all. A teacher of Religious Education should not be afraid to speak personally to their students and share about where God fits in in their own lives. I can't think of a single person that has come to Christ by means of acquired academic knowledge. I can, however, name hundreds of individuals that have come to Christ because they've been inspired by someone else's story. How can we expect our students to put their faith in Christ and trust Him when they don't see their classroom teacher doing the same?

3.) All preaching, no practising: I remember back when I was at university doing my teaching diploma, I was in a class with other students completing an accreditation to teach Religious Education at a Catholic school. Only a handful of us out of a number of about 30 or 40 others, unfortunately, were practising Catholics. One of my classmates would often object to certain Catholic teachings (e.g. on contraceptives, sex outside of marriage, etc.) and when I challenged my classmate on this, I asked them, "So why do you want to teach R.E. if you don't agree with the Church's teachings?" to which her response was, "Because getting the qualification to teach R.E. will help me get a job in a Catholic school". This is an unhealthy reality: a number of teachers attain their qualifications to teach Religious Education in a Catholics school just so it will improve their employability at a Catholic high school. 

Yes, we've all got to pay the bills some how, but this particular phenomena is damaging Catholic religious education in the sense that this particular classroom teacher will teach the Catholic content - and in most cases teach it well - but will fail to deliver on criteria highlighted in points 1 and 2 (see above). Why is it important for the Religious Education teacher to practice what they preach? Imagine it this way: a teach in Health Education tells his/her students that smoking is bad, unhealthy, and that they, the students, would be stupid to smoke, and then after school hours the students see the teacher "lighting up". How do you think this damages the teacher's credibility? Likewise, imagine you have a teacher that teaches the Catholic content and one lessons teaches the Church's position on cohabitation and pre-marital sex, but they themselves are living in a cohabitative relationship and is sexually active outside of marriage.

4.) No or lack of Catholic education at home: The problems do not only reside at Catholic schools. Parents are everyone's first teachers. I recall the words of brother of mine in Christ, a man by the name of Johnny Lee Clary, who appeared on national television during the week and he spoke about how he lived a life filled with hate before turning to Christ and giving his heart to Him. Of the things Johnny said during these interviews, the most poignant was this: "We're not born with hatred; a baby doesn't know how to hate when it's born... it's something that it learns how to do". How does this statement contrast to Catholic education at home? A child, during their developmental years, will base its own faith and model it on the faith of his/her parents, and this plays a critical factor in how a child will (or will not) pursue and continue to form their own faith during the years of adolescence heading beyond their years at high school.

Parents will ensure that their children learn good manners, good behaviour, what's naughty, what's nice, what Mummy and Daddy like, what Mummy and Daddy don't like, etc., but where a number of Catholic families fail is teaching the faith at home. The average Catholic parents will expect their children to be catechised and taught of the Catholic faith at school. Why? Because the average Catholic parents are not equipped to teach the faith (their knowledge of the faith may only be at the base and experiential level) and when that is compounded with the day-to-day stresses of taking care of a family, who has the time to teach their kids about the faith? The fact that time is not made is a problem. There are 168 hours in a seven day week. Why are a portion of Catholic families struggling to find one hour out of those 168 to get themselves to Mass (once a week) and listen to the Word of God and partake in the celebration of the Eucharist? Why is it so difficult for a portion of Catholic families to set aside 15 to 25 minutes a day where the topic of discussion may be faith, Jesus, our Catholic faith, what the priest spoke on during his sermon, what our reflections were on the Gospel readings, and so on. Now some of these things you don't need to be an expert on to discuss; you might find that you learn something yourself in the process of discussing them!

When a parent is involved in their faith, when they're practising what they themselves are preaching, when they're modelling their own lives on the life of Jesus Christ, then the child will notice! We are first called to witness to those closest to us, and this does not mean trying to cram things down the throat of a child or to force them to have a faith they don't want because they don't think it belongs to them. It's very important for a child to make their faith their own and never to feel like they're practising their faith because their parents expect them to. It comes down to desire: the child has to want faith; has to want to go to Mass every Sunday; has to want to pray, etc., and the foundation for these desires begins at home with the parents, the first teachers. 

When a parent is involved in the education of their children, the children learn better. This is a fact! The same can be said for a child's faith development, but the fact that a number of Catholic families are relying heavily on the Catholic schools to provide a Catholic religious education for their children in terms of faith development. When this is compounded with points 1, 2 and 3, it's no wonder young adults are leaving the faith, either rejecting it all together and resenting it or going elsewhere to find the answers for the questions they have.

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But all hope is not lost, folks, and there are very simple things you and I can do to help alleviate this crisis. The first step in resolving an issue is first recognising that it exists and identifying the problem(s). Awareness is key, and what is intended to be seen must not be kept hidden (Matthew 5:14-16).

In Part II of this blog entry I will be addressing each of the points I have highlighted in this entry and offering a solutions, and furthermore, I will be putting them into practice myself and telling you how you can do so yourself.

So until next week, I hope that I have given you some food for thought.

God bless.