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.

*     *     *     *     *

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.


  1. Right on! As a catechist who is "as old as dirt" and has been teaching just as long, I have to agree with what you have said about Catholic education. Especially important is sharing one's faith with one's students. As one who never felt called to teach--until I was ambushed by a determined and desperate nun!--I found that by simply sharing my faith I was able to connect with my students. The responsive light in their eyes and their eager questions have led me to believe I was making a difference in their lives. I know that some--or many--will drift away for awhile, but I think there will be a quiet voice always calling them home. As my energy has flagged with age, I have turned from teaching to writing, and again it is a sharing of my faith witness--but with a difference. 'Graffiti On My Soul' has just been released, and I have written it to fill a much needed niche. As you know, there are religious and secular books--and 'never the twain shall meet'! I have written a book to bridge that gulf, a book that one reviewer said "reads like an Agatha Christie mystery, but the words are so beautiful they sound like music". This is a book that can be given without offense to the non-religious and those who have drifted away, helping, I hope especially in families where the discussion of religion has become a taboo subject. The story is rivetting and true, a memoir that will hold the interest of most any reader, while awakening in him/her a renewed appreciation of faith and God-with-us. The late Cardinal Avery Dulles said, "The living testimony of believers rather than philosophical arguments are what is needed today. In former days we focused on 'how we get to God'; today it is more important to understand 'how God comes to us'". As such, I hope 'Graffiti On My Soul' will fill a need in your ministry both to students and to their parents. For more information check:

  2. I agree that teaching Religious Education should be given to Specialist teachers who are able to teach the content as well as make it relevant to the lives of young people through witnessing.

    However I believe that even practicing Catholic parents are faced with the dilemma of keeping the faith of their children active. Parents may be good Catholics showing love to their family and really caring and praying for one another but once their children reach adolescence, they start to drift as you mentioned.

    It is easy to give simplistic explanations to this kind of trend but it is more complicated than what we believe. Adults also experience spiritual dryness and without fellowship, they too can drift away from the Church

    I myself is a practicing Catholic and my two sons although brought up in the Church and family traditions of prayers to God, Mary our Mother and the Saints, liturgical gatherings, strong bond with one another, etc, they too are currently drifting away from the Church. They insist that they believe in God but they just don't feel the Church is for them. We have healthy discussions about the faith and there are times when i am lost for words. HOwever, whenever there is an opportunity, I try to generate discussions about faith. Both boys respect and admire my faith but this is not enough for them to keep their faith. So I just pray that God will draw them close to Him by his grace. Like other young adolescence, to them the Church is losing its appeal and they also question inconsistencies in the Bible especially the Old Testament. Their concept of God who is all powerful, all-knowing and merciful doesn't reconcile with some stories in the old Testament portraying God as a punishing God and a God who allows the Devil to tempt or test his chosen ones especially Job. HOwever both boys insist that they pray to God each day.

    I asked some young people what they think of the Church and similarly they do not see the Church as appealing. To them the Mass is quite monotonous, songs are unappealing and the sermon, doesn't really touch them.


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