Catholic Education in Australia faced a major crisis in the 1960s to the point where the bishops of the time seriously considered having to close the entire system down because they simply did not have the resources to sustain it any longer. The new system that was established in the 1970s, thanks largely to government funding, is fundamentally different to the system of religious education that had existed in the past. In today's commentary, Dr Graham English, Senior Lecturer in Religious Education at ACU National, explores some of the other social and cultural factors that make Catholic Education today so much different to what it was in the past.
The changing nature of the Church is confusing for some...
Religious education in Australia has changed a great deal since Vatican II and there is therefore some confusion among Catholics and others. That is not surprising.
In the 1880s the Australian Catholic bishops made the decision to have a system of Catholic schools that was intended to be the primary socialising influence to make children into Catholics and to form a particular kind of Catholic community based on the model set up by Cardinal Cullen in Ireland. By using religious sisters and brothers they were able to do this for about eighty years because they were working with a Catholic population that was mainly Irish-descended and in many ways socially homogeneous. Almost all the Catholics were working class, poorly educated and were prone to accept the bishops' will. The sisters and brothers who taught in the schools were also working class, poorly educated and trained to do as they were told. The bishops had societal and cultural pressure that they could bring to bear on Catholics to ensure that they sent their children to Catholic schools; especially fear, peer pressure and the need for identity and security. And so eventually, though not without some argument and resistance parents wanted to send their children to Catholic schools. They could see the physical and religious benefits of doing so.
For Australian Catholics the Church became part of or almost entirely their primary community. Whether this was all a good educational move for their children is open to debate but from about 1920 until the 1960s, Catholic schools, taught mostly by sisters and brothers became the main socialising agency for producing Catholics.
The social and cultural changes in the 1960s and 1970s...
Then in the 1960s and 1970s almost every advantage the bishops had in making the schools their main socialising agency disappeared and they disappeared quickly without anyone, bishops, priests or people being prepared for the changes or having any clear idea about what to do next.
Ever since there has been uncertainty and confusion among some Catholics.
Catholics became multi cultured before the rest of the Australian population. Italians, Dutch, Poles, Czechs etc became part of the church and did not necessarily follow the Irish line. Catholics moved class and voting patterns, ironically because of Catholic education and Mr Santamaria's and some of the bishops' attacks on the Labor Party. Ordinary Catholics became educated and no longer took the bishops' and priests' word as law. The church changed at Vatican II. God's love for us became crucial to most Catholics' belief. Fear dissipated as a motive for church practice. Humanae Vitae and other church decisions convinced Catholics that they could make their own decisions and take responsibility for them, and the sacrament of confession died, thus depriving priests of the power to influence people's decisions especially about sexuality. Then quite quickly the teachers in Catholic schools became lay people and most significantly they had not done a strict novitiate and were not trained to do as they were told.
A largely lay staff…
By 2007 almost all executives and almost all teachers in Catholic schools are not trained in novitiates and most teachers have not experienced religious sisters or brothers as teachers. For many the church has ceased being their primary community. It has become just one community among others that Catholics are part of.
Catholic schools adapted to the new circumstances. Catholic education offices and thoughtful educators realised that in the light of the new circumstances and the teachings of Vatican II the role of the school could no longer be a primary socialising agency as it had been. They realised that it was a place of evangelisation, social justice, a sacramental approach to life, and a way of introducing children to a Catholic way of being. Religious education took scripture and theology more seriously and devotion became much less prominent.
Research showed that parents no longer wanted the school to be the primary socialising agent of the Church. Parents stressed pastoral care, discipline, good quality education, and other aims for schools and consistently put religion towards the end of their top ten requirements for Catholic schools. Parents do not come to the religion teacher on parent teacher nights to ask how their child is going in religion now because they never did. They were always most interested in how the child was going in examinable subjects and they still are.
Now if parents do not send their children to Catholic schools primarily to be socialised as Catholics no number of teachers or anyone else wanting the schools to be primarily socialising agents for the church will make them that. The time for that has passed. Not because anyone chose it. It just did. The way blacksmiths' shops became redundant.
As most Catholic school teachers are themselves parents of children in Catholic schools we can presume that they want what most parents want. We also have to presume that the teachers' way of being Catholic is roughly the same as all other Australian Catholics way of being Catholic. We also have to presume that when Catholic school teachers use the word 'vocation' they mean something different from when 'vocation' meant being a priest, brother or nun. For example I have a vocation to be married as well as a vocation to be a teacher. And lots of us use 'professional' instead of 'vocation' but we mean the same thing. Our profession is that which we profess, like 'I am here to profess to you that the Kingdom of God is at hand.'
Catholic schools are no longer primarily about socialisation into a particular way of being Catholic because Catholic parents do not want them to be and as Vatican II says, parents are the primary educators of their children. Another reason that Catholic schools are no longer primarily about socialising the young into a particular way of being Catholic is that that particular way of being Catholic died during the 1960s and 1970s.
Catholic religious education today is about evangelisation and, when possible, catechesis rather than primarily about socialisation…
Now in line with the Vatican and other Church documents since Vatican II Catholic religious education is about evangelisation and, when possible, catechesis. It is about handing on a tradition in ways that children now can take part in. It is also about teaching children to read and value scripture, to know the religions of their fellow Australians, to take part as Catholics in the wider community. In addition it helps young people learn how to identify and negotiate spiritual and moral issues in life. It helps them develop values and meaning in life.
This does not satisfy some Catholics despite the clear will of the majority of the parents of Catholic children now in the schools. Part of the difficulty for these dissatisfied and often confused people is that they want Catholic schools to be what they were in the 1950s. This is no longer possible. Some bishops and priests and some Catholics want to restore what happened in the 1950s. They want an obedient, devout, uniform Catholic community. Even if this were a good idea it is not possible.
Religious education of Catholic teachers then exists in this atmosphere where the Australian society and its needs and desires have changed, where the Catholic population and its needs and desires have changed, and where education has changed. All educators in the current climate are working in a changing society and we are working in a changing Church as well. So educating teachers for Catholic schools now is about enabling them to know and teach the tradition but in ways in which they learn how to think, interpret, read, make sense of, and take part in the Catholic tradition if they choose. It is surprising how many, once they are really educated in scripture and theology choose to be active in the Church. It is also about evangelisation. That is it is about announcing and living by the good news that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
I have been around for a relatively long time. I grew up thoroughly Catholic in the old way. In our house the fights were not if we would say the rosary but at what time. I was finished my teacher education before Vatican II finished. So I was formed in the old church. I am still here, though I am so glad the old church has gone. Many who were formed in the same way left it all when they had the chance, or now hang loosely from it all even though like me they are getting old. Many who were formed in Catholic novitiates and seminaries then have now given it all up, or hang quite loosely from it. This seems especially so among women.
Before The Council is not 'the good old days'. And now is not 'the bad old days'. 'That was then, this is now.' Our task as religious educators in a Catholic setting is to live in the now. The Kingdom of God is at hand and all the raw material for holiness is here in the now, just as it is.
What are your thoughts on Dr English's commentary?
©2007 Dr Graham English