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Why Full Schools don't equal Full Churches

By Kevin J Murphy

In Australia, up until the end of the Second World War in 1945, State Schools were seen by the Catholic Bishops and Clergy as operating with an anti-Catholic authoritianism, as indeed they often were.

Prior to that time, virtually all schools, State and Catholic, were authoritarian in their organisation and in their approach to education.

Education was seen as a process of putting information and truth and proven skills into the pupils. In the Catholic schools this approach was exemplified in the insistence that children memorise the catechism - usually both the questions and the answers. In the secular subjects, and in State Schools generally, there was also a strong emphasis on memorisation of information and the development of skills through repetition - all under the stern supervision of the teacher. Many people over 50 can still tell stories of those days when we lived under the regime of authoritarian schools. (There were also some enlightened teachers who followed a more creative and respectful approach, just as now there are probably still some teachers, and schools, working with a dominant authoritarian approach).

Incidentally, sometimes on television we see how many schools in the poorer sections of Islamic countries are conducted: children are shown chanting the Koran under the strict supervision of the teacher. It is an authoritarian way of teaching the Koran as well as teaching the children how to read. Most Islamic countries are still authoritarian in the way they organise their governments and their schools. Perhaps their governments and their schools will be different in 50 years time.

In the old scheme of things the teacher, working from a given curriculum or traditional set of expectations and teaching from a platform, endeavoured to instil into the pupils the required knowledge and skills to enable them to pass to the next grade or to receive a certificate declaring that a certain stage of schooling had been reached.

In Catholic Schools, the hierarchy and clergy laid down the catechism and the commandments as a type of type of curriculum that had to be accepted and followed in order to be a good Catholic and to get to heaven. Fear of going to hell was a major motivational tool.

Bishops and parish clergy conducted periodic examinations or inspections to make sure that the directives were being followed.

In the authoritarian schools, one gained a pass by repeating what the teachers presented. In the authoritarian church, one became a good Catholic who could go to heaven by conforming to what the hierarchy and clergy said had to be believed and done.

In participative schools, with teachers having a distinctive role, the students engage in the ongoing process of learning. In a participative church, many ministries are required to maintain and develop the life of the community, and to support its membership in mission. Bishops and priests exercise key ministries in this process, but everybody is called to share in the process. Part of the process involves a discernment of what God is calling the members of the Church to do in the realities of daily life, in order to help manifest the realm of God.

The Second Vatican Council called for the Church to be more participative in its style of life and operation, thus being more in tune with the Spirit and teaching of Jesus Christ and more appealing to people living in the post World War II era.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the approach to education in schools, both State and Catholic, began to change: instead of an insistence on authority in the transmission of knowledge and skills, more and more the preference was for a participative approach.

In most classrooms the style of teaching changed - from an authoritarian style to a participative one. The style of teaching has a big influence on the attitudes and expectations that the pupils develop.

This had the effect of changing the nature of schools - both Catholic and State. In their approach to education: no longer would there be authoritarian State Schools which were strongly and explicitly anti-Catholic; no longer would there be authoritarian Catholic Schools, working in close accord with an ecclesiastical system which remained authoritarian.

Now, the way of education has changed: the emphasis is on the student learning, or learning how to learn, rather than on the teacher teaching in an authoritarian way. With the change in the style of education in Catholic schools, the old relationship between hierarchy, clergy and Catholic school teachers no longer is effective. The teachers cannot and will not support the old authoritarian system. There is no point in trying to go back to a pre-1960s relationship between Church and Catholic schools, because the Catholic Schools have changed and they will not change back to a pre-1960s style. The organisation of the Church is much slower in changing and consequently, since the 1960s, has steadily lost members.

In many ways, even now, at the official level, the statements that are made about Catholic schools seem to imply that nothing has changed in the past 50 years, as far as the nature and purpose of Catholic schools is concerned. Catholic schools are described with the assumption that they can still build up the church as they so successfully did during the 100 years up till the 1960s.

After the 1960s, the Bishops and Parish Priests still had much authority over Catholic Schools, but the schools were leading their pupils and students to think in a new kind of way: to ask questions, and not to accept things merely because authorities said so.

The former expectations placed on Catholic Schools, to bring their pupils and their parents into an authoritarian Church can no longer work. The nature of Catholic Schools, and of State Schools, has changed.

Some consequences of this change are clear to see. The vast majority of students coming out of Catholic Schools feel free not to be part of an authoritarian Church with an authoritarian style of operating. (The main teaching structure for on-going learning in the church community is the Sunday homily - it is not participative and consequently it is experienced as boring, particularly by anyone under 50 years of age).

Another consequence of Catholic Schools now being non-authoritarian is the increasing number of non-Catholic families who want to send their children to Catholic Schools.

For most people under 50, because of their schooling, as well as for other reasons, authoritianism is "out", participation is "in". This is another reason why Catholic schools can no longer do what they did in the past: that is, be a major influence in building up church communities.

In areas of faith, as people get to know Jesus better, they discover that even he was not authoritarian but seeks disciples who freely come to think and love as he did and does. Jesus did teach with authority, but not in an authoritarian way. Jesus, in his miracle-signs, in his parables and sayings, and in his teaching generally, invited people to think, to discuss and to question: he worked according to a participative model.

The Catholic Church itself is trying to become more participative, but progress is slow. The hierarchy and clergy feel more comfortable with an authoritarian style. Leaders have to develop new skills and attitudes to enable them to exercise authority without being authoritarian.

Many priests have gone along with their old training in the authoritarian model and have been assimilated into the related clericalist culture. As it has been for centuries, but especially and with determination in the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, priests with an authoritarian bent are the ones who are generally preferred for promotion to the top positions within the ecclesiastical system.

Even at a diocesan and parish level, it is not easy to develop effective participative structures and procedures. In Small Church Communities it should be much easier to develop a truly participative style.

Kevin J. Murphy is a Ballarat diocesan priest. He was Diocesan Inspector of Catholic schools in the Ballarat diocese during the 1960s.

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