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The role of Catholic schools

Dispense with fallacies
and get on with the job

By John Hill

Pope Benedict XVI has recently put Australia at the top of his list of places where the mainline churches are dying: the human instinct is to find someone to blame.

For quite some time, Catholic schools have born the brunt of reactionary rage. This approach has ignored quite a number of other variables: changes in civil society since the halcyon days of the 50s; the breakdown of the Catholic consensus, so that nowadays many Catholics feel closer to people in other churches (or indeed outside the church) than to their fellow Catholics; the (quite unchristian) hostility that has followed from this polarisation; the increasing shortage of priests and religious; and the effects of the creeping centralisation of Catholic dioceses (following the growing centralisation at the level of the Vatican), where pullulating bureaucracies are absorbing the resources that should be available to parishes with some sense of initiative and enterprise.

Blaming the schools lets other (ir)responsible people off the hook. The horse bolted years ago, and now we want to know who left the door open. We may have lost three generations of Catholics. And, as so often happens when someone gets around to shutting the stable door, it may be far too late.

Yet it would be unwise and disingenuous for Catholic schools to deny all responsibility. The revisionism abroad these days in educational theory and practice can only be explained by the reality of mistakes that were made and are now acknowledged – so that, just as misguided methods led to a rise in illiteracy and innumeracy, so also they allowed the emergence of several generations of Catholics who were, not only ignorant of the basics of their religion, but also did not see why they had to put any of it into practice. The research of the late Brother Marcellin Flynn, fms, showed some time ago that, at the end of high school, 97 per cent of young Catholics no longer went regularly to Sunday Mass. Anecdotal evidence would argue, in fact, that the present situation is much worse.

When an organisation fails, however, its supporters look for other reasons for its existence. If Catholic schools cannot get their pupils to Mass on Sunday, then, they must have another purpose. The temptation emerges to move the goal posts, or to lower the bar. And from has been created a number of fallacies, which have prevented a clear and honest look at the effectiveness of Catholic schooling. Here is a short selection.

  1. The “Catholic values” fallacy. When it was noticed that most pupils of Catholic schools did not go to Sunday Mass, one response was that Catholic schools did not exist to promote the practice of the faith, but to communicate “Catholic values”. No one has ever said what precisely these Catholic values are. They cannot be different from the human values that we would like all people to espouse (unless we include attendance at Sunday Mass – but this has been excluded ex hypothesi). In other words, in terms of material content, there is no separate list of Catholic values; the difference can only be formal – in terms of motive etc.; and that formal difference can only be supported by participation in the Eucharist. In any case, it is by no means that values-talk is at all germane to the Catholic tradition of moral thinking, which is more about the virtues and their practice. If “Catholic values” mean anything at all, they will work only within a Catholic world view.
  2. The “school community” fallacy. Attendance at Sunday Mass entails membership (of some sort) in the parish community; a “school community” makes no such demand. There is the occasional school and/or class Mass, and parents are invited to attend. The problem is that the school is not a stable community, like a parish; in the course of the average child’s education, the child (and the parents) will move through at least two “communities”; and, with sacraments associated with school, the end of school will signal the end of Catholic practice (such as it has been). At no point has commitment to the faith been expected. In fact, a great deal of scorn has been poured on the “boring” dimension of eucharistic celebration in parishes, which generally lack the resources so generously assigned to Catholic schools. For some time the relation between parish and school has been that of dog and tail, where the tail has been wagging the dog; but what will happen when the dog dies?
  3. The “missionary” fallacy. Another response to non-practice is to liken Catholic schools in this country to Catholic schools in countries where Catholics are an insignificant minority. People point to Catholic schools in India or Pakistan and say that most of the pupils there do not go to Mass either; those schools provide a quality education to anyone as a sign of Christianity – not as with a view to conversion (or worse, the dreaded “proselytising”). Given the various disparities, it is not at all clear how the parallel works, but it can at least be said that Catholic schools in Australia were once missionary in a different sense: they formed observant Catholics to be missionaries in the wider society; whereas we are now apparently reduced to regarding them as rather unsuccessful instruments of remedying theological illiteracy.
  4. The “spirituality” fallacy. A further way of marginalising the issue of attendance at Mass is to assign Mass to “religion”, and to argue that Catholic schools are concerned with promoting “spirituality”. “Religion” thus becomes a pejorative term and, on that understanding, no one would think of urging young Catholics to go to Mass. “Spirituality”, on the other hand, in this New Age, connotes the promotion of individual (rather than communal) spiritual growth – and for this one does not need a church, let alone the Mass.
  5. The stunts fallacy. This is not confined to schools; it can occur on the parish, diocesan, and even international level; but schools are particularly tempted by it. On some level it involves a “spectacular”, with bells and whistles (or smoke and mirrors) to take the place of the hard grind of promoting participation in an event (the Mass) which of itself is designed to lead to deepening conversion. The moment the word “boring” is uttered, the adults (including teachers) panic, and look around desperately for something unusual to “involve” the young people. Such tactics, unfortunately, are subject to the law of diminishing returns, and the young people drift off anyway. The challenge, surely, is to open the way to adult faith – to dig the foundations deep and sure, and to show young people how to grow in faith throughout their lives. In other educational contexts, this called “learning how to learn”.
  6. The fallacy of “the young are the future of the Church”. I pause before disagreeing with the Pope, and sundry lesser prelates, but I must point out that this demeans the young. If this mantra is true, then, on present counting, the Church has no future. The phrase betrays a “bums-on-seats” mentality, as though the institution as such (and apart from its relevance and instrumental significance) has to be saved at all costs. Let us be clear: the young are not the future; God is. It is the role of the Church to offer the young a future, that is, a communal faith in God within the Body of Jesus Christ, where fellow Catholics support each other, especially through the Eucharist, while they work for the coming of the Kingdom. We want them in church so that we can get them to God.

Those of us who support Catholic schools, and therefore think that we have a right to express our opinion, can surely be forgiven when we urge the question: what are Catholic schools for? Or is that obvious? Are Catholic schools self-authenticating? Is that why the question is so abruptly ruled out of court, as though it savoured of disloyalty?

Archbishop Vaughan earned himself no brownie points when he said, during his campaign for Catholic schools in the late nineteenth century, that the state schools being then proposed would be “seedbeds of immorality”, but he was merely putting into different words the point made by Cardinal Newman: “Mere natural virtue wears away, when men neglect to deepen it into religious principle”. That is at least as true of Catholic schools as of other schools, and so the reasons of the majority of parents (whether Catholic or not) for enrolling their children in Catholic schools are rather worrying. They refer to the discipline, the development of good manners, and so on, but they rarely refer to passing on the Catholic faith.

One can urge that Catholic schools are part of the Church’s educational role, ministry and mission; that this role has also a (largely inoperative) duty of adult formation and education in faith; and that the Catholic children in Catholic schools should be initiated into the process that will lead them eventually to adult faith.

In other words, to use a distinction common in the gospels, Catholic schools are more for the disciples than for the crowds. Their role is to form disciples of Jesus Christ. If they can invite young Catholics into that deeper commitment, they will have succeeded. That is where Sunday Mass fits in. (And far from there being no obligation, as young people often hear these days, there is a reason for the obligation – and they need to hear about it!) No amount of intellectual fudging can obscure this central, inalienable purpose. The fallacies should go; the time for hard thinking has arrived.

Fr John Hill is Parish Priest of Woy Woy in the Diocese of Broken Bay and a strong supporter of his local parish school.

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