Making it real

In the Catholic Church, which includes in its mission the provision of school education, the significant rise of people with ‘no religion’ in contemporary Western societies prompts serious questions about how this mission can be lived out.

An important response to this issue can be found in the Enhancing Catholic School Identity (ECSI) research, which provides empirical evidence of the lived faith dispositions of members of Catholic school communities. In light of that evidence, the researchers recommend on both theological and contextual grounds that Catholic school identity be enhanced through the recontextualisation of faith in dialogue (more on that soon). Part of our roles at Australian Catholic University includes working with teachers in Catholic schools to enable them to break open what the empirical evidence is showing, to help them think about what is at stake in their work, and to engage more intentionally with the ‘Catholic’ in Catholic schools. We will address each of these aspects in turn.

First, what is the empirical evidence saying? The 2021 Australian census data tells us that, while institutional religion is still present in Australian society, it has a diminished significance for society as a whole. To borrow Charles Taylor’s words, we live in “a secular age”, which means that religious faith is seen as just one option for identity among many options available. Australia's Generation Z Study, a joint project by Australian National University, Deakin University and Monash University, fills out our understanding by profiling what 13- to 18-year-olds in Australia believe. Unlike the census, which shows that about 30 per cent of Australians have “no religion”, the Gen Z project tells us that at least 50 per cent of young people in the 13-18 category are “nones”, while about 17 per cent are religiously committed and another 20 per cent attend religious services for cultural rather than religious reasons.

When we analyse the enormous volume of data on students collected in the ECSI research (more than 380,000 cases), we see that up to 40 per cent of secondary students in Australian Catholic schools would like their schools to be secular. When we add to this the 30+ per cent who tolerate religious education, provided it focuses on broad societal values rather than making any specifically religious claims, there is a large proportion of students who leave school without any real engagement in Catholic faith. Moreover, 55 per cent reject or strenuously reject Church strategies to “reconfessionalise” them and a further 20+ per cent are not sure about whether they want this or not.

Yet, it is really important that we do not read this data as a condemnation of our students. They – like many people in Western culture – often cannot appreciate the claim that there is anything beyond the world that they can see and touch. It is simply beyond their experience. On top of this, it is beyond the experience of many of their parents and a fair percentage of their teachers. If we remember the old Farside cartoon by Gary Larsen, when the cat listens to the words of its owner, all it hears is “blah blah blah GINGER”.

Understanding the broad contours of the evidence enables us to be clear about what is at stake. Catholic schools fast risk losing what is most precious to them: their identity as authentically Catholic.

How can Catholic schools respond to this situation? Some schools accept it as a fait accompli: it is very difficult to go against the rising tide of families who interpret the faith-aspect of the school as ensuring young people have ‘good values’ or ‘good discipline’. Moreover, it is very hard for teachers to engage students in a meaningful way with a faith of which the students have no experience. It is even harder if teachers have not had this experience themselves.

A different approach is to spend dedicated time with teachers in a safe space of authentic reflection and dialogue about where each of them stands. One cannot be forced to faith, and it is crucial to accept that people are where they are. Often, they have an openness to faith but don’t have a language to put around it. At other times, they lack any experience of transcendence, and feel constrained by the fact that belief in God is just not obvious. It is sometimes the case that they have been hurt by the Church and need the opportunity to say that out loud. Others share absolutely extraordinary experiences of God at work in their lives. In each of these instances, working with participants in courses or professional learning sessions is immensely humbling. When people can be honest about how they think or feel about “the Catholic thing”, it seems to be a huge relief to them. It is only then that we can begin to talk about what goes on in a school or classroom.

One of the exercises we undertake with groups is to “recontextualise” a passage of scripture – often the scripture of the day. This involves first praying or sitting with it and then engaging in some kind of imaginative activity such as Bibliodrama or guided meditation. Participants are asked to note down significant words or phrases, and to examine how they feel as they move through the text. Next, we dialogue with the biblical and post-biblical tradition, looking at how biblical scholars interpret the passage, and how the text has been interpreted at different points in Church history. This is often incredibly revealing – and sometimes incredibly painful. For example, when one group read various interpretations of the Gospel text about the woman with the haemorrhage and learned about ways in which the Church has thought about women stepping onto the sanctuary, many were aghast, including the men in the group.

After looking at history, we turn to dialogue with the contemporary context. How might the text speak to or learn from the context? Invariably, there are news items or stories arising in the context that link to aspects of the text. After reading the story of the woman caught in adultery one day, we put an image of Pope Francis greeting Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia on the screen. In the biblical story, the Pharisees try to catch Jesus out by seeing if he will obey the Mosaic law and allow the stoning of the woman. In the parallel online story, Archbishop Chaput is complaining about Pope Francis not being sufficiently clear in condemning divorce and remarriage (considered to be adultery) in Amoris Laetitiae. What is important in the conversations that arise in these sorts of circumstances is that there is no easy resolution of the tensions involved. In making sense of the biblical story in the contemporary context, all sides are considered. Other passages from scripture are brought in. Perspectives from other religious traditions are engaged. Real circumstances from the lives of people in the group are shared. Ethical reasoning is explored. The God of love is invoked. And suddenly the text matters to everyone as it has never mattered before. Returning to the reflective space and asking individuals to recall the thoughts and feelings that have arisen for them in relation to the text, the questions are finally asked: How is this text speaking to you today? After wrestling with this text, who are you called to be?

The recommendations from the ECSI research include that schools spend much more time in well-crafted prayer and high-quality exploration of the Bible than they do presently. In order to do that in an authentic way, teachers and other staff need time, trust and encouragement to become attuned to their dispositions, to find where they stand in relation to Catholic faith, to learn what is at stake for the Catholic identity of their school, and to find ways to support and enhance that Catholic identity through their engagement with students and through dialogue with today’s contexts. There is no use pretending that all or even most students will want to become Catholic as a result of attending a Catholic school, but we have a deep hope that if faith is made real for them in the experience of at least some of their teachers, they will know what a Catholic identity means today, and be able to ask meaningful questions of themselves and others when faced with questions of identity.

Associate Professor Robyn Horner and Dr Teresa Brown

Faculty of Theology and Philosophy, Australian Catholic University

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