Teaching public issues in Catholic schools



I was in a lecture recently where there were 50 pre-service teachers preparing to transition into the profession. We were talking about the three school systems as they operate in the different states and one student spoke up saying he was afraid to teach in Catholic high schools.

Chris Johnston cartoonHe was under the impression that he would be reprimanded if he said 'the wrong thing' on public debates where the Church takes a strong position. There was a murmur of agreement in the room as others spoke up with similar impressions, some brought about by experiences on placement. Supervising teachers had made gestures from the back of the classroom trying to close down discussions which turned 'controversial'.

This exchange stirred my thinking and I made an intervention.

A church school comes alive when teachers and students breathe an air of freedom. If pre-service teachers believe Catholic schools are authoritarian regimes governed by fear, then there is a problem. Schools cannot 'share the good news' if teachers are afraid. Teachers are held back if they are afraid.

Parents and students are formed in their society's democratic citizenship, and as such they expect rigorous, free and open conversations in the classroom. Such conversations are a key part of a teacher's great vocation to help students be at ease with themselves, think critically, listen to their conscience and walk the way to life. In Catholic schools teachers can prepare students for responsible lives informed by faith.

A spirit of inquiry and curiosity, and an ability to dialogue with views different to one's own, should be basic dispositions for teachers. In the best classrooms, teachers can model considered discussions on all sorts of issues. When teachers ask helpful questions they can draw out the thinking of students so that they can engage with public debates at depth.

Our students will then have their own questions as they uncover the principles at work in various publicly advocated positions, including those proposed by the Church. With the confidence to chair conversations, teachers can encourage students to think critically about public debates in an open, reflective, respectful, principled and evidence based manner.


"Teachers are ethically bound to encourage critical thinking within classrooms, modelling the kinds of conversations which will advance responsible, open and honest civic engagement."


The way teachers guide conversations in the classroom helps to either illuminate or cloud public debates for their students. As George Lakoff explains in Don't Think Of An Elephant, debates can be won when the terms are set. A debate about 'tax relief', for instance, is founded on an implication that tax is more a burden than a social responsibility.

Consider Australia's recent debates about marriage. Students thinking about the proposal of 'marriage equality' often saw it as a logical extension of the 'social justice' frame the church proposes in its social teaching. In that case, teachers in Catholic schools could ask questions of students about which principles at work in Catholic social teaching they are drawing upon, breaking open 'human dignity', the 'common good' or 'solidarity' while also inviting students to consider church teaching on marriage in its own terms.

In so doing students can consider the power and merit of the 'equality' strategic framing, deepen their appreciation of principles of church teaching, and see their initial position in a broad context. As Thomas Merton writes, following Voltaire, we are known better by our questions than by our answers.

As teachers we are ethically bound to encourage critical thinking within our classrooms, modelling the kinds of conversations which will advance responsible, open and honest civic engagement. If Catholic education bodies were to encourage the closing down of various classroom discussions such that church teaching were the only position able to be mentioned, however, they would lose an opportunity and reveal that fear is their counsellor.

When there is only the 'party line' mentioned in such conversations, then that line is automatically delegitimised in the eyes of students and teachers alike who want to explore issues and their underlying principles. As prospective teachers may be under the impression that Catholic schools are governed by closed systems of command and control, then teacher formation needs to provide them with tools which will encourage critical thinking about public conversations.

Catholic schools are places where faith is proposed in a context of learning about the world and reflecting on experience. By encouraging a depth of principled intellectual engagement, supportive of questions and deferential to both church teaching and lived experience, Catholic schools can set their teachers free to open up space for rigorous, free and reflective conversation. Our students — schooled in such conversations — will be prepared to make a deep impact on the debates which occur within church circles and broader society.



James O'BrienJames O'Brien is in the final semester of a Masters of Teaching at ACU Melbourne.

Topic tags: James O'Brien, teaching, Catholic high schools


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Existing comments

Great thoughts here James. You are sparking a much-needed conversation yourself! I definitely felt i couldn't ask some questions at school. But i did anyway to much laughter and awkwardness. Usually in religion class it was more about learning the teachings rather than asking about our philosophical or civic ideals and how they relate to the faith. Though i noticed in humanities classes it was always an open field of discussion. It would be great to see the culture of fear disappear; after all students should be autonomous and teachers should be their guide. Peace!
John | 09 March 2018

"Our students - schooled in such conversations - will be prepared to make a deep impact on the debates which occur within church circles and broader society". Doubt it, James, if the figures which indicate that 90 percent of students from Catholic schools rarely darken the doors of the church again once they have left school are correct.
john frawley | 09 March 2018

What do you put that down to John Frawley: a failure of the school, or of the church, or of something/someone else? I’m not trying to take a cheap shot at the Church or the school but wanting to explore the role of faith-related schools. A couple of my grandchildren have gone to Anglican schools, another couple have been educated in the State system. None of them have turned out ‘churchy’ and the faith-school; educated ones seem no more ‘moral’ in the broad sense of that term than the other two. Is the only difference to be found in the effects of greater resources and/or selective enrolment? What is the peculiar role of a faith school and how should one measure its effectiveness?
Ginger Meggs | 10 March 2018

I agree, open discussion and learning critical thinking in high school is a fundamental thing! I still clearly remember the fierceness of my catholic high school English teacher, willing us ask to be questioning, to not take things at face value, and to come to our own conclusions after considering all information and perspectives. Perhaps this approach is harder in Religious Education, where experiential learning, dealing with mysticism and matters of personal faith and belief are relegated behind the teaching historical and cultural aspects of the major religions? I don't recall discussing Catholic dogma/ teaching on contraception or marriage for instance (late 1990s)..
Pat | 10 March 2018

The notion that Catholic schools today are "authoritarian regimes driven by fear" strikes me as an anachronistic straw man. It is more likely that the misgivings of pre-service students like those who have this impression stem from their own insecurities about engaging critically with the culture of postmodernist relativism that holds sway in the humanities departments of most contemporary academic institutions. This phenomenon is well documented by writers such as Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind ) and Roger Kimball (Tenured Radicals). Intellectual exposure to the dialectical sic et non of Socratic and Thomistic philosophy (for instance, in the style of Boston College's Peter Kreeft's highly accessible The Best Things in Life ) would contribute significantly, I believe, to equipping new teachers for their privileged role in the formation of young people and providing a foundation for the sort of discussion James O'Brien seeks and advocates here.
John | 11 March 2018

Critical thinking: yes, but not on Church contraceptive teaching, response to divorcees, or marriage tribunal proceedings, a mimicry of civil divorce proceedings. Fr John Flader has written Question Time for The Catholic Weekly since 2005. He states that ‘those who are divorced and remarried civilly are living in an objective situation of grave sin and if they engage in acts of intimacy they are committing adultery’; they should, in his view, ‘live as brother and sister, abstaining from acts of sexual intimacy’. Re the existence of purgatory, he states that “near the Vatican in Rome there are exhibits of ten artifacts related to appearances of souls in purgatory, all of them involving burn marks.” In contrast, another priest writes: “the ordained hierarchy of the Catholic Church needs to divest itself of power – that insidious drug that has taken it to the precipice – and share it more substantially with the body of the Church in governance, strategic decision making, financial supervisions, selection of office holders. The fact is we are trapped in an administrative and cultural prison preventing us from doing our core ‘business’: bringing Good News to the poor in deed and word.” {Source: https://www.concernedcatholicscanberra.org/new-index/
Peter | 11 March 2018

Thank you James I totally agree with your comments, when I was a tertiary teacher of Sociology I would encourage discussion and debate to broaden their understanding of the human condition. The advantage of Catholic School education is that with openness the students can develop a broader understanding of their faith and how it relates to their experiences. Thak you again.
Margaret Campbell | 12 March 2018

It would be interesting to do a critical analysis in school staff rooms as to why the majority of students who attend Catholic schools cease to practice their faith. The notion of addressing critical thinking is fraught with its own biases - critical thinking to a post -modernist is different from that of a Ressourcement Catholic. In current society it often raises the straw man of 'authoritarian' Catholicism against some struggling individual whereas the reality is, that no religious belief has ever accorded such great dignity and respect to the human person. I wonder if those students who discuss 'issues' could explain the fundamental notions of the Catholic faith in a coherent way to a secular humanist?
Alice | 12 March 2018

The incident that prompted this article - the fear expressed by one pre-service teacher (some others agreed) that he would be reprimanded if "he said the wrong thing" - is an unsatisfactory springboard to discussing the ethical responsibility of teachers to encourage critical thinking within the classroom. The incident James refers to implies more about the emotional maturity of the student teacher. Surely some trainee teachers will 'say the wrong thing' sometimes? Sure some will be reprimanded. Sure some will get cautionary signals from the supervisor. Sure a profitable conversation with the supervisor can result. It is all part of growing up in the job. From Kindergarten to Year 12 students mature - at different rates. From tyro to old hand, teachers mature too, one hopes. Just as much as becoming aware of the physical and intellectual growth of their students and themselves teachers need to assess their students' emotional growth as well as their own. Maturation is the process of learning to cope and react in an emotionally appropriate way. The trainee teacher who said he was afraid of teaching in a Catholic high school may benefit from discussing his fears with a careers counsellor or psychologist.
Uncle Pat | 12 March 2018

I love teaching Religion in my Catholic school, but I do get frustrated by the many people who think that means I just teach children "how to obey the Catholic Church''!! Yes, I am obliged to teach from/around a 'Catholic perspective', and I LOVE the wide-ranging discussions we have in the classroom (through all year levels); stimulating and reflective discussion throughout which we refer regularly to the CSTs (Catholic Social Teachings) - and often reflect on how central to the laws and (notional) values of 'Western Society' these teachings are. The hard part for me is feeling a sense of authority when teaching about other, non-Christian, religions (which we also are obliged to do), of which I am much less deeply informed. That's when it gets tricky. In my experience, it is as James O'Brien says: "Catholic schools are places where faith is proposed in a context of learning about the world and reflecting on experience." And, yes, I agree: "Teachers are ethically bound to encourage critical thinking within classrooms, modelling the kinds of conversations which will advance responsible, open and honest civic engagement." Particularly Catholic teachers. That's the part I love the most.
Elizabeth | 12 March 2018

A good article that deals with a perennial problem. So much about our perception of Catholic School Religious Education stems from poorly educated teachers in this most important area. Unless teachers are well educated in Scripture and Theology they will lack both the competence and the confidence to handle such questions from students. “Educate the educators” has never been more important. A hesitant, stumbling response to, or a closing down of discussion on a topic will surely not inspire students to become involved in their faith community. We can do better!
Ern Azzopardi | 12 March 2018

Good morning Ginger. You raise a complex yet interesting question. I can only respond by citing my experience. I have six sons educated in Jesuit schools from 1973 to 1989 (8-24 years following the completion of Vatican II, a time of disruption, change and indeed confusion in the search for the "true spirit of Vatican II"). The older ones all had a number of Jesuit priest teachers. As the years passed, the number of Jesuits steadily declined and I don't recall the youngest of my sons ever having a Jesuit teacher. Nevertheless they did have an education in the teachings of the church and a high profile religious practice through a prayer life and regular Mass at school. All had contact with the spiritual director, rector and other Jesuit priests. My sons all left school with a knowledge of traditional Catholic teaching and a sense of service to others which they all continue to practice. I also have six grandsons educated at Jesuit schools from 2005 -2018. Some of them (I think all of them) have never had a Jesuit teacher but have had exposure to a Jesuit spiritual director and a prayer life at school. They too have a sense of service to others, slightly different from their fathers, which is couched in terms of social justice and human rights which occupies a higher level on their list of priorities than religious practice. Social justice for Humanity is more important to them than Humanity's subservience to a creator God which is intangible in comparison. The Human has replaced the Divine. Ignatius Loyola must be spinning in his grave! I also have one daughter and three grand-daughters educated in erstwhile Catholic convents. None of them has ever seen a nun. The nuns all dashed off in mufti in pursuit of social justice laurels. The girls left school knowing more about Eastern contemplative religions than Catholicism. Buddhism was particularly appealing because at least when you entered a Buddhist temple you had to remove your shoes, remain silent and show respect and reverence for the Buddha, something that understandably appeals to the idealistic young mind. The Buddhist monk is dressed differently, is contemplative and appears holy, unlike the Catholic priest in T-shirt, jeans and runners who is just like one of the boys. Compare that with the rowdy happy families environment found in many Catholic churches today and Harry who is unrecognisable as a priest. Catholic schools are no longer blessed with the example of a life dedicated to the service of God as they once were when inhabited by a teaching population of priests, brothers and nuns. And why? Because of the protestantisation , the new Reformation of Catholicism, in the wake of the confusing search for the true spirit of Vatican II which initiated the exodus of the religious from the schools and replaced the divine ethic with a human one. I'm in trouble now Ginger!
john frawley | 12 March 2018

Teaching in Catholic schools raises the question whether one can critique the Church’s contraceptive teaching, its response to divorcees, or its marriage tribunal proceedings that some argue is a mimicry of civil divorce proceedings. Can one refute the views of a Catholic priest who argues: ‘those who are divorced and remarried civilly are living in an objective situation of grave sin and if they engage in acts of intimacy they are committing adultery’; they should live as brother and sister, abstaining from acts of sexual intimacy’. On proof of the existence of purgatory; “near the Vatican in Rome there are exhibits of ten artifacts related to appearances of souls in purgatory, all of them involving burn marks.” Concerned Catholics in Canberra/Goulburn is a forum for the critical discussion of ideas that may cause discomfort in Catholic schools, church forums, and dare I say it, ‘Eureka Street’. Its vision is informed by the Church: ”The Christian faithful have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful." (Canon 212.3)
Peter | 12 March 2018

Reflection on experience in the light of belief in the universality of God's love might well lead some contemporary students and their teachers to the conclusion that God sanctifies gay relationships just as much as he does straight ones. However, this conclusion would be at odds with the present 'teaching of the church'. Two conceptions of religious education therefore clash here. The first, which sees education as 'education in faith', will be enjoin direction of discussion of this issue to fit 'the teaching of the church'. The second, which sees education as the enabling of students to make their own judgments in light of experience and interpretive scholarship, will forbid imposition of any conclusions on such discussions. Which conception of religious education, I ask, shows more trust in the Holy Spirit at work in the hearts and minds of the believing community?
Michael Leahy | 12 March 2018

In the lead-up to the parliamentary debate on marriage equality, some religious opponents of marriage equality claimed same-sex marriage would have far-reaching negative consequences for gender education and claimed it would harm religious freedom and freedom of speech. Catholics for Renewal is satisfied that the leadership of the Catholic Church in Australia has no need for concern about possible negative impacts of the changes to the Marriage Act on the integrity of the Catholic education system. The leadership and teaching staff in Catholic schools are adequately educated and equipped to accommodate, deal with, and address the many different, even conflicting pluralities of issues and views that surface in both the secular and religious curricula. Student-centred teaching strategies are standard practice in Catholic schools. A teacher’s pedagogical starting point is to find out what exactly students know about the subject area in order to teach lessons that are relevant to the students’ own knowledge and experience. The widely used ‘Catholic Identity Project’ recognises that students live in a multi-faith world and that in schools today many of the families who want a Catholic education are not part of an active Catholic community. In any class there would be students whose families live within a variety of situations from traditional, single parent, same sex partners, or sometimes with grandparents as carers. In any unit of the curriculum the teacher starts by finding out the students' knowledge and experience around a topic. This is what student-centred teaching is about, rather than a content-driven curriculum. Therefore, when teaching the topic of marriage to senior students, the lesson would start with why has marriage been part of most societies over time, in what ways has the structure of marriage developed, why do people today want to, or not want to, get married. Same sex marriage would probably be brought up in these discussions. The role of the religious education teacher in a Catholic school is to show the students the history and development of marriage within the Catholic tradition and the importance it holds to the openness of the couple to procreation. The Church teaching about marriage would then be discussed along with the concept of sacrament and sacramentality. The process is about education, not indoctrination. These should not be confused.
Peter Wilkinson, President, Catholics for Renewal | 12 March 2018

Gravissium Educationis 1965, the Vatican II document on Catholic education states : "This sacred synod recalls to pastors of souls [bishops and local pastors] their most serious obligation to see to it that all the faithful [children and adults] but especially the youth who are the hope of the Church enjoy this Christian education" (10) and further, "But let teachers recognise that the Catholic school depends upon them almost entirely for the accomplishment of its goals and programs" (27). Hello hello hello! "...almost entirely" on teachers in Catholic schools and not on the parents as "prime educators of their children", that great fable that gained popularity in the 70s and 80s and charted the direction of Catholic education in this country. Please explain, Australian Bishops Conference, Catholic Education Offices and dedicated renewalists and reformers, why you have failed 90 percent of your charges and ignored Vatican II.
john frawley | 12 March 2018

Indoctrination (repetitive input) is sometimes a very valuable educational tool, Peter Wilkinson. Without it I would never have managed the times tables, the poetry or the tracts from Shakespeare! My children and grandchildren have never heard of Apologetics and they are all graduates with multiple degrees! I cant imagine Catholic education without Apologetics for older children and adults. But then the dumbing down of education applies to all systems in this country, not just Catholicism.
john frawley | 12 March 2018

I'd like to know what John Frawley and Alice regard as "practising faith" and going to "church". If you simply mean putting your bum on a seat during Mass then I think you've missed the point.
AURELIUS | 12 March 2018

Ginger, catechism and apologetics were standard features of classrooms until the 1960s, when the emphasis of religious education was on intellectual content (the course-name of what has since become R.E. was previously R.K., "Religious Knowledge", encapsulating the noetic or instructive pedagogical emphasis of the era). Examined knowledge of doctrine, church history, and scripture were complemented by regular sacramental and devotional practices such as monthly confession, school recitation of the rosary, annual retreats, the celebration of Mass and benediction. More often than not, these practices were evident in Catholic homes. The emphasis of faith-communication was communal rather than individualistic. As John Frawley has indicated, the person standing in front of the class was recognisably committed to what was taught, and what was taught was regarded as indispensable to the communication and practice of faith. Obviously, times have changed: few, if any, professed religious in teaching roles; greater diversification of ethnic and religious backgrounds in Catholic schools; and the omnipresence of media access and influence are but some of the indicators and agents of change. To my mind, however, current social justice activities, however laudable, cannot be regarded as substitutes for cognitive and affective development in faith matters at appropriate stages; and for senior students, intellectual exercise along the lines of the recommendation in my earlier posting.
John | 12 March 2018

Thanks John (Frawley), for taking the time to address my question. I can see that it is an issue of great concern to you. I need to think some more before responding in any substantive way. Cheers.
Ginger Meggs | 12 March 2018

"...he said the wrong thing" - is an unsatisfactory springboard to discussing the ethical responsibility of teachers to encourage critical thinking ..." says Uncle Pat. But is not the even less satisfactory springboard to discuss "saying the wrong thing"? Unless someone is prepared to define what constitutes a wrong thing. Someone other than the Inquisition whose job it was/is to do that job, anyway. Though more importantly I thought that teaching critical thinking was more about asking and listening than saying.
Michael D. Breen | 12 March 2018

An effective education, whether in a Catholic school or not, critically depends on unearthing the hidden curriculum of a school. As many here know, but some may not endorse, the universality of Catholics is reflected in their vast numbers and by the charisms of the institutes that operate Catholic schools. Conservative individuals, whether as parents or school operators, will insist on conservative content and pedagogies. Liberal religious institutes and the parents who are attracted to their schools tend to advance a more open-ended curriculum. Hence John Frawley's jaundice, and one wonders why he sent his progeny to Jesuit schools when he could have ensured the delivery of a much more conservative 'package' in another. Without meaning him, I suspect that the conundrum about the quality of the curriculum lies not simply in the dedication and commitment of staff - for who are more self-sacrificial in their pedagogy than those who teach in special schools - but in the fee-structure, which is the critical determinant of school catchment, in terms of parental capacity to pay. Allowing for some exceptions, this would generally ensure that an explicit class-determined curriculum 'package' is on offer, minimising the possibility of objections from students or parents.
Michael Furtado | 13 March 2018

I taught in government schools for about twelve years and a Catholic school for twenty-five years. I believe I am quite outspoken and, some might say, radical. I have been reprimanded twice for comments I have made in the classroom, both times in government schools. The first time, I dared to read a short story which referred to gambling. Methodists objected. The second time, I had referred in a history lesson to "high" and "low" Church of England. There was a complaint. There are many men in many parts of Australia that I taught in a Catholic . They may not go to church, but they are working hard in the real world in prominent, and not so prominent, positions to make Australia a more caring place and, where they can, to improve the lives of vulnerable people in other countries.
Sheelah Egan | 13 March 2018

James O'Brien, whose posts I endorse, attempts the difficult task of straddling two stools, the first embedded in a system determined by the magisterium, and portraying a didacticism and authoritarianism antipathetic to the conduct of an effective and engaging pedagogy, which, by definition, provides the 'other' stool that is essentially transactional and inviting of the participation and collaboration of the student. There indeed are and have always been inspiring Catholic educators, such as Gerard Rummery, who once reflected that it would be pointless to lead a horse to the well of refreshment, if by the very means by which the animal was brought to it, it refused to drink. This paradox was the one that eventually collapsed under the weight of it own problematic contradictions for Professor Terry Lovat, widely regarded as one of Australia's foremost religious educators, who transited from the Catholic school and university to the more open environs of the secularised and multifaith University of Newcastle Education Faculty precisely because he was hounded away for his personal and professional practices. Terry, whom I worked with, is/was the most ardent devotee of Habermas's critically reflective practice (or 'praxis'), which made him the doyen of Australia's Deans of Education.
Dr Michael Furtado | 13 March 2018

Aurelius. You say you would like to know what I and Alice mean by "practising the faith" and "going to church". I can't speak for Alice but what I mean is based on the belief that Jesus Christ was God and two premises that, for me, derive from that belief: First, joining as one with God (Christ) through the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, which is a union that usually happens through the intercession of an ordained priest in the Holy of Holies, a place of worship, a church, the house of God, a place demanding deferential reference to the one to whom we all owe our very beings. This is the supreme reason for "going to church", something that is otherwise meaningless other than for devotional practices which enhance another dimension (lesser) of union with God. Second, in what is yet another dimension of union with God, living a life based on the example and teachings of Christ recorded in the Gospels and those teachings delegated to his Church through his words (precised) "Go, therefore, and teach all nations" - '"Whatever you bind on Earth will be bound also in heaven" - 'I am with you all days even to the end of the world" - "Peter, you are the rock on which I will build my Church". To me, to "practice the faith" embodies both the sacramental practice above and living the life Christ described in the gospels and that prescribed by his delegated authority on Earth embodied in the papacy. The problem, Aurelius, is that it is very difficult to do and there are many more touchy-feely ways of gaining self-satisfaction. But it gets a hell of a lot easier as you age and become more acutely aware of your own mortality. So you see Aurelius, I'm quite a radical, unthinking conservative without an ounce of social responsibility in my bones and would go to church even if I had to stand rather than sit on my bony old backside !! In some ways, I'm grateful that I was a surgeon, Aurelius, because, believe me, there is no greater way of understanding how unimportant we poor humans are despite our extraordinary human achievements in the face of God's will. Now I'm in more trouble, I suspect !!
john frawley | 13 March 2018

John Frawley thank you for your confession of faith in response to Aurelius. I respect it but I can't share the supernatural dimension of it, as you've probably guessed. I see that ES has put this article to bed already although it was only posted five days ago which is, IMHO, a pity, as I thought there was still a lot of useful to and fro to be had from James' article (unlike the artillery duel going on in the Clericalism corner).
Ginger Meggs | 13 March 2018

Thank you, John Frawley, for such a candid and clearly stated exposition of what you mean by "practising the faith" and "going to church."
John | 13 March 2018

In a Catholic School all of the inquiry teaching can be done as James states. However all it takes is a spark, an insinuation from a parent, a complaint, the loss of a "sweetheart" parish member and major financial contributor, the continuing lack of a teacher's union, continuation of sexism and pedophilia cover ups and good teachers are fired immediately without reason, regardless of a signed contract, or the good work they do. Me too. Times up. The status quo of sexism and exclusion and patriarchy is not effective, nor expedient and is not wise. The power of the Holy Spirit remains and facilitates the miracle, and the miracle IS the change in thinking.
Mercedes Michalski | 14 March 2018

Ginger. I am no expert and have no insider knowledge but I reckon, that (perhaps like Thomas the Apostle) you will one day share the supernatural dimension of it all. My artisan God won't let any of his creation, this extraordinary art work we call our world, "with which he was well pleased", slip away without a concerted effort to prevent that happening. No sane artist will destroy his own beautiful creation and I reckon God is, more likely than not, sane. I suppose, however, that it is possible for we human souls to reject the life jacket in favour of our untested ability to swim in turbulent seas.
john frawley | 14 March 2018

John Frawley, I'm not sure how you managed to read so deeply into my quite innocent comment by concluding that I'm seeking some sort of "touchy-feely self-satisfaction" out of being a Catholic. And neither did I mention whether I regard myself as "conservative", "radical" or whatever the spectrum indicates these days. My practice of going to church propels me into a life that seeks to serve others and disregard my own self-satisfaction, thank you very much! Although I can't claim the glory or pay packet of being a surgeon, I live and work with the most disadvantages people in our society, and for my efforts I gladly share in their humble economically -limited standard of living. For me, the sacrifice of the mass - the passion of Christ - is real. It's not esoteric or symbolic. And, by the way, I never said that I don't participate in the sacraments. I do. But the sacraments are in vain without action.
AURELIUS | 14 March 2018

As a Sister of St Joseph, teaching English, History and RE I always found great joy in discussing controversial issues in my classes. In the late 60s and through to. 2000 I would put Church teaching forward, for instance, in RE classes but at the same time would allow open discussion. Sometimes the atmosphere would be quite fierce buT always respectful. The art of listening and openess. I feel very said that young teachers might be fearful and indeed, some supervising teachers. It is possible to support Church teaching while upholding And indeed, encouraging, free exchange of ideas. We need to teach respect for the Church and understand her teaching and the struggle we all need to come to a free commitment of belief. Thank you for reminding me of the struggle teachers face daily. Catholic ed has much to offer we must encourage our young teachers and support them in the struggle. Critical thinking is crucial to a emigration society, no less within the Church. We all have questions, we all experience doubt. Surely the days of " The Church Triumphant"are over. My prayer in old age is for a mor open welcoming Church. Questions about Church attendance do not touch the essential. I would like to ask about Care of others, willingness to help, to participate in the life of the school, above all, to have a relationship with the person of Jesus. I place my trust in the Holy Spirit!
Marg.aret Lamb | 14 March 2018

Dear Sr Margaret, Unfortunately inflections of vocationalism do not sit comfortably alongside the industrial protection that teachers in Catholic schools need if their employment conditions are to be justly secured, as Mercedes Michalski rightly cautions about and which also constitutes the Social Teaching of the Church in relation to Trade Union membership. Without denying the great gift to Catholic schooling that the religious and secular institutes have conferred, it makes quite a difference being a salaried teacher in a Catholic school as opposed to a nun, priest or brother - few as they are these days - on a stipend. It may interest you to consider the correspondence on clericalism, triggered by Andy Hamilton's recent piece on that topic in ES, to appreciate that its still the elephant in the room when it comes to Catholic teacher employment and job security. And while I appreciate that the quality of school leadership depends on the degree of staff renewal in a school, my experience suggests that lay leaders are somewhat circumspect about what they say and do because at the end of the day they do not exercise the same freedoms as those teaching members of congregations that own schools.
Michael Furtado | 15 March 2018

John and John Frawley bemoan the collapse of Religious Knowledge and the role played in it by apologetics. 'Gaudium et Spes' sounded the death knell for apologetics by showing that the hypocrisy of Christians was a contributory factor to atheism, observing that believers had more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. "To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion."[19] For instance, Fr Schepers taught us that glass-blowing was wrong because it reduced the lifespan of the glass-blower, regardless of the gift that draws artists towards working with stained glass! Both secular and religious critics have accused many Christians of being hypocritical, e.g. Tom Whiteman, a prominent American psychologist, published research revealing that reasons tendered for Christian divorce included adultery, abuse (including substance, physical and verbal abuse), and abandonment, whereas the major reason for divorce in the general population was incompatibility. Solid Christian foundations cannot be based on dishonest and defensive reasoning. Thank God apologetics has lost its pivotal role in religious formation!
Michael Furtado | 15 March 2018

Michael Furtado, There is a non sequitur in your conclusion that apologetics per se causes atheism; the very passage from Vatican II you cite identifies "teaching erroneous doctrine" as a contributor to non-belief. Apologetics is not merely a rhetorical device: it is an instrument for articulating truth, of giving "an account of the faith that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15), No doubt hypocrisy is scandalous, but that is no reason for abandoning the practice of apologetics, which of its nature seeks to articulate what is grasped in faith lucidly and truly. What, in fact, I do lament and contest is the failure of much contemporary thinking to allow the mind its full scope in the exercise of metaphysics, settling merely for preoccupation with formal, efficient and material causality at the expense of the final; in other words, focus on 'what' and 'how' questions, to the exclusion of the 'why'; and the usual accompaniment of a faux humility that thinly veils a corrosive intellectual apathy and convenient scepticism. It is this atrophy and negation of the metaphysical that Pope Benedict XVI discerned at the root of contemporary secular atheism. What's more, I find students enjoy the cut and thrust of dialectical engagement.
John | 15 March 2018

A global survey of belief in a god or higher being conducted by Encyclopaedia Britannica in 2005 indicated that 2.5 per cent of 6.5 billion people were atheists, 18 per cent were uncertain or did not know if there was a god or higher being (agnostics) and 80% believed (theists). This represented a fall in atheism balanced by a corresponding rise in agnosticism since the collapse of Communism and a return to Christianity, Judaism and Islam that followed that collapse. Future projections predicted a continuing fall in atheism until the year 2020. Gaudium et Spes, one of the four Apostolic Constitutions promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1965, despite carrying greater authority than a Papal Encyclical might have made a few assumptions that have not proved valid. Ch 19, which you quote, Michael Furtado, says that believers may contribute to atheism "through neglect of training in the faith [Catholic education], teaching erroneous doctrine or deficiencies in religious, moral or social life [practice] and thus cancel rather than reveal the authentic face of God..." In quoting this tiny confined tract from the document, MF, you may have defeated your own argument. It strikes me that the deficiencies you have quoted as contributing to atheism are precisely what many correspondents see as the problem with current Catholic education.
john frawley | 15 March 2018

John, your dismissal of 'what' and 'how' questions, and privileging of apologetics' 'why', runs counter to critical developments in moral philosophy, none of it with a focus on theology and all of it to do with moral judgment. The absolutism with which you assume decisions about right and wrong is also problematic. I address this quandary, not in regard to teaching universal religious truths, but from the perspective of morality's need to have certainty beyond any reasonable doubt, and which there is precious little universal agreement on. When mammalian mothers kill their young, it’s generally because there’s insufficient food for all of the offspring or that particular baby is defective and won’t survive but in the meantime will consume food to the detriment of the others, thus compromising the survival of all. In such a situation the mother has to make a very serious moral choice that many human mothers would be unable to face. Thus the blanket moral statement that “it’s better today for mothers to protect their young” does not rise to the moral standard of the mammalian mother. ; and the usual accompaniment of a faux humility that thinly veils a corrosive intellectual apathy and convenient scepticism.'
Michael Furtado | 15 March 2018

There is no "dismissal" of "what" and "how" questions in what I've said, Michael Furtado; rather, there is an insistence that final causality, which addresses the purposes of the other forms of causality, be given due recognition in intellectual inquiry - and not only in moral matters, as you appear to assume.
John | 15 March 2018

IN a 46 year career in Catholic Secondary Schools conducted by religious orders and parish regions we were never censored but counselled to promote due respect for Catholic point of view which was rarely fairly presented by media reports. So issues like contraception , abortion, divorce , death , homosexuality as well as justice issues towards our first nations people and overseas were covered as they arose from all points of view which is what good schools do in developing the critical minds of the young towards independence. The religious guidelines were structured this way to start with their experience , judge and discern the reasons for their opinions and perceptions, then introduce gospel and church teaching on issue so that student came to see that the teaching was based on a long experience and logic. So eventually came to see this was something they should take into account in forming an informed conscience. If the potential teachers read the gospels and examine Jesus encounters with various groups in his society [and look behind the legalistic Latin translation we are stuck with and go back to the Greek and his Jewish context] you will give your students a great gift of an intelligent faith and a quest to follow Anselm of " faith seeking understanding" and Fr Amalorpavadass urging to see that the Divine and Secular share one world not two that are divided. If they follow this path , they will induce many "" teachable moments"" as described by Herman Lombaerts.
WAYNE McGOUGH | 16 March 2018

I (obviously) have computer problems. Not wishing to treat this topic as a commodity for entertainment, confidence trickery and a matter for evasion or fraud, I am happy to continue to reply in detail, as you may require it. Suffice to say that the distinctions between your position on apologetics and mine are crucial; for the jokey contempt that sometimes creeps in when issues of life and death are under discussion (and which may pass for a denial of seriousness) is actually a counterpart to your unremittingly anti (and ante!) -Vatican II ecclesiology and, in case you hadn't noticed, its commited counterpart and foil. Apologetics is fundamentally a corrupt and obfuscating aspect of scholasticism, which is why it has been so extensively jettisoned from the curriculum of faith and moral development of the open, honest and authentically questing (and young) person, whether Catholic or otherwise. Secreted behind your reference to causality is what looks like a slavish attachment to eschatology; in other words a preoccupation with fitting explanation to suit a preordained or immutable position - a bit like Cinderella's shoe. Faith and moral development has long abandoned that hopelessly unyielding method in favour of honest exploration and open entelechy.
Michael Furtado | 16 March 2018

A great discussion. One of my children was sent to a Catholic secondary school and the other a private C of E school. We did find the Catholic school was more restricted especially in sex education than the C of E school. They both gave the girls a strong education and a good sense of social justice. As I believe my husband and I did and of course the home is so important. The daughter who attended C of E is not interested in religion and the other who attended the Catholic school is, more because of their personality than anything else. It is absolutely imperative that we have unrestricted discussions which are not gender bias in Catholic schools. RE classes can then define the Catholic position, but it should be respectful and comprehensive.
Kate | 17 March 2018

My last remark was addressed to John. When all's said and done, the thread in this conversation is about teaching public issues in Catholic schools, in regard to which I profoundly believe that apologetics should play no part because of its intent to 'read' everything in Catholic terms, when Scripture clearly indicates a vast knowledge gap between the world of today and that in which Jesus lived. Knowledge is socially constructed and, as such, should be interrogated, as many here aver, from all points of view, so that young Catholics are not reliant upon replicating information that supposedly has a magisterial backing to it, when none may currently exist. At best good teachers in Catholic schools educate the young to become critical independent thinkers and without the burden of a false belief that there is one Catholic answer for everything. Thus, Catholics may vote in good conscience for any party on the basis of exposure to all sides of the key policy debates that inform public policy issues. The Church has long since withdrawn from the view that there is a Catholic position for everything under the sun, including questions that have yet to emerge in relation to the future.
Michael Furtado | 18 March 2018

Great post, Kate! I taught for many years in a Boys Catholic College. After three years the remarkable Rector, with skills in Eng Lit & Counselling, was replaced by a regime which allocated RE to the priests alone, while the counsellor lacked RE. The peculiar concatenation of these disciplines ensured that the praxis theological formation that the best of Catholic schools sometimes do was missing, with no overlap of the social sciences, humanities & religion to provide a responsive or guiding hand for questing teenagers. I was reminded of the incredibly sad and moving account, in Tim Connigrove's 'Holding the Man', of a relationship, commenced at a Jesuit school, and ending in the death of both parties from AIDS-related pneumonia and in which one party was acknowledged at the Mass when one the other died, because one set of parents had objected. Catholic schools tend to be wedded to an airbrushing agenda, intent upon whiting-out the record and instead prosecuting a prescriptive human relations curriculum, barely referential to contemporary existential realities and intent upon ensuring conformity to an imagined conservative parental values norm. It doesn't surprise that ardent advocates of a return to teaching apologetics should disengage from this discussion.
Michael Furtado | 19 March 2018