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Catholic Schools and Church renewal

  • 23 August 2022
The successful implementation of the spirit and the letter of the Plenary Council must involve the Catholic education sector. Catholic schools, meaning students, parents, staff members and governing bodies, are one of the most vital sectors of the church along with the health sector. They must be convinced to engage with and support the reform outcomes of the Plenary Council. 

Catholic schools are effectively a parallel church, and they are in much better shape than the official diocesan church. Not only is the Catholic education system the primary avenue for engagement with younger Catholics, but it is the main hope that the official church has for re-engagement with a sector of the Catholic community that it often fails to understand.  

There is often a vast gulf between the sector and the hierarchy. Issues like inclusion of the LGBTQI+ community, climate action and Indigenous rights are a high priority within schools. 

The official church must reach out to Catholic school staff, led by their principals, who are at the sharp end of interaction between bishops and schools. Anxiety surrounds these relationships. There are regular examples of friction as bishops and their education bureaucracies attempt to impose their policies on a generally independent-thinking sector. The schools’ sector exists in reality in a separate universe with its own spiritual communities. 

School principals are especially important because of their status as spokespeople within the Catholic community. They are often the most theologically literate lay Catholics, who have invested highly in religious education studies for themselves and their staffs. They engage daily with the anxieties of parents and students dealing with the implications of Catholic doctrine and teaching for their life in mainstream society. 

'Few senior secondary students remain in the pews outside their schools, as shown by official Mass attendance statistics. But principals and their leadership teams are potential forces within their local parish communities.'

Within the Catholic school sector there are many shades of authority relationship with the hierarchical church. The main division is between diocesan schools directly responsible to bishops, through the mediation of Catholic education offices, and those schools formerly operated by religious institutes which in many cases are now run by canonical bodies known as Ministerial Public Juridic Persons (MPJPs). The latter have an extra layer of protection from disconcerting episcopal edicts, like many religious institutes have needed in the past. 

Within the latter sub-sector there are also shades of difference because the institutes adopt varied stances