Does religion in schools go beyond branding?


Statue of St John Paul II outside Catholic schoolAs Sherlock Holmes famously observed, sometimes the most important fact to note is not that the dog barked, but that the dog didn't bark. Certainly the silence that followed the announcement that in Victorian State schools optional classes in religious education would be replaced by classes on relationships for all students was notable.

Apart from the providers of religious education, almost no one commented. Church based schools and peak bodies were silent. Others criticised the decision to teach relationships on the grounds that such teaching was not the business of schools but should be left to families.

The silence on the issue reflects long-standing and well-rehearsed differences of educational philosophy between state schools and faith-based schools. But it also concealed the effects of broader cultural changes that will pose questions to schools of both kinds. The old dogs may have fallen silent, but the braying of new hounds is borne on the wind.

Religious, and particularly Catholic schools, have put a strong weight on tradition, both as offering authoritative content and as a process by which faith and an ethical way of life are transmitted. They are handed down from generation to generation through a network of relationships, symbols and processes that make up a school. The beliefs and values embodied in the whole of the school are described and explored in religion classes. This understanding can be traced back to medieval monastic schools where the curriculum was part of the daily life of the monastery.  

State schools in Australia were distinctive because they did not presuppose a shared faith. As a result they could not appeal to a shared faith tradition. But initially an informal religious and ethical tradition was embodied in the practices and relationships of schools. It reflected a generally accepted form of theism and commonly accepted ethical code. So despite the claims made in polemic, the schools were not Godless in any strong sense. But they could not offer any formal space to reflect on religious questions.

That settlement is now being tested both in Catholic and state schools by rapid cultural change. In particular, people now commonly dismiss tradition as an authoritative source of values and beliefs. They see values as the responsibility of autonomous individuals to choose.

From this perspective discussion of ethics and faith is a private matter, best hosted in families. Public schools are seen as public institutions, and should focus on passing on the knowledge and skills that will benefit the individual and society. Of course, because the judgment of what will benefit the individual and society must also be left to individual choice, there is no way for it to be discussed in schools. As a result the criterion is often assumed to be the economic benefit gained by the individual or by society. Little space is left for the broader tradition on which the schools could once draw.

This emphasis on individual autonomy also puts religious schools under pressure. They must work within the prevailing culture, and as fewer families, students or teachers have any firm church allegiance or religious understanding, it becomes harder for the school to embody the tradition in the relationships, symbols and practices of the school. The idea of a tradition that might have authority in the choices we make will seem to many to be incredible.  

Where this erosion of the place of tradition is not resisted, the operative goals of schools then become the academic and economic advancement of individuals. Religious classes and rituals become a decoration, a rhetorical branding.

As a result of these pressures on both state and faith-based schools, we might expect that the difference between those faith-based schools in which their inherited tradition shapes the life of the school and those in which adherence to the tradition is largely rhetorical and not operative will be more marked.

We might also expect that faith-based schools that take tradition seriously and embody it in the life of the school will become more popular. They will appeal to a minority of parents, who want a school with strong ethical and faith tradition for their children, even if they do not themselves share the tradition.

Compared to the enormity of this cultural shift and the challenge it poses to schools of all sorts to commend a humane ethic, the presence or absence of religion classes in state schools is unimportant. This dog's bark was too faint to be heard.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. 

St John Paul II statue image by Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, education, religious education, Catholic schools



submit a comment

Existing comments

"Compared to the enormity of this cultural shift and the challenge it poses to schools of all sorts to commend a humane ethic". I'm not sure about the word 'humane' there - I went to a traditional Catholic school and humane was the last word I would use to describe the ethic. Honestly, I think the state schools were more humane. "people now commonly dismiss tradition as an authoritative source of values and beliefs. They see values as the responsibility of autonomous individuals to choose". Yes and no - you can see the government putting substantial resources into promoting Anzac Day, the Gallipoli spirit and so on, as if they're trying to pump up a sort of secular moral tradition, and of course spending millions on school chaplains - so they're not just leaving it up to individuals to figure it out for themselves. I'm glad that children these days are taught to critically examine traditions, rather than obediently accept their 'authority'. Religious schools these days sell themselves as nicer (no nasty people), academically superior, and more 'caring'. Hardly anyone cares about religion, and many parents are annoyed that religion classes take up time they would rather the teachers were using to help the kids get better grades.
Russell | 26 August 2015

In NSW, the demise of SRE may be delayed for a time due to the balance of power wielded by Fred Nile, and a sympathetic Premier. However, those facts may only delay the inevitable. I've had some experience with SRE in state schools and felt it was a positive experience, generally, for the students. It is important to follow the curriculum provided and also to spend time talking about birthday parties and missing teeth etc. during the lesson. I agree that faith-based schools do take tradition more seriously. But this is not to say that state schools can't meet the challenge of instilling values and mores that can lead children towards faith.
Pam | 26 August 2015

There is truth in Andy's analysis. But I fear that the analysis is a little simplistic (no doubt hampered by word count!). There is much fine research being undertaken around these questions at the moment. Those genuinely interested would be well served by reading the publications of Didier Pollefeyt and Annemie Dillen, at least as a start. In my view, they have a great handle on the complexity of the current situation of Catholic schools and their possible trajectories.
Janine Luttick | 26 August 2015

The cessation of optional classes in religious education in Victorian state schools and their replacement by classes in relationships for all students should not be seen in isolation from the provision of School Chaplains under the National Schools Chaplaincy Program. The largest employer of Chaplains in Victoria is ACCESS Ministries. That raises a number of problems. Without wishing to denigrate either ACCESS Ministries or their Chaplains, I think the strong Evangelical emphasis in their Statement of Belief may lead to some problems in the provision of this service. Young people at school are often looking for meaning and purpose in life. That search, not surprisingly, often leads them to religion. Chaplains are not supposed to proselytise and I am sure that most would try not to. However, there may be a stage where, say at the death of a loved one, a young person may ask about where to go for solace of a spiritual nature. This puts the Chaplain in an impossible position. The problem lies not with ACCESS Ministries nor Education Victoria but in our post-Christian society where the majority seem to have no real link with the religion of their forbears. This is a real current problem.
Edward Fido | 26 August 2015

Through the work of the Enhancing Catholic School Identity program, schools are assessing the current and future Catholic identity of the school in the midst of an increasingly secular and diverse world. Beyond assessment, schools are supported in their legitimate efforts to seek the particular and the distinctive of the Roman Catholic faith in the midst of diversity and difference. Catholic schools today seek to be 'in the world' whilst continuing to privilege the Catholic traditions which were their inspiration. The Catholic school today promotes belief beyond the critique that moves beyond the literal; a dialogical frame that is open to and welcoming of many and diverse voices; a re-contextualisation/re-formulation/re-appropriation of the Catholic traditions that are offered to all in the school community. Catholic schools today offer an encounter with others that always open and deeply relational. An encounter with the Other is offered through mediations such as scripture, prayer, the Eucharist, symbols, art... The challenges of such enhancements in our secularising and plural world remain but our Catholic schools are responding in very positive ways to the realities that confront them.
Paul | 27 August 2015

In a community where "economic benefit"is counted as more important than the shape of society and where the community deity is the dollar ("mouths they have, but cannot speak; ears, but they do not hear .... those who make them shall be like them") it is no wonder that SRE, traditionally taught on denominational lines by well-meaning volunteers of questionable competence has fallen into such disrepute. What we sorely need is a good, ecumenical syllabus that relates basic theology with ways of interpreting society and forming values. Plus, it needs to be taught by persons who are competent to teach the young people in their care. I went to a state school and the clergyman taking a class of 15yo boys bravely offered to talk about the things of concern to the class. What are 15yo interested in? SEX! So he took that as the initial topic. His class had about 75 boys, the other had about 10! He talked about sex - and we learned more about forming relationships and stability. I guess we learned that our "smartness" could be turned to a serious purpose. I counted that wise priest amongst the best teachers of faith one could hope for.
FGeorge Mainprize | 27 August 2015

What absolute rubbish. As someone who has taught religious education in public schools, and who was educated myself through public schools, your final statement that "the presence or absence of religion classes in state schools is unimportant". Why? Just because a few secular ideologues speak up loudly and parents don't understand the treasure they have in SRE? The experiences that I had in public schools with religion became the fertile soil for my faith. I had a teacher in my school who was Catholic, who I saw each week at mass with his family and remains a major role model for me, I went to the sacramental initiation with many of my classmates. I also shared the playground with Anglicans, Muslims, Buddhists and people of no faith. But I would not be who I am without the subtle teaching of faith that I received, making Christmas and Easter cards, sharing the sacraments with friends and also the limited times that we did receive religious instruction. I can clearly remember the people who came into our classroom to teach religion, even if I can't remember what they taught. They were true witnesses. They went out. And when I have been to public schools to teach religion, I have met children who are eager to learn about what we have to say. To say that such opportunities are unimportant because "the dogs bark is too faint" is ridiculous. Jesus would leave the 99 to find the missing one. What would you do? Under your thesis, I would be the missing one who was not important enough to go looking for, and there could be many more like me in the significant Catholic population within public schools. My children are being educated in public schools because I still don't trust a Catholic culture in my city that was silent as pedophiles ran wild through schools. But it is not surprising that a Catholic culture that was too cowardly to stand up to pedophiles would also cower when secularism starts to assert itself.
Andrew | 27 August 2015

Thanks, Andy. I think besides 'branding', good Catholic schools offer various liturgical and pastoral opportunities where young people do experience that full and active participation that Vatican 2 wanted. The Catholic school is the ONLY Church some of them will ever know. .
Gerard Rummery | 27 August 2015

A wise person once reinforced for me as an educator that we can "indoctrinate by neglect." Genuine education is religion is a bonus for any child no matter which education system they belong to
Narelle Mullins | 27 August 2015

Thank you, Andy, for predictably sagacious observations. I have long opposed religious instruction in state schools. It seems to me that promoting a particular religion per arm of the state is a Constantinian hangover, and ethically indefensible. I have just as passionately argued for religious studies in state schools on the basis that religion has historically been a hugely significant socio-cultural phenomenon; excluding religious studies is as crazy as leaving out maths or geography. Not surprisingly, some fail to understand my argument.
John Bodycomb | 27 August 2015

PAUL. "...our Catholic schools are responding in very positive ways to the realities that confront them." Such a statement, while encouraging, can only be accepted as contributory to a positive outcome when the parameters of measurement of positive outcome are known. Are you able to point to the benefits that have accrued from the "very positive response" you mention. I have certainly missed out on recognising any religious benefit that could be described as Catholic identity or community bestowed on my 7 children, 18 grandchildren and 8 nieces and nephews from education in Catholic schools where year 12 "religious study" is compulsory as a points earning easy option for university entrance scores. In contrast, however, there is definitely an ethical dimension for participation in secular society easily identifiable, more easily identifiable than any knowledge of Catholic teaching or appreciation of God amongst men or alive in the magnificence of the creation that surrounds us. To me
john frawley | 27 August 2015

Catholics, Anglicans, Jews and Muslims set up schools to pass on their traditions. Although God has evidently designed everything to evolve as new insights bring better understanding and situations change, many religions dismiss adaption or 'aggiornamento' to perpetuate out-dated traditions, so that their transmission becomes indoctrination rather than education.
Robert Liddy | 27 August 2015

I think many of our Catholic schools are far from up to scratch. In fact I think it has become a self-supporting industry propped up by teachers and administrators. Seems the main focus is getting bums on seats with little consideration for teaching the tenets of the Catholic faith. True, some pre-Vatican 2 stuff was over the top, but now it's all gone to the dogs. All teachers need to say to get a job is say they subscribe to the "Catholic Ethos". What hogwash. Many are non-church goers some give example of living in improper relationships. My daughter at a well-known Adelaide college, some years ago, was given a lengthy project by a Religious Education Coordinator "Design Your Own Religion". Well??? Maybe Catholic education should be given prominence and taught by practicing Catholics and expanded to parents also. Amazing how many children make their first and last confession and communion. Few know prayers and Mass responses.True parents have a main role to play and perhaps sacramental programs could be conditional on parents attending classes and encouraged to attend Mass regularly. If children of other religions/faiths attend there should be no watering down teaching to avoid offending them or parents.
Stan | 27 August 2015

"From this perspective discussion of ethics and faith is a private matter, best hosted in families." Although ultimate responsibility rests with the individual, most people do not have the leisure or the creative ability to establish the principles and rituals that nourish spiritual affinity with God. But they can recognise them when presented by inspired leaders, so religions are always fostered in communities with common aspirations and needs. Unfortunately, in many cases, the natural ties to the community can sometimes seem stronger than the tenuous ethereal appreciation of the Godhead, and even to contain it - which can lead to the conflicts we witness between religions; each thinking that their 'way' is the only way.
Robert Liddy | 27 August 2015

I am a parent who changed schools for her children from a Catholic primary school in favour of state school for my four children. The state school was a much more 'christian' environment and accepting of all people and all faiths. Approximately 1/3 of all the families at the state school were Catholics who could not afford the Catholic school. There was no flexibility on school fees at the Catholic school. The problem with religious education at the state school was that it was taught by fundamentalist Christians or Catholic proponents of the Latin Mass. I think the children in state schools would be much better off with ethics classes than those options. Many parents do not want either Protestant or Catholic fundamentalists to teach their children. I prepared my children for the sacraments through my parish and did not leave it up to anyone else. Many people do not have that option due to a lack of information and education. Most parishes are not interested in Catholics in the state school system so no help is offered. There are much bigger issues here but are the churches listening?
Gabrielle | 27 August 2015

Cardinal Pell, among others, has never wanted to admit that when traditional authority is in conflict with one's own conscience, the latter should take precedence. No doubt, there are many more informed, reflective, individuals nowadays simply because our society is more educated and has access to more information than ever. That doesn't mean their values and beliefs are baseless; It doesn't mean they are always correct either but has traditional authority always been correct? Autonomous individuals tend to form relationships with others with similar beliefs and values and actually protest against authority, often with very good reason. To my mind, those individuals, whose life experiences have not caused them to become autonomous, are likely to be swayed by the rhetoric of those in authority, many of whom have self-interested motives. There is no better example of the 'autonomous' individual than Jesus Christ, who, while exhorting us to love one another, courageously railed against the corrupt authority of his times as well.
Anna | 27 August 2015

"the presence or absence of religion classes in state schools is unimportant." Nonsense,cultural shifts or none Jesus commands go teach all nations and not just humane ethics but doctrine of the faith Flood the schools with catechists.[Victoria is not Australia]
Father John George | 27 August 2015

It sad to hear that "the presence or absence of religion classes in State schools is unimportant" Catechists love God very much and they want to spread the love of God to catholic students in Government's schools, and they are doing a good job.
Ron Cini | 27 August 2015

In an era which endlessly talks about rights I think students at all schools have a right to inquire and learn about the religious traditions which shaped their forbears. An eminent Orthodox thinker of the last century, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, stated that he considered Jesus had not intended to set up an institution but to change the world. Seen in this prophetic perspective the place of religious education in state schools and the way Catholic and other religious schools teach religion suddenly becomes very important indeed. Of course the family is also very important and should have some oversight, and, if necessary, a veto over this, even if that means withdrawing a child from voluntary RE classes or a denominational school they find unsatisfactory.
Edward Fido | 28 August 2015

"...the silence that followed the announcement that in Victorian State schools optional classes in religious education would be replaced by classes on relationships for all students was notable," writes Andrew Hamilton. Ever tried to have a letter published in Fairfax's The Age newspaper that represents a Catholic perspective...? Silly question!
Henk Verhoeven | 28 August 2015

Are religious, and particularly Catholic schools, really putting a strong weight on authoritative content? During Mass on a weekday, one or more classes of the nearby Catholic primary school routinely are in attendance. It has become painfully obvious to me that those children gain, or have gained, very little knowledge about the Catholic Faith. Should Catholic schools that fail to teach the Faith nevertheless be alluded to as "Faith-based schools"...?
Henk Verhoeven | 28 August 2015

About The Age's reluctance to publish letters that present 'the other view'. The following letter is just one of very many that never made it to the letters columns of The Age: "Rosemary Sceats (Letters, August 22) praised the government of Victoria for relegating religious instruction (she calls it “indoctrination”) of state primary school pupils to out-of-class time slots; she claims religion amounts to “ancient myths and fairy-tales”. Has Rosemary ever studied even one of the twenty ‘proofs’ of God? Obviously she is unconcerned about the spiritual vacuum that is being, and has been, created under the auspices of secular humanism which will deny Victoria’s youngsters full and easy access to learning about things transcendental, and helps to add weight to an already decaying climate of religion. Obviously, Rosemary sees religion as something useless. However, reasonable persons – including those without any religious affiliation – would admit that, for example, the teachings of Christianity contain elements that are inherently good for any human society. Should we deny our children, who are faced with a world filled with brutality of many kinds, to become acquainted for example with the notion that we should love our ‘neighbours’, thus everyone, as we love ourselves?"
Henk Verhoeven | 28 August 2015

A necessary question, no doubt, especially with a small percentage of students educated in Catholic schools confessing faith publicly and participating actively in church life after school. Theologically speaking, however, the good news must be spread as St Paul says, "in season and out"; and sociologically, schools still provide practical opportunity for the gospel to be proclaimed, heard and shared, Catholic values to be upheld and practised, and students, parents and staff to be engaged in the service of faith, community-building and the promotion of justice. Many - I venture most - schools go to admirable lengths to realise their mission, with Masses, prayers, community outreach programs, support for charities, and fundraisers that enable students to engage directly- often in holiday time - with the poor. With few participating regularly in Sunday celebration of the Eucharist, without Catholic schools, the discernible opportunity and harvest would be scarcer. Thank God for the witness and blessings that are tangible -and, like the mustard seed, inspiring.
John | 28 August 2015

It is also worth noting that popular media are notably anti religious in their broadcasts, and this has also played a role in the removal of religion from schools and society in general. It is also worth noting that many crimes are influenced by the constant flow of media programs of low morality and violence. Sexual crimes are committed by people influenced by pornographic media that is freely available. If there is any finger pointing then it should be at the media who continue to broadcast immorality in the name of free speech.
Anthony | 29 August 2015

To Anna. “There is no better example of the 'autonomous' individual than Jesus Christ, who, while exhorting us to love one another, courageously railed against the corrupt authority of his times as well”. As members of His Body, the church being the Body of Jesus Christ (“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?) yes, we are to correct our ill thoughts, words and deeds, mine and yours included, against each member: If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.
AO | 30 August 2015

AO, thank you for your comment. It would be wonderful if we all in the Church could be as of one. Christ knew, however, that his mission would cause division but he said to "love thine enemiy". Possibly the greatest chasm within the Church today but also throughout the world as a whole is the division (admittedly not always clearly cut) between progressives and regressives. I went along with the latter for a long time before I allowed myself to listen to my own conscience.
Anna | 30 August 2015

To Anna. From a treatise on Christian Perfection by St Gregory of Nyssa, bishop. We possess Christ, our peace, our light.: He is our peace, for he has made both one. Since we think of Christ as our peace, we may call ourselves true Christians only if our lives express Christ by our own peace. As the Apostle says: He has put enmity to death. We must never allow it to be rekindled in us in any way but must declare that it is absolutely dead. Gloriously has God slain enmity, in order to save us; may we never risk the life of our souls by being resentful or by bearing grudges. We must not awaken that enmity or call it back to life by our wickedness, for it is better left dead. No, since we possess Christ who is peace, we must put an end to this enmity and live as we believe he lived. He broke down the separating wall, uniting what was divided, bringing about peace by reconciling in his single person those who disagreed. In the same way, we must be reconciled not only with those who attack us from outside, but also with those who stir up dissension within; flesh then will no longer be opposed to the spirit, nor the spirit to the flesh.
AO | 31 August 2015


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up