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What is the purpose of the RE classroom in a secular world?

  • 09 February 2024
  The environment in which Religious Education is taught in Catholic schools in Australia today has changed dramatically over the last sixty years. Culturally, this reflects the significant changes in society globally and the impact of religious affiliation locally. Gone is much of the tribalism, homogeneity and compliance that so identified the Catholic faithful pre-Vatican II and into the late 1970s. Those days belong to a holy-picture past which no longer fits the times.

Today 39 per cent of Australians now identify themselves as No religion whilst there has been a discernible growth in the other major world religions. Whilst Christianity, and in particular Catholicism, remains the most common religion in Australia, Christianity has fallen. Those identifying as Christian went from being 88 per cent of the Australian population in 1966 to just 44 per cent today. According to the 2021 Census, Catholics now form only 20 per cent of the population.

Whilst the numbers of students attending Catholic schools has grown at a steady rate, the religious composition of school communities has changed significantly. Just over half of Catholic primary students (58.2 per cent) and Catholic secondary students (56.3 per cent) are nominally Catholic, whilst just under half (48.1 per cent) of Catholic primary and similarly of Catholic secondary students (43.7 per cent) attend either a government secondary school or a private (not Catholic) school (ABS, 2016).

For a Catholic student to attend a school that was not Catholic would have been unheard of in the 1960s era in which we grew up. With big families and discounts for successive children, the Catholic schools of the 1950s-70s were at their peak affiliation with a large proportion of religious sisters and brothers taking on the teaching load. Beyond the diversity in composition of the contemporary Catholic classroom are other broader challenges facing Catholic schools in a world context which is variously described as post-Christian and increasingly secular and individualist. Communal attitudes of shock, anger and shame at a Church that covered up paedophilia in the past decades has stripped the institution of much of its moral authority. Clericalism, hierarchical intransigence, and the lack of female voice within the Church have accelerated disillusion and disappointment amongst the laity. 

What is becoming increasingly apparent in today’s society is that the story of Jesus of Nazareth and the claims of Christianity are no longer common knowledge. The framework of faith that was so central to Catholic life