Catholic Schools: why they are not maintaining the faith

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish News  21st June 2007

 “This will spell the end of Catholicism as a taught programme for good.”

That was one published reaction to recent news of pending inter-faith schools in Northern Ireland. A senior priest in Tyrone has publicly challenged Down and Connor Auxiliary Bishop Donal McKeown for supporting the idea.

But for Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas, nothing is ever taught until something has been deeply learned. This is the principle known to Catholic thought as reception. By contrast, according to a recent poll organised from Dublin, only one in twenty young people on the island can identify the first of the Ten Commandments, and most cannot even name the Blessed Trinity. A clear majority of those young people are products of Catholic schools.

The virtually total absence of young people in the age range 15-35 from Sunday Mass in most of the country tells the same story. So does the experience of Catholic chaplains in our universities – to whom only a small minority of nominally Catholic students ever introduce themselves. What was assiduously presented in Catholic schools over the past several decades was in most cases not received – certainly not at a depth that could retain key doctrine or maintain a lifetime’s interest or commitment from then on.

It is high time that all involved in Catholic education face up to this, and ask a fundamental question. Why should we ever have supposed that Catholic formation could effectively be confined to the years of childhood – the years before childhood faith is tested by further education, secularist challenge, adult trials and adult questions? Why should we ever have thought that greenhousing our children could educate and perpetuate our church?

The answer was provided in 2002 by Cardinal Cahal Daly at a conference in Maynooth. Commenting on the phenomenon of over 90% Mass observance in Ireland until recent decades he observed that beneath “the pleasing surface” of those times there had been “dangers of conformism and routine” and even “sometimes hypocrisy, with people, for reasons of expediency, professing in public views which they rejected in private discussion or contradicted in private behaviour”.

No one is more ready to conform than a child. Catholic religious education as presently managed depends almost entirely upon the compliance of children. This explains not only why Catholic children conform to the Catholic faith norms of their schools, but why they then so quickly conform to the secular faith norms of their society when they leave school.

People of strong faith are never mere conformists: they have been encouraged to ask their own deepest questions, and to find their own faith, in freedom – and this is an adult affair. There is no scriptural evidence that Jesus spent any time instructing children. The virtually complete indifference to adult Catholic faith formation in Ireland (usually a small minority option for the well heeled) has been a tragic miscalculation. That miscalculation occurred because clericalism mistakenly supposed that to educate the child was to educate the adult as well.

It was the mass conformism of Irish Catholicism in the 1960s that misled the Irish Catholic hierarchy into supposing that the reforms of Vatican II weren’t needed in Ireland. These invited lay people to leave the passivity of childhood faith and to adopt an adult role, based upon a theology of church as ‘the people of God’. An era of dialogue and learning at all levels was supposed to ensue.

It never truly did in Ireland. Clericalism – the tendency of too many clergy to prefer the passive compliance of their people – continued to dominate. Clericalism is uncomfortable with dialogue, because dialogue presumes that people will relate as adults. Valuing conformity and docility above all other virtues, clericalism prefers lay people to remain children forever.

So, the huge efforts of well educated teachers to instruct Catholic children in the theology of Vatican II were unsupported by an adult programme that would have allowed the parents of those children to understand and reinforce that theology. A huge gulf developed between the generations. Passive parents, expected to ‘pay, pray and obey’ could not inspire their children with enthusiasm for the same passive role. It is the anticipation of responsibility that primarily motivates learning, and clericalism leaves lay people – parents included – without any real responsibility.

So children whose teachers told them that at Confirmation they became ‘Temples of the Holy Spirit’ soon found that, strangely, they would never have an adult speaking role in their own church. Clericalism insists that ordination trumps all the other sacraments, leaving nothing for lay people to discover or to say.

How then could those children ever rise to the challenge posed by Vatican II to the laity – to ‘consecrate the world to God’? Their parents had never been invited to discuss as adults what that might mean – and their bishops showed no sign of inviting their own generations to do so. So what were we ever educating our children for? The answer was shown in the failure even to develop parish or diocesan pastoral councils in most cases: for perpetual Catholic childhood. No wonder so many former Catholics in Ireland say: “I have outgrown all of that!” 

A radical crisis of continuity now obliges Irish Catholics to completely rethink and reorganise our faith formation system. It is time to refocus that upon adult needs and adult questions, to discover as adults how to be church together – priests and people – and to make parents once more the chief religious educators of their children – while there is still time.

A reflexive resistance to any change – in defence of the failed totem of the segregated Catholic school system – is not the answer. To go on supposing that to instruct the child is also to educate the adult would be to deny a mountain of evidence to the contrary, and to guarantee the disappearance of our Irish Catholic tradition.

2 thoughts on “Catholic Schools: why they are not maintaining the faith

  1. Wonderful article Sean. We continue to do what doesn’t (for the most part) work. And I agree – a reflexive resistance to any change – in defence of the failed totem of the segregated Catholic school system – is not the answer.

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