Sean O’Conaill argues that with the continuity of Catholic faith in Ireland now seriously in question – and with controversy growing over equal access to primary schooling for all – it is time to realise that school-centred Catholic faith formation is itself a barrier to the radical change needed in our understanding of adult faith formation.
Why should we Catholics still suppose that a committed faith will be ‘formed’ by Catholic schooling from the age of four or five when it is staring us in the face that this rarely happens?
The virtually complete failure of that system was well summed up by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin in 2006 when he told Pope Benedict: “I can go to parishes on a Sunday where I find no person in the congregations between the ages of 16 and 36. None at all.”
As someone who spent a total of forty-eight years in Catholic schools, as student and teacher, and did not come to a deeply committed faith until the age of fifty-one, I am now convinced that abandonment of the delusion that schooling will form faith is an essential key to a revival of effective faith development in Ireland, at all ages.
To begin with, informed faith is not an outcome of instruction but of a combination of experience, questioning and insight – and school is not the most likely context for that required combination to occur.
Baptised in infancy, and raised in Catholic schools, the experience that brought me to a committed faith eventually was the realisation that as a teacher of history and current affairs – in a Catholic school – I could not connect the data of my own teaching expertise with the loss of faith of my own children.
“I don’t believe all this Jesus stuff,” said my youngest, aged fourteen in 1994. “And most of my class don’t either.”
He was a third-year pupil in the same Catholic school.
Faith cannot develop properly in adults who opt out of responsibility for passing it on!
Until that moment I had never taken any serious responsibility for discussing ‘faith’ with my own children. I had seen all that as the responsibility of the RE professionals and the clergy – and opted out. My own focus was the growing secular crisis in Ireland – especially the crisis of violence, of inequality and of the environment – in Northern Ireland and in the wider world more generally. I didn’t see, then, how the Gospels were in any way connected with that crisis.
I am now convinced that to leave that option open to Irish Catholic parents – of handing over the role of addressing the questions, doubts and moral formation of our children to school professionals and to clergy – is to hobble the faith development of both adults and children – and to enable clergy generally to dodge the challenge of dialogue with adults. Our school-centred system of ‘faith formation’ is a major factor in the growing crisis of Catholic faith in Ireland.
The reason is simple. Even Catholic secondary schools have now been essentially ‘secularised’ by the very weight of their vocational curriculum – and by the fashionable faith-averse or faith-indifferent formation of most of their teachers at third level. Even Catholic teachers of History or English or Geography or Economics are taught to see faith development as the responsibility of someone else, while the expertise they have acquired at university has for many decades used a language that makes little or no contact with Christian faith or wisdom.
Even in Irish Catholic primary schools now there is news of eyebrow-raising in staff rooms at the arrival of more committed younger teachers. Those teachers are struggling vainly, in all schools, against the tide.
And what of parents of teenagers concerned about the growing dangers that face their children in that rapidly changing world? Too often they find that weekend homilies show no understanding whatsoever of the relevance of the Gospel to that world – so both they and their children stop coming to church. Our retained reliance on the schools tells them it’s not their problem – or within their competence – to grapple with the faith formation of their children. Our entire system says to parents ‘don’t you worry’ when everything else tells them they must.
It was a profound mistake to ‘professionalise’ the faith formation of children and young adults in schools for the following reasons:
- Even the usual educational ambience of Catholic schools is now secular and secularising – in the sense of finding religious faith irrelevant in most subjects, even the humanities;
- Teachers in second-level schools are primarily absorbed by the public exam requirements of their own subjects, and usually never meet to assess or discuss the overall impact of the entire school curriculum upon the developing – or more usually dwindling – faith of their students;
- Teachers of RE can generally have no detailed knowledge of their students as individuals – the knowledge that only their parents can have;
- Those parents are mostly completely ‘out of the loop’ – deprived of both the responsibility, and of any sense of competence, for developing the faith understanding of their children;
- Adult faith formation is at present usually poorly resourced, and unconnected with parenting responsibilities. Seen usually as an option for retirees, not as a life-requirement for all, it mostly doesn’t happen at all.
- The peer-group culture of teenagers is now generally sophisticated in its disdain for the faith formation system we still retain. Connected with a globalised online world that warns of the dangers of cults and promotes intellectual independence, young people are increasingly scornful of a system they often come to see as ‘brainwashing for children’;
- Without any responsibility for faith formation, lay Catholic adults have no compelling need to demand regular dialogue with clergy;
- Clergy too generally opt out of that obligation, because ‘the schools are taking care of it’ – and the half-century gulf in age between the average priest and the average teenager is now seldom addressed by the weekly homily;
- As they can see that their parents have usually been given no vital role in the faith-continuity of the church, most teenagers are currently being taught by that very fact that Catholicism will have no vital adult role for them either – so why bother?
It would be a radical step to face parents and parishes now with the main responsibility for faith development – but doing that could be a complete game-changer for everyone, because:
- Christian faith matures usually only at a time of adult life-crisis, often long after a throwing-off of early-stage faith;
- Parents need to be faced with the reality that unless their own faith is in ongoing development they will not be equipped to speak to their children about that vital issue;
- Parents are more likely than their children to be asking the mature questions that only a mature faith can answer;
- It will be the developing faith of their parents – and their recognised role as responsible adults in the church – that will make most impression on children;
- The imperative need for ongoing dialogue in the church between people and clergy will then become unavoidable by both;
- There is no other way of challenging the growing secular crisis – deriving mainly from a loss of meaning and the collapse of integrity on the part of the secular establishment;
- The changing of our major focus to adult faith development will not otherwise happen;
- Adult faith development is the most important adventure that anyone can have, and home video screens are ultimately depressive and mind-numbing if they become a substitute for real personal development face-to-face.
It is time for a loud wake-up call to – and from – the leadership of the Irish Church: our inherited faith formation system is failing and needs to be replaced by a system that allows no one to opt out.