RE in Catholic high schools: Challenge and Hope

Contemporary academic writing on RE in Catholic secondary schools no longer conceptualises it as the serene passing on of Catholic faith to practicing Catholics (catechesis). The Catholic RE classroom will contain a wide spectrum of practising and non-practising Catholics, pupils of other denominations and religions, and many seekers, doubters and agnostics.  So the key is for RE to be truly educational, and to foster the spiritual growth and religious literacy of all pupils.  Nonetheless, the faith formation of the next generation of committed Catholics is a reasonable aspiration of RE in the Catholic high school. Promoting spiritual growth in the Catholic tradition while presenting the reasonableness of Catholic faith will be legitimate aims of RE, all the while opening the faith to debate and scrutiny within the educational environment.  Such a task takes on a crucial role, given that very possibility of lifelong faith commitment is challenged by the current postmodern, secular environment in which the pupils live, work and study.

Post-modern religion: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Christian Smith et al (Soul Searching, 2005), in a huge qualitative and quantitative study of teenagers of all faiths and none in the US, characterised the prevailing religiosity of young people as ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’.  In this worldview, religion exists to make us feel good about ourselves, and to teach us right and wrong, but God is not seen as a personal being or a loving parent. 

In their subsequent study with the same cohort 5 years later, the now emerging adults (18-23) largely saw religion as something they could graduate from (Souls in Transition, 2009).  Their prevailing religious worldview can be summarised as ‘All religions essentially teach the same thing, and are there to help us to be good and to teach us right and wrong, although religion isn’t essential for that.  When we fail we can put it down to experience. As adults we know instinctively what is right and wrong, and so can graduate from religion, but some people can choose it as a lifestyle choice: if they want to believe that, it’s true for them.  God is benign so we will get to heaven anyway’.  In similar vein in the Australian context, Rymarz and Graham (2006) found that even core (i.e. practising) young Catholics mainly equated Christianity with doing your best and not harming others, while Franchi and Rymarz (2017) trace a similar pattern across the English-speaking world. Where this distortion of religion seeks its roots in a secularised Christianity, Kendra Dean in her book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (2010) goes as far as to call it an impostor faith, a virulent parasite rendering the Gospel irrelevant.

Reasons for hope

Despite the obvious challenge represented by this widespread view of religion among the young, Smith and his team also give grounds for hope, as well as the basis of a specific strategy which is both formational and educational. In their 2014 book on Young Catholic America, Smith at al found predictors in the teenage cohort (13-18 yrs old) which made it more likely that they would embrace an adult faith (when they were re-interviewed aged 18-23 yrs old). The predictors discovered to be consistently very important are as follows:

  • Strong parental religion, modelling and support.  Francis and Casson (2019) note the same phenomenon in the UK.
  • High Importance of Religious Faith, described as, “Professed greater importance of religious faith in everyday life during the teenage years.”
  • Belief in divine miracles: the authors call this an example of “cognitive deviance”, since it represents a somewhat rebellious rejection of rationalist orthodoxy which dismisses miracles.
  • Many Supportive Religious Adults, to whom they can turn for support, advice or help.
  • Attending a Catholic high school
  • Frequent reading of Scripture and frequent prayer.

Towards a strategy

The findings of Smith and others can help to shape the strategy and priorities of Catholic RE in the secondary sector.  Catholic schools are uniquely placed to evolve a strategy which is formative, educational, and intellectually stimulating, and which can harness the important predictors of adult faith while challenging the presumptions about religion present in ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’.

RE can honour the diversity of World Religions, by recognising that all religions don’t believe and teach the same but have a legitimate diversity and plurality. It can explore complex moral problems, to show that right and wrong is not always self-evident due to the possibility of manipulation, the pursuit of short-term happiness and original sin.

RE can raise the questions of sin, redemption and salvation: do good people automatically go to heaven because of their own merits, or does faith have a role? It can promote the enduring value of Christian wisdom throughout our adulthood for life’s big questions, so that it is unwise, even naïve, to ‘graduate’ from one’s faith tradition.

It can also challenge the prevailing materialist and rationalist worldview, considered “as superior to, even as exclusive of other forms of thinking and rationality.” (Sullivan & McKinney, p.211). This could be done by investigation of other ways of knowing such as the aesthetic and the mystical, and the possibility of miracles and other divine interventions, thus encouraging “cognitive deviance”.

The RE classroom can also help in the area of frequent personal scriptural prayer.  The classroom and/or retreat experience may provide the space and time to explore personal prayer, including experimenting with scripture-based forms of prayer such as Lectio Divina, Ignatian imaginative prayer, or Christian meditation.

Lastly, although teachers cannot replace parents in the faith journey, not least as ‘Strong parental religion, modelling and support’ was by far the most important predictor of adult faith, RE and other Catholic teachers can be Supportive Religious Adults upon which pupils can rely. Our young people expect and deserve no less from us.

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