A "Turangawaewae" for Young Catholics:

A case for tradition in Religious Education


How can secondary schools help young people cope with the often bewildering variety of beliefs and values they are faced with today? How important is a sense of Catholic identity? In this article Gary Finlay draws on the work of Neil Postman and Jaroslav Pelikan to present a case for the importance of fostering an appreciation of our own tradition. The writer is the Secondary Adviser in the Religious Education Centre of the Archdiocese of Wellington, New Zealand.

"Not to know what took place before you were born is to remain forever a child." Cicero.

What sort of Religious Education do we need in secondary schools to help young Catholics make sense of the changing world and Church of the last quarter of the 20th century?

A concept that may be of assistance in answering this question is the Maori concept of "turangawaewae". It means literally "a standing place for the feet", and refers to the sense of place and security given to Maori people by their sharing in ancestral land rights. A Maori with turangawaewae knows where his roots are, and has a firm base from which to cope with the changes and trials of life.

I would like to suggest in this article that for young Catholics the cultivation of a sense of tradition could help provide them with their own turangawaewae - a firm base from which, in religious terms, they can come to grips with the often bewildering variety of beliefs, values and attitudes which confront them.

Consequently I suggest that one of the major aims of an appropriate Religious Education program for Catholic secondary schools should be to foster a sense of Catholic tradition.

To speak of tradition is often to be misunderstood if not dismissed as being out of touch with the needs and interests of contemporary Catholic youth. I will try to show that such is not necessarily the case, by attempting to clarify what is meant by tradition..

In my lexicon, tradition is a positive term, not a pejorative one. In his interesting work, The Vindication of Tradition, Jaroslav Pelikan draws a useful distinction between tradition and traditionalism. He says, "Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living".' In these terms what I am recommending be taught is tradition and not traditionalism. What we would hope to achieve by this ' is that students would begin to come to an appreciation that, in Cardinal Hoffner's words, "Tradition means not to hang on to the ashes but to feed the flames".

One reason why some adults seem to have great trouble in accepting changes in the Church today is that they were, as youngsters, apparently led to believe that the Church was in no need of change, and indeed could not change if it was to be faithful to its nature and mission. This attitude of course, besides showing a lack of appreciation of the difference between essentials and nonessentials, is completely non-historical.

One of the major aims of an appropriate Religion Education program for Catholic secondary schools should be to foster a sense of Catholic tradition.

Edmund Burke, the great Anglo-Irish politician and philosopher of conservatism, said that "a state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation".` If this is so, then for an institution tike the Catholic Church to have survived for hundreds of years means that it must have had to change often. How this was so in practice, and to what degree the changes were sudden or gradual, the result of decisive leadership or pressures from below and so on, can be seen by investigating the history of the Church. History is the study of changes and continuities through time and can help people place current developments and controversies in context. For example, an awareness of the concept of "adiaphora" or "things indifferent" and how it proved to be useful in Reformation times may be of value today, both in helping people see `the wood for the trees' and in avoiding `throwing the baby out with the bath water'- As one writer put it recently, "the Catholic Church is one of the most dynamic and creative institutions in the world today. It is going through a period of revolutionary change. In order to understand this change we need an historical perspective. Our culture suffers from historical amnesia. While we pride ourselves on knowing so much about our world, we in fact know so little about our past. So often those who claim to be `traditionalists' are in fact historical amnesiacs who want to resurrect mythical visions of a past that never existed".

For today's young people, however, the problem is not so likely to be traditionalism, which at least implies some respect for the past. Rather students are more likely to suffer from ignorance of the tradition and to lack a sense of its value. Our culture tends to be very present minded and to de-value the past. It does not place much stock in inherited wisdom and is inclined to see tradition as synonymous with "out-of-date". The tendency to concentrate largely on the present is reinforced by the information environment in which we live. This is particularly so with television and the pop culture and advertising industries linked with it. These have a vested interest in promoting the new and disparaging the "old fashioned". Jaroslav Pelikan draws a useful distinction between tradition and traditionalism. Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.

As a medium, television of its very nature emphasises "instancy". Indeed it in a sense provides its own curriculum which is, among other characteristics, present centred, and immediately and intrinsically gratifying. The importance of this television curriculum has been persuasively argued by Neil Postman. He in fact labels it the First Curriculum - school is the second. Postman contends that the First Curriculum of TV is the main component in an information environment that has led to a culture that has "over dosed" on change. "One may call it 'future shock', 'culture shock', 'technology shock' or whatever. The plain fact is that too much change too fast for too long has the effect of making social institutions useless and individuals perpetually unfit to live amid the conditions of their own culture ....we have reached the point where the problem of conservation, not growth, must now be solved. We know very well how to change but have lost the arts of preservation. Without at least a reminiscence of continuity and tradition, without a place to stand from which to observe change, without a counter-argument to the overwhelming thesis of change, we can easily be swept away - in fact are being swept away. "

Now Postman is speaking of North American culture and his proposed solutions are aimed at the school system in general, whereas my concern is for the situation in New Zealand Catholic Secondary Schools in general and Religious Education in particular. However, 1 think the parallels may legitimately be drawn. For instance, when talking about what is commonly called the "hidden curriculum", Postman says, "The total school environment is the most visible thing about school and is certainly what is most remembered about school by everybody in later years". Surely it is a recognition of this viewpoint that lies behind all the emphasis on the special ethos of "character" of Catholic schools?

The solutions mooted by Neil Postman to the problem posed by the information environment and its promotion of rapid change lie in what he calls a "thermostatic view" of education. Put briefly, this means that it is the task of the school to act as a counter-balancing agent to the biases of the culture. Thus, in a time when the culture is tradition-bound, the role of education is to promote innovation and conversely, when the rest of the environment is innovative, education plays its part by trying to conserve tradition. Professor Postman maintains that "in a culture of high volatility and casual regard for its past, such a responsibility becomes the school's most essential service. The school stands as the only mass medium capable of putting forward the case for what is not happening in the culture". My contention is that this argument has a direct relevance to what we teach in Catholic schools today regarding our own tradition.

If tomorrow's Catholic adults are to have an adequate appreciation of what it is to be part of what Rosemary Haughton calls "the Catholic Thing",some sense of being "Pilgrims in Time and some understanding of what Catholicism is in its ideal sense, as well as in its concrete particularity, then they need a chance to study, think about, discuss and reflect on some of the major elements of the Catholic Story. They need to be exposed to some of the great figures, issues, movements, ideas and artistic creations that have contributed to the making of what we call the Catholic tradition. An education including such a content, while helping to serve Postman's "thermostatic" function, would also assist in providing young Catholics with their own turangawaewae.

Two of the major rewards of the sort of approach I am recommending, that is, liberation and security, are clearly stated by John W O'Malley. "When I speak with my students about the study of the history of Christianity, the first benefit I emphasise is that it is a liberating enterprise. That study should liberate them from the 'dead hand' of the past. It can be compared to a psychological review of one's personal history that results in a series of insights as to how I came to be what I am. I am the product of a number of contingent circumstances and decisions, over many of which I had little or no control. The very insights have, however, power to enable me to stand back and assess with new eyes my present situation. I am thus liberated, at least to some extent, from forces that I previously little recognised or understood. I find myself in a new situation of freedom, and I experience at the same time a greater sense of security amid conflicting signals that come to me in the present from every side."

While Father O'Malley speaks as a Professor of Church History in a School of Theology, I am sure what he says holds good for secondary level students as well.

That no one need doubt the extent of the problem of present-mindedness I repeat this anecdote about Studs Terkel. The noted oral historian was chiding a group of students for having no sense of tradition and for supposing that the history of music began with Bob Dylan: One of the students asked him, "Bob Who?"

While that story has its amusing side, there is also a sense in which it is sad. Michael Warren has described people such as Terkel's students as "young persons imprisoned in a world of immediate experience". The task of education includes helping students to expand their horizons, to escape "from their own semiprivate islands to the mainland world of human learning". Warren goes on to say, in words that echo O'Malley's, that "the crossing over to the world of meaning is an act of freedom and liberation. It is a liberation from a kind of solitary confinement, from the island of isolated existence, to the world of connectedness found in the cultural community".

I would add here that in our context the "cultural community" includes the historical community of the Christian Church. To engage with the tradition is to enlarge the conversation, to widen the horizons. It is, as G.K. Chesterton said, "an extension of the franchise by giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors .'

The study of the past of a great institution, especially if it is also a living community like the Church, can help young people feel at home in a Church of sinners.

These days to advocate an historical approach, or to speak approvingly of tradition, let alone ancestors, is to court the response that such things are irrelevant to the needs and interests of pupils. This objection raises real questions about the meaning of "relevance". There is not a space to go into all of these here. However, to equate relevance with "now" is to succumb to the propaganda of the First Curriculum. It is to leave young people undisturbed and isolated in their constricted and privatised view of life. Any good teacher will wish to seize on the pupils' interests of the moment to lead into an exploration of matters of real significance. But to limit relevance to what happens to be the current interests and concerns of youth as defined by the electronic media and the pop culture, seems to me to be adopting a deficient view of what is relevant. There is a case for dealing with such concerns, but to give undue emphasis to them, or to structure an R.E. syllabus around them, is simply to contribute to the prevailing cultural bias. From a "thermostatic" perspective what teachers should be doing is offering a different view. As Postman puts it, "What has the most relevance to students is that which the information environment least provides them".

To those who fear that a concentration on the tradition leads to a stultifying emphasis on uniformity, my reaction is to acknowledge the possibility while maintaining that "it ain't necessarily so". One of the things revealed by studying the past is that within the tradition lie numerous traditions. There has undoubtedly been tension from time to time between the universal and the particular but it is part of the genius of Catholicism that it allows for different ways within the Way. That is what is catholic about Catholicism. For as Alistair McIntyre has pointed out, "A living tradition then is an historically extended socially embodied argument, an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition .... Traditions when vital, embody continuities of conflict".'5 So once again I would assert that a familiarity with the tradition is not ossifying but potentially liberating.

An awareness of the various strands which have been woven into the unfinished garment that constitutes the present day Church is surely helpful to a young Catholic in New Zealand today. Whether a Maori or a member of one of the later immigrant groups, the Kiwi Catholic is part of a Church that is still facing the challenge of Pope Paul VI, "to ensure a full evangelisation of culture, or more correctly of cultures". 16 In this context of inculturation, the opinion is sometimes expressed that we should be concerned with developing a local Church of the South Pacific and that all this heritage from a European context is just so much unnecessary baggage from the past. However, if a vibrant New Zealand Catholicism is to develop, as distinctive in its own way as Irish or Polish or Filipino Catholicism, then it will surely not come ex nihilo. We need to understand the various threads that contribute to the present local Church with its antecedents in 19th century Ireland, U.K. and France, as well as more indigenous influences.

It would be really ironic if. at a time when Maori people are experiencing a cultural renaissance and showing renewed interest in cultural and tribal identity, and libraries are having to expand their genealogical sections to cope with growing demand of other Kiwis searching for their "roots", Catholics should discount their past.

By now it should be clear, I hope that all this stress on tradition is not mere antiquarianism. My point is that knowledge and understanding of our past can inform our present and illuminate our way into the future. In support of this view I wish to quote Thomas Groome, not. I think, a noted reactionary. In the first chapter of his book. Christian Religious Education, Groome argues that the idea of Pilgrimage is very important. We are, he claims, pilgrims on a journey. We come from a past and are heading for a future but time is not a conveyor belt on which we are carried along helplessly. We are involved in the action. Groome continues -"The educator's role is to ensure that the heritage of the past pilgrimage not be lost, but intentionally remembered and made available to the present. And it is especially their role to maintain the ongoingness of the pilgrimage, seeing to it that both the present and its past are a creative and transforming activity toward an open future".

It is the task of the school to act as a counter-balancing agent to the biases of the culture. In a time when the culture is tradition-bound, the role of education is to promote innovation and conversely when the rest of the environment is innovative, education plays its part by trying to conserve tradition.

In her thought-provoking book, The Catholic Thing. Rosemary Haughton advances a similar argument. She writes, "We are creating for the future, not just preserving the past. We are in fact trying to make the structure better -... The present searches the past for the sake of the future. When we understand better what we have inherited, we shall know ourselves better and make better use of ourselves".

Another way of putting this of course is to speak of fostering a sense of Catholic identity. There is some evidence that many of the young people emerging from Catholic schools, while possessed of some admirable Christian qualities, have rather vague notions of what it means to be a Catholic. Some may think this a gain. I do not. Without in any way wishing to return to what was by all accounts an often narrow, triumphalistic, unecumenical form of education, I think we can recognise that something of value has been lost in recent decades.

The study of the history of Christianity is a liberating enterprise. That study should liberate them from the `dead hand' of the past. It can be compared to a psychological review of one's personal history that results in a series of insights as to how I came to be what I am.

It also seems to me that some adults who may have suffered under the former system have lost the capacity to see, or to acknowledge, that they also gained much, including a sense of identity as Catholics. The present generation is in danger of being denied those benefits for what are no doubt well-intentioned, but essentially confused and inadequate, motives. Such adults appear to me to be like people who are not only unaware that they are living off their capital but are also refusing to let their children open an account. Or, to vary the metaphor, they are like people who, while standing on the shoulders of giants in order to look into the future, are denying the existence of the giants and are happy to see them die of neglect.

The movement of young Catholics into various sects and cults disturbs many in the Church these days. The reasons for this are doubtless complicated and I do not intend to try to oversimplify. them. However, I believe that this movement may be explained, in part at least, by the lack of a sense of tradition and identity.

Adolescence is a time of susceptibility to black and white solutions and a tendency to be judgmental. Adults are vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy from the idealistic young who see clearly the gap between theory and practice in the lives of their elders, and are quick to find fault. My purpose is not to denigrate idealism which is a precious possession. It is rather to wonder whether a sense of human fallibility, which eventually tends to come with maturity, is not also valuable and worth encouraging.

These are not halcyon days for authority. Whether in the family, school, church or other institutions, those in charge face a less ready acceptance of their rulings than formerly. To the extent that this trend undermines authoritarianism then it is to be welcomed, but to .the degree that it encourages cynicism or nihilism in young people it does them no service and should be countered.

As we pass beyond our teenage years and grapple with the responsibilities and vicissitudes of life, and experience more of its joys and pains, we come to have more understanding of our parents and former teachers. We come to realise what they had to cope with, and to judge them less harshly than when it first dawned on us that they had feet of clay. We appreciate that we can accept people warts and all, and hope that they can similarly accept us.

This being so I would wish to claim that we should help people do for "Mother Church" what they do for their own mothers and fathers, that is, to love them in spite of their failings. The French say, "tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner", and it does seem unlikely that empathy is likely to flow from incomprehension. In this sense, studying the tradition helps provide a measure of precocious, if vicarious, maturity.

So the study of the past of a great institution, especially if it is also a living community like the Church, can help young people feel at home in a Church of sinners. They may not be so ready to seek security in a sect of the elect. It can lead to a balanced viewpoint 'in which the institution is neither over-valued nor dismissed. For an investigation of the Church's story will reveal a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous, the exemplary and the repulsive, self sacrifice and self-seeking, high spirituality and gross materialism, probity and mendacity - sometimes in the same people. In short, a parade of saints and sinners.

Helped to see themselves as part of this Pilgrim People they may also come to appreciate that they have a role to play in shaping the future direction of the journey. In enabling this attitude to develop, a knowledge of how the Church has changed in the past can be of great value. Cardinal Newman's dictum to the effect that to grow is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often can be seen to apply at the institutional level as well as at the personal.

In the future, maybe the Church will come to see that some things. now regarded as necessary are in fact dispensable - perhaps more than we now suspect. On the other hand, the value of some things now neglected may be rediscovered. Witness the renewed interest in earlier forms of prayer and meditation and guides such as Brother Lawrence and Julian of Norwich. Consider also the rediscovery of the value of story, art, and imagination in religion or the recovery of the relevance of Mary, or the scriptural sources of Christian concern for justice. But if we are to bring forth from our "storeroom things both new and old", then we need to know what is in our treasure house. Or as Jerome Robbins put it (referring to Fiddler on the Roof), "Well if it's a show about tradition and its dissolution, then the audience should be told what that tradition is".

"Not to know what took place before you were born is to remain forever a child. " Cicero.

In this article 1 have tried to argue a case in principle for the importance of studying the Catholic tradition in Secondary Religious Education. I have not tried to spell out all the practical methods of doing this. This is partly for reasons of space, but also because the practicalities present no major problems and have been addressed elsewhere.-'" Various methods are possible and the teaching can be geared to the age and ability levels of the pupils.

Nor has it been my intention to suggest that an historical approach or concern for tradition is all that is needed in R.E. Educating for an awareness of the tradition is not incompatible with an "incarnational" approach or an emphasis on social justice or other valuable emphases of recent years.

Neither am I recommending that we try to turn our secondary pupils into full-blown Church historians. A regard for the importance of the tradition does not preclude a realistic sense of what it is possible to achieve in a secondary school. We should be aiming largely at laying foundations and at being sufficiently interesting to leave pupils open to further learning. This, of course, should be a primary aim of any schooling. For, after all, "the simple fact is that educational institutions, even at their best cannot turn out fully educated men and women. The age at which most human beings attend school prevents that. Youth itself is the most serious impediment - in fact, youth is an insuperable obstacle to being an educated person".'

Just as there is more to education than schooling, I am aware that there is more to catechesis than Religious Education. There is more to the faith development of young people than what takes place in our classrooms. As Religious Education teachers we need a lively awareness of the limitations of our situation and an ability to discern our particular place in the overall catechetical role of the Church. Having said that, I am sure that Jaroslav Pelikan has it right when he says, "Knowledge of the traditions that have shaped us, for good or ill or some of both, is not a sufficient preparation for the kind of future that will face our children and our grandchildren in the 21st century - not a sufficient preparation, but a necessary preparation".

If what I have been contending in this article is correct then the question arises - "What should be done about it?" Pelikan says, "The rediscovery of tradition belongs to the design of the curriculum, and to the definition of the goals and the content of general education... "At a time when New Zealand is in the throes of a general curriculum review and when the Secondary Religious Education syllabus is being revised, these are pertinent words for us. Both Professor Pelikan and Neil Postman argue in the context of the general curriculum and I have no doubt their thoughts are relevant in our situation. My concern has been more narrowly with the importance of conserving the tradition for Religious Education.

I am under no illusion that adopting a more historical approach is the answer to all our problems in R.E. However, it is not a bad place to start. As New Zealanders we are sometimes I fear handicapped by our own national myths. As a "practical" people we tend to be mistrustful of theories. We fail to see the force in the remark that nothing is so practical as a good theory. Kiwi pragmatism has its uses, but curriculum design is not one of them. We need to sort out our principles and then proceed to implement them. This may be hard to do today in our national system of education because of the fragmentation of values and beliefs within the society. But surely it is still possible within the Catholic school system, or at least within particular schools. Maybe one way Catholics can make a valuable contribution to the wider society is to provide an example of how schools can benefit from formulating a unifying theme for their curriculum. Within Catholic schools the obvious place to start would seem to be with Religious Education, and I have suggested that for various reasons, of benefit to pupils and Church alike, we could do worse than to centre our syllabus on a study of our tradition. In the words of Goethe:

What you have as heritage Take now as task; For thus you will make it your own!


1. J. Pelikan, 1984. The Vindication of Tradition, Yale University

Press, p.65.

2. E. Burke. Reflections on the Revolution in France.

3. P Collins, 1986. Mixed Blessings. Sydney: Penguin p.xi.

4. N. Postman, 1979. Teaching as a Conserving Activity, New York: Dell, p.21. (If this article does no more than encourage some teachers to read and reflect on this interesting and thought-provoking book, it will have served a useful purpose.)

5. N. Postman. Op. Cit. p.49.

6. N. Postman. Op. Cit. Chapter 1.

7. N. Postman. Op Cit. pp 21-22.

8. R. Haughton, 1979. The Catholic Thing, Springfield: Temple gate.

9. TH. Groome, 1980. Christian Religious Education,

Blackburn: Dove pp 12-15.

10. J.W O'Malley 1987. "Tradition and Traditions: Historical

Perspectives", The Way, Vo1.27, No.3, p.I65.

11. J. Pelikan. Op. Cit. p.5.

12. M. Warren, 1982 Why Johnnie and Joannie Can't/Don't Care in Youth and the Future of the Church, Blackburn: Dove, p.104.

13. G.K. Chesterton. The Ethics of Elfland.


15. N. Postman. Op. Cit. p.131 A. McIntyre, 1985. After Virtue" - quoted in Habits of the Heart, R.Bellah et. al. University of California, p.309.

16. Pope Paul VI, 1975. Evangelisation in the Modem World, London: C.TS. N20.

17. TH. Groome. Op. Cit. p.15.

18. R. Haughton. Op. Cit. p.17.

19. J. Pelikan. Op. Cit. p.19.

20. See, for example. L.S. Cunningham, 1985. The Catholic Heritage, New York: Crossroad; M. Crawford and G. Rossiter, 1985. "The Secondary Religion Curriculum: The Need for a Coherent Core Syllabus", Catholic Schools Studies. 58, 2, pp 39-44.

21. M. Adler. 1982. The Paideia Proposal, New York: MacMillan, p.9.

22. J. Pelikan. Op. Cit. p.20.

23. J. Pelikan. Loc. Cit.

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