Study Materials for Religious Education

Religious Education in Catholic schools

A starting perspective on classroom Religious Education -- A preferred account of the nature, purposes and context of Catholic school religious education.
Towards a 'narrative' for Religious Education that is meaningful and relevant for students and teachers.


Introductory video mp4 for this section

1. Here, and at the beginning of many of the other sections of Religious Education study materials, there is an introductory video that gives an overview of what is covered in the section. This video (10 minutes in duration), extracted from earlier online classwork, serves as a general introduction to use of the various materials on the site for teacher Professional Development in Religious Education. It explains the stance taken by the presenter; it discusses difficulties practitioners often have when accessing academic writings and it proposes how the work undertaken can help educators develop their own critical perspective on the interface between theory and practice. Each introductory video signposts the issues to be considered and helps focus attention on the main points to be covered. Click the icon or here to view the introductory video in streaming mp4 format. Or right click if you want to download the video using the "save link" option.

This section is like both the beginning point and the conclusion to the series of professional development study materials on this website -- especially as far as school religious education is concerned. It has a strategically central place. It might seem more logical to begin with studies of religion, faith, spirituality, contemporary culture, education etc. and work towards implications for religious education. But beginning with a concise statement about the presenter's preferred rationale for classroom religious education means that readers/participants will not be left in any doubt about the underlying stance taken. This is important because these assumptions colour the interpretation of issues and questions considered across all the sections on the site. They all revolve around this one.

The material here is concerned only with the situation of Catholic schools in Australia, which are financially supported by state and federal governments, as well as through fees paid by parents. Different situations in other countries will change the variables somewhat. But nevertheless, many of the points made are considered to be relevant to school religious education in any context.

Audio lecture file mp3 for this section
2. Here, and in most of the other sections of study materials, there is the audio lecture file which presents the content. This is the main presentation and principal source of information on the topic. The audio lecture will usually follow the text that you need to look through. You will need to pause the audio every now and then and look at various sub-presentations such as video clips and powerpoint files. To have both the text and audio files working simultaneously, either (A) open a second window with the same web address to start the audio file and for pausing/playing the audio. OR (B) right click the icon and using the "save link" option, download the audio file completely and it can then be played/paused in the separate audio app. Left click the icon or here to listen to the mp3 audio lecture or right click to download.

The written text for this section

The perspective or background assumptions that underpin the arguments considered in this section
Religious Education: Part of the spiritual/religious dimension to the Catholic school
The core meaning of classroom religious education
The essential characteristics of the Religious Education subject/learning area
The importance of a meaningful narrative of Religious Education for new religion teachers and those invited to join the school RE department
Religious Education and the intentions to promote the spiritual, moral and religious development of students
The context of Catholic school religious education -- the constitution of Australian Catholic schools
The contribution to Australian education and the personal development of young Australian citizens
The context of Australian Catholic schools:  Student statistics and the religious disposition of students
Having a realistic view of religious education in relation to the spirituality and level of religiosity students -- spelling out the educational role of Religious Education
Creative tension between ecclesiastical expectations of religious education and teachers' broader concerns for the personal development of students no matter what their religious practice
The relevance of religious education is a different question from the relevance of the Church
Catholic school religious education makes a valuable contribution to the spiritual education of young Australians citizens
The big picture: Re-orienting the trajectory of Catholic school Religious Education. Promoting a 'narrative' for RE that is more meaningful and relevant for students and teachers.
Conclusions: Trying to put Religious Education back on the Catholic schools map!
Additional resource: Optional reading on difference between 'family teaching' and 'school teaching'

Perspective and background assumptions in this view of Australian Catholic school Religious Education

A proposed theory for classroom religious education in Catholic schools

The particular slant or 'take' of the presenter -- awareness of this starting point will help participants when developing their own particular interpretation of religious education

Introduction: What this section is about

A natural, potential problem in looking at the nature and purposes of Religious Education is how readily one can feel overwhelmed with, and confused by, the large amount of material that has been published reflecting a wide range of views -- including many that are conflicting.

The approach here is firstly, to keep to the basics and avoid this problem. Learning how to quickly discern the helpful possibilities and the limitations of any account or theory of Religious Education is a capacity that religion teachers need to develop. They need to build confidence in their own experience and judgment. Any theory or articulation of Religious Education if it is not realistic, or if it cannot readily be implemented in the classroom, should be regarded as deficient.

Hence, the second characteristic is to have a theory that is realistic. It must make reasonable sense to not only religion teachers, but to other teachers in the Catholic school and to parents and students. It must therefore show how Religious Education can be educationally valuable for all students in Catholic schools, most of whom are not regular church goers. And it needs to show that it is 'good education' if it is to win the professional support of all teachers.

What follows is this presenter's professional view of the most appropriate understanding of classroom religious education.

This view underpins many of the other study sections on this website. It helps integrate the diverse studies of spirituality, young people's religiosity, the influence of culture, various approaches to teaching religion, study of religious content, and study of contemporary issues.

When participants are aware of this stance taken on the nature and purposes of classroom Religious Education, they can make more sense of the study materials, lectures and presentations that follow. And by knowing the presenter's particular 'take' or interpretation, they will in turn be better able to make their own judgments about the work, and about where they agree or disagree with the views presented.

It takes time for religion teachers to develop their own critical perspective on religious education. Hopefully, the work in this and other sections will help move them in this direction. And hopefully, as regards any writings about religious education, this will help them to see more quickly what is useful and meaningful, and what is distracting and not relevant to their context and experience.

Teaching Religious Education in Catholic schools today is demanding and challenging – there is no need to try to make it more complicated than it already is by getting overwhelmed with excessive theory.  Some say 'teaching religion is a health hazard'. So what is offered here hopes to reduce the stress. It will not take away the problems and challenges to be faced; but if you can understand them, this gives you more resilience, purpose and professional satisfaction in a task that can be valuable for students. And this is why a selective, 'hazard reduction', approach has been taken in all of the study sections to the identification and use of research and writing at both national and international levels. Once participants know the slant taken, they can more readily make sense of the content, and they can in turn, develop their own perspective on religious education. Of special concern has been efforts to identify, and avoid, the problems with 'jargon' and 'buzz' words.

Getting universal agreement about this perspective is not what this (and other sections) are about.  Rather, it is to get educators to think about and discuss the issues critically.

Readers will have different estimates of what classroom religious education should achieve. Trying to get more consensus about the stance taken here is not the prime purpose here. Rather, its aim is to persuade readers/participants that the issues deserve attention. What is presented may promote reflection and further informed debate about purposes, content and pedagogy. This presentation is based on what is considered to be best practice. Not all will agree with the various elements in this starting perspective.  But the issues and questions covered warrant systematic attention.

In 2018, the Australian Catholic Bishops, through the National Catholic Education Commission (NCEC), published the document Framing paper: Religious Education in Australian Catholic Schools. While this document naturally emphasises an ecclesiastical perspective, it is considered to be congruent with, and can accommodate, the views on religious education in this section. (This is illustrated in quotations and comments in chapter 9 of Life to the full). The interpretation of classroom religious education here and in other sections can be considered as one professional response to the NCEC document.

Religious Education: Part of the spiritual/religious dimension to the Catholic school

Religious education in the classroom and the religion curriculum are part of the overall spiritual/religious dimension to a Catholic school.  That dimension also includes prayer and liturgy according to the Catholic tradition -- the religious/spiritual life of the school. Both of these dimensions are important. They are complementary. But, as will be illustrated later, they should not be confused -- one cannot take the place of (or substitute for) the other.

The intention and practices related to the school as a type of Christian community are also integral to the school's religious dimension. In basic terms, this is about how Christ-like are the personal and professional relationships and interactions between staff, and between staff and students and parents. The school sets out to embody the qualities of respect, care, kindness, justice, empathy, mercy etc. because these are the gospel values that any Catholic institution would want to exhibit.

The core meaning of classroom religious education

Classroom religious education is a school subject/learning area concerned with educating young people spiritually, morally and religiously.

 It is not primarily a religious experience but it is essentially teaching young people about religion and about spiritual and moral issues.

It cannot 'make' children religious. But it can educate them well religiously. Through the complementary religious life of the school, students can have direct personal experience of prayer, liturgy and Christian spirituality.

As far as content (or what is to be studied) is concerned, there are three fundamental parts to the formal classroom religion curriculum

One: Catholicism. It should help give young people systematic access to their own Catholic religious tradition.  An education in Catholic religious culture can be valuable for young people's spiritual education, no matter what their religious affiliation or level of religious practice. They should be able to develop knowledge and understanding of the Bible, of Catholic theology, liturgy and morality. Even for the students who are not Catholic, this is educationally valuable. There is much in common between Catholicism and other Christian denominations; and teachers can respond appropriately to be inclusive of both these students and others who may not be Christian. Catholic RE may even help contribute to their knowledge of their own tradition. Catholic RE contributes to the overall religious/spiritual education of young Australian citizens -- this makes a valuable contribution to the Australian educational, common good.

Two: Other religious traditions. In addition, it should acquaint young people with some of the other religious traditions that are present in the Australian community and elsewhere.   Such knowledge of various religions is a part of what it means to be a well-educated young Australian. It is also valuable to learn how religion can be important in social and political contexts, as well as influential on behaviour.

Three: Critical evaluation of culture. Also, it should help them learn how to identify, interpret and evaluate spiritual and moral issues in contemporary culture, so that they would be able to evaluate the way in which cultural meanings can have a shaping influence on people's thinking, beliefs and values and behaviour.  Culture refers here to the resources in terms of values, beliefs, religions, ideologies, traditions, ideas, lifestyles, material goods, media, literature, music etc. that people draw on for making sense of life, living their lives, articulating their values, and for developing and expressing a sense of personal identity. Religious education, complementing what might be done elsewhere in the curriculum, should help students learn how to analyse, interpret and evaluate contemporary culture. This could help them become more discerning about the ways in which cultural meanings can have a shaping influence on people's lives. They need to learn about how culture can have a conditioning effect on people's lifestyle and imaginations of what life should be like. Prof Brian Hill summed it up this way: he proposed that religious education should help young people “interrogate their cultural conditioning”.  What is proposed here is a critical, evaluative dimension to religious education.

The essential characteristics of the Religious Education subject/learning area

These should figure prominently in the way the subject is both projected and practiced in the school.

One. It should be an academic subject in the curriculum with the same sort of status as other standard subjects. Many consider that it should be regarded as the most important one. But in practice, because of the relatively low status of religion generally in Australian society, and because of the competitiveness in getting good academic results for students, it is difficult to see this claim as being realistic. Nevertheless, it can be proposed on philosophical grounds that because it is the only exclusively spiritual/moral subject in the curriculum, it should be the most important. And there is a need to show in practice how religious education can be valuable and useful for students' lives. The extent to which the third dimension noted above -- critical evaluation of issues -- is evident in practice, the more likely its perceived relevance and importance will be increased. But religious education teachers will always have to work hard to overcome, even minimally, student negativity about religious education, especially in the senior classes.

What religion teachers can ensure is that the academic learning requirements and challenges in religious education are never such that they are less demanding than those of other subjects. RE should not suffer by comparison. This needs to happen from the earliest primary school years. What counts as 'academic study' will naturally vary according to age and year levels.

It is acknowledged that despite efforts to build and sustain such academic credibility for religious education, it inevitably suffers because it is not regarded favourably like the subjects that ‘really count'. Given the general low level of interest of the Australian community in religion, and given the competitiveness for getting good academic results in the final years of schooling, it is not surprising that religion studies / religious education has low status in Catholic schools. This is a problem that will not go away and which cannot easily be remedied. It is discussed in detail elsewhere under the heading: "School structures and the ‘psychology of the learning environment' – how the value of personal subjects in the curriculum like religious education can be subverted" See chapter 14 of Reasons for living which can be downloaded from this site.

Where an examinable and fully accredited state course in Religion Studies (or Studies of Religion, or Religion and Society) is available for Years 11 – 12, this should be offered and student participation encouraged. This reinforces the educational value of religious education in the school and helps enhance its academic credibility. To this point, students have studied Catholicism for 10 years and it is judged to be both appropriate and not a problem to broaden the content in Years 11-12. The appropriateness of such Religion Studies programs in Catholic schools and their integration with Catholic religious education is an important question. It is taken up elsewhere in an account of the development of state-based religion studies courses. (see Chapter 21 and Chapter 22 of Reasons for Living). This discussion also looks into potential problems with the content and phenomenological emphasis that is often prominent in Religion Studies programs.

Study/learning protocols and assessment
Consequentially, RE should have the same sort of objectives, key performance indicators, assessment, expectations of assignments (and possibly examinations) that are taken-for-granted protocols for the principal subjects in the curriculum. These protocols are important if religious education is to be a credible and challenging subject like any other subject area.  Academic work, student research and the development of critical thinking along with knowledge/skill outcomes need to become the norm for religious education. Later, this will be referred to again when discussing a foundational problem for religious education -- where the expectations of outcomes are not so much educational but about changing students' faith and religious practice.

Critical thinking
Religious education needs to help young people become informed, critical thinkers about religion. For Religious Education, as in other curriculum areas, the promotion of critical thinking is essential. Pedagogy should be an open, inquiring, student-centred study that often has research elements included.

Some other characteristics of what is regarded as 'good teaching' in RE are given below:-

Information rich study: Students need access to the best available information on topics. This is important for giving young people access to their religious heritage.

Variety of pedagogies: A variety of pedagogies should be used as is usually the case in other curriculum areas. Especially pertinent would be pedagogies used in English and History.

Student centred pedagogy: Using pedagogies that can engage students in learning activity. Some examples:

For primary and early secondary school children activity where they can get almost ‘hands on' with the material being studied.

Student research oriented projects. Especially for the older students, good use can be made of student research not only on social issues but also for traditional religious topics. Sometimes this can involve students cooperatively. Reporting the results of research studies to the rest of the class can be a valuable part of learning. This approach should not be restricted to senior classes, even though it is particularly appropriate at that level. Even primary school students can undertake research studies that are suitable to their age and intellectual capacities.

Critical evaluative study. RE is a particularly good subject with opportunities for learning skills in interpretation and evaluation. Both of these aspects are essential in what can be described as evaluative study skills. Interpretation/hermeneutics is a key part of many theological and religious topics and not just concerned with the interpretation of Scripture. It is needed for the interpretation of motivations and values in human, social and political behaviour. An interpretation needs to be related to critical evaluation where judgments are made about interpretations in the light of particular values. Evaluation often helps show up what values have been apparently having a significant influence on the situations being studied.

Clear specification of the teacher's ‘ethics for teaching'. The teacher's personal and professional commitments should not be confused. The teacher is to help students engage with the content. Teachers may refer to their own personal views only if, and when, they judge that this makes a valid educational contribution to the classroom transactions – and the same applies to the students. No one (teacher or students) is ever to feel any psychological pressure to reveal their own personal views. Anyone can ‘pass' if they do not want to talk about their own views. If any personal sharing occurs naturally in class transactions, that is fine and it should be valued. But personal testimony is not the purpose of classroom RE (while it is often more natural and prominent in voluntary religious commitment groups). Content needs to be presented impartially. The teacher should be able to model responsible, respectful, critical evaluation. Evidence suggests that such an ethical regime in the classroom not only protects students and teachers' privacy and personal views, it makes it more likely that personal statements may be made comfortably, precisely because of the ethically respectful class environment. A full account of Prof Brian Hill's recommended ethics of teaching is available on the website.

Informed (academic, dialogical) debate rather than ‘sharing your personal story': This fits in with the ethical regime proposed above and helps address the problem of presumptions about personal sharing and also unrealistic expectation of personal discussion as a psychological mechanism for changing pupils' faith and values.

The importance of a meaningful narrative of Religious Education for new religion teachers and those invited to join the school RE department

Clarifying the expectations of religious education and the expectations of the religion teacher's role is important for new religion teachers . For them in particular (as well as for many already established religious educators), the connotation they have for words like Catholic identity, new evangelisation, ministry, witness and mission etc. is confusing and it creates ambiguity about their role, by contrast with the expectations they have when teaching their regular subject specialties. This makes them feel both inadequate and unsure of themselves. They may also be anxious about where their own personal religious stance may become involved in classroom transactions; and some may be concerned about giving the 'correct' answers to student questions. And they may feel that religious education is so 'different' from other subjects that they are not confident that the skills and pedagogies they use elsewhere in the curriculum are pertinent to religion teaching.

So the above account of Religious Education can give them confidence and make RE more inviting when they can see clearly what is involved. A crucial factor here is the ethics of teaching. And they can then see that their pedagogical skills in other subjects are both relevant and important in RE. This account can help religion teachers avoid the ambiguity that derives from the current dominance of ecclesiastical language for articulating its purposes. More will be said about this endemic problem for RE further on in this section. At this point, it should be evident to readers that a conscious effort has been made in the above account of Religious Education to avoid the use of such language.

Religious Education and the intentions to promote the spiritual, moral and religious development of students

Whenever school education and any particular subjects are concerned with the spiritual/moral content (like religious education, values, personal development, ethics, moral education, philosophy, wellbeing etc.), there are usually hopes that the study will enhance young people's, spiritual and moral development. But where this happens, there is often a natural problem where expectations to bring about personal change in students become unrealistic. And such unrealistic expectations for personal change can obscure the real possibilities and limitations of a sound religious education.

Spiritual, moral and religious development in students means changes in their beliefs, in their sense of personal relationship with God, and in their personal values and moral code. Religious education of itself cannot bring about such personal change. To be authentic, such change must come freely from within the individuals themselves. The proper domain of religious education is primarily not about 'changing' young people personally or even about 'forming' their faith'. Rather it is about educating' them so that their capacity for authoring their own personal development is enhanced – especially through the development of knowledge, understanding and cognitive skills.

Religious education cannot communicate or change personal faith – but it can educate young people's faith, especially with respect to their theological understandings, their appreciation of spirituality, their experience of spiritual and religious practices, and their awareness of the complexities in modern life. In this way, religious education can resource the spirituality of young people, no matter what their level of religiosity. In the Catholic school, it would be expected that special attention would be given to known Catholic viewpoints on questions. But this does not mean trying to impose these on the students. More about 'what is religious faith' and 'what it means to educate young people's faith' is taken up in another study section on this site.

How young people respond personally in the long-term to their religious education is something that they as free individuals will determine.

The context of Catholic school religious education: The constitution of Australian Catholic schools

The Catholic school is a semi-state school funded by State and federal governments, as well as by fees.

In Australia, independent schools, most of which are conducted by the Christian churches, especially the Roman Catholic Church, are funded to a significant level by both state and federal governments. In this sense, Catholic schools are semi-state schools.

Catholic schools are Church-owned, civically funded institutions with a responsibility for educating young Australians, with an accountability to all three of the partners – the Church, parents and the wider Australian community represented by the funding governments. The Catholic sponsorship of the schools justifies the principle of maintaining a spiritual/moral dimension to the school curriculum with a special emphasis on the Catholic religious tradition. Catholic schools also have a commitment and responsibility to the Australian community for the civic education of young Australians. They are required by law to meet government standards and protocols for education in this country

Catholic schools are constituted on the basis of a cooperative partnership between the Catholic Church, the governments and the parents who choose to send their children to the schools.  The fundamental identity of Catholic schools ought reflect this partnership. In 2016 for example, in the state of New South Wales alone, the 545 Catholic systemic schools (not including those which are funded directly as independent Catholic schools) received approximately $2.4 billion in combined Federal and State government funding for the education of around 230,000 students by 16,000 school staff (Snow, 2017).

Arguably, having religious education as a core subject in the curriculum from years K–12 has always been the most distinctive religious aspect of Catholic schooling in Australia. Since their origins in Australia in the early 19th century, commenced and staffed initially by laypeople, Catholic schools have always had some form of religious education. The Catholic education tradition in Australia has always claimed that education in any school type is inadequate and deficient if attention is not given to religion (that is, to the spiritual and moral domain).

The Catholic church has similar partnerships in other areas of community life. As with Catholic hospitals, health, family services, aged care and services for the homeless, Catholic schools are expected to exhibit a Catholic identity that co-exists harmoniously with their Australian civic community identity. They contribute to national community educational needs as well as to the mission of the Catholic Church. The Catholic school is not an exclusively ecclesiastical institution like a ‘mini-seminary' and this needs to be reflected in the articulation of its Catholic and its educational purposes. Disproportionate attention to either a Catholic ecclesiastical view of the school or to its state-funded school status can be problematic. Emphasis on the aim of recruitment of young people to church engagement as regular mass-going Catholics can obfuscate the core purposes of Catholic schools and their religious education. By contrast, over-emphasising the semi-state school status could compromise the important place of religious education in the school curriculum. (The problem of excessive ecclesiastical language in the discourse of Catholic school religious education is considered in another section on this site. And also in chapter 9 of Life to the full.)

Accepting this view of the semi-state nature of Catholic schools has implications for its religious education purposes and practices as well as for school enrolment policy. Many see this arrangement as legitimising a more open-to-all admission policy rather than only wanting to accept Catholics or even just children from church-attending families. Currently (2020) the proportion of Catholic school students who are not Catholic is about 30% nationally.

The contribution to Australian education and the personal development of young Australian citizens

Because of the accountability deriving from state funding, Catholic school religious education needs to be able to explain its value to the Australian community in educational terms. Religious education helps educate young people within their own religious faith tradition – a principle that is a valuable for children of any particular religious identification. This principle is also valid in public schooling where some general study of religion could contribute to young people's knowledge of the enduring role of religion and their own religious traditions. Religious education can thus enhance the Australian community's social capital through knowledge and understanding of the particular religious traditions that are represented in the country.

Catholic school religious education also attempts to help young people identify spiritual and moral issues in the culture and to learn skills for interpreting and evaluating these issues. It can help their understanding of morality and moral decision-making. Religious education can thus make some contribution to the development of life skills.

The context of Australian Catholic schools:  Student statistics and the religious disposition of students (data mainly from 2006-2012)

A snapshot of the student statistics for Australian Catholic schools is important for the appreciation of both their Catholic and semi-state characteristics. This is also relevant to acknowledging the religious disposition of the students who are participating in religious education as a requirement of attendance at a Catholic school.

In 2012 there was a total of 734,000 students in 1706 Australian Catholic schools. Of these, 522,000 were Catholic (71%) and 212,000 (29%) not Catholic (NCEC, 2012). Using Bureau of Statistics data and National Church Life surveys (Dixon et al., 2013), it is evident that if about 7% of Catholics (aged 14-25) are church going (or will be soon after they leave school). So, even if a figure of 10% was used, this would mean that 52,000 of those pupils were regular mass attenders. Therefore, non church-going Catholics and non-Catholics made up 682,000 of the 735,000 students. Figure 1 shows changes in enrolments over the period 2006-2012.

Figure 1 Change in Catholic and non-Catholic enrolments, 2006-2012, Australian Catholic schools

During this period, the net change for Catholic students was +1,266. The corresponding increase in non-Catholic students was +46,519

Secularisation: In 1911, the year of the first Australian census, the number who indicated they had no religion was 0.4%. In the 2016 census for the same question on religious affiliation, 30.1% indicated “no religion” and a further 9.6% did not answer this census question (total of 39.7%).

In the United Kingdom, the decline in religious affiliation is even more marked. The UK National Social Research found in their 2016 survey sample that 53% of the population identified as having no religion. For the 25-34 years age cohort, the figure was 61% and for the 18-24 years cohort it was 71% (Sky News Report, August 2017).

Australian young people, including those in Catholic schools, are reflecting the growing secularisation that has characterised Westernised countries.

One can conclude that this trend is irreversible in both the short and long terms. Also it is evident from research that no program or activity (E.g. Catholic schools, religious education, youth ministry etc.) is likely to be able to reverse such change to any significant degree. Religious education for purposes of church maintenance, recruitment, and improving Sunday mass attendance as a performance indicator does not work. Religious educators need to acknowledge the reality that the large majority of students in Catholic schools and their parents are not regular church goers -- and will in all likelihood remain that way; and they should avoid any potential discrimination against non-religious parents and pupils. Catholic schools can educate young people religiously quite effectively; but they cannot ensure that this will make them churchgoing Catholics.

Having a realistic view of religious education in relation to the spirituality and level of religiosity students -- spelling out the educational role of Religious Education

Acknowledging this situation, and taking into account the religious ‘starting points' of students, require a rationale and purposes for religious education that can explain its value both for religious and non-religious young people – as proposed above. In other words, the Catholic Church can offer a valuable religious education for all its school students no matter what their religious affiliation or level of religiosity. Given that the large majority of them are or will not be religious, it becomes evident that the rationale for religious education should give more emphasis to ‘education for life' rather than ‘education for the Catholic Church's mission'. A critical question then is what self-evident educational value can the religion curriculum offer to the non-religious.

Currently, many of the Australian Catholic school religion curricula are framed almost exclusively in ecclesiastical and devotional terms. They stress the mission of the church and give the impression of presuming that all students either were, or should be, regular mass attenders. Where this perspective dominates the way schools talk about religious education, the lack of congruence with the real religious situation reinforces the perceptions of many students and teachers that religious education is a Church activity, and not a real part of their education. It then appears to be just a nominal aspect of Catholic schooling which is largely irrelevant to students' lives and education. Similarly, it inhibits giving attention to the one thing that religious education can do well: helping educate young people spiritually, ethically and religiously for life in today's confusing world.

That Catholic schooling might dispose young people towards ongoing engagement with Catholic parishes remains a valid hope. This hope is best fostered by an open, inquiring religious education that is valuable for students no matter what their religiosity. This can also serve as a good starting point for those who are religious and who will pursue a study of Catholic theology and religious culture in depth after they leave school.

Catholic religious education needs to be able to show that its content and pedagogy are educationally and personally valuable to all its students – Catholic and non-Catholic, church going and non church-going. Having exclusively Catholic content would cause problems in this regard. This is where attention to other religious traditions and to critical evaluation of culture are such important dimensions to religious education.

Religious education is primarily education.  To think of it as a religious experience or a faith experience is not only inaccurate, it is unrealistic. Problematic expectations that over-estimate the influence that classroom religious education should have on young people's personal beliefs and values, and religious practice are caused to some extent by excessive attention given to ecclesiastical purposes in place of educational ones.

Understandably, because Catholic bishops and clergy are especially concerned about, and committed to, the continuation of the Catholic Church, they tend to be more interested in the possibility that Catholic schools and their religious education can increase engagement with the Catholic Church and arrest the growing tide of secularisation in the culture. They naturally emphasise the conservative functions of school and religious education, in the good sense of ‘conserving' the religious tradition. Their view of school religious education curricula reflects something similar to theological syllabuses at seminaries. In addition, they tend to stress the idea that Catholic schools exist to fulfil the mission of the church (neglecting their civic mission to educate young Australians) – and to improving mass attendance rates. Religious education practitioners may consider that the clergy do not share their more realistic, educational expectations of religious education, or their first hand appreciation of the spiritual and religious starting points of their pupils.

Of course maintaining a 'hope' that Catholic school religious education may in the long run incline people to engagement with the church is not a problem. It is a legitimate hope. But treating this as if it were the primary purpose of the exercise is damaging to what could be a realistic, vital, meaningful religious education.

Creative tension between ecclesiastical expectations of religious education and teachers' broader concerns for the personal development of students no matter what their religious practice

In the 1970s, when there were still many religious order personnel teaching religion, few if any of them would ever have thought that religious education was primarily about getting students to go to Sunday Mass. While they always hoped that their work in Catholic schools would promote an interest in the Catholic Church (the Church to which they had committed their lives), they were also concerned with the personal development of their students in helping them do well academically and professionally, and in helping them develop a spirituality for life whether or not they became practising Catholics. In other words, there was a creative tension between ecclesiastical interests and the student personal development concerns of the teachers.

Accompanying the decrease in numbers of religious teachers and the rise of diocesan Catholic education systems, there has been greater ecclesiastical control exercised over both religious education curricula and the discourse of Catholic school religious education. And the creative tension between ecclesiastical and broader student personal development purposes declined. It is proposed that this creative tension needs to be restored and maintained. And it needs to be reflected in the discourse for Catholic religious education which should not be dominated by ecclesiastical terms. This same creative tension should also be maintained in professional development programs for religion teachers. In the long run, it is considered that such an approach would be in the best interests of the church and clergy, as well as for Catholic school religious education.

The relevance of religious education is a different question from the relevance of the Church

What Catholic school religious education can do effectively is educate young people in the Catholic tradition. When critiques of religious education are based on the view that improving mass attendance is its principal purpose, this tends to stop the critics from trying to answer the question that is often at the heart of their concerns: “Why are so many Catholics not going to mass and not engaging with parishes?” Religious educators can try to make the classroom study of religion as meaningful and as personally relevant to students as possible. But this cannot make the church itself more meaningful and relevant to Catholics. Only the church can do this. The question of the relevance of the Catholic Church is one that is important for Catholics. But it is suggested that the agenda for addressing that question has little or nothing to do with Catholic school religious education.

Overall, the evidence suggests that Catholic schools do a good job in their general education of students and in religious education. So, no matter what the eventual religious identification and practice of pupils, the hope is that when they leave Catholic schools, they will be well educated in their faith tradition and well educated in skills for the identification and evaluation of personal and social issues in their lives, and in the contemporary culture.

Catholic school religious education makes a valuable contribution to the spiritual education of young Australians citizens -- whether they are formally religious or not, whether they are Catholic or not.

Catholic school religious education is helping educate young Australians spiritually and religiously. Such purposes align well with the generic aims for Australian education endorsed by the Australian Education Council comprising all education ministers (E.g. MYCEETYA, 2008) – the aims documents endorse purposes such as:- spiritual and moral values; character development; knowledge of religious diversity; evaluation of the development of culture and its influence on people. Australian Catholic schools, with such a large commitment of personnel and resources to religious education, should exercise a leadership role in Australian schooling in showing what a spiritual and moral dimension to the school curriculum can entail in practice.

Articulating the contribution of Religious Education in educational terms beneficial to Australian citizens is consistent with the semi-state school character of Australian Catholic schools and it is consistent with the philosophy and policy for state funding of these schools. This consistency is jeopardised where the discourse for both Catholic schooling and its religious education are narrowly ecclesiastical and not accessible within the wider Australian conversation about education.

More attention is needed to showing how Catholic schools generally, and their Religious Education in particular, contribute to the common good. (The contribution of Religious Education to the common good is discussed in various parts of the book Life to the full and in the webpage that is linked in just below).

The big picture: Re-orienting the trajectory of Catholic school Religious Education.
Promoting a 'narrative' for RE that is more meaningful and relevant for students and teachers.

Where would I like to see Catholic school Religious Education going now and in the future? What changes would I recommend?

I think there is a need to change the emphasis in the way we understand and talk about Religious Education -- this has a significant influence on how we go about teaching it. What I propose is really not anything new. But it puts a spotlight on what is considered both best practice and realistic. And this I find more affirming of the work of current religious educators and more inviting (and less daunting) for teachers who have been asked to start teaching religion.

There is no question about the enduring importance of educating young people in their religious tradition. But, especially in the senior classes, it would be helpful to include some different content and pedagogy that can help make RE more personally relevant to the students -- both the religious and the non-religious.

Click here for the webpage on my hopes for the future trajectory of Catholic school Religious Education.

Conclusions: Trying to put Religious Education back on the Catholic schools map!

This and other sections of Study Materials are primarily about trying to revitalise Religious Education as a core spiritual/moral subject in the Catholic school curriculum. As argued above, Religious Education should be the most distinctively Catholic, religious aspect of Catholic schooling.

There is an urgent need for a more meaningful, contemporary, relevant narrative for Religious Education across years K-12 -- with most concern about the curriculum in senior classes. It needs to show teachers, students and parents how valuable a 21st century Religious Education can be for resourcing young people's spirituality no matter what their levels of religious affiliation and practice.

Changing the emphasis in how we talk about Religious Education is the first step. This is easy enough if teachers and authorities see why such change in language is beneficial. But there is resistance to changing the current dominant language for framing RE.

The current context
There has been a discernible loss of focus for Religious Education in Australian Catholic schools, especially in the language used for articulating its purposes. In the current discourse of RE, Church/ecclesiastical terms have substituted for school/educational ones. This tends to give an impression of RE as an exclusively Catholic church activity rather than an educational one – creating ambiguity about the prime place of RE in the curriculum. In a sense, RE seems to be slipping off the Catholic school map; and this affects the morale of religion teachers and the perceived status of the subject. It makes RE even more daunting for educators who are new to teaching religion. Of course the religious ‘life' of the school is important; but it has never been a substitute for religious ‘education' – the two are complementary.

What needs to be done
How Catholic schools talk about Religious Education is a pivotal starting point for informing classroom practice. And in times of unprecedented social change and uncertainty, it is more important than ever to show how RE can make a valuable contribution to young people's education and personal/spiritual development.

What is needed is a formulation of RE that is first of all realistic , and it needs to be in language that is meaningful for all concerned – students, teachers and parents. This may help close the growing divide between the current rhetoric of Catholic RE and the realities of the classroom and young people's spirituality; and it may also address the decline in its perceived relevance to young people's lives.

The Catholic education tradition has always been based on the view that any school education is deficient if it does not include a learning area that deals specifically with the spiritual/moral dimension. RE is that subject. A good Religious Education helps give young people access to their own religious heritage. In addition, it should help inform them about other religious traditions and their complex interactions with society; and especially in the 21 st century, it should help them learn knowledge and skills for critical interpretation of how culture can have a shaping influence on people's beliefs, values and lifestyle. This last aspect needs to have more prominence in the senior classes.

A good student-centred Religious Education always includes the following pedagogical elements at appropriate places in its content:- information rich study; knowledge of traditions; critical interpretation; informed debate; the experiential dimension; student research.

This view of best practice uses language that tries to show the distinctively valuable educational contribution that RE can make to 21 st century Catholic schooling. Hopefully, this will give RE a more prominent and important place in the discourse of Catholic schooling and Religious Education – front and centre ‘back on the Australian Catholic schools map'.

In 2018 the Brisbane Catholic Education Office commenced work on a new Years 11-12 religion syllabus that fits into the general category of Catholic studies, without ATAR accreditation. What I find significant in this development is the name and rationale for the program. Not since the 1970s has there been a Catholic school RE course with a title like this one -- Religion, Meaning and Life. The opening paragraph in the rationale reads:

Young people are confronted by the complexities, dilemmas and conflicting interpretations of life's meaning and purpose. They require, more than ever, the skill of critical thinking in order to navigate an uncertain and pluralistic world. As there is no final answer to life's ultimate meaning and purpose in which intellectual certainty is possible, human knowledge is always partial and limited. Consequently, students are invited to explore within Religion, Meaning and Life (RML) the inexhaustible mystery of human existence, as glimpsed primarily through the lens of the Catholic Christian Tradition, as well as other religious traditions and help render this mystery meaningful in their lives.

While the current content remains mainly Catholic, the program is something of a first in searching for a more meaningful narrative for Catholic Religious Education. And that is a welcome sign.

This section has presented a view of the nature and purposes of Australian Catholic school Religious Education that is considered to be appropriate not only for the Catholic church's interests, but also for its relevant contribution to the spiritual/moral education of young Australians, no matter what their level of religious practice. It is proposed as the most healthy and meaningful trajectory to take, given the spirituality of students in Catholic schools. It suggests that Catholic school religious education might take a leadership role in Australian education by showing in practice what needs to be done as regards the spiritual/moral dimension to the school curriculum.

Additional resources


Click the icon or here for a link to a short piece that looks into the difference between classroom teaching and 'family' teaching. This helps show what the classroom is primarily about and helps avoid the unrealistic expectations that classroom teaching is really going to change pupils personally -- rather than educate them. It could be helpful to show parents who may have an interest in this topic. It looks into the different 'educational' roles of home, school and church.


Brisbane Catholic Education Office. (2019). Religion Meaning and Life Course Description (Draft) . Brisbane: Brisbane Catholic Education Office.

Crawford, M. & Rossiter, G. (2006). Reasons for living: Education and young people's search for meaning, identity and spirituality. A Handbook . Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research. See: Chapter 14, Section on School structures and the ‘psychology of the learning environment': Subverting the personal subjects in the curriculum.

Dixon, R., Reid, R.S. & Chee, N. (2013). Mass Attendance in Australia: A Critical Moment . Melbourne: Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

Ministerial Council for Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs, (MYCEETYA), (2008). Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians . Melbourne: MYCEETYA. See also Crawford & Rossiter, 2006, Ch. 11. for a detailed discussion of the spiritual/moral aims for Australian schools.

NCEC – National Catholic Education Commission, (2012). NCEC 2012 Annual Report . Canberra: NCEC.

NCEC, (2018). Framing Paper: Religious Education in Australian Catholic Schools . Sydney: NCEC.

Snow, D. (2017). Article on Catholic school funding in NSW in the Sydney Morning Herald , 29/04/2017 p. 15.