Study Materials for Religious Education

Section 03: A big picture perspective on the historical development and evolution of Australian Catholic school religious education
To develop knowledge and skills for critically evaluating contemporary approaches to religious education, an educator (in Catholic schools) needs to know about the historical development and evolution of approaches to classroom religious education in Australian Catholic schools.  Also relevant is an understanding of the change factors in theology, general education, sociocultural environment and Catholic spirituality that have affected changes in RE.
A unit that extends educators' background in key issues for religious education that helps with the critical evaluation of contemporary theory and practice

As for all sections, view the introductory video. Then listen to the content lecture audio while attending to the main text file on this page. Arrange to have the audio file and the text page open together so you can work your way through both in an integrated fashion.

Introductory video to this section
1. Introductory video focussing on the content covered in this section. Click the icon to view or download the introductory video (wmv format). Brief overview of content of this section

This section explores the change and evolution in approaches to Catholic schools religious education in Australia since the 1950s. It seeks to develop a panoramic perspective on the changes so that participants will better understand both how and why these changes in approach occurred. Hopefully they will identify the most significant element of change in each of the different approaches that appeared.

With this background, participants may be better able to appraise contemporary theory and practice. There is no need for any new approach that is going to revolutionise the teaching of religion or solve all the problems. What we need is simply a wise perspective that will help educators judge or easily which of the various ways of teaching will be relevant today.

It will be shown that the "subject-oriented" approach to religious education has become the most prominent and normative today. This means that the study of religion in the classroom needs to be as challenging a subject in the curriculum as any other – and this will mean it needs to include all of the professional elements that go with key learning areas in the curriculum. It therefore needs systematic study, resources, student centred teaching and learning, student research, home work, assignment, examinations as well as appropriate assessment and reporting.

Audio mp3 file lecture of this section
2. The audio file lecture
Click the icon to hear or download the mp3 audio lecture file. (49 minutes)
The audio lecture fills out the content and is complemented by the Section text below. Every now and again you will need to pause the audio and look at the pertinent parts of the text and/or sub-presentations, as suggested.

The written text for this section (Study the text in conjunction with the audio lecture)


1 Introduction: The history of Catholic School Religious Education in Australia

* Fun diversion: Take the "The Universal 1960s What Sort of a Catholic Are You?" Test
1.2Why study the history of approaches in Religious Education?
1.3 Description of changing approaches to classroom religious education in Catholic schools in Australia since the 1950s
1.3.1 The CATECHISM approach (1870s to 1960s)
1.3.2 The KERYGMATIC approach (late 1950s and through the 1960s)
1.3.3 LIFE CENTRED and EXPERIENTIAL approaches
1.3.4 The LIBERATIONAL / SOCIAL JUSTICE approach Religious Education
The Shared Christian Praxis approach to religious education: Thomas Groome
1.3.5 Personal Development and Values Education

1.3.6 The academic study of religion and RELIGION as a "SUBJECT"
1.3.7 The introduction of State-based religion studies courses
The Phenomenological approach to Religious Education (Ninian Smart et al)
The Typological approach to Religious Education (Basil Moore, Norman Habel and Terry Lovat)
1.3.8 Other aspects of significance in Catholic school Religious Education

2.1 Social and intellectual conditions that enable a critical interpretation of the history of Catholic RE in Australia
2.2 Factors that have had a shaping influence on Catholic school religious education
2.3 Interpretation of the evolution of Catholic school religious education through seven key themes
2.3.1 The quest for personalism and relevance
2.3.2 The centrality of the concept faith development
2.3.3 The development of diocesan guidelines for religious education
2.3.4 New state religion studies courses and the quest for academic credibility
2.3.5 Student resource material for use in the religion classroom
2.3.6 The spirituality and needs of contemporary children and young people
2.4 Further reflections on future implications for religious education
2.5 Conclusion

The historical development and evolution of approaches to Australian Catholic school religious education since the late 1950s

This study is divided into two parts.
The first part describes the changes that occurred giving recognisably different approaches to Religious Education.
The second part discusses the meaning and significance of the changes under the heading of some key themes.


1.1 Some of the participants in this unit may be familiar with this history; some may not. So, according to your need, go through the material in this section at the pace that suit you. For any participants from a different context, you can still compare and contrast the developments in Catholic religious education with what happened in your context.

There have been far reaching changes in the approach to classroom religious education in Catholic schools since the 1950s. These changes need to be interpreted against the background of considerable religious changes in the Catholic Church and extensive social change in Australia.

The text describes different approaches or trends that have been evident since the late 1950s. They may not always have been evident in 'pure' form because what teachers did in their classrooms would often be an idiosyncratic 'mix of approaches'. Nevertheless, identifying these approaches as 'markers' can be helpful in interpreting the thinking at the time about the nature and purposes of classroom religious education.

Before proceeding with a study of the history of these changes, there will be two slight diversion to help show how much change has occurred in the Catholic Church and in society since the 1950s. To do this you will be asked to take a TEST -- which does not contribute to the Unit's assessment! Even if you are unfamiliar with the Australian Catholic Church of the 1950s and 1960s, your very unfamiliarity will help illustrate the large scale of the changes that were occurring at the time. It would be inevitable that such changes in church spirituality, social life and people's lifestyle would cause reverberations within religious education -- particularly where it set out to try to meet the spiritual and moral needs of young people.

Click the sketch below to do the Universal 1960s What Sort of a Catholic Are You? Test. You do not have to be a Catholic to do the test. Just do your best; keep a list of your answers and add up your scores according to the rules supplied. Then you can check your scores to interpret what your results mean! The exercise is all about getting some idea of the magnitude of the changes occurring in the Church at the time.

"The Universal 1960s What Sort of a Catholic Are You?" Test (With special acknowledgment to illustrations by Dr Graham English)

Another short optional diversion about the evolution of Australian Catholic schools

OPTIONAL SHORT READING: Click the icon for a very brief summarised account of how Catholic schools evolved in Australia. Material written and illustrated by Dr Graham English. He also co-authored a student text on Australian Catholics in the late 1980s.

1.2 Why study the history of approaches in Religious Education?

There is still a variety of approaches, and different blends of approaches, being used in school Religious Education, particularly in the secondary schools. Religious Education also serves different functions, including learning about the faith tradition, discussing social problems, celebrating liturgy, and personal development -- although the last mentioned is now more often located in a separate learning area. What happens in any one class may be a mixture of approaches that have appeared in the history of Catholic Religious Education over the last 30 years.

There is a need to clarify the purposes and practices in different approaches and to coordinate the different thrusts in a balanced way. Where purposes are confused, there is the possibility that teachers may be pursuing very different kinds of religious education in adjacent classrooms while notionally all the teachers have the same aims.

A study of the history of approaches to Religious Education helps get the diversity into some perspective. It will help with a wiser selection of approach and with more perceptive evaluation of the appropriateness and effectiveness of what is being done. A good understanding of the evolution of Catholic religious education over this period will help with interpreting what is happening now, as well as helping speculation as to what are the most appropriate emphases to pursue into the future.

There is no need to try to find a new approach which will solve all the current problems. What is needed is the wisdom to be able to select from the range of approaches already existing in balanced combination with appropriate recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of any component. Problems can arise when one approach is used exclusively, as if it could meet the complete range of aims and needs.

1.3 Descriptions of changing approaches to classroom religious education

What became the traditional orientation or 'umbrella term' for religious education in Australian Catholic schools has been towards education in faith. This is the term that appeared along with the publication of the Australian Catholic Bishops national Catholic Directory the Renewal of the Education of the Faith, in 1970. While this term has remained important since that time, there were different, and conflicting estimates of what this meant and about how teachers were to go about educating young people in the faith.

Articles on the historical development of Australian Catholic RE: A number of publications have discussed the history of Australian Catholic school religious education and/or have dealt with the development of different approaches over time. See the Bibliography titles (at the end of the section) listed for Buchanan, Ryan, Rossiter (1981, 1999), Rummery (1975, 1977), and Lovat.

The following approaches will be described: Catechism, Kerygmatic, Life centred / experiential and Liberational. Other key influences also to be examined are Subject orientation and Studies of religion.

Differences between the approaches can be shown by comparing typical starting points. For the catechism approach, the point of departure was often a concise theological proposition or church teaching; in the kerygmatic approach, it was a biblical event or a passage from the Scriptures; in a life-centred approach, it was what is happening in a person's own life or in the world today; in an experiential approach, it was a direct personal or religious experience; in a liberational approach, it was a situation of oppression or injustice in the world.

The terms selected to name each approach represent a 'theological' point of view more strongly than an 'educational' or a 'methodological' point of view. Other analyses of Religious Education can evaluate this history from the viewpoints of educational theory and practice. However, some would argue that the most significant forces for change in approach in Catholic religious education came not from changes in general educational theory and method, but from a changing awareness of the meaning of faith itself. Nevertheless, advances in developmental psychology, in child centred teaching, in discovery learning, and in educational technology -- and now the widespread use of digital media and Internet -- to name some areas, have had an important influence on religious education. Still others would argue that changes in the outlook and culture of young people have exercised an important change influence on Catholic Religious Education.

1.3.1 The CATECHISM approach (1870s to 1960s)

From the 1870s to the 1960s the traditional approach in formal Catholic religious education in Australia has been dominated by the use of the Catechism (Refer to the discussion of the nature of the Catechism in Module 1). Authoritative teaching of doctrines in propositional form and the learning of responses 'by heart' were central to the approach.

In 1885, a uniform catechism for Catholic schoolchildren throughout Australia was prescribed. This catechism was used widely in Catholic schools until the early 1960s. (The text was revised in the 1936 edition.) This old 'Green Catechism' was replaced in 1962 by the Australian Catechism.

Video showing Catechism and other student resources used in the catechism approach in the 1950s Click the icon or here to view or download the video

Green Catechism, 1939 (Still in common use in 1960); also a 1905 version (almost identical with the 1939 book "Price: twopence")

Schuster's Illustrated Bible History of the Old and New Testaments (Originally published in the mid 1900s (1953 in Australia). It has been recently been republished in 2014.

The Junior Bible and Church history, 1954

Sheehan's Apologetics-- Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine ( Part 1, 1918; Part 2, 1922. Still in use in Catholic schools in 1962 when the 5th edition was printed)


The old catechism consisted of four main sections— the creed, commandments, sacraments and prayers. The material was set out concisely in question and answer form with theological precision. There was an emphasis on matters of authority and obligation. Children were expected to memorise the text and much of the activity of the teacher was directed to this end. With its stress on knowledge, authority, rote learning and didactic teaching, the catechism approach in religious education during the period 1872-1962 was not entirely out of keeping with similar approaches to education in the ordinary curriculum. Spelling, grammar, tables, arithmetic etc. were taught is comparable formats. However authoritarian the religious education was in this catechism period, it needs to understood from the perspective of how authoritarian and didactic the teaching was in all areas of the curriculum at that time.

In addition to the catechism, which was often used as a text over a five-year period or longer, attention was given both to Bible history and to church history. Instructions or exhortations by religion teachers, and occasionally by visiting priests, were a regular part of religious education. A range of formal prayers were said at set times during the day and there was provision for both monthly confessions (Sacrament of Reconciliation) and occasional attendance at mass during school time on special occasions. Celebration of mass during school hours became more common when the regulations for fasting were relaxed. Benediction and a variety of activities like novenas, praying the rosary and prayers before a May altar contributed to the devotional practices in Catholic schools. Preparation for reception of the sacraments (Reconciliation, Eucharist and Confirmation) was a feature of religious education in junior classes. In those times the school was central to the preparation for these sacraments. Now there is a greater parish and family emphasis.

In senior classes, particularly during the latter part of the 1872-1962 period, more attention was given to making religious education intellectually challenging for the older students. Sheahan's text book on Apologetics was commonly used; it highlighted the theme 'defence of the faith' and preparation of students for the task of arguing the cogency of their faith against likely opposition (E.g. Protestants!).

While Bible history was commonly taught, and while secondary classes in the 1950s often studied a complete Gospel, in general, the study of the Bible did not have a prominent place within the Catechism approach to religious education. When it was presented, the Bible was often used in an apologetic context. These tendencies seemed to be in keeping with the general Catholic feeling about the Bible during these times. Catholicism in Australia was slow to respond to the developments in biblical scholarship and to the movements that would restore the Scriptures to a place of prominence in Catholic spirituality.

While there is evidence of some questioning of the relevance and appropriateness of the authoritative, catechism-based approach in Australia before World War II, it was not until the 1950s that this approach was seriously challenged both in theory and practice.

There was a gradual increase in the number and variety of texts used in secondary religion classes. Issues like the implications of faith, morals, sex, marriage, and social problems were considered during religious education. The teaching approach remained formal and authoritative.

Retreats, with emphasis on talks from a priest, silence and prayer, were held for secondary students, usually on the school premises over a few school days.

OPTIONAL follow up reading on 'Old style' and 'new', communitarian retreats in Catholic schools

If you are interested you may wish to look at a more detailed description of these retreats and at how they changed into the more community oriented retreats in the late 1960s, which are still prominent today. This includes references for any follow up study.

1.3.2 The KERYGMATIC approach (late 1950s and through the 1960s)

During the 1950s, developments in religious education in some European Catholic institutes began to have an influence in Australian circles, particularly through their Australian graduates. The kerygmatic approach to religious education stemmed from the writings of the Austrian Jesuit Joseph Jungmann, who in 1936 had pointed out that an overemphasis on doctrinal and moral teaching was obscuring the view of the Christian message as 'Good News'. Jungmann proposed a return to an emphasis on the sources of the Christian proclamation of salvation in the Bible and Christian tradition. Drawing on the Greek words 'keryx' a herald, and 'kerygma' a message, the kerygmatic approach was so named to highlight the stress given within this approach to 'proclaiming the Kerygma, the good news of salvation'. The kerygmatic approach was Christ-centred. The words 'Salvation history" were prominent in thinking at this time.

Video showing student resources used in the Kerygmatic approach in the early 1960s Click the icon or here to view or download the video

The 'New' Green Catechism, published for primary classes in 1962.

The My way to God catechisms for junior primary school classes, Published

Teachers Guide Book for the Red 'New' Catechism for junior to mid secondary classes.

The 'new' Red catechism for junior to mid secondary classes.

Strong currents of interest in both the Bible and the church's liturgy were features of the kerygmatic approach. This stimulated a reappraisal of the place of the Bible and liturgy in Catholic religious education. These trends tied in with the more general biblical and liturgical renewal movements within the church. The Kerygmatic movement made a dramatic change to Catholic school religious education, giving the Bible a prominence it had not had previously -- a prominence that it still retains.

The kerygmatic approach was not so much an academic study of the Bible but rather an attempt to help the initiated Christian appreciate more deeply the history of salvation in the Old Testament culminating in Jesus Christ and in the tradition of the Christian church. The liturgy celebrated the great events of salvation history. The kerygmatic approach, with its emphasis on 'proclaiming the good news' and on owning the salvation history of the Christian people, tempered the authoritarian tone of the catechism approach. While formal use of a catechism might be retained, the kerygmatic approach broadened the concept of religious education from one where 'instruction in doctrine' was prominent to one that recognised that religious knowledge needed to be complemented by the experience of living the Christian life as a member of a Christian faith community. This was most evident in the new Australian catechisms of the early 1960s.

The kerygmatic influence filtered into Australian Catholic religious education in the late 1950s and early 1960s, distinctly modifying the doctrinal approach. What can be regarded as the high water mark of the kerygmatic influence in Australia was reached in 1962 with the publication of the new Australian Catechism for Years 5 and 6. The new catechism was much more than a set of questions and answers. It was more evidently a child's book than an adult's theology manual. The wording was more in tune with the child's level than it was in the old catechism. Symbolic drawings replaced the traditional religious pictures.

The accompanying teacher's handbook was significantly larger than the catechism itself. It suggested that the Bible, liturgy, doctrine and witness were the four key categories that should be given attention. The handbook suggested a variety of approaches, methods and activities that could be used in association with the catechism. Gradually the stress on memorisation of texts diminished. Particularly at primary school level, methods in Religious Education readily included activities and experiences that seemed to make religion lessons more interesting and engaging than they were formerly.

In 1963, Book 2 of the Australian Catechism and its teacher's handbook were published for Years 7, 8 and 9, and in 1964 the series My Way to God was introduced for Years 1 to 4. These new publications illustrated the significant change in approach at primary and junior secondary levels. While there were local syllabuses set for the higher secondary classes, changes in approach and content were not so noticeable at this level.

Problems with an overemphasis on salvation history stories from the Bible

With its stress on memorisation of church teaching in propositional form, the catechism approach ran the risk of identifying 'knowledge of the faith' with 'active personal faith'. Also, the stress on the obligations of a Catholic moral code and religious practices could have overemphasised the importance of external authority. These tendencies provoked a negative reaction from more recent generations of young people. These young people lived in a culture that had very different expectations for personal freedom and individuality than those of former generations of Catholics who seemed to accept an authoritative approach to religious education just as they accepted a similar approach in other curriculum areas. Difficulties inevitably arose when some parents, who had expectations for Religious Education based on their own childhood experience of the catechism, found that modern approaches had recognisably different aims, content and methodologies.

While the advent of a kerygmatic approach in Religious Education seemed to many religion teachers to be an improvement on the traditional catechism approach, the new approach created some

problems of its own. Firstly, there was the tendency to be repetitious—perhaps salvation history was overdone. Some students reported that they were tired of hearing over and over again the story of Abraham.

Secondly, the kerygmatic approach presumed an initiation to the Christian life, a commitment to the faith, and an involvement in liturgical life that were not fully applicable to many of the young people in the religion classes. Thirdly, the salvation history approach did not always touch the personal lives of the students nor always meet their most important perceived needs.

1.3.3 LIFE CENTRED and EXPERIENTIAL approaches

During the 1960s students at the secondary level began to react negatively, unfavourably and strongly about their experience of religious education. One of their main criticisms was 'irrelevance to life'. Teachers' awareness of such reactions has since that time been a significant force for further changes in approach in religious education. The negative reactions of students compounded the difficulty faced by secondary religion teachers. While facing student dissatisfaction, teachers were also struggling to come to terms with the significant forces for renewal in the church stemming from the second Vatican Council.

During the 1960s and 1970s a life-centred / experiential approach developed in religious education in Catholic schools. While other approaches were not necessarily unrelated to the child's life, the term 'life-centred', when applied to education in faith (sometimes called 'life situation' catechesis), suggested a specific orientation of the activity to the life and needs of the child.

Video showing student resources used in the Life centred approach in the early 1970s Click the icon or here to view or download the video

The Come Alive series, the Australian Catholic Catechism for Years 11-12

The Australian Directory for Catechesis and Religious Education: The Renewal of the Education of Faith (1970) -- a high water mark for an 'experiential' or 'life centred' focus in ministry, catechesis and religious education.

Controversy over the catechisms.

Bishop Stewart's response: His document: The Catholic Religion: With Peter and under Peter. 1970. Its purpose was "...fundamental truths of the Catholic religion and the corrections to be made to the New Dutch Catechism, and answers suggested to some current questions proposed by parents and teachers of religious doctrine." (The new Dutch Catechism, an updated review of Catholic theology in the light of Vatican II, was very popular with a number of Catholics in the late 1960s, while causing much irritation to those who did not like it.)

Father Tierney's response: Publishing his own Family Catechism in the 1980s.

The aim to make religious education experiential and relevant to students' lives is a valid and worthwhile one. But it is difficult to work out how this can be done appropriately in practice. There are natural possibilities and limitations in classroom teaching/learning activities which attempt to bring about some personal change in children and adolescents.

The term 'life-centred' religious education is somewhat vague and there are difficulties with both its definition and its practice. However, it does help delineate an important and recognisable trend. Life-centred religious education is open to a variety of methods and techniques. It is not so much the content, be it church teaching, Scripture, or social problems, but rather the orientation relating the work to the young person's life, needs interests, aspirations and problems.

The approach might begin with the young person's life experience and attempt to show how the Christian gospel can illumine and enliven this experience. The life-centred approach presumed that faith was a gift to be awakened and it allowed room for the personal response of the individual. While not avoiding specifically religious material, the approach tried to depth the religious dimension of everyday life and bring this process ultimately to a focus on a personal relationship with Christ and the Christian way of life.

A number of factors seem to have influenced the emergence of a life-centred approach:

  • The expressed criticisms of Religious Education by young people pressured teachers to find, in both content and method, approaches that were felt to be relevant to life;
  • The prominence of practical existentialism (a sort of 'here and now-ism') in the culture reinforced the need, in both students and teachers, to bring an existential focus to Religious Education.
  • The thrust of renewal from the second Vatican Council stimulated movement from a 'defence of the faith' mentality to an outlook of 'Christian humanisation'.
  • The emergence and rise of a "psychological Chrisitian spirituality" which was so different from the more authoritarian, 'tough' spirituality of the 1950s Catholic church. The new spirituality blended Christian theological and scriptural insights with the best ideas from psychology and sociology giving rise to a blended psychological spirituality that eventually became mainstream spirituality for Catholics in Australia. (This is considered further, later in the section)
  • From Vatican II, and from the writings of the theologian and religious educator, Gabriel Moran, came the popularisation of a view of revelation that was continuous and not static. In Theology of Revelation and Catechesis of Revelation, both published in 1966, Moran epitomised the theological view that in addition to the time honoured sources of revelation in Scripture and Tradition, God continues to speak through an individual's personal experience and through everyday events. This view regarded life experience as a source of the sacred and it based life experience religious education on incarnational theology. (This was also discussed briefly in Module 1 where the history of the term catechesis was being explored.)
  • Similar developments in Catholic religious education overseas, particularly in the United States, tended to reinforce the life-centred trend in Australia. The appearance of a variety of student texts and books for teachers, produced both overseas and in Australia, popularised the approach.

Changes in the theory and practice of education have shown a shift from the aim of imparting a corpus of knowledge towards the aim of humanising and personalising the individual. Education became more person-centred, more life-oriented and more existentialist.

The swell of interest in personal identity, personal development, and individuality markedly influenced the expectations of both students and teachers about education and life.

The spirit of inquiry, a quest for meaning and values, and a high regard for personal freedom have also been prominent. These developments had considerable influence on the emergence of life-centred religious education.

While these factors had a positive influence on movement towards more life-centred and experiential Religious Education, the reverse is true for catechism oriented Religious Education. These developments created dissonance with the catechism approach because the new spirit of individualism, inquiry and freedom was in conflict with the stress on authority and obligation in the older approach. The new movements threw into question the traditional significance given to formal religious knowledge. The traditional unquestioning certitudes seemed to have given way to encouragement to question and search for truth. Present experience of truth came to carry more weight than conformity to the propositions of the past. There was a strong feeling that truth was something to be pursued rather than possessed. Similarly, at this time, faith came to be regarded more as an active pursuit of God rather than a static knowledge of the Divine.

Life centred Religious Education seemed to have a natural affinity with these movements and to be with their emphases. While not without its difficulties, recognition of this harmony helped bring life experience into prominence in religious education. This tendency did not mean that tradition was to be abandoned. Rather, it meant that the Christian religious tradition should be more finely tuned to the lives of the students. How these two aspects could be melded appropriately remained difficult. The teachers hoped that that this approach could help students to reclaim and identify with a Catholic spiritual tradition. The concepts of socialisation and enculturation were also relevant to this thinking about Religious Education: these concepts highlighted the role of the faith community in the communication of faith.

Life-centred religious education implied a view of revelation, faith and evangelisation that was more interpersonal than propositional. Such a view tended to regard 'instruction' and 'religious knowledge' as relatively important within a broad concept of religious education but would not give 'instruction' and 'religious knowledge' the same prominence they held within the catechism approach.

Salvation history, which had been highlighted in kerygmatic methods, seemed to acquire new meaning in the life-centred approach. This latter approach implied that the history of God's dealings with people functioned as revelation when the experiences of salvation history found echoes within individuals' own personal experience. This process also implied listening to self, getting in touch with the experiences of one's own life and finding God incarnationally present there.

Listening to Jonathan
Livingstone Seagull music
during religion periods.

Problems with the 'life-centred' approach

Some criticised this view as excessively subjective, confining personal contact with God within a relativistic and ever-changing internal world, subject to moods and emotion. Some felt that this concept of revelation was too existentialist and too personalist and that it did not give adequate attention to historical, cultural and social dimensions. Still others, while wishing to avoid over-investment in a 'personalist' view of revelation, recognised that this view had a vital place in Religious Education and a significant role to play. These teachers pointed out that if faith was not personal, then it was of little significance. They maintained that a personalist view of revelation should influence the approach in Religious Education significantly without presenting religion just as a psychology.

They suggested there was a need to have a balanced approach which did not focus exclusively on personal views and which gave appropriate attention to social, historical, and institutional aspects of religion. Such a balance recognised the importance of this objective in Religious Education

while affirming that in the last instance people cannot live by anyone's faith but their own. The two extreme positions would be represented by programs where Religious Education was concerned exclusively with 'church teaching and religious phenomena' and where Religious Education was displaced by 'learning about self and relationships'.

It is of interest to note the publication of the religion text Come Alive in 1970. Groups of religion teachers had been asked by a committee of bishops to prepare religion texts for Years 10, 11 and 12 that would complete a sequence of Australian Catholic religion texts from Year 1 to Year 12 (My Way to God and the Catholic Catechisms covered Years 1-4 and Years 5-9 respectively). However, only the Year 12 text, Come Alive, a series of brightly produced booklets, was published. The booklets, set distinctively within a life-centred approach, were approved after a delay caused by differences of opinion among the bishops about their appropriateness. At this time and related to the approval of Come Alive, the bishops published the document The Renewal of the Education of Faith (this was studied in Module 1) to provide all religion teachers with appropriate guidelines for education in faith.

While this document provided a sound rationale for life-centred catechesis, some Catholics opposed the new approach, regarding it as doctrinally deficient. Intermittent criticism of life-centred religious education has continued since this time. For example, in mid 1978, a Catholic newspaper ran a front page article in support of a reprint of the traditional 'Green Catechism' claiming that this move would compensate for "the largely unsatisfactory state of catechetics at present, especially the doctrinal shortcomings of many texts and programs being used in schools".

To give some idea of the Catholic bishops' thinking about catechesis, the following quotation is drawn from the Renewal of the Education of Faith.

From the Renewal of the Education of Faith.
The education of faith will have points of departure and procedure which vary according to the various needs and capacities of the faithful. In some circumstances it may be advisable to begin immediately with the Word of God whereas in other circumstances some situation taken from everyday life may provide a better starting point. The course may progress with emphasis on doctrine or on items of current interest . . . (some) may have yet to discover the real relationship between their faith and their lives.

Here the intention is not just to obtain and impart information about 'religion' and stop there. Nor is it enough to discover the techniques capable of developing peoples' spiritual and religious potential without opening them to the higher light of faith.

The point of reference which will determine the value of the whole process of educating faith is the reality of life here and now: the daily situation of the Christian, his vocation, his mentality of faith, his communion with Christ in the Church, his place in the world, and his eternal destiny.

It is not always possible to begin with Divine Revelation, especially now in our age. It is often necessary to move from the life situations of the faithful in order to prepare them gradually to listen to the Word of God.


As the introduction to The Renewal of the Education of Faith stated, its publication in 1970 was perhaps the most significant event in the history of Catholic religious education in Australia. The document situated education in faith within the context of the church's mission of evangelisation. It focused on faith, love and service of God and saw knowledge of doctrine to have a prominent but not a dominant place in the catechetical synthesis. The document was open to a variety of approaches, recognising the needs of different age groups and different situations. It opened the way to exploring the possible relationships between education in faith (catechesis) and the religious education curriculum.

Problems with excessive, un-informed discussion

One of the acknowledged problems with life-centred religious education was the tendency to rely too much on discussion. Not all religion teachers has articulated for themselves the principles underpinning the approach as described above. Teachers found that discussions could fail to go beyond human experience. Some educators felt that in the interest of making Religious Education relevant to life, too much in the way of social problems and human relations were included in the Religious Education curriculum at the expense of religious content. A further difficulty arose where a life-centred approach in senior classes appeared to compromise the possibility of any serious academic study of religion.

Perhaps the real problem lay in expecting a life-centred approach to be a total approach for a religious education curriculum. It may not be appropriate to finely focus all of a school's efforts in religious education in a direction of evangelisation.


"Now class, we are going to
watch a film on the life of the
marine sea squirt. It shows how all creation searches for a more meaningful relationship at an interpersonal level!"

Another view of what the 'experiential' meant

Professor Ninian Smart, concerned with public religious education in state schools in the United Kingdom, used the word 'experiential' to describe what he regarded as one of the main dimensions of religion. Using the word in this same sense, an 'experiential' approach to religious education is one that is based on direct personal experience. A prayer experience, a celebration, an audio-visual reflection, or some planned human experience chosen for its own sake as an educative religious experience. Sometimes the direct experience was the starting point for a religion lesson. The students' own personal experience is what counts here. This experience provided the educational data should there be any further analysis or discussion.

The word 'experiential approach' has often been used to describe 'significant experience' or 'peak experience' learning in religious education. An experiential approach to religious education may be appropriate for certain aspects but not as a total approach sufficient in itself. Some would regard experiential methods as part of life-centred religious education; some would want to make it a separate category.

The experiential and the life-centred are closely interrelated. When Religious Education draws on the remembered experience of the students, when it draws on their reactions to a text, when it involves a simulation or a values clarification exercise, the approach could be referred to as experiential and or life-centred. A watertight distinction between the two is perhaps not possible nor desirable.

Time for three minutes meditative prayer

The term 'experiential' has been use here to highlight methods that focused on direct human and religious experiences in the classroom. The experiential approach is something of a parallel to 'practical work' or 'discovery methods' as employed elsewhere in the curriculum. Experiential methods have been employed in the classroom, prayer room or chapel. Such methods were also commonly used on retreats or religious camps.

Some religion teachers in Catholic schools felt that problems arose where experiential methods were used either too frequently or too infrequently. They suggested the need to integrate these methods in a balanced way within a wider range of strategies. The experiential approach raised the often debated issue of the interrelationships between human and religious experience.


The growing significance of movements for justice and peace in Catholic religious education owed much to a 'freedom' or 'liberation' motif in modern Christian theology and in the Catholic Church's social teaching (Some reference was made to this in Module 3 where the theological theme of liberation was briefly considered). This liberation motif was strongly scriptural and broader than any popular identification of a 'theology of liberation' with the writings of South American theologians, without any negative reflection on their distinctive contribution to this thinking. The liberation motif searched for the meanings that personal salvation/liberation in Christ can have in the concrete life situations in which individuals find themselves. The motif also stressed the need for concerned social action and for "critical consciousness" (See the discussion of critical approaches in Module 3).

"My powerpoint presentation
shows how I found that
the hidden value assumptions
underpinning the 25%
casualisation of employment
in Australia need to be
articulated and called into question!"

A liberational approach in religious education focused on this theological theme and might involve a variety of methods planned to heighten the awareness of students to the needs of the oppressed, the poor, and the underprivileged. The liberational approach also included consideration of a spirituality that was in tune with a call to Christian freedom and a call to live a life of Christian justice. The liberational thrust of the Gospels was reflected on as part of this approach to illustrate the special attention Jesus gave to those who were commonly regarded as the outcasts of society. The liberational approach could be directed just as strongly towards an individual's personal change of heart as it could be towards social action.

While a liberational approach may have drawn significantly on some of the Scripture and Theology dealing with freedom and liberation, it was linked with the writings of people like Paulo Freire, Helder Camara, Martin Luther King, and Pope John XXIII. The approach involved strategies like Freire's 'conscientisation' (heightening the consciousness) and 'shared praxis' (shared action coupled with reflection. See the article on Shared Praxis by Thomas Groome, later in the unit.)

A strong component of the liberational approach is a critique of culture. This would include the calling into question of aspects of the culture which were not promoting the humanisation of people. This necessarily includes the development of a sharper political consciousness and a capacity to check the relationships of power, privilege and manipulation that may be operating in particular circumstances.

An example of the development of a liberational approach in Catholic school Religious Education is evident in the November 1978 special issue of the religious education journal Word in Life which was concerned with 'education for justice'. One of the articles was entitled 'Curriculum for the Just School'. This material reflected the growing significance of education for social justice as a movement influencing religious education in Australian Catholic schools.

The gospel-based movement for justice and peace required more of a school than the mere addition of social justice content to the RE curriculum. This movement challenged a school community to make the gospel values of justice and peace become more evident both in the school's way of life and in its RE curriculum. A number of teachers were concerned that education for social justice may sometimes went no further than looking at problem situations in other countries. These teachers felt that the educational process must begin with an examination of justice and injustice in the immediate life experience of the young people. A deeper awareness of justice issues could then be related to gospel values and could be extended to consideration of national and global justice problems. It was considered important to help young people develop skills in critical thinking, analysis and interpretation. A critical approach was also becoming more prominent in other areas of the school curriculum too.

Issues like affluence; poverty; quality of life; racism; consumerism; influence of the media; crises in population, resources and environment; the unemployed; the social situation of Aborigines; and the third world have been taken up in Religious Education. Sometimes attempts have been made to grade social justice content and experience across all year levels.

An increasing number of resource books and materials for social justice education were used in Catholic secondary school Religious Education. While it may not be an elaborated 'total approach', a liberational approach gained a prominent place in Religious Education programs in Catholic schools during the 1970s and has remained prominent ever since.

The Shared Christian praxis approach to religious education developed by Thomas Groome

Thomas Groome's shared Christian praxis was adopted by a number of Catholic dioceses and it was very prominent in Australian Catholic religious education since the mid-1990s.

Groome's shared praxis was essentially a voluntary, small group, adult catechesis methodology. He was approached by the Silver Burdett Catholic publishing house in the United States to develop a Catholic school religious education curriculum based on this model.

More detail on the study of shared Christian praxis will be covered elsewhere. But if participants who wish to look into this approach in more detail, here is a link to a key chapter in his book. Christian religious education.

The major publications by Groome are listed here.

Groome, T.H. 1980, Christian religious education: Sharing our story and vision , Harper & Row, San Francisco .
1991, Sharing faith: A comprehensive approach to religious education and pastoral ministry: The way of shared praxis , Harper, San Francisco .
1998, Educating for life: A spiritual vision for every teacher and parent , Thomas More, Allen , Texas .

Brief comments on this approach

Groome's shared praxis involves the following step like procedures:-
I) present action, 2) critical refection, 3) dialogue, 4) the Story, and 5) the Vision that arises from the Story.

Crucial question in appraisal of Groome's approach is the appropriateness of voluntary adult small group pedagogy for compulsory classroom which may have 20 or more pupils. Some also consider that this approach tends to presume that all participants are regular church going Christians/Catholics. There also may be some questions about whether or not the sequence of five steps can always be followed as suggested.

Australian Catholic religious educators, particularly those working from Parramatta diocese which had the Sharing our story program, modified the approach to be more suitable to classroom use. This program was also well resourced.

1.3.5 Religious Education, Personal Development and Values Education

From the 1960s there had been much integration of personal development programs within Religious Education. This meant that the Religion curriculum was sponsoring personal development education, sex education and aspects of formal values education. In junior secondary classes, as well as in some primary classes, basic sex education was often programmed into Religious Education. This took the form of programs conducted during ordinary religion periods or it involved both parents and students on some evenings for talks, discussions and questions. Bringing in outside personnel like priests and doctors for such sessions was common. Parents were also involved in presentations.

The treatment of morality as a core part of the content in Religious Education already meant that there was a strong component of values or moral education always present in Catholic school Religious Education.

The use of values clarification type activities became prominent, because a number of the student texts in Religious Education included this type of activity. There were instances where some study of values and moral decision making were also included in Religious Education (some attention was periodically given to Kohlberg's theory of moral reasoning).

The inclusion of these materials understandably raised questions about the nature of religious education in Catholic schools. Was much of what was being done in Religious Education time not strictly religious education? Should Religious Education in some circumstances be more accurately labelled as 'life-education' in which religion played a significant role? Should Religious Education be restricted to the formal study of religion? An appropriate balance between theological, pastoral and educational orientations was needed in Religious Education. This still remains an issue even though some values/moral education and personal development education takes place within other Key Learning Areas.

As a result of the Commonwealth Government's introduction of the National Values Education Project in 2003, special attention was given to values education in all of the Australian school sectors. Values education and its relationship with religious education is taken up in detail in the unit EDRE626 Faith, Moral Development and Values Education. If you wish to find a brief account of this development, see chapter 11 of Reasons for Living: Education and young people's search for meaning. identity and spirituality by ML Crawford and GM Rossiter, ACER, Melbourne, 2006.

1.3.6 The emergence of a 'subject oriented' understanding of classroom religious education -- religion needed to be regarded as a credible academic in the curriculum

 "I think that Kung's idea of
the indefectability of the Church is more pertinent than infallibility!"

"Yes. It certainly harmonises
with Schillebeecks' concept of ministry and Rahner's view of faith

Particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, where teachers were covering a broad range of content in Religious Education, where they were using a variety of approaches with a pastoral orientation, and where they were giving attention to personal development, values clarification and social awareness during time set down for religion lessons, what might be called an academic study of religion tended to diminish. An academic study of religion is defined here as: A study of religion which loses nothing by way of intellectual challenge, study skills, research and conceptual content by comparison with the regular subjects/learning areas in the curriculum. The idea of religion as a "regular subject in the curriculum", like other subjects, expresses the view that it should be no less academically challenging than other subjects.

Understandably, the thrust of the experiential/life-experience approach to Religious Education tended to diminish religion as an academic subject in the school. In fact, some teachers from the 1960s to the 1980s would see "academic" as an inappropriate adjective to fit with religious education; some set out deliberately to stop religious education from being "academic". Hence, there was conflict between those who held "subject" and "non-subject" orientations in Religious Education.

The fact that for many years religion was never an accredited academic subject at years 11 and 12, that it did not contribute to the Higher School Certificate or its equivalent, had a very important bearing on how 'seriously' the students perceived religious education. Its subject status has always been a most significant problem for the perceptions of students. Even where students indicate that they think Religious Education has relevance for their lives, this does not necessarily mean that they will take the subject as seriously as they take the standard subjects for the Year 12 certification.


Those who opposed the idea of religion as a subject had a rationale for their view: claiming that Religious Education could function like a segment of 'life education' in a curriculum that is already heavy with intellectual content and academic competitiveness. This idea of Religious education saw it as an important complement to an academic curriculum. It also claimed few secondary students would be interested in religion as an academic study in any case, and that pastorally oriented religious education could make a distinctive and valued contribution to the total curriculum and to the lives of the students precisely because in aims and expectations it did not need be tied down by the requirements of competitive academic subject status.

However, no matter how convincing the rationale for religion as a "non-subject", wherever this has been tried the results do not support the view that it increases the interest and involvement of the students. Also, there is no research evidence that the study of religion in Catholic schools over the past 50 years has been "too academic", or that students were suffering from a Religious Education that was too academically oriented. There was the question: If religious education is not seen by students as a challenging academic study, how would this affect their interest and involvement?

The conflicting estimations of Religious Education looked at above were expressed in a degree of polarisation between the "academic" and the "personal". This has been evident since the 1960s and 1970s. Gradually the subject-oriented approach became accepted as the desirable norm.

Perhaps the most important influence on this issue has been the implementation of state Studies of Religion courses in the various Australian states during the late 1980s and 1990s. This is discussed further below.

1.3.7 The introduction of state-based Religion Studies courses

It serves our purposes here just to note that the introduction of State based Religion Studies courses at senior school level had a significant impact on Catholic school religious education. This is a significant area of study in its own right and it is taken up in other studies.

Chapters 2 and 5 of the book, Religious Education in Australian Schools (G. Rossiter, 1981) describe the early historical background to the development of new state religion studies courses. Also in chapter 21 of Reasons for living (Crawford & Rossiter, 2006). This began in the 1970s when a series of state government reports on religious education in state schools provided the basic documentation and principles on which the courses were developed -- even though their introduction occurred, in the main, in the early 1990s.

The state based religion studies courses were developed out of the concept of a "general education in religions" rather than from the concept of "handing on the faith tradition", which was the common perspective taken in Catholic schools.

They improved the status of religion as a subject in the curriculum.

They improved the level of academic study of religion at senior school level. And, in turn, this positive influence flowed down to lower levels (E.g. Years 7-10)

"Yes, our study of the role of women in Islam has implications for our understanding of a place for women in the ministry of the Catholic Church!"

The phenomenological approach to Religious Education

The emergence of the phenomenological and typological models for religious education in this country were principally associated with the development of state-based religion studies courses in Australia. As such, these approaches were particularly important within the religion studies courses themselves, at years 11 – 12 level. But the evidence would suggest that they have not had a really significant and lasting influence on Australian Catholic school religious education outside the religion studies courses, even though it is claimed that the typological approach had an influence on the development of the Catholic To know worship and love series of student texts.

The phenomenological approach emerged around about 1970 in religious education within state schools in the United Kingdom. It was associated with the religion studies scholar Professor Ninian Smart who worked at the University of Lancaster.

Problems with the labels Confessional vs Non-confessional: It was associated with the development of the idea of a non--confessional approach to religious education which was distinguished from a confessional approach which was applied, not always with accuracy, to religious education in a denominational or faith-based school setting. The word confessional means to confess belief and commitment within a particular religious tradition. While the context for Catholic schools is without doubt a confessional context, the classroom is still a public educational forum. And often this core characteristic of the public forum in the classroom makes a difference to the way that impartiality and objectivity is required in religion classes in Catholic schools. Hence it is presumptive to brand whatever happens in this context as a 'confessional' approach -- which means an approach that presumes that all present in the class have a particular religious commitment and level of religious practice (not an accurate assumption). It may well be (and often is the case) that you could have a non-confessional approach to the teaching of religious education within a confessional context.

This discussion indicates that there are natural ambiguities and limitations with the use of this confessional – non-confessional language. It makes presumptions that may well not apply in particular classrooms.

A study of the emergence of the phenomenological approach, and other approaches to religious education in the United Kingdom is a separate study and will not be pursued in detail here. Nevertheless, later in this section some general comments are made about the overall impact of these approaches in relation to Catholic school religious education.

The phenomenological approach is primarily descriptive. One of the principal critiques of the approach suggests that it needs a more evaluative dimension. In his own model for religious education Terry Lovat added this evaluative dimension to the phenomenological model.

Click here if you wish to follow up this topic and look at how Lovat describes the Phenomenological approach.

The Typological approach to Religious Education

The typological approach to religious education is a sub category of the phenomenological approach. The emphasis here is to look at the way that religious behaviour and activities can be analysed according to religious types – sacred place, sacred language, sacred text, types of religious experience etc. etc.

Like the main phenomenological approach which tended to analyse religions according to the seven main dimensions of religion proposed by Ninian smart, the typological approach analyses religion under the various types or categories that it proposes.

Also, like phenomenology, typology is primarily descriptive and analytical. As noted above, in proposing his own approach, Terry Lovat makes use of typology but adds an evaluative dimension something comparable to that used in shared Christian praxis by Thomas Groome.

Click here if you wish to follow this topic of further by looking at what Terry Lovat says in summarising the typological approach to religious education.

1.3.8 Other aspects of the evolution of Catholic school Religious Education

Additional note on Primary school Religious Education: Activity and discovery methods were used to help children see their own life experience in relation to the Christian message. Such teaching showed reverence for the child's life experience and regarded this as a channel through which God communicates the Divine. The use of text books or their modular equivalent, project work, singing, drama, mime, story telling, prayer experiences and audio-visual materials all gave variety to the experience of religious education at the primary school level. The involvement of the children (most evident in activity and project work) was also a feature of the work.

Child centred emphasis: Approach and methods in Religious Education sought to be in tune with the educational level, interests and needs of the children. In the primary school in particular, Religious education could be well integrated within the curriculum and related specifically to some aspects of work in areas like social studies.

Home-school cooperation and sacramental programs: Parental involvement has been a consistent feature of religious education in Catholic primary schools. This involvement is fostered in various ways. It has included the use of parent booklets that complement some of the student texts and through parent-teacher meetings. The most prominent involvement of parents in religious education was through participation in sacramental preparation programs, particularly as these became more parish-based.

Liturgy and relationships with parishes: Specific efforts were made to involve children and adolescents in preparation for class liturgies. This preparation might include learning hymns, practising reading; writing prayers and participating in activities designed to help the children become more responsive during the liturgical celebrations. Children might also participate in paraliturgical prayer services. The celebration of Eucharist and Reconciliation are often included as part of the Religious Education curriculum, although the frequency of such celebrations varies considerably.

In the Catholic primary school there was often a close relationship between the school and a parish community. In the secondary schools that draw pupils from many parishes, the relationship was not so clear. While parish clergy were often very involved with Catholic education generally, their presence in the schools, particularly in religious education, has become less prominent than it was in former times.

Community building: An orientation towards building a sense of Christian community has often be evident in the staff group and in the activities Catholic schools. Some staff groups have given special attention to this issue on seminar days and at staff meetings. In the school, activities were planned to draw all pupils and staff into expression of a sense of unity or community.

Live-in religious retreats or camps: The prominent place given to retreats or religious camps has long been a distinctive feature of religious education programs in Catholic secondary schools, and to a lesser extent in primary schools. The retreat provided students with an opportunity for more personalised reflection, prayer and discussion than was possible in religion classes at school. Significant features of a retreat often included a live-in experience away from school; an enjoyable community building experience where students could extend friendships with both staff and their fellow students; experiential activities that lead into discussion or reflection; celebrations of the Eucharist and reconciliation that built on the sense of community generated during the retreat; and a varied program that mixed informality, social experience, and spiritual experience.

Retreats are commonly conducted over two or more school days and are usually regarded as an integral part of the Religious Education curriculum. The retreat can make a valuable experiential contribution that complements the more instructional school-based parts of the religious education program. Sometimes the retreat has been obligatory, but more commonly attendance is optional. Some retreats are held over weekends. Religion teachers in Catholic schools have great confidence in the value and effectiveness of these retreats and students generally have a very high regard for them. Voluntary attendance at retreats often involves more than 50 per cent of the students at a particular year level while in some schools it is not uncommon for this figure to reach 90 per cent.

Some religious orders set up specialist teams and sites for the running of retreats. Such retreat teams served a number of schools, providing expertise that was not always available within the school itself. Increasingly, teachers in the schools developed the expertise to run their own school's retreats. Some institutes conducted accredited programs of retreat training for teachers.

The earlier optional reading on school retreats included a listing of recent articles and published research on retreats.


While part 1 was, in the main, a DESCRIPTION of the history of Catholic Religious Education, what follows is an INTERPRETATION of that history that will, hopefully, enhance attempts to address present and future issues. The historian Pelikan, (1984, The Vindication of Tradition. Yale: Yale University Press, p. 65) considered that a wise understanding of history is the best starting point when planning for the future, especially in an era characterised by rapid social change and uncertainty. This means interpreting present issues in the light of the formative influences that have shaped them.

This interpretation of the historical development will focus on 7 key areas that help give perspective to the changes:

  • 1. The quest for personalism and relevance
  • 2. The centrality of the concept 'faith development'.
  • 3. The development of diocesan guidelines for religious education.
  • 4. New state Religion Studies courses and the quest for academic credibility.
  • 5. Student resource material for use in the classroom.
  • 6. The spirituality and needs of contemporary children and young people
  • 7. Further reflections on future implications for the five areas of religious education in the light of insights into the spirituality of young people

2.1 Social and intellectual conditions that enable critical interpretation

A wise, insightful and useful interpretation of past developments is not easy or quick to develop. Our capacity to interpret historical developments critically -- say in Religious Education and Ministry, or for any aspects of general culture -- depends on the social and intellectual climate in which we work. How insightful an interpretation can be depends on the relative maturity of the climate at the time.

A critical interpretation of developments within Australian Catholic Religious Education required a maturity of vision that was not available to Catholic educators in the 1970s. A wise interpretation acknowledges various complex influences at work and resists the temptation to oversimplify; it does not collapse the tensions; it accepts the failures along with the successes; it candidly asks the awkward questions and does not baulk at embarrassing answers; it appraises both strengths and weaknesses. Also it attempts to extend the community's capacity to look carefully at history to interpret the influence of causal factors.

Catholic school educators are now better able to put the development of Catholic Religious Education into perspective than they have for many years.

Developing a shared perspective means acknowledging and accepting the different estimates we have of what is the most appropriate content and method for Religious Education. Encountering different insights -- even when we disagree with them -- can be creative if we endeavour to comprehend them and appraise them, and keep all ideas open to rational evaluation -- ready to weigh up evidence and arguments. This may confirm what we already think; or it may lead to a change in our views, even slightly, if this means a more realistic and accurate interpretation of what is happening and the adoption of an action plan that is more relevant and effective. Conflicting views need to be understood and held in creative tension.

A climate of respectful dialogue does not require that differences be ignored or played down. The first requirement is that we seek to understand clearly the positions outlined. This helps avoid the problem where differences are created through inaccurate perceptions of what is said. Clarification of intended meaning should therefore be the first priority. Disagreements based on misunderstanding will not advance Religious Education; differences of professional opinion based on accurate understandings can be fruitful.

2.2 Factors that have had a shaping influence on Catholic school religious education

A first step is to compile a list of the factors that have had a shaping influence on religious education. They influence the thinking of authorities and religion teachers which gives the intentional curriculum; they also influence what actually happens in the classroom -- the actual curriculum -- where the perceptions and responses of the students make a critical contribution. However, such a listing, which is usually complicated and imposing, is only a starting point for a critical perspective. What is then needed is an interpretation of the interplay of factors by focusing on a few selected themes.

The scheme below is one example of a list of formative influences to which others might want to add new categories and additional items.

  • Factors that have had a shaping influence on Catholic religious education in Australia since the 1950s


    • The impact of the emerging Theology of the Second Vatican Council.
    • The theological education of teachers of religion.
    • The increasing theological sophistication of the adult Catholic community; growing awareness of Scripture scholarship and its impact on the interpretation of the gospels.
    • Influence from particular movements in Theology -- Chronological, social justice, liberationist, feminist. etc.
  • Movements in Religious Education
    • The changing emphases in movements such as the Kerygmatic movement, also the Experiential, Social Justice, etc.
    • The community oriented retreats which began in the late 1960s changing from the silent retreats which had predominated.
  • Education
    • The rise of 'experiential' education (Eg. Jerome Bruner); the emphasis on 'process' by contrast with content.
    • The rise of 'critical' education -- more emphasis on analysis, evaluation and interpretation rather than on learning facts.
    • The 1990s emphasis on outcomes and employment based competencies.
    • Increasing interest in the personal and social dimensions of education.
    • The new emphasis in the 1990s on education for spiritual and moral development and for the acquisition of values.
  • Social science
    • Humanistic psychology from the 1960s onwards. Great interest in how human relationships foster personal development.
    • The rise of 'psychological spirituality' where insights from psychology have been blended with Theology and traditional spirituality to give an interpretative language for spirituality that seeks to articulate the religious traditions with more relevance and meaning for contemporary life.
  • Social and cultural
    • Secularisation of culture -- less prominence for organised religion.
    • Decline in parish church participation; increasing numbers of pupils coming from homes with little connection with the local church.
    • Changes in family life: smaller number of children, divorce, single parent families.
    • Greater prominence for gay and lesbian people; more tolerance, yet still social conflict.
    • A more educated and 'critical' adult and youth community -- less ready to believe authority on the basis of authority alone; more ready to call authorities into question.
    • The women's and men's movements.
    • Decline in levels of employment and consequent rise in poverty and hardship; increase in general community anxiety about employment.
    • Economic rationalism in the workplace; the impact of globalisation, casual employment, downsizing etc. the values underpinning such developments -- often greed.
    • More technological and computer oriented society.
    • Anxiety about increasing levels of drug use and violence in the community.
    • Promotion of multiculturalism in a multi-faith society.
    • Anxiety about racism and immigration.
    • Environmental concerns and anxiety about deteriorate in the quality of life.
    • The influence of film and television on life expectations and values.
    • Crisis of meaning arising from inability of people to find relevant and sustaining meaning and purpose in life (increase of:- suicide rates, depression, drug use, violence, boredom.)
  • Teaching Religious orders
    • Provided the structural and personal resources for Catholic schooling and religious education since the 1870s.
    • The great interest of religious order personnel in Vatican II theology and in the psychological spirituality that emerged from the 1960s onwards.
    • The boom period for religious order vocations (1950s and early 1960s) followed by sharp decline
  • Lay personnel in Catholic schools
    • Gradually became the large majority of religion teachers in the 1980s and 1990s.
    • The emergence of 'lay' spirituality gradually taking the place of 'religious order' spirituality.
  • Diocesan structures
    • The rise of Catholic Education Offices after funding was secured for Catholic school systems; consultants in religious education.
  • Diocesan religious education documents and Roman documents
    • The new catechisms of the 1960s published by the Australian bishops.
    • Diocesan guidelines
    • Roman documents on catechesis, evangelisation etc. and on Catholic schools
  • Student texts
    • The catechisms of the 1960s. Come Alive for Year 12 in 1971.
    • Aims, content and teaching strategies as influenced by student texts for religious education; the relative dominance of US Australian or British students texts at a particular level and particular time.
    • The New Zealand religious education series Understanding Faith (c/f the Australian edition)
    • The To know worship and love series of texts developed in Melbourne and later revised in partnership with Sydney archdiocese.
  • State religion studies courses
    • The emergence of state religion studies courses in the Australian states.
    • Religion studies courses widely taught in Catholic schools at years 11 and 12 levels.
  • Writers/theorists in religious education
    • Relative influence of US, British and Australian writers.
    • Groome's Shared Christian Praxis and its influence on Australian Diocesan guidelines and curricula.
  • The perceptions of students and their responses
    • Criticisms of religious education by students in the 1960s
    • Student satisfaction with retreats.
    • Increasing acceptance of academically accredited courses.
    • Teachers' perceptions of the changing needs and interests of students.
    • The spirituality of contemporary young people and how this is perceived by teachers.

    What follows is an interpretation that revolves around the interplay between five themes which have influenced what teachers try to achieve in the classroom; this interplay is then considered in the light of the spirituality of contemporary young people. This view highlights major changes in emphasis since the 1950s and points towards developments for the future.

    The five themes used for this interpretation are:-

    1. The quest for personalism and relevance.
    2. The centrality of the concept 'faith development'.
    3. The development of diocesan guidelines for religious education.
    4. New state religion studies courses and the quest for academic credibility.
    5. Student resource materials for use in the classroom.

    2.3 Interpretation of the evolution of Catholic School Religious Education through 7 key themes

    2.3.1. The quest for personalism and relevance

    Perhaps the most evident change in Catholic Religious Education after the Second Vatican Council was the emphasis on the experiential and a quest for personalism and relevance. This came about through the coalescence of a number of movements. Whereas previously Theology had been mainly the preserve of the clergy it was opened to members of the teaching religious orders of sisters and brothers and to the laity. The religious personnel, who made up the vast majority of the religion teachers in Catholic schools at the time, joined a surge of interest in the new humanistic psychology (Rogers, Maslow, Allport, for example). Special attention was given to human relationships as a key aspect of personal and spiritual development. What emerged was a form of 'psychological spirituality' which sought to interpret Theology and Scripture in terms of relevance to contemporary life. It was this development which reinforced and magnified the changes that are often ascribed to the second Vatican Council.

    Being able to relate sensitively in one-to-one relationships became a more prominent part of people's spirituality. The one-to-one counselling relationship became a sort of ideal for religious ministry. This interest not only affected their own lives, it changed their understanding of Religious Education. Efforts were intensified to try to make it a very personal activity which was more relevant to the lives of students. The spectacular success of the new style community retreats which began for senior students in the 1970s reinforced this thinking -- many teachers unsuccessfully tried to convert their lessons into retreats. The research on Catholic schools conducted by Br Marcellin Flynn (1975, Flynn, M. F. Some Catholic Schools in Action. Sydney: Catholic Education Office) following up that of Carmel Leavey (1972. Religious Education, School climate and achievement: A study of nine Catholic Sixth Form girls' schools. Unpublished PhD thesis, Australian National University, Canberra.) stressed the importance of community and school climate. This was taken by some as a research justification of the quest for personalism.

    In the Catholic Education sector, the language of psychological spirituality came to dominate thinking about personal and spiritual development. The small group discussion of life and spirituality was thought of as the process to pursue in Religious Education. The distinctions between Religious Education and Personal Development education tended to fade. Informality in context and method, personal sharing, group dynamics, and process rather than content became prominent in teachers' understanding of Religious Education, especially in the secondary school. If you wish to follow up on this theme, chapter 8 of Reasons for living (Crawford and Rossiter, 2006) has a section describing the emergence of Christian psychological spirituality in the 1970s.

    From the vantage point of time we can see that the personal formula with so much promise was unsuccessful. However, it is very important to note that it was not the quest for relevance and personalism in itself that was the problem -- it will be argued later that this is now even more crucial for Religious Education than it ever was. The problem was the inappropriateness of the methods used in pursuit of personalism in the public forum of the classroom. The same fate befell the personalist movement initiated in British state schools by Harold Loukes in the late 1960s (Loukes, H. (1961). Teenage Religion. London: SCM Press; (1965). New Ground in Christian Education. London: SCM Press; (1973). Teenage Morality. London: SCM Press.) Too much informality and inappropriate assumptions about personalism in the classroom combined to make the activity of little consequence to students -- even though students may have enjoyed it. A more detailed analysis of the place for a personal dimension in classroom teaching and learning is given elsewhere (See Crawford and Rossiter, Teaching Religion in the Secondary School: Theory and practice, 1985; and Missionaries to a Teenage Culture: Religious Education in a time of rapid change, 1988; and Rossiter, G. 1994, Religious Education and the Spiritual Development of Young People: A Reply to Gideon Goosen. Journal of Christian Education. 37 (1), 37-50).

    Reflection on implications for the future

    This may sound like deja vu, and perhaps a rash statement to make, given that some of us have labelled the quest for personalism in religious education in the 1970s as misdirected. But it is propose that relevance and personalism are among the most important issues for Catholic religious education today -- much more important now than they ever were in the 1970s. However, to justify this claim thee is a need to consider the interplay between this and the other four nominated areas.

    Firstly, the intention to make religious education personal and relevant to the lives of students was valid twenty five years ago, and it still is. But the particular formula pursued to achieve it in the classroom was, in hindsight, generally inappropriate and naive. It was much more successful in retreats and voluntary groups, and it still is, because there was greater congruence between the context and that formula.

    What was required was a different formula for relevance and personalism that was more at home in the classroom and was consonant with the expectations of other subjects. A qualifier: these expectations are not static and are continually evolving. It seems that educators do now understand in principle what the appropriate formula is; but there remain some problems.

    More than any other subject area in the curriculum, religious education is the arena where the quest for relevance and personalism has been thoroughly explored and tested, with much experimentation, and many successes and failures over the years. The resultant wisdom has been costly. But this has very important implications for general education, particularly with the emerging movement within the last fifteen years to clarify the role of the whole school curriculum in promoting the personal, spiritual and moral development of pupils (See Rossiter, G. 1996, The Moral and Spiritual Dimension to Education: Some Reflections on the British Experience. Journal of Moral Education, 25 (2), 201-214.)

    In principle, the main questions about the links between the classroom component of school education and spiritual/moral development have been resolved in religious education and can be applied generally across the curriculum. However, not enough religious educators have yet discovered the solution. The complex place for the personal and spiritual dimension within classroom teaching/learning processes is discussed in detail elsewhere (Crawford and Rossiter, 1985 and 1988, and 2006). It involves interplay between content, challenging processes for teaching/research/learning, and the subtle place for personal freedom. As considered later, contemporary religious education often has the second and third parts well covered but falls down in the first one -- content.

    2.3.2. The centrality of the concept 'faith development'.

    The concept 'faith development' came to dominate the language of Catholic religious education in Australia since the mid 1970s, even though for religion teachers there still remains a level of ambiguity about its meaning. (Will Our Children Have Faith? by John Westerhoff, 1976, was the first book to popularise the concept faith development in Australia.) Sponsoring the faith of students had always been a fundamental aim for religious education -- this was never in question. But the interesting development at this stage was the tendency to equate faith development with the personal processes referred to in the previous section (These issues have been discussed in the material at the end of Module 3 on the use of the concept faith development in Catholic Religious Education Rossiter). It was like 'baptising' the quest for personalism. A dichotomy developed between the teaching of religion on one hand (where there was a cognitive emphasis) and the so called 'faith development' activities like retreats, counselling and small group discussions on the other. This was evident in diocesan guidelines, in the writings of theorists and in school programs, and no doubt it affected the thinking and practice of religion teachers (See the Religious Education guidelines in the Archdiocese of Brisbane, 1997; It is also evident in: Barry, G. 1997, Religious Education: A Key learning area in Catholic schools. Word in Life. 45 (2), 14-15; Lovat, T.J. 1989, What is this thing called Religious Education? Wentworth Falls: Social Science Press; Moore, B.S. 1991, Religion Education: Issues and Methods in Curriculum Design. (Texts in Humanities). Adelaide: University of South Australia Press, Pp. 26-45.)

    What would have been more accurately called an emotional component of religious education was often labelled as 'faith development'. This implied too narrow a dependence on psychological processes as the core of faith development and it devalued the classroom teaching of religion as if this was somehow 'less faith intensive' than intimate group processes. In turn, this oversimplified the great complexity in the links between religious education and students' spiritual development. See Crawford and Rossiter, 2006, chapter 18.

    Reflection on implications for the future

    While much progress has been made, there still remains a need to clarify further the place for the personal and faith dimensions within classroom teaching/learning processes in Religious Education. As noted earlier, such clarification will also have implications for general education.

    What is required is not a change in the aim for faith development but rather more discriminating use of the concept, in particular, a usage which reflects the importance of the contribution to the development of faith that can be made by classroom religious education. It may be expecting too much of religious education to require it to be influential in changing levels of commitment. Its natural concern is with knowledge, understanding and experience of the faith tradition.

    In more recent years the terms faith formation and Catholic identity have eclipsed faith development as a much used word for interpreting religious education.

    2.3.3. The development of diocesan guidelines for religious education.

    An article in a recent book on Quality Catholic Schools (Keane, R., and Riley, D. 1997, Quality Catholic Schools: Challenges for Leadership as Catholic Education approaches the third Millennium, Brisbane: Catholic Education Office.) noted that the guidelines produced by various Australian Catholic dioceses had contributed significantly to the support for Catholic school Religious Education. Some visiting educators from overseas went further, considering that the contribution of the guidelines, in terms of personnel, time, funds, trialling, dissemination and inservice programs represented an extraordinary commitment to one particular strategy for the development of Religious Education in this country.

    The diocesan guidelines published in Australia since the 1960s reflected changes in thinking about the nature, purposes and methods of religious education -- both the quest for the personalism/relevance and the centrality of faith development are evident. Recently, the incorporation of the Education Outcomes movement into Religious Education guidelines has opened a new agenda.

    Over the last two decades the Outcomes movement in education has had a notable influence on curricula, teaching and assessment in Australian schools. The emphasis has been on measurable outcomes for shaping the aims of education, for providing measures of effectiveness and for requiring accountability. The system works well for knowledge and skill outcomes, but has difficulties when dealing with outcomes in the personal/values areas. Consequently, with the emphasis on faith development in Catholic religious education, how spiritual outcomes are to be written will become an area of interesting debate.

    Catholic diocesan guidelines in Brisbane and Sydney in the mid 1990s moved in this direction to keep Religious Education on a par with other key learning areas in the curriculum. The focus of outcomes on knowledge and skills will be beneficial for Religious Education by drawing attention to the immediate and achievable goals which tend to have been neglected. But as anticipated, ambiguities have arisen with values and faith outcomes -- especially where faith outcomes are talked about in much the same way as knowledge/skills outcomes.

    In brief, it is proposed that a language of hopes (or hoped-for long term outcomes) be used rather than outcomes written in faith development language. These personal/spiritual hopes need to be distinguished from the measurable knowledge/skills outcomes because of the complexity of their origins and development. This same advice could be usefully applied to general education where it deals with outcomes in the values area.

    The debate about spiritual outcomes for Religious Education also has relevance for assessment and reporting (A series of articles in recent years in Word in Life and Catholic School Studies have addressed some of the issues. For example articles in these journals by Dr Marie Macdonald, in 1990, 1991, 1995).

    While not questioning the fundamental need for diocesan syllabuses or guidelines, some overseas observers have raised questions about the efficacy of committing so many resources to the 'documentation phase' of Religious Education development, wondering why more attention was not given to later phases like student resources and school programming -- as was the pattern in the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Eventually, with the development and publication of the series of texts To Know, worship and love, there was a substantial commitment to the publication of new student texts. A long time after the last major official texts in the early 1970s.

    There is a need to note how Catholic dioceses have sponsored the inservice professional development of religion teachers and their studies for qualifications in Religious Education.

    Reflection on implications for the future:

    While diocesan guidelines have a prominent place in the history of Catholic Religious Education in Australia, more research is needed to clarify the ways in which they have impacted on what is actually taught in the classroom by comparison with other effects such as the use of student materials or professional development programs for teachers. For example, student materials originally developed by the combined Catholic dioceses in New Zealand have been used extensively in Australian Catholic schools. If observers were to watch teachers using these materials in different Australian dioceses, would they be able to tell from their classroom observations which diocesan guidelines the teachers were working from? The student materials themselves can apparently have a more significant influence on lesson-planning and classroom teaching than distinctive diocesan guidelines. This raises questions about whether diocesan guidelines result in different and distinctive teaching styles and content selection for Catholic Religious Education around the country.

    (Note: Not much systematic research has been done on the relative effectiveness of diocesan guidelines as a strategy for improving the quality of the teaching of religion in the classroom. The study by Patricia Malone (1990, Teacher approaches to the planning of religious education: A study of teachers in Catholic schools in Sydney. Unpublished PhD thesis, Macquarie University, Sydney), though limited to a small sample, suggested that guidelines did not have a significant impact on the planning and teaching of religion in the school and they it was usually only the religion coordinator who read them. This may not be the case in all dioceses. There have been detailed evaluations of some of the diocesan guidelines which have affirmed their role; most of these evaluations have been internal to the systems. Where teachers have been seconded to pilot the guidelines and/or produce support material for use by others, they have been very pleased with the guidance that the documents provided. They have also been helpful for coordinators.)

    It seems to this writer that most of the Catholic diocesan religion syllabuses are too tame. Students tend to consider them to be too concerned with institutional maintenance and not enough with what they see as the spiritual dimension of people's lives. Hopefully there will be more movement in the direction of addressing issues. This can be done in a balanced way while not neglecting our commitment to handing on the Catholic faith tradition.

    2.3.4. New state Religion Studies courses and the quest for academic credibility

    One of the major problems faced by school religious education for many years has been its academic credibility. Catholic schools have long claimed that a subject like religion which deals with ultimate meaning, beliefs and values should have a philosophically central place in any school curriculum. However, it is the very subjects which are concerned with the personal and spiritual dimensions to life which had their credibility subverted by what was called the psychology of the learning environment. As explained elsewhere, a number of factors influence the poor level of involvement of many students in religious education, even when they enjoy it (Crawford, M., and Rossiter, G. 1991, Teaching Wisdom: Religious Education and the Spiritual and Moral Development of Young People, in B. McManus (Ed.), Education and the Care of Youth into the 21st Century: Proceedings. Brisbane: Nudgee College School Council. Also in chapter 14 of Crawford & Rossiter, 2006) However, what is of interest here is its academic status -- or what students call "mark status."

    There had been some moves in schools in the 1970s to improve the academic rigour of religious education at secondary level, but this was difficult, not only because of student perceptions, but because it ran against the current of teacher thinking at the time that religion lessons needed informality and personalism. There was a false dichotomy between the academic and the personal -- as if the two were incompatible alternatives. By 1973, some Catholic school year 11-12 religion programs had gained partial accreditation as "Other approved studies". But it would take more time before the fully tertiary accredited state Religion Studies courses were introduced. This followed the Government Reports on Religious Education in state schools in the 1970s and 1980s, leading to the availability of courses in all states -- with the exception of the Northern Territory.

    Catholic schools embraced the new state courses enthusiastically. Catholic religious educators from Education Offices, schools and the Catholic Colleges (now ACU) were key players in the development of the courses and in the production of student materials.

    Reflection on implications for the future

    The arrival of religion studies courses and the way in which they had been embraced by Catholic schools, have made an invaluable contribution to Catholic religious education. They altered significantly the academic credibility of religious situation. Even more importantly, they provided a context within which students could experience the study of religion with academic rigour. By that is meant the study of religion was no less demanding than what students came to expect from other academic subjects.

    The development of religion studies courses also helped religious education in Catholic schools break down the artificial dichotomy between academic study and personal relevance. A challenging study was found to be the most appropriate context for the pursuit of relevance and personalism in the classroom.

    So in effect, religion studies added a crucial element to the formula for classroom religious education -- academic study and research, which had been difficult to achieve earlier because of the circumstances of non-accredited courses. This was one of the key elements missing from 1970s religious education.

    However, relevance in any education depends very much on the content and this is where there is need for change in the current religion studies courses. While there are exceptions in various units, too much of the content is descriptive and hence too tame.

    It appears that the Australian religion studies courses, in the main, have been too strongly rooted in the structures and content selection principles of the British descriptive world religions movement of the early 1970s. Our courses seem to have put more energy into being politically correct than into relevance for students -- the quest for relevance in religion studies is just as pertinent to these courses as it is in Catholic school religious education. In the British state schools there have been significant moves in the 1980s and 1990s towards more issue oriented teaching in religious education, but there is not a lot of evidence for this yet in Australia (Grimmitt, M.H. 1987, Religious Education and Human development. Great Wakering: McCrimmons; and in Best, R. 1996, Education, spirituality and the whole child, Cassell, London).

    One senior state education official recently acknowledged this about the Australian courses; he considered that they were constrained to stay with what he called "traditional religious content", while social science, and other subjects, were more free to address contemporary spiritual issues. This writer strongly disagrees; this is taking too narrow an epistemological view of religion itself. And it is a view which tends to domesticate religion and reinforce for many their feeling that much of religion is irrelevant to their lives. The religion studies courses in Australia need to venture further from the structural confines of Smart's dimensions of religion. Later, in another module, the contribution of Ninian Smart to studies of religion courses will be explained.

    Some attention to issues is already evident, but there is scope for more. The problem is that the traditional pattern of content selection tends to preclude giving major attention to issues. For example, in a topic on women in religion, by the time students have covered the required descriptions of traditional roles and looked at examples, there is little scope for direct exploration of issues like patriarchy and women's ministry in the church.

    2.3.5. Student resource material for use in the classroom.

    Perhaps more than anything, the student materials used over the decades -- and in some cases these were non-existent -- tells the story of Australian Catholic Religious Education since the 1950s. There is not space here to elaborate this view of the history, but it remains a topic where research would yield a very interesting picture.

    Apart from some primary school programs in the 1970s, and the Year 12 Come Alive series in 1970, the Catholic dioceses have not invested in the production of student materials for Religious Education on any large scale since the new catechisms were produced in the 1960s. There are, however, current plans for diocesan student texts in Victoria.

    Reflection on implications for the future:

    The use of excellent student resources appears to be a very effective method of improving the overall quality of classroom Religious Education. Hence, this writer proposes that more diocesan involvement in the development of texts, videos, multimedia and other materials on topics where there are not enough good quality resources already available -- including joint projects across dioceses. This is not intended to dampen the enthusiasm and productivity of individual religious educators who have made a sterling contribution to Religious Education through the materials they have published commercially. There is plenty of room for small, relatively inexpensive, modular materials rather than large, wide ranging texts which try to cover too many topics. Catholic diocesan school system websites have shown in recent years the collection of useful teaching and student resources.

    However, there are prior issues to be resolved before projects -- especially joint projects -- are likely to be viable and useful. Every resource makes an implied statement about the nature and purposes of Religious Education. Hence we need to acknowledge and address conflicting views of what constitutes appropriate content for Religious Education and what constitutes good methods woven into texts and other resources, including the use of the Internet. Research and dialogue are needed to achieve some consensus as well as acceptance that polarised views about some topics and resources will inevitably remain.


    So far this section has examined five areas of religious education historically. The next aspect to be considered will be the spiritual and social situation of children and adolescents -- and this will be used as a lens for examining the interplay between the five areas already covered. This will help show how those five, interactively, have a bearing on the spirituality of young people. Hopefully this will inform implications for the future in each of the areas.

    2.3.6. The spirituality and needs of contemporary children and young people

    Only a few aspects that are more pertinent to adolescents will be noted here.

    Now, more than at any time in history, has the well-being of our young been under so much scrutiny. In September this year, the Australian Catholic bishops published a report on their research on the needs of young people -- Youth and the Future (1998). The search for meaning, purpose and identity emerged as a major area of youth concern. This report, and indeed the large research literature of youth studies, suggest that the need for young people to find ways of making meaning in their lives and developing an authentic sense of self should have priority in the community's strategies for their education and personal development. The Bishop's report noted that people "strong in their sense of purpose, sure of who they are will be better able cope with the psychological pressure imposed by today's lifestyle".

    With a wealth of research findings on youth available, one might wonder why the community has not been more effective in addressing the problems of youth and making education relevant to their needs, or why advocacy on behalf of young people has not brought about more change. Part of the reason has been the general inability of the community and its leaders and educators to comprehend the complexity of the life situations confronting contemporary young people and to wisely address issues across a broad front.

    An emphasis on one particular finding -- for example the high suicide rate for youth -- creates anxiety, but gives only a partial insight into the complex psychological world of young people and the intricate mosaic of influences on their spirituality and identity. Some synthesis is needed to give a more holistic understanding of the life world of contemporary young people. It is from this that the most appropriate and helpful education and advocacy for young people will flow. For example: Some surveys highlight the younger generation's ability to cope phlegmatically with rapid change that has more disruptive effects on the lives of adults. They have been described as ".. kids ... unfazed by the pace of change and the technologies that give adults anxiety attacks ... these 'screenagers' are flexible and adaptable. They have learned to thrive on chaos, uncertainty and insecurity in ways their parents never have." (From an article by Richard Eckersley in 1997, "Portraits of Youth")

    However, a greater number of surveys paint a bleaker picture. While it is true that youth are more accustomed to change and are more comfortable with new technology, this view claims there is a deep seated malaise in meaning systems that cuts across the whole spectrum of youth: "young people are deeply cynical, alienated, pessimistic, disillusioned and disengaged. Many are confused, and angry, uncertain of what the future holds and what society expects of them. While they may continue to work within 'the system' they no longer believe in it or are they willing to serve it. From this perspective, the suicidal, the depressed, the drug-addicted and the delinquent represent the tip of an iceberg of psychological pain and distress that includes a substantial proportion, perhaps even a majority of young people today." (Eckersley, 1997)

    These apparently opposite findings may hold true for some young people at different stages of their lives, depending on their experience. The perspective of a young person living in rural Australia, or on the fringes of society, will be markedly different from that of one from a comfortable, economically stable supportive background who sees that life offers a variety of favourable options.

    Reflection on implications for the future

    What is required of adults, and of teachers in particular, is a capacity to comprehend the apparent contradictions and tensions in the psychological world of young people, to enable them to 'walk the way' with them as fellow seekers of wisdom and spirituality in a confusing world.

    To develop an holistic understanding of the spirituality of contemporary youth we need to begin by looking at the ways in which they forge meaning, recognising that this is often very different in approach and emphasis from that of older generations. Some key aspects of youth spirituality are:-

    • It is often secular in tone and not so dependent on traditional religion;
    • It is eclectic drawing on a wide range of resources -- not the least significant is the world of film and television, and the entertainment and consumer industries which support it;
    • * Seeking identity is a major developmental task; it is difficult to balance the polarities between the core personal needs to have distinctive individuality and to feel a sense of belonging to groups;
    • Personal freedom is presumed to be an absolute -- at least in Western countries; balancing freedom and responsibility is often problematic

    2.4 Further reflections on future implications for the five areas of religious education in the light of insights into the spirituality of young people

    The quest for personalism and relevance

    In the 1970s, teachers wanted to make personalism and relevance happen experientially in their religion lessons. The advice one could give today is: challenge your students with a serious, reflective study of personalism and relevance.

    Psychological spirituality -- a valuable development from that earlier period -- has matured with more awareness of its potential excesses in narcissism and exaggerated individuality, and with a greater emphasis on social justice. Its language is needed for helping young people comprehend the interplay between their needs and the complex social environment. It provides the intellectual tools for learning how to hold in creative tension the demands of freedom and individuality on the one hand, and the security and responsibilities that come from identification with a group, on the other. It involves helping them learn how to interrogate the cultural conditioning they receive from many quarters especially in the commercial and entertainment worlds.

    Religion teachers need to be model interpreters of meaning, prompting their students through their study and research to explore the meaning of identity, individuality, the need for community, and freedom -- this is a relevant beginning point for explorations of spirituality that teachers hope will move into the Church's traditions and those of other religions.

    The centrality of the concept faith development

    In a recent book on religious education, the Belgian scholar Herman Lombaerts (1998, The management and leadership of Christian schools: A Lasallian systemic viewpoint. Rome: Istituto Salesiano Pio XI) described the situation in Europe: "There are ever increasing efforts to have better more relevant and more effective religious education, but increasingly, young people are choosing not to be part of a practising community of faith." It is also likely that they are drawing less on the theology and wisdom of the tradition in the forming of their own spirituality, identity and values. This same situation has been encountered in Catholic schools in Australia.

    The problem that we face here as religious educators is a difficult one because they stand at an interface between young people and the Church. They hope to give them good access to their religious heritage, but can be discouraged because they do not seem interested -- and educators know in a more tolerant way than they, that the Church is also a human organisation which inevitably has human faults and limitations. Firstly educators need to recognise that they are participating in the wider problem of the relevance of the Church to today's people. Consider the following recent comments that identify the problem.

    Our primal interest is to survive. It is only later that we count the cost of survival and the damage our decisions may have caused to ourselves and others. It is for this reason, I believe, that many good Christian folk find themselves alienated from the Church, which almost inevitably in today's world has evolved into a highly centralised, imperial institution. . . whose language has become more and more juridical and less intelligible to the ears and understanding of ordinary men and women.
    Morris West, Dr Newman's Toast, Lecture at Australian Catholic University, November 15 1998.

    The language of the Church in its doctrinal expressions just do not mesh with most people's experiences of the main issues in life. They are not likely to listen when the Church apparently has nothing to say.
    MEd Religious Education student, Australian Catholic University, 1998.

    A way forward might help the situation in two ways: Firstly, the approach described earlier for the quest for relevance is a good starting point for considering religious options. Secondly, this approach is a practical example of the Church in action trying to speak the Good News to contemporary needs.

    The following quotation shows how issues related to the quest for meaning can be used as a starting point for studying theology more systematically. In his paper, "Portraits of Youth", Richard Eckersley (1997, p. 246) quotes the American psychologist Martin Seligman:One necessary condition for meaning is the attachment to something larger than the self; and the larger that entity, the more meaning you can derive.

    To the extent that it is now difficult for young people to take seriously their relationship to God, to care about their relationship to the country, or to be part of a large and abiding family, meaning in life will be very difficult to find. The self, to put it another way, is a very poor site for meaning.

    This thinking proposes that it is too much to expect individuals to forge a complete meaning system by themselves. This pressure arises from exaggerated individuality and from the privatisation of religion and it shows how naturally important it can be to connect with a community of shared beliefs and meaning. There is a need for young people to discern the important values in individualism and personal autonomy. However, it is just as important for them to understand the divisiveness and alienation that can flow from individualism which is not tempered by community, responsibility and a sense of the transcendent.

    This discussion highlights the important 'bridge building' role that religious education has in trying to link the culture and thinking of young people with the culture and spirituality of the Church. In doing this we need to be careful to recognise that there are different styles of belief and spirituality in the Church. What nourishes the spirituality of various groups is very different. The role of religious education is not to predetermine a limited range of spirituality for students but to reflect some of the pluralism.

    Diocesan guidelines for religious education
    State religion studies courses
    Student resources

    In a changing social, economic and familial landscape, many of the traditional support networks and structures for giving meaning are no longer so visible; and the relevance of their message is not so obvious. For many young people, the beliefs about life's meaning usually drawn from religious convictions no longer seem so compelling. On one hand they experience a lack of meaning; but paradoxically, they live in an environment awash with ways to make meaning and ways to find the true self. They need help in learning how to chart their way through this confusing territory.

    The school as an educational agency contributes in this direction, but its contribution is naturally limited. But in the contemporary situation, schools, and particularly the study of religion, may well seek to be more influential because of the decline in the relevance of other agencies which traditionally give support for meaning and purpose in life. It is not likely that schools can solve the problem -- the school cannot prop up or substitute for the Church (an unrealistic expectation); but educators could review what they are doing to see how the limited, but valuable, work of school religious education can be as relevant as we can possibly make it.

    The hopes proposed in 1 and 2 above can be enhanced or inhibited by the content and methods inscribed in diocesan guidelines and state religion studies courses. Both, in my opinion are too tame, but for different reasons; they need to be more adventurous in allowing for a direct study of the crucial questions of meaning and purpose.

    For the Catholic school syllabuses this does not mean abandoning formal religious content, but adding more balance with a complementary focus on issues of meaning, purpose and values, and through teaching/learning which tries to highlight the meaning dimension of what is taught about religious traditions. This principle is just as relevant to state religion studies courses.

    Research conducted by Nipkow (1991, Pre-conditions for Ecumenical and Interreligious Learning: Observations and Reflections from a German Perspective, Sydney: Australian Catholic University Moral and Religious Education Project.) one of the most prominent religious education scholars in Germany, found that if the teaching of religion did not focus in some way on what young people perceived to be the main spiritual and moral issues of the day, then they tended to regard descriptive content as religious paraphernalia, more concerned with institutional maintenance than with people's search for meaning and values. This was comparable with the findings of a large scale survey of Catholic schools in Italy in 1991. There have been similar interpretations from religion teachers and scholars in Britain and it is likely that research would come up with similar findings in Australia. Surveys that have been done here have not to my knowledge looked at this issue. Also it would be important to test whether students today are not antagonised by a lack of relevance in the content of religious education -- they may be tolerant, regarding it with a type of detached, clinical, anthropological interest.

    Increasingly, general education -- particularly in English, history, social science and personal development -- is catching up fast in its focus on values, questions of meaning and social issues. One worry is that while getting "off the blocks fast" in the 1970s, religious education has slowed and lost its way a little in the pursuit of relevance for pupils. There can be concern that in recent senior school syllabuses one can find that the most exciting and creative studies of contemporary spiritual and moral issues are to be found not in religion, but in history, English and social science.

    The two sorts of syllabus, both Catholic diocesan and state religion studies, for different reasons, fail to engage sufficiently at the level of contemporary spiritual and moral issues. In other words, they do not adequately touch the spirituality of young people -- the areas of life where they are confronted by its spiritual and moral dimension. The syllabuses are in effect too 'domesticated'. It is not that every line of the syllabuses has to be issue-oriented. But the present pattern needs to shift more in this direction. This is the direction that would make religious education more relevant to the majority of young people. Also it appears to be the best option for the classroom in representing the Church and fostering Church participation. Because there is difference of professional opinion about where the balance should be, there is an urgent need for more in-depth research on students' perception of the role of religion in giving people meaning in life and on their perceptions of the content of religious education. This research has to get beneath what might be called the "student benevolence" factor; for example, some students who recently completed a survey on Catholic schooling in which they reported on religious education as satisfactory. However, they acknowledged that within the culture of that survey, they felt that they had to be tolerant and positive; whereas in reality, they were indifferent, but not antagonistic, to religious education because it was not really concerned with their lives.

    A good way of illustrating the formula proposed here is to look at particular topics that might be studied. These could be of variable length and could be integrated with the study of more traditional religious content. This is not a whole curriculum, but the sort of topics that should appear in the secondary school religion curriculum.

    Examples of issue oriented topics in religious education

    Critiques from a religious perspective:
    The values -- or lack of values that underpin economic rationalist thinking.
    Globalisation policies and free markets: whose interests are being served?
    How do film and television influence the spirituality and identity of people
    What are the links between contemporary music and youth spirituality?

    Theological issues:
    The contemporary research on the historical Jesus: implications for the beliefs of Christians.
    Current debates about the role of women in religion: the problem of patriarchy and gender bias in the Christian church -- even evident in the New Testament.

    Psychological spirituality:
    The development of identity -- secular, ethnic, and religious -- and its influence on human behaviour.
    The possible links between identity (including religious identity) and problems like racism, violence and ethnic cleansing.
    Religion as answers to fundamental questions about meaning purpose and transcendence in life.

    Science and religion:
    The new Physics: Its impact on religion, and on people's ideas of God and creation.

    World religions:
    Judaism: Understanding the meaning of the holocaust for contemporary Judaism; Jewish controversy over the religious and secular significance of the state of Israel; Controversy in Jewish views of out marriage and homosexuality.
    Islam: The interpretation of Jihad or holy war. Islamic fundamentalism.
    Sects and cults: Why do people join them? Are cult members attracted because of their psychological needs or because of their personality type? How harmful is membership for their psychological and spiritual health?

    These recommendations are controversial and they need further consideration and debate. There needs to be a balance. However, the overall credibility of our representation of the tradition may be jeopardised if religious education is perceived more by students as concerned with maintenance of the institution then with addressing the critical spiritual and moral issues of the day.

    2.3.8 Conclusion

    Catholic Religious Educators have a dual commitment to hold together in creative tension. Firstly, they have a responsibility to hand on their two thousand year religious tradition. Secondly, they seek to help students learn how to think critically about contemporary spiritual and moral issues -- to interpret wisely, and to forge meaning, purpose and values.

    Hopefully the work done in this section will help in providing a critical interpretation of past developments that is insightful for future planning. Perspective on the past can also serve as perspective on the future.

    The National Archives building in Washington DC has four carved stone lions at the entrances. Each has an inscription highlighting the importance of history and heritage for creatively facing the future. Two of them are noted here -- suggesting hope for deliberations on the future of Catholic religious education in Australia.

    "The past is the seed that brings forth the harvest of the future"

    "The past is prologue"


    Buchanan, M. (2005). Pedagogical drift: The evolution of new approaches and paradigms in religious education. Religious Education , 100(1), 20-37. (Link to the article that can be downloaded)

    Lovat, T. (2009). What is this thing called Religious Education? (3 rd Edition) Terrigal: David Barlow.

    Rossiter, G. (1981). Religious Education in Australian Schools . Canberra: Curriculum Development Centre.

    Rossiter, G. (1999). Historical perspective on the development of Catholic Religious Education in Australia: Some implications for the future. Journal of Religious Education , 47(1), 5-18.

    Ryan, M. (2013). A common search: The history and forms of religious education in Catholic schools (Revised Edition), Brisbane: Lumino Press.

    Rummery, R.M. (1977) The Development of the Concept of Religious Education in Catholic Schools 1872-1972. Journal of Religious History , 9, 3, 302-317.

    Rummery, R.M. (1975). Catechesis and Religious Education in a Pluralist Society . Sydney: EJ Dwyer.