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Religious education: putting the emphasis back on God
Are educators in Catholic schools much more diligent in emphasising the second of Christ's two commandments than they are in teaching, by word and example, the first? Are the last seven commandments of the decalogue, those governing human relationships, given more weight in modern Catholic schools than the first three, which refer directly to people's relationship with God?
If these questions are answered in the affirmative, does it really matter? What are some of the likely consequences for students if they are enmeshed in an environment giving first place to good human relationships, and only second place to developing a right relationship between God and the students? Might any initiatives or change in emphasis be necessary in the light of conclusions drawn from exploring these questions?
In Matthew (22:37-40), Jesus told us: "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second resembles it: "You must love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets also."
In order to signify the sacredness of the person's direct relationship with God, the first three of God's Ten Commandments were written separately, according to most commentators, on one of the two stones Moses brought down from Mt Sinai. In any event, the first three commandments refer to our obligation of, firstly, concentrating on giving God the absolute first place in our life, secondly, always speaking of God with the greatest reverence, and, thirdly, setting aside a common day each week to concentrate on worshipping God.
Christ commands us to engage in much more than good relationships between human beings. He calls His followers to engage their lives totally with God in a loving relationship, and this call is fundamental to the Christian life.
The Catholic school surely can hardly be said to achieve its aims if it is satisfied with forming people who relate well with others. Secular state schools have considerable success in doing this.
Who will hand on the heritage of the faith if students from Catholic schools, even students from families renowned for their loyal Catholic practice for generations, do no more than demonstrate good human qualities?
Christ called His people into a community, the Church. This community has the duty to support its members in their journey in life with Christ and one another. Its leaders, the apostles, were given a mandate by Christ to teach, govern and sanctify. Every community needs its rituals to bind it together, to celebrate its past, to secure it in the present, and to bring it forward into the future.
To engage one's life with God in a relationship of love, members of the community of the Church have a moral responsibility to participate in the life of the community and to abide by its regulations. How can one love God with all one's heart, soul and mind, but not participate in the worshipping life of the community?
It is a readily acknowledged fact that today many teachers, parents and students in Catholic schools do not give evidence of a living Catholic faith. At least, they do not manifest it by making the sacrifices necessary to play their part in the central public worship of the faith community established by Christ. In some cases, neither do they give any evidence of playing their share in making fair financial contributions towards the maintenance of the community or its works.
In an effort to include as many as possible at the core of the school community, there is a danger of placing at the centre of the school's life the promotion of commonly shared good human values. If that is the case, how can it be said that the injunction of the first and greatest commandment, namely to love God with all one's heart, mind and soul, is the beacon guiding the formation of students and teachers in Catholic schools?
If there is a false foundation to the ethos and guiding practice of the Catholic school, students in it are being given an education not based on truth.
If love of neighbour were given - no matter how unwittingly - priority over love of God in the ethos and behaviours of a school, there will be a dangerous dichotomy between what students are learning from a solid Catholic home and what the Catholic school is in effect teaching them.
The primary challenge of the Catholic school, with the indispensable help of God's grace, is to help its pupils know, understand, and appreciate the Mysteries of God's Love. Monsignor Dennis Regan, a prominent moral theologian, who contributed a regular column in the American magazine, Priest, explained when lecturing in Moral Theology in the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education at Fordham University in 1987, the importance of evangelising before moralising in an article entitled, "First Things First". He wrote: "I fear that for many the Catholic faith has been reduced to living a specific code of morality. Morality should flow from faith and the meaning of life, not replace them. Through attention to the Saving Mysteries of God's Love, let us bring some hope to a spiritually-starved people."
Christ came to call us into a loving and committed relationship with Himself and the other Persons of the Blessed Trinity. The mind-set of one who is conscious of, and is trying to live out this relationship, is very different from that of one who is unaware of it, or ignores it. One who consciously sees each day as an opportunity to grow in a personal relationship with God, and seeks to make the most of these opportunities, is likely to be at peace, and is well motivated to rise more quickly after any failure to love and serve God and neighbour well.
A Catholic school, which seeks to educate its pupils to attend to the true welfare of their fellow humans of present and future generations, and fails to attend principally to the primary relational, religious motivation for doing so, has seriously failed both Christ and its pupils.
There is strong empirical evidence that regular participation in the public worship of a Christian community together with a lively Christian faith does more to develop human wholeness or good quality human relationships among adolescents than otherwise.
Merton Strommen is a renowned research psychologist and founder of Search Institute, one of the most reputable research institutes in the USA. He found that, from studies conducted by his institute, the motivation of a personal faith has a powerful effect on developing moral responsibility among adolescents. He stated that, among adolescents, though a humanistic love for people can be motivation for a sense of moral responsibility, his institute showed that such motivation is "strongly associated with a consciousness of God's presence."
Citing one of these studies, Strommen wrote in Five Cries of Parents (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985, chapter 5): "In a 1971 study of 7,050 high school youth, we found that a sense of moral responsibility strongly correlates with both a consciousness of God's presence and participation in the life of a congregation. The high correlation ... makes it clear that for youth identified with the church, morality can be more than conformity to other people's expectations. Morality can be a life of responsible caring for others that is motivated by a personal faith. Morality can be living a life of service that gives a sense of joy and meaning in life."
Secondly, Brother Marcellin Flynn's large scale research, recorded in 1993 in The Culture of Catholic Schools, involved nearly 3,000 girls and 3,000 boys in the final year of schooling in 50 Catholic High Schools in 11 dioceses of NSW and the ACT. This research was conducted in 1990, and published in 1993. Brother Flynn found that there were "surprisingly large differences" between practising Catholic students (defined as those attending the Eucharist each week) and non-practising Catholic students in each of seven indicators of religious development, including moral beliefs, attitudes to Jesus, and images of God.
Red Cross study
Thirdly, an International Red Cross study also points to the importance of putting fundamental emphasis on Christ's first commandment: "According to a study carried out among youths in five European countries by the International Red Cross, religious beliefs and a healthy family environment are key factors against drug addiction. ... The use of drugs is evidently greater among non- believers and those who do not practise their faith, than those who have a live religious faith. This research was carried out in Portugal, Italy, France, Holland and Spain (The Record, Perth, WA, Catholic archdiocesan weekly, p. 2, 11 January 1999.)
It is comparatively easy to work at being nice to people who are reasonably attempting to be nice to us. As Christ said, "even the pagans do this." A person who seeks to love God as Jesus requires is called to much more than this. Christ calls us "to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who persecute and calumniate us."
When we can see Christ in every person, as the Christian is called to do, as an expression of personal love of God, we can transcend our natural inclinations and reach out to all, even the most unlovely, as an expression of our total love of God. We then will take to heart Christ's words about the unity of the community, and, despite many in our world taking easier moral stances in line with the culture in which we are immersed, we will genuinely listen to the authorities Christ gave to guide us. "He who hears you, hears me," said Christ. "He who despises you, despises me."
Christ's greatest, foundational commandment is clear. Should not genuine Catholic education emphasise this commandment? Even from empirical studies, is it not quite clear that the adolescent and wider human welfare will benefit from such an emphasis? Will not the most unloved and rejected benefit from such an emphasis?
Should there not be an ongoing careful, imaginative and exhaustive study of the ways a Catholic school involves the whole school community in placing this right emphasis? Has the past - when vocations flourished, Catholic family life was strong, and youth behaviour was statistically so much better - more to offer the present and future in achieving the school's primary aim?
Some tried and true methods, among many others used in the past, include making the liturgical year a highlight in the classroom and home, clear, thorough and tested knowledge of doctrines, prayers, Church and Bible history, etc, the use of aspirations, devotional practices, inspiring stories of the saints on their feast days, the use of the initials AMDG (Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam) at the top of each page, punctuating the school day with set prayer every hour, and the bringing of flowers for Our Lady's altar. These means should challenge the students and fire their imagination. Some means are more suitable to particular age groups than others.
This is a shortened version of Brother John Moylan's article that first appeared in the October 1999 edition of 'Catholic School Studies', produced by the Christian Brothers, 156 The Avenue, Parkville, Vic 3052. This journal is published in May and October, at an annual subscription rate of $18.00.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 13 No 2 (March 2000), p. 10
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