New Melbourne R.E. Guidelines: an improvement on the old

New Melbourne R.E. Guidelines: an improvement on the old

Michael Gilchrist

The launch of the new Guidelines for Religious Education of Students in the Archdiocese of Melbourne on March 1, 1995, was a major event for the Catholic Church in Australia.

The Melbourne Archdiocese, consisting of over one million Catholics, is easily the largest in Australia, (Sydney being now divided into three dioceses), as is its Catholic Education Office. The Office's Melbourne R.E. Guidelines for around 20 years have been widely regarded in terms of size, detail and presentation as the yardstick by which all others are measured - hence its extensive use in other Australian dioceses.

Of particular interest at this time was the extent of impact the Catechism of the Catholic Church would have on the new Guidelines.

Front-page feature

A measure of the importance of the Guidelines' launch was a front-page feature on March 1 in Australia's largest circulation newspaper, the Melbourne Herald Sun which was boldly headlined "Classroom Revolution ... Church to teach taboo topics." An Archdiocesan R.E. spokesman, Fr Christopher Toms, was quoted as saying that the new Guidelines would allow for "more dialogue and less dictating" and would emphasise students' background and experiences more than Church doctrine. "Gone," said the report, "are reliance on theological Scriptures (sic) which make sweeping and, for many young people, daunting pronouncements about the Catholic faith." No mention was made of the new Catechism.

The words attributed to Fr Toms were most odd since the Melbourne Guidelines over many years have always emphasised student experiences and backgrounds, as well as social relevance, while doctrinal "dictating" and "pronouncements" have hardly had a look in.

Melbourne's Archbishop Little quickly went to air on ABC Radio to repudiate the Herald Sun report as grossly inaccurate. This was understandable since Dr Little himself had written in the introduction to the new Guidelines: "Religious Education must present the message of Jesus Christ and his Church in its entirety ..." and "In these Guidelines I welcome the use of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a key source and reference."

Now that this writer has obtained and closely examined all six volumes of the Guidelines (at 3 Kg each!), it is clear that the Herald Sun report was indeed well off-target.

Despite initial misgivings (arising from the sensationalised Herald Sun report) and some scepticism (based on reservations about past editions of the Guidelines) I must admit to being pleasantly surprised by what I read.

The 1995 edition of the Melbourne Guidelines is undoubtedly a major improvement on its predecessors, and not simply because it had to take account of the new Catechism. Its presentation is more attractive, the language clearer (with less of the 1960s style 'caring and sharing'), and the conceptual framework from Prep to Year 12 well-sequenced. The "Overview of Doctrine and its Development in the Religious Education Curriculum" (pp.51-87) with a bird's eye view of the doctrinal content from Prep to Year 12 reveals that the new Guidelines are closely aligned with the new Catechism's structure and contents - Creed, Sacraments, Commandments and Prayer.

It is true that the new Guidelines - perhaps inevitably - give the impression of having a split-personality. This is probably due on the one hand to some reluctance to let go of old 1960s-70s ways of thinking, pet topics, texts, etc., and on the other to the powerful doctrinal pull of the new Catechism. The two forces at times rest uncomfortably side by side - although the Catechism is the superior factor.

Each of the Guidelines' six volumes contains a standard 167 pages of introductory background material, followed by copious lesson details for each level: Junior, Middle and Senior Primary; Junior, Middle and Senior Secondary. This is followed in each volume by extensive listings of Church documents, suggested background readings and the names of book suppliers and journals (34 pages for the Primary and 38 pages for the Secondary levels).

Right direction

That the Guidelines are headed in the right direction is underlined by inclusion of the following kinds of statements: "In Baptism, the human person is cleansed from original sin and all personal sin, reborn as a child of God, sanctified with the gifts of the Holy Spirit..." (quoted from General Catechetical Directory) (p.68); "The Scriptures and the moral teachings of the Church are normative guidelines in moral decision making" (p.80); "Become familiar with the role and work of the Church's teaching authority (Magisterium) and recognise their own responsibility as Catholics to be informed about and open to the teachings of the Church" (p.135); "A personal moral decision must be guided by an informed conscience"; "Appreciate and articulate key Catholic beliefs on sexuality and marriage" (with reference to Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio) and "critically evaluate the way in which the media portrays sexuality and marriage".

The Credo of the People of God (1968) at last gets a mention (after omission from earlier editions of the Guidelines) and is included in the excellent and very comprehensive listings of modern Church documents - Veritatis Splendor, Familiaris Consortio, Humanae Vitae, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, etc. Equally valuable are the numerous cross-references to Scripture in each section.

One is also encouraged by such 'signals' as the regular reference to the "sacrament of Penance" - a more correct title - rather than the commonly used "sacrament of Reconciliation", while the Eucharist is described at least once in terms of "sacrifice" (Lower Secondary 13.3). Heaven, Hell and Purgatory also merit a mention.

It is good to find ample scope offered at different levels for a study of such topics as the Church's rich legacy of religious art, architecture and music, Eastern Catholicism and the Church's different Rites, the impact of Vatican II, the role and significance of Mary, Church history (both general and Australian), lives of the saints and the history and work of religious orders. The traditional prayers and devotions of the Church - the Rosary, Stations of the Cross, Novenas, Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, Liturgy of the Hours - are given prominence while memorisation of key prayers is provided for at different levels.

Lists of background references for teachers are usually some guide to the prevailing thinking and preferences of editors, and here, despite the undeniable improvements, a liberal theological bias remains - if slightly offset by the inclusion of a number of worthwhile titles.

There is ground for concern that names such as Fr Schillebeeckx: (misspelt Schillebeeckz in one place), Leonardo Boff, Sr Sonia Wagner, Fr William J. Bausch, Sr Veronica Brady, Jack Dominian and others should be found among the recommended authors since their writings do not consistently back up what is taught in the Catechism. Neither is Fr Michael Morwood's God Is Near a satisfactory presentation of the faith, nor Neil Ormerod's Introducing Contemporary Theologies a balanced coverage of modem theology. Naomi Turner's Catholics In Australia has a biased feminist approach to Church history while E. & J. Whitehead's A Sense of Sexuality contains material on sexual morality inconsistent with the new Catechism. There is also a noticeable bias towards the CollinsDove catalogue, not all of which sits comfortably alongside the Catechism.

To direct teachers to such - to say the least, unreliable - texts is no service. A majority of Catholic teachers, having themselves emerged from a system which gave them little in the way of a solid religious foundation, have little basis for judging the relative orthodoxy of different theologies. Hence questionable, confusing opinions will continue to circulate in the Catholic bloodstream.

Catholic teachers need to be directed to the many available texts which clearly support the Catechism's teachings rather than undermine or contradict them.

Among the more welcome inclusions are Ronald Lawler's The Teaching of Christ (but why only in the Primary volumes, and not in the Secondary?), Fr Jordan Aumann, Fr Anthony Fisher and C.S. Lewis, not to mention Patrick O'Farrell, Les Murray, Fr Paul Gardiner and Annals. But why not examples of the excellent writings of Fr John A. Hardon SJ which genuinely complement the new Catechism?

Indeed, elimination of a large proportion of the Guidelines' present listings of authors and titles would be no great loss while generous inclusions of titles from the catalogues of Ignatius Press, Our Sunday Visitor and Alba House would provide for more theological balance.

The long favoured 4-Point Plan: Experience Shared; Reflection Deepened; Faith Expressed; Insights Reinforced, remains secure as the stipulated process of 'experiential' teaching, but this is now used with greater flexibility when a topic obviously does not lend itself to such an approach.

Case for Catholicism

Some of the material and activities would be better relegated to Social Studies curriculum time, e.g., "... identify the cultures represented in the class, school and parish communities, and celebrate the richness and diversity of these cultures," along with the intermittent prominence given to Aboriginal culture and spirituality. With the present serious gaps in basic knowledge and understanding of the Faith, any in-depth study of Aboriginal religion - or other non-Catholic religions for that matter - would be an improper invasion of precious R.E. curriculum time.

The Senior Secondary section loses a golden opportunity to consolidate the students' grasp of the essence of and case for Catholicism via some form of apologetics - Karl Keating's Catholicism and Fundamentalism (Ignatius Press) or Fr James V. Schall's Does Catholicism Still Exist? (Alba House) would be ideal for this purpose. Instead the senior units of study tend to wander about into peripheral and speculative areas such as the environment and changing Church structures.

One suggestion for future editions of the Guidelines: why not use more sacred art for the covers and contents of the Guidelines' volumes? There is a sprinkling of pictures of religious significance within, but the dominant impression is of photogenic school students and pleasant garden backgrounds. Why not nail the Catholic colours more explicitly to the mast?

Also, why not prune from future editions of the Guidelines much of the copious details of pedagogical principles, background considerations, etc? These should already be a part of each teacher's intellectual baggage after years of teacher education. A brief resume would suffice. A more direct focus on the basic doctrinal components to be covered at each level - as one finds in the new Wagga Wagga syllabus for primary schools - would better allow the Guidelines' doctrinal priorities to stand out in bold relief.

Perhaps the designers of the Guidelines might consider producing a series of student texts which detail the doctrinal content to be covered at each grade level along with complementary readings from the Catechism, Scripture, Church documents and other appropriate sources. This would foster better parent-teacher co-operation in R.E. by enabling parents to be better connected with what is supposed to be taught in the classroom.

In the end, however sound the Guidelines may be, much depends on the knowledge and disposition of R.E. teachers. The Guidelines do in fact note the importance of teacher witness in the practice of the Faith and for teachers' spiritual lives and grasp of Church teachings to be continually enriched. A further factor in the equation, of course, is the new Catechism's effective impact on teacher education programs.

Teachers favourably disposed to the new Catechism and well informed on Church teachings will find much scope within the new Melbourne Guidelines to teach the Catholic Faith in a substantial and stimulating way.

Given all the circumstances, one must be grateful for the positive progress made in the 1995 edition of the Melbourne Guidelines for R.E. It is a major step in the right direction.

Michael Gilchrist taught for 30 years in Catholic secondary schools and teachers' colleges (now campuses of Australian Catholic University) throughout Victoria. He is the assistant editor of 'AD2000.'