Educator’s Guide to Catholic Curriculum: Learning for ‘Fullness of Life’ Supplement 3

Catholic Curriculum – Our Australian Story So Far

All major endeavours have a narrative and in this respect attempts to make the curriculum of a Catholic school ‘Catholic’ are no different. In this country the narrative has passed through several chapters. These have varied widely from state to state as responsibility for both the public curriculum and the Religious Education curriculum have shifted, and their content been contested.

Curriculum structures in schools have also undergone significant changes in response to government policies and regulatory requirements. Locally, responsibility for curriculum planning has been widely shared. It is perhaps not surprising, given the often heated battles over content and areas of responsibility, that for many parents, students, and not a few teachers, curriculum issues are a cause of considerable confusion.

The experience of ongoing curriculum-related change, much of which seems inconsequential in its effects, and long exposure to the ideological pressures that drive such changes, has had a negative impact on the way teachers view school change in general and curriculum change in particular. As Canadian educator Michael Fullan acknowledged quite early,[1] to bring about change in schools you have first to overcome the impulse of rejection likely to be encountered among teachers. Governments tend to use regulatory measures to circumvent this fact, while wise school leaders seek wide staff participation in the decision-making processes to facilitate the adoption and implementation of change.

The narrative of curriculum in Catholic schools reflects a creative tension between the best hopes of teachers and the ideologies and historical circumstances that drive school development. The ‘best hopes of teachers in Catholic schools have consistently centred on three operational goals: to create life chances for students, to pass on the faith and to help create a better society.

Our story unfolds in four overlapping eras with each one building on what went before.

Stage 1. Curriculum in Early Catholic Schools

The first Catholic educational leaders were missionary priests who, isolated from developments in their European homelands by both distance and poor communication, had to think things out for themselves once public education became a cultural reality in the colonies. They worked with a Catholic community that had little in the way of learning and limited appreciation of its value.  Their colleagues were lay people who, despite poor remuneration, showed no lack of commitment as teachers. This first stage lasted from early white settlement till the 1870s.[2]

What is Catholic Education? What is Catholic Curriculum?

The travails of this frontier situation led to the emergence of a coherent understanding of what Catholic schooling should be. This was well articulated in a statement made to the Catholic community by the first bishops at the Provincial synod of 1862. Its sentiments reflect the leadership of Australia’s first resident bishop, Polding, who spoke in similar terms in other settings. Despite it stylised language, the content is surprisingly contemporary in relevance:

Catholics do not believe that the education of a child is like a thing of mechanism that can be put together bit by bit. Now a morsel of instruction on religion and then of instruction in secular learning – separate parcels…. We hold that the subject taught, the teacher and his faith, the rule and practices of the school day, all combine to produce the result which we Catholics consider to be education…[3]

Schooling in this era was basic; student attendance was optional and the curriculum focused on the ‘4 Rs’ – reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and religion.  Most schools were one teacher affairs so the contemporary notion of ‘school community’ had yet to evolve.

The clergy driving the development had no experience of a modern secular state as we know it today, and so the 19th century Catholic worldview of faith was dominant in the schools they founded. School life had a strong value orientation and moral purpose – to civilise the unruly colonial youth. To resist any secular influence, the few teaching materials used were closely scrutinised by the clergy. Textbooks were to be cleared by the bishop before they could be used in class.

To an embattled Catholic community the arrival in Australia from Europe of religious with experience in running Catholic schools, and with some teacher training, was a gala event. Coupled with Australian foundations such as the Good Samaritan Sisters (1857) and the Sisters of St. Joseph (1866), the Catholic community moved into the second stage of Catholic schooling.

Stage 2. Curriculum in the Era of the Religious

In the late 19th century the provision of public education was the responsibility of colonial governments and after federation in 1901, of the states. The aspiration of the era was to use education to create a better society. For this to occur it was argued that public education had to be free, compulsory and secular. Those leading the charge for popular education did so for good reasons including the need to establish common ground between Christian denominations divided by disputes with roots in the ‘old world’. The state also had to provide for a small, but growing, number of citizens and their families who had abandoned religion altogether, or who followed non-Christian faiths.

The Australian bishops opposed secular education. They worked from a worldview in which it was taken as axiomatic that faith must permeate all aspects of the believer’s life, and this included the process of learning. They themselves had never experienced living in a secular culture as we know it and rejected the concept outright. For them, ‘secular public education’ was a Trojan horse designed to undermine the faith of young Catholics.

In the 1870s the bishops risked all in choosing to set up systems of Catholic schools, maintaining that a ‘godless’ education lacked moral purpose, was inconsistent with Catholic teaching, and likely to promote immorality. While this claim was later acknowledged as an overstatement, it galvanised the embattled Catholic community into supporting Catholic schools now run mainly by religious. The reaction of politicians was to withdraw all funding from Catholic schools, so increasing a sense of grievance within the embattled Catholic community.

This clash in worldviews – the early modern and the 19th century Catholic – resulted in the development of two main types of schooling in Australia – ‘state’ schools funded by government, and Catholic schools funded almost entirely by the Catholic community.

Catholic Life During Stage 2

The operational aim of many Catholic schools in Stage 2 was to do what the ‘state’ schools did, but to do it better, and at a fraction of the cost! It was an ambitious but often successful aim, if albeit a somewhat defensive one. The rivalry between state and Catholic schools tended to limit curriculum thinking. Catholic schools, with few exceptions, mirrored developments in state schools. This limiting of perspective slowed development of the Religious Education curriculum. It altered very little centred, by episcopal mandate, on the rote learning of sets of beliefs and prayers, the performance of religious practices, and the mastery of moral rules. Catholic schools retained the strong sense of their original purpose – creating life chances for a disempowered community. ‘Catholic schooling’ became synonymous with the strict discipline at that time deemed necessary to accomplish this purpose.

In the Catholic worldview of the time the Church was construed as a self-contained social reality. This view was often reflected in the nature of parish life which provided much of a person’s social as well as spiritual life. In practice, the stance of separation helped maintain and develop the Catholic community drawn mostly from an impoverished and struggling social stratum. However, the situation meant that dialogue with secular groups or other denominations was virtually non-existent, even if its desirability had been recognised, which generally it was not. The Catholic community remained isolated. However, at another level, the level of life and some shared projects, dialogue did occur. Catholic schools always educated a percentage of children whose parents were not Catholic, including those whose parents were from economically better off sectors of society, but who wanted the moral education and pastoral care on offer in the Catholic schools. 

Catholic Action: A Limited Re-contextualisation in Modernity

Despite the bishops’ rigid opposition to modernity, some re-contextualisation of the Catholic faith tradition did take place in this era. It centred on the educational goal of ‘building a better society’.

In the 1950s, in the glow of post-war optimism, Catholic schools became active in raising awareness among students of the role they could play in building a better society through ‘Catholic action’. Catholic social teaching entered the secondary school curriculum in this very practical form.[4] Catholic action required ‘social analysis’. In being encouraged to work for change in home and school and later in their workplaces, students began to learn some basic social science and were taught to master the ‘See, Judge, Act’ method associated with Cardinal Cardijn and the Young Christian Workers in Europe. Catholic action created limited, but important, linkages between the worldview of faith and the developing worldview of culture.

By the middle of the 20th century the Catholic schools conducted by parishes, dioceses and religious congregations were consolidated into systems reliant upon the leadership of the religious. Their dedicated efforts created life chances for students that helped transform the position of Catholics in Australian society. These efforts also helped the Catholic community negotiate major social and cultural changes as the Irish influence waned and Australian Catholicism became multi-cultural following World War II. By the 1960s Catholics began to live as citizens of two worlds: the rapidly developing world of Australian culture and the slowly collapsing world of 19th century Catholicism. This was a situation that could not last.

Vatican II: Re-contextualising the Worldview of Faith

Vatican II (1962-65) was called to address the pressing need to re-contextualize the worldview of faith. The Council’s teaching came as a surprise to many Catholics taught from the cradle onwards that Catholic truth was unalterable. Vatican II’s description of the Church as the ‘pilgrim people of God’ created the image of a people on the move without knowing where this journey might lead. Many, but not all, Catholics took this as a great sign of hope.

The leaders of religious congregations were the first group in the Australian Church to really grasp the significance of the change the Council had inaugurated. Catholic schools became an important means by which a re-configured worldview of faith could be introduced to the Catholic community. This achievement helped enhance the credibility of Catholic schools within a broad segment of the Catholic community now much better educated as well as more culturally and socially diverse. ‘Handing on the faith’ was looked at in a new light and curriculum development in Religious Education moved ahead rapidly, but to the dismay of some teachers and clergy trapped in the 19th century Catholic worldview.

‘Catholic’ as an Identity Issue

Prior to the 1970s, a school was presumed to be ‘Catholic’ because the teachers were committed religious in whom the Catholic population, and many others, had a great deal of confidence. The curriculum was seen as ‘Catholic’ for the same reason. The use of ‘Catholic’ curriculum materials produced by both religious congregations and the small but developing Catholic Education Offices still reinforced a quite limited Catholic worldview. Curriculum thinking continued to be constrained by the demand to pass examinations. Limited attention was given to what would happen if students continued their education beyond school, since very few did so. 

University education became an option for an increasing number of students in the late 1960s and across the 1970s and this proved a ‘game changer’, raising new questions for the religious then teaching in schools few of whom had attended university. During Stage 2 the religious teaching in Catholic schools had become victims of their own success. They had created educational opportunities for students that they had not been able to avail of themselves. Many secondary teachers were simply unaware of the challenges university education posed for the very inward-looking and limited view of faith carried in the Catholic community prior to Vatican II. As a consequence, many of the ‘success stories’ from Catholic schools ‘lost’ their faith at university. This development led to some serious soul searching about how faith and culture interrelate.

Vatican II challenged the Catholic community to reinterpret Catholic teaching and to redefine its mission for the world of the mid-twentieth century. This was a task the bulk of the Catholic community had never anticipated and had few skills to accomplish. The result was widespread confusion within Catholic ranks at all levels.

It took considerable time, effort and dedication for those leading Catholic schools in this era not only to catch up in ‘secular’ disciplines by taking degrees at university, but also to catch up in the religious sphere following the Council. These two developments began to occur because from 1968 onwards Catholic schools received government funding and an increasing number of lay people began to teach in Catholic schools, thus freeing the religious for full-time study. The consequence was a new professionalism among school leaders, sharper thinking about the mission of the Catholic school, and deeper thought about how the curriculum, pedagogy and school community intersected in achieving the school’s mission. The school’s mission statement, developed in and owned by the school community, became an important resource shaping curriculum development. It also became an important statement of identity.

‘Re-contextualising’ Catholic Culture

Vatican II’s decision to adopt a more open stance to the modern world, sharing both its hopes, and aspirations on the one hand, and its anxieties on the other, had a significant impact in re-orienting curriculum thinking in Catholic schools. It spelled the end for an inward-looking Catholic culture. However a new dilemma soon arose. There was little consensus about what a new Catholic culture might look like. Bishops tended to look at anthropology with suspicion and most lacked the tools to analyse what needed to happen. The situation left teachers in Catholic schools in the firing line, caught between the ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ Catholic camps, each with its episcopal champions, with both groups trying to use the power at their disposal to impose a solution to a problem they did not fully understand. This battle was fought out within the Catholic community and among schools staffs bringing more heat than light to curriculum decision-making, particularly in Religious Education. It was an exciting time to be working in Catholic schools!

Stage 3. Curriculum Influences in a Time of Transition

A transition era, some might call it a ‘shake-out’ era, ran from the 1970s into the present century. This era was characterised by four major developments that have shaped curriculum thinking in Catholic schools directly or indirectly.

The Catholic School Becomes Mission Project of Lay Educators (1970-2000)

In the first development Catholic schooling became the mission project of lay Catholic educators who often brought a new perspective to curriculum planning based on their recent studies in secular universities. This group quickly and easily appropriated the traditional Catholic school goals of ‘creating life chances’ and ‘improving society’ at a time when ‘handing on the faith’ was bogged down by internal divisions. They advanced the mission agenda by adding a fourth goal: establishing the Catholic school as an educative faith community in the comprehensive sense of the word ‘community’.

Under this new goal Catholics schools had an important criteria which focused attention on the quality of life within the school, that is on its culture and ethos, aspects of school life that previously has been taken for granted because of the presence of a religious community. By the 1970s ‘creating a sense of community’ and ‘shaping the school culture’ became new leadership tasks.

Parish-School Links Begin to Fray

In this transition era a second major development occurred within the Catholic community. The parish ceased to function as a centre capable of bringing local Catholics together. Beginning in the late 1970s Mass attendance plummeted. This unexpected development had multiple impacts on the relationship between school leaders and the clergy, and between the parish schools and the parish communities that sponsored them. Questions were quickly raised about the role of the Catholic school in addressing the situation. Put bluntly, many priests and parishioners, but rarely bishops, wanted to know if Catholic schools did not deliver Mass attenders what use were they?

Schools responded by attempting to make linkages with parents that enhanced the school as a community. They did this in a number of ways pertinent to our discussion on Catholic curriculum. For example, in Religious Education, sacramental programs became parish-based and school-supported. Schools also sought to strengthen the Catholic life of the home as well as the school through the use of values integration strategies.

The Vision and Values program pioneered by the National Catholic Education Association in the U.S. provided a model of the latter. This program aimed to have the local primary school, the home and the children in class, all pursue a common Gospel value for a set time.  The program thus brought school life, home life, the curriculum, prayer at school and at home together in helping students, teachers and parents live out the chosen value. Vision and Values sought to bring parents and teachers into the ambit of contemporary scriptural understandings and recent developments in Church teaching. Its hope was to raise the awareness level of parents so that they could relate better to the material being covered in the new Religious Education courses in primary schools.

Responsibility for Integrating  Faith and Culture?

In 1977 the Congregation for Catholic Education published a seminal document entitled The Catholic School. While it set out the task of the Catholic school as helping students integrate faith, life and culture, it provided little direction as to what this means in practice, or who is responsible for making it happen. Bishops continued to sign off on Religious Education curricula many of which adopted Groome’s Christian Praxis model as a pedagogy making linkages between faith and life, but ignoring the relationship between faith and culture. It was left to Catholic Education Offices to take up the challenge of linking faith and culture. An instrumental figure was Columban priest and missiologist, Fr Cyril Hally, who worked tirelessly with teachers in developing understanding of culture and drawing their attention to links between the mission of the baptised and culture.

The National Catholic Education Commission’s (U.S.) Vision and Values program mentioned above laid the ground work for adapting values integration for use in secondary schools as a means for making explicit links between the public curriculum and the worldview of faith emerging in the post-Vatican II era. Values integration initiatives operated at two levels: correlating topics in the public curriculum with corresponding topics in the Religious Education curriculum, and promoting ‘Catholic values’ systematically within the public curriculum.

The most influential of the latter projects in Australia was the Catholic Education Office Sydney’s A Sense of the Sacred project. This project was developed by teachers over several years and eventually covered every key learning area in the NSW public curriculum.  The ambition of the project, to support teachers integrating values across-the-curriculum by providing them with resource materials developed by teachers themselves, required a major logistical effort in the pre-internet era. The fact that each state had its own public curriculum made it almost impossible to translate a values integration project such as A Sense of the Sacred from one state to another, even when the advent of the internet overcame the initial logistical challenges.

The Future Shape of Catholic Culture

A fourth issue shaping development in the transition has already been mentioned. It was the disagreement among episcopal leaders as to how the teachings of Vatican Council II should be interpreted.

 If the hope of a ‘Catholic curriculum’ is to assist students to see the Catholic worldview as a reliable source of meaning in making sense of life, how did teachers do this when there were major disagreements among Church leaders on the substantive content of this worldview? Many teachers chose to concentrate on the other three goals of Catholic schooling: creating life chances, improving society, and building the school community. ‘Handing on the faith’ becomes very much the province of ‘experts’, thus exacerbating the divide between faith and culture. While there is no dispute about the necessity of expertise in handling the Religious Education curriculum, when coupled with the prevailing worldview of modernity which confined religion to individual private life, the tendency had unintended consequences.

Declining Moral Authority of Church Leaders

The last major development was the formal acknowledgement of the sex abuse of minors by a small number of clergy and religious. This grave betrayal of trust took place towards the end of Stage 2 and into Stage 3. Subsequently, the defensive, and seemingly self-interested way in which this matter was handled both by the Vatican and by local bishops has had a profound effect on the trust Catholics now place in official Church leaders. Teachers in Catholic schools, which continue to enjoy the confidence of the Catholic community, find themselves again caught in a difficult situation because many Catholics associate ‘being Catholic’ so closely with the institutional, rather than the communal, element of Church life.

Stage 4. The Global Age and the Francis Effect (2000-  ) 

While postmodern thinkers’ initial aim was to ‘deconstruct’ the restrictive view of knowledge that emerged in modernity, particularly its privileging of scientific knowledge, their critique applied with equal force to other fields of knowledge, including theological knowledge. As a consequence, we have become more aware that all knowledge is contextualised by both culture and history, and that our capacity to express the ‘truth of things’ is limited by language, and always remains provisional. This was a salutary and timely lesson as we move into a global age, and as the locus of the major Catholic population centres moves away from Europe. The election of a South American pope seems symptomatic of this new reality.

We have come to recognise that truth is a quest we must undertake together, not something that exists outside culture and language. As eras and cultures change, we have to ‘re-contexualize’ what we know, whether in the area of faith or in cultural learning.

The arrival of Pope Francis has been an important event in the life of the Catholic Church. Francis seems determined to resolve the internal conflicts of Stage 3 by adopting the radical approach of his namesake, Francis of Assisi, rather than by following a liberal or a conservative agenda. His approach is radical because he directs people to their roots, reminding Catholics that the foundation narrative (mythology) underpinning all truly Catholic cultures is to be found in the Gospel of Jesus. From this base he is re-ordering the Catholic value system which in turn will produce surface (visible) effects. Francis makes these present in his actions, particularly by his readiness to engage in dialogue as a means of resolving tensions and facilitating change. He has also taken discussion of the relationship between the Church and the world well beyond the vision of Vatican II into a new place, embedding human life in the natural world and highlighting the human dramas unfolding particularly for the poor.

The challenges posed by postmodern thought and the balancing weight of ‘the Francis effect’ as we enter a global era require some fairly fundamental re-thinking on the part of school leaders in reinterpreting the relationship between faith and culture as the 21st century unfolds.

Francis reaches beyond the Religious Education classroom into other subject areas by his humanity and his call for dialogue and mercy. He paints a much bigger picture of what it means to be Catholic than many Catholics are used to or can understand. Schools have an important role to play here as they did in negotiating the changes introduced by Vatican II. That is the challenge of re-contextualisation. A vital locus for this is the curriculum of the Catholic school.

Dr James D’Orsa, 2016

[1] Michael Fullan The Meaning of Educational Change (Ontario: OISE Press, 1982), 25.

[2] The first Catholic school was founded by Father John Therry under the direction of Mr George Morley in Parramatta in 1820.

[3] Quoted in Patrick O’Farrell The Catholic Church and Community in Australia (Melbourne: Nelson, 1977).

[4] Modern Catholic social teaching begins with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical On Capital and Labor (Rerum Novarum), 1891. It has developed into a very substantial body of teaching since that time.