How many RE teachers actually care about the faith of their pupils? I’d like to know

Catholic school children wait for the Pope at Twickenham during the September 2010 papal visit AP Photo Peter Macdiarmid

Archbishop Bernard Longley has attacked the Government’s decision to leave Religious Education out of the rather weedy-looking and totally misnamed English Baccalaureate, in a lecture delivered under the auspices of the School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham. This follows a similar attack by Archbishop Nichols and a “call to action” by the Catholic Education Service of England and Wales, (which, you will recall, is one of the secularised bureaucracies attached to the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales).

The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) was introduced in 2010 and is awarded to all students who achieve GCSEs (this is nothing like the much broader, far more advanced and highly prestigious French article) at grades A*-C in English, Mathematics, Science, a Humanities subject and a Modern Foreign Language. The CESEW, in its statement demanding that RE be included in it, professes quite a highflown idea of what is to be gained from this subject, which I suspect that many of those who have undergone the reality, in other words, have direct experience of what is actually on offer, will be hard put to recognise. Have a look at this:

“In RE pupils have the opportunity to engage not only with the most profound metaphysical questions concerning human existence and the nature of reality, but also with the most pressing ethical problems of our day. RE itself is a broad based humanity, demanding knowledge and skills in history, textual criticism, anthropology, ethics, philosophy and theology. Thus it seems aptly suited to being part of any qualification which seeks to ensure that our pupils receive a genuinely broad education. We therefore urge the government to ensure that RE be regarded as a humanity for the purposes of the English Baccalaureate.”

It is to be noted that the CESEW doesn’t point to RE as being a way in to religious faith: that wouldn’t be of much interest to the government, of course, but it ought to be for Catholics. However, it is not, I suspect, for the CESEW, or, indeed for quite a few— (I would be interested to know how many)—teachers of RE. Many Catholics suppose (as I did when 20 years ago I crossed the Tiber) that one way to pass on the faith to our children is to send them to a Catholic school. Don’t you believe it. I began to smell a rat when, at the convent school to which my wife and I finally sent one of my daughters, the sister who taught RE told me proudly that she didn’t believe in “indoctrination” (she expected me to be reassured by this).

“Why not?” I said: “don’t you WANT your pupils to believe in Catholic doctrine? I do: that’s why I sent her to a Catholic school. Indoctrination is precisely what I was hoping for”. From her reaction, you would think I had uttered some grotesque indecency.

But I almost certainly wouldn’t have found any very different attitude in any of the other Catholic schools available to us: the school we had chosen was probably the best we could have hoped for. At the first school we had a look at, the sixth former who was showing us round, when I asked whether the chapel was ever open (it wasn’t) and whether the Blessed Sacrament was reserved there, asked me what the Blessed Sacrament WAS.

There is, as the excellent Mrs Daphne McLeod has pointed out, a “total failure to teach the authentic Catholic Faith in Catholic schools, resulting in a staggering 90% lapsation rate among school leavers”. That’s worth repeating. NINETY PERCENT: it’s higher than the lapsation rate among Catholic children who go to secular schools.

And that’s because Catholic education is no longer focused where it should be focused. Compare the CESEW’s idea of what RE should be about with this:

“The fundamental needs of the human person are the focus of Catholic education – intellectual, physical, emotional, social, spiritual and eschatological (our eternal destiny). These fundamental needs can only be truly fulfilled through a rich and living encounter with the deepest truths about God and the human person.”

That, of course, is by Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue, and it comes from that wonderful document Fit for Mission? Schools (p. 17, CTS Expanded edition). When it was published, it was received with great acclaim in Rome, among others by Archbishop Mauro Piacenza, Secretary for the Congregation for Clergy, who said that his outfit had “studied the document with great interest and hopes it will become an example for other Dioceses in the country in their implementation of the General Directory for Catechesis and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

Their implementation of the WHAT? “Other dioceses in the country” have no INTENTION of implementing it; they probably haven’t even HEARD of the General Directory for Catechesis.

As for the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Bishop O’Donoghue directed that all Catholic teachers in his diocese be supplied with a copy of it. I wonder how many bishops followed his example? Not a single one, I bet (please tell me I’m wrong, someone). And I wonder how many RE teachers not only possess a copy of the Catechism, but use it as a constant teaching resource? I would be interested in hearing from any RE teachers out there who may be reading this. This is a genuine question to which I do not know—but greatly fear—the answer.

Meanwhile, forget making RE part of the English Baccalaureate. It will do nobody any good as it is taught now: and it could do considerable harm, if any more children get the idea, as I suspect many already do, that what they are taught is really all that religion is about. Unless, of course, they are Catholic and live in the diocese of Lancaster, whose new bishop, I devoutly hope, is building on what he inherited from Bishop O’Donoghue.