Deputy Principal - Mission & Faith

What is Religious Education? Part 1

Here at Salesian College, and indeed in all Catholic Schools, we as one of our compulsory curriculum offerings, teach Religious Education.  What is Religious Education?  What is its nature and purpose?  Why do Catholic Schools in particular teach this subject?  Over the next few editions of the Staff Exchange I wish to explore these issues and come to a conclusion about the place and purpose of Religious Education in a contemporary Australian Catholic school in the early twenty-fist century.

The answer to these questions may appear obvious to you.  That is, we are a Catholic school, a faith school that has a belief and faith system based around the Gospel of Jesus.  While this is true, it has to be said that for many parents and students their belief system may well be significantly different.  You may respond and say that as a Catholic school we should be presenting the Catholic faith.  While this is also true, we are a school, not a parish, not a Church and for many this is not a community of faith to which they belong.  They have not come here necessarily voluntarily and are not seeking spiritual growth and maturity.  These points are significant and need to be considered when talking about Religious Education.

Until the 1980s Religious Education in Catholic Schools was considered to be catechetic.  That is, about the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.  Church history, scripture, prayer and liturgy were used to bring students to a faith in Christ.  Using the concrete situation of students’ lives it was assumed students were believers and needed guidelines for dealing with everyday situations in their everyday lives.  From this understanding of Religious Education stemmed the idea of, “Education in Faith”.  Behind this thinking was the idea that Religious Education was part evangelization and part catechetical.  Evangelization in the sense that it brings non-believers to faith and then catechetical in the sense that it develops and matures an existing faith.

However, in reality, is that what our Religious Education teachers are trying to do?  Are our Religious Education teachers presenting the good news of Jesus and seeking to make believers of our students?  Are our Religious Education teachers seeking to develop and mature the faith of our students?  The answer is both, “Yes” and “No”!  There is a distinction between evangelization, catechetics and religious education.  Catechesis presupposes the hearers of the message are believers and that they are hearing the message in a faith community with the space and time that a school does not have.  Religious Education may have this effect for some but it’s not its main purpose.  Religious Education, like all academic subjects has a curriculum, learning goals that are cognitive and affective and rigorous assessment and reporting.  Religious education in schools should use the best educational and pedagogical methods available.  Its aims, goals, objectives and outcomes are all about knowledge and skill development, leading the hearer to Christ or maturing the faith of a believer whilst most desirable are not the aim of a classroom religious education program. 

Next week I will look at a contemporary understanding of how Religious Education should be understood and taught.