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Catholic Schools and the Future of the Church


reviewed by Patricia A. Bauch - February 24, 2015

coverTitle: Catholic Schools and the Future of the Church
Author(s): Kathleen Engebretson
Publisher: Bloomsbury, London
ISBN: 1623561663, Pages: 208, Year: 2014
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Catholic Schools and the Future of the Church draws on an Australian-based study that examines the beliefs, values, and motivations of church-going adults who have a strong commitment to the Catholic Church. The 385 survey responses indicate that family, religious experience, and engagement (in order) are the most important factors the participants cite leading to or sustaining their active Catholic commitment. Interestingly, education was the least cited factor for all age groups; in fact, half of the respondents who attended Catholic schools rated their religious education negatively. The author concludes that “Catholic schools can and do make a difference in the Catholic socialization of youth, even in highly secular societies,” and laments that only half of the adults in her research attributed their faith commitment to their religious education (pp. 37-38).


My reason for summarizing the data in the opening paragraph is to point out the scant research upon which Engebretson justifies the major portion of her book. She argues that high school religious education curriculum is the basis upon which the Catholic Church commitment of church-going adults should rest. Consequently, the majority of her book is devoted to an extensive, well-developed model of religious education for Catholic high schools, including detailed guidelines undergirded by research literature on religious education, Scripture, and documents of the Church.


Engebretson argues that despite the intensity of secularism in our societies and the lightweight religious education teaching methods of the past two decades, Catholic education can be an agent of religious socialization for youth—although this was not a finding in her research. Engebretson asserts that religious education approaches in the last two decades have been based on students’ experiential knowledge of their religious faith or a type of life curriculum, rather than knowledge and understanding of Church tradition, scripture, history, liturgy, faith, beliefs, and practices. She contends religious education can be effective in socializing youth to commit to their Catholic faith if teachers and school leaders follow the proposals recommended in Catholic Schools and the Future of the Church.


Engebretson’s overall goals in writing this book are two-fold: to focus readers’ attention on those characteristics that ought to identify the culture of a Catholic school, and to foster the means by which this can and ought to be attained, so that youth will be socialized into a lasting commitment to the Church.  She takes this approach because she is concerned about future church membership—since “a Church cannot last without its people” (p. 16). How to socialize teenagers into a lasting commitment to the Catholic Church is difficult, at best; however, the portrait of an idealized Catholic school suggests possibilities.


Engebretson argues that a Catholic school’s culture or identity should reflect its ecclesial nature since it is derived from the mission of the Church. Catholic schools give momentum to the Church’s ministry of Christian education, and serve as an instrument of the Church by adopting its characteristics and purposes. The author proposes that a school’s Catholic identity needs to reflect at least seven elements, and that school must be (a) a community of faith, (b) centered on the vision of the Kingdom of God as taught by Jesus Christ, (c) a Eucharistic community, (d) a community that strives for holiness, (e) a witness to Catholic values, (f) engaged in Christian service ministry, and (g) an inclusive community that welcomes other religious denominations and inter-faith dialogue. To accomplish these ends, the author calls for the immersion process, whereby students are socialized into the life of Catholic Church’s traditions through reflection and response and teachers help students experience the liturgy, times of prayer, retreats, and opportunities for Christian Service.


To fulfill her second goal, the author carefully maps out an extensive religious education program encompassing three areas: content, values, and pedagogy. To make her point, she documents each of these areas and elements relying on the religious education literature, the Bible, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, documents of the Second Vatican Council, other Church documents, and papal encyclicals. In mapping the content of her recommended religious education curriculum, she develops a list of fourteen topics (e.g., God, Church history, the sacraments, Catholic moral teaching, prayer), as well as twenty-five Gospel value statements (e.g., faith, justice, community), that need to be infused into the curriculum. Her religious education program also emphasizes a pedagogy that provides knowledge and allows students to reflect and respond. Personally, I find Engebretson’s work admirable for its comprehensiveness, the meticulous exploration of the literature, and the profound reflections on developing her religious education curriculum.


Engebretson argues that the future of the Church depends on how well Catholic schools can evangelize future Catholics and how well teachers and school leaders can socialize youth in their commitment to the Church. But the inclusivity of Catholic schools, in admitting students from various religious traditions, presents something of a dilemma: attempting to provide religious culture and socialization into the Catholic faith when most students are not Catholic begs the question of whether it is the role of Catholic schools to evangelize non-Catholic srudents. In this book, some argue that students of the Catholic faith should be given enrollment precedent over non-Catholic youth. But this is not practical for many Catholic schools, which would be forced to without non-Catholic student enrollment. Engebretson found that teachers and principals in these schools felt that they were following social justice teachings of the Church and the Gospels in admitting non-Catholic students.


In Australia, denominational schools are supported by the government, which encourages the establishment of many denominational schools. Additionally, Australian Catholic schools serve a smaller proportion of non-Catholics in Catholic schools than schools in the U.S.; it seems likely that the socialization of youth into a commitment to the Catholic Church would be taken for granted, especially by parents, in Australian Catholic schools. In contrast, there are numerous U.S. Catholic schools serving a majority of non-Catholics; the approach to religion and spirituality has taken a more scriptural and nondenominational Christian direction. Furthermore, the author sees the task of the Catholic school to commit itself to inter-religious dialogue and to ask students to study and reflect upon the theological arguments for inclusiveness. This makes it almost impossible for Catholic schools to be exclusive in their enrollment policies because a diversity of religions is needed for this dialog to occur.


It would seem that maintaining Catholic Schools is an expensive way to save the Church. I seriously doubt that more than 50% of adults who graduated from a Catholic high school would attribute their commitment to the Church to their religious education. It is a difficult act to teach the type of religious education program advocated by Engebretson, especially in schools where less than 50% of students are Catholic. Rather, many of these schools would say that their religious education program is geared toward teaching about the Church, rather than specific teachings of the Church. In contrast, a dynamic adult religious education within a parish setting might be more effective and certainly less expensive than maintaining a Catholic school. It is reasonable to assume that a parish-based religious education program would be just as effective because it would help strengthen family commitment to the Catholic Church. As Engebretson reported, family was the most frequently given response to her survey as the reason adults stayed committed to the Church. In addition, many young adults do not become serious about their church participation until they begin to form families. Thus, capturing commitment at this time—rather than adolescence—could prove to be lasting.


This study provides a starting point for additional research that compares the effectiveness of Catholic school religious education programs to a comprehensive adult or family-based parish religious education program. Such research would be enlightening about the roots of committed Catholicism.


This book should be read by all who care deeply about a school’s Catholic identity and its relationship to the future of the Church. This book is highly readable and wide-ranging in its portrayal of a religious education program for Catholic schools. For Catholic school principals, teachers, and anyone involved in the school’s religious education program, this book would be of great benefit.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 24, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17874, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 2:42:04 PM

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