Contemporary Contexts of School Religious Education

Four contexts have been identified as having a significant impact on Religious Education in contemporary Catholic and ecumenical schools. They are the Societal Context, Ecclesial Context, Educational Context and Digital Context. No one context can be ignored and each offers opportunities and challenges to schools as they endeavour to deliver high quality Religious Education in faithful and authentically responsive ways.

Societal Context
The Catholic and ecumenical schools of the Archdiocese of Brisbane operate in a complex and ever-changing environment. Contemporary students are immersed in a global world and from an early age are exposed to a range of values represented through diverse media. Most students have some awareness of the diverse cultures, religions and belief systems of the world. In this context, the Catholic Christian tradition may be seen as one option among many. Students in Archdiocesan schools are part of the broader Australian culture that promotes tolerance of, and provides legal protection for, a range of religious beliefs and practices. While the contribution of religious groups in addressing social disadvantage and promoting social welfare is recognised and respected, many Australians are uncertain of and at times, indifferent to, the relevance of beliefs and practices of religion in their daily lives.

Catholic and ecumenical schools embrace families from a wide range of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. Parents enrol their children in Archdiocesan schools for a variety of reasons. While many parents want their children to experience Catholic Christian values and traditions, some do not fully understand the foundational nature and central importance of the religious and spiritual dimension of Catholic education.

As a consequence, schools are continually challenged to engage families in Religious Education in rich and relevant ways.

In this way the Catholic school’s public role is clearly perceived. It has not come into being as a private initiative, but as an expression of the reality of the Church, having by its nature a public character. It fulfils a service of public usefulness...decidedly configured in the perspective of the Catholic faith (The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, 1997, n.16).​

Therefore, Religious Education in the Archdiocese of Brisbane seeks to reflect a Catholic Christian worldview that integrates faith, life and culture. At the same time it seeks to embrace an ecumenical perspective and reflect the multi-faith context and reality of contemporary schools and colleges.

Ecclesial Context
Brisbane Catholic Education’s research project, Who’s coming to school today? (2009), confirmed the experience of many teachers and school leaders about the religious engagement of students and their families. An increasing number of students and their families are less engaged with the formal life of the Church than in the past. Consequently, for many students, the culture and language of religion is underdeveloped.

The claim is frequently made that Australians have a hesitancy in matters of religion and spirituality and a limited capacity to articulate and publicly proclaim their religious beliefs and spiritual values. This reluctance to speak about religious matters can lead to perceptions that many are disinterested in religion but this is not necessarily the case. An inconsistent or infrequent involvement in the formal life of the Church does not necessarily equate with a disinterest in religious and spiritual matters. As an integral expression of Church, schools have the opportunity to support students and their families by connecting them with the Catholic Christian tradition and its spiritual richness; providing a forum in which this tradition can be experienced and explored. Religious Education serves to provide students with a religious voice that they can bring to everyday life experience; a lens through which they might view the world.

Catholic and ecumenical schools increasingly provide the introductory and developmental understanding and experience of Church for students and their families. This is supported when the school is a place where students and their families encounter the mission and outreach of the Church, especially through pastoral care and the experience of Catholic Christian community.

It is from its Catholic identity that the school derives its authenticity and form as a genuine place of real and specific pastoral ministry. The Catholic school participates in the evangelising mission of the Church and is a privileged environment in which Christian education is carried out (The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, 1997, n.11).

Therefore, Religious Education in the Archdiocese of Brisbane seeks to promote knowledge, deep understanding and skills about the Catholic and broader Christian tradition within the broader evangelising mission of the Church (Strategic Renewal Framework for Catholic Schooling, Archdiocese of Brisbane, 2012 - 2016).

Educational Context
Each Archdiocesan school seeks transformation of the whole person so that those in the school community are empowered to live the gospel of Jesus Christ in their everyday lives. In the Catholic Christian tradition, education is a work of love and service. Schools seek to nurture and develop the faith of individuals in ways that are mindful of their cultural and religious identity.

The school is primarily a place for learning and teaching. Individually and collectively the Catholic and ecumenical schools of the Archdiocese of Brisbane seek to educate all to live the gospel of Jesus Christ by being empowered to shape and enrich our world (Brisbane Catholic Education Learning and Teaching Framework, 2012).

The scope of education has broadened and become increasingly complex. Rapid and constant social change requires the development of fresh educational frameworks and approaches and the building of new capacities to meet the demands of the present and the future. Educators are constantly challenged to respond to the realities they face in the light of their evangelising mission to live and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. In short, Archdiocesan schools are called to be relevant; to read the signs of the times by integrating faith, life and culture.

Catholic and ecumenical schools seek to be counter-cultural, challenging negative societal influences that impact upon the spiritual wellbeing of their students, such as excessive individualism, moral relativism and consumerism. In doing so, educators in their mission of evangelisation also draw upon positive social values such as care for the environment, justice and peace, outreach to the poor and the marginalised and community service.

In the Catholic school’s educational project there is no separation between time for learning and time for formation, between acquiring notions and growing in wisdom (The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium, 1997, n.14).

Therefore, Religious Education in the Archdiocese of Brisbane builds on best practice of the broader educational community. The classroom learning and teaching of religion reflects the philosophy, content, structure, academic rigour and assessment and reporting modes used in other learning areas. The religious life of the school forms and skills students to negotiate the tension of maintaining Christian integrity when confronted with the complexities of life in contemporary society.

Digital Context
The rapid growth in the development and use of technology continues to impact significantly on schools. An increasing number of students are skilled in their use of electronic and digital resources, regularly using mobile devices as their preferred means of communication. This enables them to engage in new ways of belonging and have access to a world of ideas and knowledge literally at their fingertips. Definitions of “community” have changed to include not just a physical sense of community but also connections between people in digital communities.

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These advances in the way society accesses and engages with information and networks has created new forms of language and expression with their associated cultures and sub-cultures, imagery and rituals. This digital context provides opportunities and challenges to school communities as they seek new ways of promoting the religious development and spiritual formation of students. As Pope Benedict XVI has acknowledged:

These technologies are truly a gift to humanity and we must endeavour to ensure that the benefits they offer are put at the service of all human individuals and communities, especially those who are most disadvantaged and vulnerable (Message for the 43rd World Communications Day, 2009).

Therefore, Religious Education in the Archdiocese of Brisbane seeks to engage students in the critical, creative, and responsible use of digital tools which is an important component of digital citizenship. This enables them to express their learning in rich and relevant ways and connect with individuals and communities in a global context.