RELIGIOUS education at secondary level – it’s a thorny subject, make no mistake about it. On the one hand, pupils switch off when it’s on the menu, and on the other hand, teachers aren’t pushed about trying to get it across to the disinterested.
A classic example of this situation was revealed to me some years ago when I attended the annual parent-teachers’ day at a convent my daughters were attending. When I had my few minutes with the nun who was teaching religion to daughter No 2, she assured me I had nothing to worry about. “She’s in the good half of the class,” she said.
Instantly alert, I sought clarification. “It’s like this,” she explained, “half of the girls don’t want to know so they sit around doing nothing, while the rest of us get on with it, and your daughter is one of those prepared to learn.”
At the time I was horrified to think that this good nun had given up on half her class, but in hindsight I have nothing but sympathy for her. The percentage of those opting out nowadays is probably even higher than 50 per cent, so she was doing OK.
Fast forward 15 years, and I’m sitting at the dinner table with my family around me. Conversation had waned, but there was something on my mind - I was keen to introduce the I Test.
“What,” I asked my startled brood (four, ranging in age from 21 to 32), “is the difference between the Immaculate Conception and the Incarnation?”
Brows furrowed as they thought about it - just as I had done all those years ago when I used to confuse the two, both doctrines of the Catholic Church to be believed by all who profess the Faith.
But how can you believe in a doctrine of the Church if you don’t know what it means in the first place? It’s a classic Catch 22 situation with a religious dimension.
While most people’s faith is formed in the home, their understanding of the Church’s doctrines comes under the heading of religious education. So, how well are our children being taught these fundamentals of the faith?
Judging by the responses of my quartet, the answer is: not too well. They responded with the usual confusion and not a little bluff, without hitting the target. As apologists for their faith, they wouldn’t have earned a pass.
Am I worried? Yes, I am, and so should every parent sending their child to an Irish Catholic school today, with some notable exceptions.
Some years ago I read a cri de coeur from UCG Professor Breandan O Madagain who was highly critical of the religious education his (grown) children had received in secondary school. It was not designed, he said, to equip them to meet the pressures of the modern world. His plea was published in The Furrow, a periodical which would have made its way to every Bishop’s office, yet the response from the hierarchy has been non-existent.
If the present crisis in religious education occurred in a civic area, the Government would set up a Tribunal of Inquiry, or set experts working on a Green Paper or a White Paper to determine future policy. Similarly, Catholic parents should insist on action on this issue before it is too late and another generation emerges from the system with little or no ability to explain their faith.
Finally, in relation to the I Test, the principal difference between the Immaculate Conception and the Incarnation is that the former relates to Our Lady and the latter to Christ. The Immaculate Conception of Our Lady is God’s gift to her: free from sin from her conception. The significance of this doctrine, which was only formalised in 1854, is obvious to any one involved in the Pro-Life movement. Simply stated, if God adorns the moment of conception with this special gift to Mary, can we be in any doubt about the importance to Him of every child from conception?
The Incarnation refers, of course, God becoming man in the womb of Mary. It is not explicable by reason alone, but its mystery is an article of faith which we are bound to believe. Most of us learn about it as children gathered round the Christmas crib; it’s only later that the wonder recedes and the doubts emerge.
To know where you stand, it helps to take the I Test every now and then and to ponder on these two great doctrines of the Church.