From the Catholic Chaplain of the University of Surrey.
Sir, I have been following with interest the correspondence on your pages concerning the new catechetical programme Icons. As a university chaplain. I suppose have a particular interest in this subject, since the students I inherit from British Catholic schools have largely been through whatever is the latest educational religious programme used to instruct our children.
It is a well known fact that when they arrive at university, the overwhelming majority of Catholic students never take up the practice of the faith. Within the first week or two, they will have been presented with condoms and instructed how to use them, and told where to obtain free replacements.
They will probably receive sexual propositions, they will almost certainly encounter an offer of soft drugs such as marijuana and may well be offered hard ones such as ecstasy or worse.
They will almost certainly get in some serious drinking and partying (that is, if they've got any sort of a life). By comparison, Catholic life seems very dull; it can't compete, Students may well come to Mass once or twice, out of a sense of habit, but it doesn't take long for most to find excuses to do something else much more fun.
There are, of course, a number of factors involved: the change of habits, the absence of parental encouragement, the application of secular peer pressure, the inadequacy of the chaplaincy, and many others. But overwhelmingly we are confronted with the fact that the largest factor is that they do not consider that the kingdom of heaven presents much of a desireable alternative to the kingdom of this world.
Essentially, to the majority the faith does not appear to be believable; in most cases it has never been presented to them either confidently or systematically. They may label themselves Catholics, but they don't really believe in it. For most new undergraduates, the faith appears largely to be a network of restrictions; you must go to Mass on Sunday, you may never divorce, use contraception, sleep with whom you wish; there has never been any real attempt to make these things believable with the same passion, authority and conviction that other subjects are taught at school.
Rather, religion seems to be sort of art-like subject, with its substance largely a matter of personal inclination and liberal social responsibility, to be practised only by sad individuals with no lives and a had taste in haircuts.
For this the Religious Education in most schools has to take a fair share of the blame. There may well have been an attempt to make the faith attractive, at least from the teacher's perspective, but it seems never to have been taught in such a way as to satisfy the mind, the intellect, of its truth.
am amazed at the huge gaps in the most basic knowledge of the faith among my students. For instance, many understand the Mass to be a simple representation of the Last Supper, with no further depth. These students are not stupid — very often they are at the top of their departments intellectually — they have just never been taught what the Mass is about, except in the most general way.
The contention that the home is the place for the substance of the faith to be passed on is of course in one sense correct. But it makes the rash presumption that the parents are themselves well informed, intellectually equipped and have the time to do this.
Certainly, in the matter of the practice of the faith, in the virtues of good Christian living and the example of a holy life the role of the home is vital. But our religion is not just infused, it is also a revealed religion, and for this a certain quantity of instruction, necessary information if you like, is required.
And it has to be said that most of the parents of today's schoolchildren have never themselves had a thorough grounding in the doctrines of Catholic Christianity, and it is unrealistic to expect them to be able to pass this information on to their children. Nemo dat quad non habet, as the old saying goes: nobody can give what he hasn't got!
Catholic Schools were created not just to give a "Catholic ethos", but to also give education in the faith to children who otherwise would not receive it. If "ethos" 4 i all that a Catholic school can give, then to me this smacks uncomfortably of the ghetto, a segregation simply for its own sake, and it is not surprising that when confronted with the very different • atmosphere of the university that many students should be overwhelmed.
The often-heard contention that "the faith is caught not taught" is . • a very dangerous half-truth, and a half-truth is, after all, a half-lie, The faith is both caught and taught, there have to be both head and heart involved — something I have conic to realize as being hugely important if an individual's faith is to survive the batterings that even a relatively tranquil life can give it.
And after all, Our Lord makes it quite clear that the Christian is going to have to live in opposition to the standards of the kingdom of this world, and since this. is so, we need to make sure that our young people are equipped to withstand the temptations against and objections to the faith that . come their way.
It is not my place or my purpose to criticise our catechetical establishment. I hear and acknowledge the good will and expertise of those involved in the religious education of our children, but they really must listen to these concerns that have been expressed in the many letters to your paper and which have been repeated over many years. The old-fashioned. 'put up and shut up' attitude seems curiously out of place these days.
It is my hope that at least one out . of the many awaited new bishops will take this matter of catechesis seriously and implement in his • diocese some sort of a "control", experiment of thorough and systematic religious education. At least then we shall know one way, or another. .
Yours faithfully, SEAN A FINNEGAN, Guildford, Surrey GU2 7SL