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Children, Catholicism and Religious Education

30 November, 1999

This book by Anne Hession and Patricia Kieran brings a welcome clarity to the language and thought about the major issues in the debate about Catholic religious education.

393 pp, Veritas, 2005. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie .


Abbreviations (see at the end of this extract)

  1. Clearing the ground: religious education in Catholic primary schools
  2. A brief history of religious education in the Irish primary school
  3. A vision of catholic education
  4. Christian religious education: purpose and process
  5. Understanding the child: potential and promise
  6. Educating for Catholic identity: contemporary challenges
  7. Teaching in a religiously diverse context
  8. Gender and religious education in the primary classroom

Brief chronology of religious education in Ireland




This book gives an overview and critical analysis of a Catholic approach to religious education at the primary level. The opening chapter is particularly clarifying in that it distinguishes catechesis, religious education and religious instruction. Also helpful is the distinction the authors make within religious education between the ‘faith formation dimension’ and the ‘critical education dimension’.

Other topics include: the history of primary religious education in Ireland; the challenge of teaching in a religiously diverse context; the purposes and processes of Christian religious education; a Catholic vision of education; the spirituality of the child; and gender in religious education.

The book is a valuable resource for students at undergraduate or postgraduate level as well as those with a general interest in  religious education.




In all walks of life it is good to examine carefully what one is about. Similarly, primary teachers need to think about the kind of religious education that can be carried out in primary schools. This chapter attempts to ‘clear the ground’ for such reflection, by suggesting an educational language for primary religious education today. The chapter closes with some suggestions for the curriculum of religious education in Catholic primary schools. However, before we outline forms of religious education found in Catholic primary schools, we need to clarify what education is and what difference it makes to put the word ‘religious’ in front of the word ‘education’.


Education is the human practice of teaching and learning which seeks to sustain and enhance people’s capacity to discover the meaning and significance of life and to develop as persons in community. Education fosters peoples’ capacity to answer the questions: What is the truth? How do I know it is true? What does the truth mean? How should I live? What kind of person can I become? What kind of society should I help create? To what shall I commit myself? In other words, education enables students to decide what is true and what kind of human life it is good to lead. It does so by helping them to acquire intellectual, moral and religious virtues that enhance their own lives and those of their friends and communities. Education fosters the maturity of pupils in a way that embraces their physical, intellectual, affective, aesthetic, spiritual, moral and religious development throughout their lives.

Education fosters the personal development of students. The realisation of the human spirit – spirituality – is an integral part of this process. Spirituality describes the way in which we pursue truth and goodness by relating to the reality of ourselves, other people, the universe and some source of value beyond and bigger than ourselves (for example, God). This source of ultimate value is often referred to as ‘the Transcendent’. Spiritual development involves the ability to go beyond the conscious self in a movement towards other people, towards the world and towards this transcendent source. Religions enhance spiritual development by directing people’s attention to an ultimate source of transcendence for their lives and by inviting them to explore different ways of knowing and being. Religions offer a particular vision of human life and of the goals of human development. They aim to bring human beings to the fullness of humanity by opening them up to the transcendent. (2)

Religions challenge and invite people to adopt a certain vision of reality as that which is truly true or really real. They address the issue of human significance through challenging people with questions of meaning. In addition, religions offer an ideal of conduct and character to which people may aspire. They redefine what counts as human flourishing or development, often inviting adherents to engage in practices such as fasting, self-sacrifice, reflection and prayer as an integral part of human living. For instance, the Christian follower of Jesus is invited to live in a way that may not lead to the kind of success which the world espouses. It will however lead to true happiness and fulfilment with God, both in this world and in the next. The ultimate goal of Christian spiritual development is an ever-deepening relationship with God such that God’s ways become one’s own.

Religious education
Religious education brings religion and education together. It is the educational process by which people are invited to explore the human religious traditions that protect and illuminate the transcendent dimension of their lives. (3)  Though the foundation of religious education is religion, it is linked to and dependent on education as a discipline. Religious education is a lifelong process and can occur in many different contexts such as the family, the community and the school. Religious education can be examined from two perspectives, which are outlined below.

First, religious education invites people to acquire the knowledge, forms of knowing, attitudes, values, skills and sensibilities that being religious involves. This is an integral part of human development. The goal is a heightened awareness of the presence of the Transcendent in human life. Religious education enables students to develop religious modes of thinking, feeling and doing which touch on the transcendent dimension of their lives through the resources and practices of religious traditions. This process should lead to both personal and social transformation. From this first perspective, the study of religion involves helping students to respond to transcendence by becoming that which religious ways of thinking, feeling and doing enable them to become, namely fully human.

The second perspective from which one can examine religious education concerns the need to teach people to think critically about religion. This need stems from the fact that people ought to be free to accept or reject what is taught in religion. Human beings are fundamentally free; they are invited to explore religion, but cannot be coerced into it. Critical religious education enables people to liberate themselves from the conditioning that prevents them from making choices in religion which are both free and consistent. Critical religious education also teaches people to study religion objectively from a distance, examining their own religion in relation to other religious and non-religious options. The capacity to reflect critically in this way develops as the person matures.

Critical religious education also allows people to discern whether their quest for the true and the good is enhanced or impeded by religion as it manifests itself in their particular time and place. John Hull argues that the critique of religion is necessary because of the highly ambiguous nature of religion. By this he means that religions can become corrupt and false, encouraging a diminished and degrading kind of human development. They can become focused on themselves rather than on the goal of religion, which is spiritual development in the context of transcendence. Hence there is need to help people both to appreciate the richness of religion, its liberating and life-enhancing aspects, and to discern when religion becomes oppressive and detrimental to their integral human development. (4)

Theology is one mode of understanding religion. Religion can also be studied by means of disciplines such as anthropology, history, psychology, philosophy and sociology. These disciplines enable religious educators to understand the processes by which people acquire religion. Such processes include the ability to think religiously, to participate in ritual, to engage in religious practices and so on. There need not be any conflict between having a strong commitment to a revealed religion (for example, Christianity) whilst asserting that the human context within which people become religious can and must be the subject of scientific investigation and philosophical reflection. Religious educators draw upon the best educational research and social-scientific theories available to them as they discern how to educate religiously in different settings.

Religious education need not be undertaken with the assumption that people will commit to one particular religious way of life. It may, for example, happen in a context in which people explore religious questions and issues, drawing from the resources of many different religions. Nevertheless, religious education should be carried out in such a way that students are invited to align what they know, who they become and how they live. Those who learn from a religion in religious education should be expected to adopt some elements of that religion’s spirituality leading to ‘human development’, ‘healing’, ‘meaning’, ‘purpose,’ ‘faith’, or ‘salvation’. (5)  In sum, while the degree of emphasis placed on different religions varies according to the context in which religious education takes place, all religious education is formative in nature: it should enable students to become aware of and respond to the transcendent dimension of their lives.

Christian religious education
Christian religious education occurs when the Christian religious community draws on its specific tradition to sponsor religious education. Christian religious education denotes the educational process of teaching and learning the Christian religion. (6)   It enables students to acquire the knowledge, beliefs, skills, values, attitudes and sensibilities that being Christian involves. The central aim of Christian religious education is to bring students to the knowledge of God the Father, through Jesus, in the Spirit. Therefore, all decisions concerning curriculum, religion programmes and methodology in Christian religious education serve the goal of inviting students to become disciples of Jesus in loving God and serving humanity.

The work of Christian religious education is informed by education, thus enabling teachers to decide which forms of Christian religious education (for example, community, prayer, social justice activities, instruction) are appropriate to different educational contexts. (7)  Christian religious education is lifelong and is realised in many different settings, including Christian schools.  Finally, Christian religious education carried out within contemporary multicultural and multi-faith societies may include the study of the other great spiritual traditions of humanity in ways that promote understanding, dialogue and community with people of other religious traditions and none.

Christian religious education in a Roman Catholic context (8)
In the Catholic religious community, Christian religious education is carried out in accordance with the doctrines, practices and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. Catholicism presents its own particular perspective on the task of Christian religious education although religious education in the Catholic tradition has much in common with other forms of Christian religious education (Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist). Catholic religious education should not be a sectarian or narrowly denominational enterprise, but should aim to promote genuine movement towards the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. While teaching from within the particularity of the Catholic educational tradition, religious educators should have a genuine openness to all other religious educators, Christian and non-Christian alike.

Religious education takes place in many different settings including the home, the religious faith community and the school. The school provides an institutional context for educational activity and the structure of contemporary schools determines the range of educational activities that can be legitimately carried out there. The main focus of religious education in the school is the classroom-centered religious education lesson. This kind of religious education is often called religious instruction and is based on a set curriculum which is integrated with other subject curricula in the school.

In addition, religious education can be understood within the wider religious, cultural and institutional framework of the school. In denominational schools, for example, there is a clear link between the kind of religious education undertaken and the requirement to uphold and enhance the school’s specific religious ethos. In this context religious education extends beyond the classroom-centered lesson to encompass various activities going on in the school; for example, participation in community worship and involvement in action for social justice. (9)

What kind of religious education is practised within a denominational primary school setting? The intention of the following reflections is to name the different forms and processes of religious education which might be found in Catholic primary schools. It is expected that there will be differences in the extent to which the various dimensions of religious education outlined will occur in any particular school. The aim is to offer some clear educational distinctions for teachers about the different dimensions of their work rather than be excessively prescriptive.

Gabriel Moran, the eminent American religious education theorist, argues that the practice of religious education has two aspects, or ‘faces’. These aspects correspond to the two perspectives on religious education explored at the beginning of this chapter. Religious education involves two types of learning: one focused on learning how to live a religious life, the other on learning for the sake of understanding. Both aims are required for intelligent religious life in contemporary pluralist, multi-religious societies. Indeed, Moran claims, it is in the tension between these two aspects of religious education that the logic of religion emerges. He explains that the ‘paradoxical logic of religion’ is that ‘the universal is approached not by abstracting from the particular but by going more deeply into it’. Pluralism in religion emerges from the manner in which the universal and the particular are held in tension. Therefore, every human being should have an opportunity to learn how to practise a particular religious way of life and have an appreciative understanding of the religions of others. (10)

Religious education in most Catholic primary schools incorporates both of these dimensions of religious education that Moran outlines. For the purposes of conceptual clarity we will call them the ‘faith formation dimension’ and the ‘critical educational dimension’. (11)   The former is strongly informed by the relationship between religion and religious education; the latter draws its language mainly from the philosophical and educational domains. There should be a creative and interdependent relationship between these two aspects of religious education in Irish Catholic primary schools.

In the reflections that follow, each of the dimensions of religious education will first be described in general terms. Then the specific Catholic interpretation and manifestation of these dimensions will be examined. Finally, there will follow a reflection on how these dimensions influence the shape of religious education in Catholic primary schools.

Religious education as formation
The first aspect of religious education outlined by Moran describes the way in which experienced and devoted members of a religious group try to form new members who will carry on the practices and mission of the group. The root metaphors describing this process are formation, socialisation, enculturation, induction, and initiation. Formation refers to personal development: the process whereby a person’s way of being, knowing and doing are shaped and transformed by religious education. All education is formative whether or not educators consciously engage in formation. Socialisation refers to the reality that all formation involves the learning of roles and how to negotiate interpersonal relationships within a particular religious group. Likewise, enculturation is the process whereby a person learns a religion’s cultural symbols, rituals, rites and values. This process can be conscious or unconscious.

Induction describes an entry process – the journey or path towards full and mature membership of a particular religious group.  Initiation is about entry into a particular religious practice or course of action. It often involves a trial and some form of introductory rite which marks the change in the person’s life brought about by this new life course. Initiation is something undertaken by choice by those who wish to adopt and live a distinct religious identity, for example, those who freely choose to become Christians. The intention is that the person who is initiated becomes part of the religious group and engages in the practices of that religion. The assumption is that both teacher and learner in the situation of initiation are adherents of the same religious faith.

Religious formation often involves providing opportunities for students to immerse themselves in the practices – ritual, aesthetic, ethical – of a religious community. (12)   Becoming religious in this way means adopting the ways of thinking, feeling and acting characteristic of adherents of that particular religion. According to commentators, it is only when one approaches a religion from within – by engaging in religious practices, learning its forms of religious knowing, imitating models of that particular religious way of life – that one truly experiences what it means to be religious. Furthermore, it appears that people who have acquired a strong religious identity in this way are capable of genuine dialogue with adherents of other religions. (13)

Religious formation in a Catholic context

Within Catholic circles, one often refers to this aspect of religious education by using the language of catechetics (with its associated words catechesis, catechist, catechise and catechism). (14)   Catechesis describes the educational process whereby the good news of the gospel is announced and the faith of the Church is handed on to believers in the Church community. It takes place in the local Church community over the whole of a person’s lifetime. The educational agent and the process whereby catechesis occurs is the lived life of the Christian community or congregation. Hence, while catechesis is primarily the responsibility of bishops, as recognised leaders of the local community, all members of the Church have a responsibility for catechesis. (15)

Catechesis is an option chosen by those who wish to become Christians or by parents who choose at baptism to nurture their child in Christian faith. (16)   The heart of catechesis is initiation into the way of Jesus and it ‘presupposes that the hearer is receiving the Christian message as a salvific reality’. (17)   Its process is therefore one of evangelisation and conversion to Jesus Christ. Catechesis presumes an initial conversion and openness to ongoing conversion. Furthermore, there is a clear linkage in catechesis between instruction and sacramental ritual. Catechesis is grounded in the bible and takes place in the context of worship. Through the experience of learning about the faith, liturgy, morality and prayer, ‘catechesis prepares the Christian to live in community and to participate actively in the life and mission of the Church’ (GDC 86). For this aspect of religious education, catechists draw on contemporary literature such as Catechesis in our Time (1979), The General Directory for Catechesis (1997), The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) and the documents of the Second Vatican Council. (18)

Religious instruction
Religious instruction also aims to form students in the Christian religion. It involves the academic study of religion in the classroom context. Church documents clearly distinguish this form of religious education from catechesis. For example, The General Directory for Catechesis states that catechesis should be seen as distinct from and yet complementary to religious instruction in Catholic schools, and that  ‘… religious instruction in schools should appear as a scholastic discipline with the same rigour as other disciplines’ (#73).  The aim of such religious instruction is the learning of forms of religious knowing and the acquisition of knowledge of religious beliefs and practices, neither of which require a faith commitment in principle. This instruction fosters an understanding of the Christian way of religious knowing, of the teachings of the gospel, and of the call to discipleship. Religious instruction aims to promote genuine understanding of the Christian religion and of Christian forms of religious knowing, among baptised and nonbaptised students alike.

Religious education as formation in the Catholic primary school
The overarching perspective for teaching and learning in religion in Catholic primary schools is the Roman Catholic tradition, its beliefs and practices. This is so because Catholic primary schools support the educational value of being grounded in a particular faith tradition to the extent that it informs one’s worldview and lived commitments. The distinguishing characteristic of the Catholic school is its religious dimension, which creates a climate in the school which is permeated by the gospel spirit of freedom and love.

The Catholic approach to religious education is both theological and confessional.(19)   It involves, where appropriate, the intentional nurturing of a religious commitment to Jesus Christ through various educational practices. The Catholic school ideally forms part of a network of interlocking and mutually supportive institutions and people who welcome, nurture, educate and motivate the child to identify with the Church and its mission. In this context, the Catholic school is an agency of religious formation for the Church. Appropriately, therefore some of the work of religious formation is carried on in such a school.

Parents who have chosen at baptism that their child be Christian welcome the support of Catholic schools as they carry out their responsibilities to offer their child a Christian formation. In other words, there is an understanding that these children have come to the Catholic school to be formed in their faith. In these situations, school-based catechetical activities such as liturgies and prayer, retreats and reflection days, outreach and social justice activities provide a connection between the school and the larger faith community which nurtures the growing child. These activities are carried on in the name of, with the approval of, and under the guidance of the bishop in each diocese, and contribute to the formative process by which students become part of the local Church community.

The more particular contribution of the Catholic school (as opposed to other educational agencies in the Church) to the formative aspect of religious education is that it enables the students to become religiously literate in the Christian religious tradition as their ability to do so develops. To this end, Catholic beliefs, narratives and practices are taught in a systematic, comprehensive, and age-appropriate fashion through classroom-based religious education programs. For Catholic students, religious instruction in school complements the work of catechesis carried out in the home, the school and in the parish community. The General Directory for Catechesis states that ‘when given in the context of the Catholic school, religious instruction is part of and completed by other forms of the ministry of the word (catechesis, homilies, liturgical celebration, etc.)’ (GDC no.74).  The vision of the Directory is that religious education in the Catholic school includes some elements of catechesis as well as the teaching of Catholic beliefs and practices in programmes of classroom-based religious instruction. In summary, current Church thinking seems to accept that elements of both catechesis and religious instruction can contribute to the formative dimension of religious education in the Catholic primary school.

Other headings of this chapter include:

Religious education as critical education
Critical religious education in a Catholic context
Critical religious education in the Catholic primary school


A Catholic philosophy of education
Dilemma for teachers
The traditional Catholic school: a model under strain
Looking to the Future

1. Joseph Dunne, ‘Arguing for Teaching as a Practice’, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 37: 2 (2003), p. 368.
2. John M. Hull, ‘Spirituality, Religion, Faith: Mapping the Territory’, p. 6. www.johnmhull.biz/accessed 16/02/04.
3. This is an adaptation of Dwayne Huebner’s definition of religious education in ‘Education in the Church’, AndoverNewton Quarterly, Vol. 12, January 1972, p.125.
4. Hull, ‘Spirituality, Religion, Faith’, p.6. Hull defines religious education as a discipline within the critical social sciences whose goal is human freedom. Religious education incorporates activities of both affirmation and critique, enabling people to enter religion in a way which truly serves their integral human development. John M. Hull, ‘Religion and Education in a Pluralist Society’, pp.3-4. Article on John M Hull’s website www.johnmhull.biz/.
5. The British educator Michael Grimmitt proposes that pupils in secular schools may learn from religions as they are exposed to religious questions and are enabled to explore how these questions impact their own developing sense of identity. Grimmitt distinguishes between learning religion in the mode of transmissive models of education, learning about religion in an objective manner, and learning from religion. The value of this last point is that it suggests an educational perspective which asks ‘what is the educational advantage to be gained by the study of religion?’ Michael Grimmitt, Religious Education and Human Development, Great Wakering, Essex: England, McCrimmon Publishing Co. LTD, 1987, p. 225.
On religions of salvation and liberation see John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion, New Haven: Yale University Press; London: Macmillan, 1989, chap., 3 and passim.
6. Jeff Astley, The Philosophy of Christian Religious Education, Birmingham, Ala.: Religious Education Press, 1994, pp. 9, 14.
7. See chapter four in this volume where some of the forms of religious education appropriate to the primary school are outlined.
8. The Catholic Church’s distinct theological and philosophical vision for the religious dimension of education is outlined in chapter three of this book.
9. In Ireland a religion has a constitutional right to administer schools with its own ethos. A parent has a constitutional right to have his or her child educated religiously, with the assistance of the state. If non-Catholics want their children to attend a Catholic school, they attend it freely accepting the Catholic school as it is. The child withdraws from the religious instruction, but accepts the Catholic ethos in general.
10. Gabriel Moran, ‘The Aims of Religious Education’ in Maria Harris and Gabriel Moran, Reshaping Religious Education: Conversations on Contemporary Practice, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1998, p.30, 39-41.
11. This distinction was suggested to me by Astley’s description of
formative education and critical education. Astley, Philosophy, p.78. The value of these categories is that they enable us to recognise that Christian nurture/ socialisation is legitimately described as education as opposed to training or indoctrination.  The language of education must be used for each aspect of
religious education as both depend on the science of education (and thus to the many other sciences which inform education) for their effectiveness. On the importance of educational language see Thomas H. Groome, Christian Religious Education, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980, pp. 23-27; Gabriel Moran, ‘Religious Education after Vatican II’ in David Efroymson and John Raines (eds), Open Catholicism: The Tradition at its Best, Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1997, pp. 156-7; and Astley, Philosophy, pp. 24-29.
12. Moran, ‘Religious Education after Vatican II’ ,p.153.
13. See Hobson and Edwards, Religious Education in a Pluralist Society, p. 39, for the idea that children need to begin with a ‘primary paradigm.’
14. The word catechesis comes from the Greek verb katéchein, which means ‘to resound, ‘to echo,’ or ‘to hand down’. The etymology of the word implies an oral instruction and this is the meaning that has prevailed through much of Church history. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council speak of catechesis as instruction and place it within the ‘ministry of the word’. In recent years catechesis has been understood as a subcategory within evangelisation the function of which is to ‘promote and mature initial conversion, educate the convert in the faith and incorporate him(sic) into the Christian community’  (GOC, no. 61). This rearranges the pattern of the early Church in that the first Christian communities recognised evangelisation and catechesis as two distinct functions in the Church’s mission.
15. Kieran Scott, ‘A middle way: the road not travelled’, The Living Light, 37:4, (2001), p. 41. The ecclesial nature of catechesis is emphasized again and again in the GDC nos 77, 78, 87, 105, 106, 141.
16. RBOC, nos 77, 93.
17. RDECS, nos. 68, 69.
18. It is important to note that Church catechetical documents generally provide principles of pastoral theology rather than educational theory as such.
19. Theological approaches to the study of religious education cover conceptual and doctrinal issues from an insider’s descriptive point of view.   Other approaches that look at religion from an empirical, descriptive position include the phenomenological, sociological, and historical approaches. Hobson and Edwards, Religious Education in a Pluralist Society. p. 22.



CCC  – The Catechism of the Catholic Church 1992.
CT – Catechesis in our Time 1979.
GDC – The General Directory for Catechesis 1997.
RBOC – The Rite of Baptism for One Child 1969.
RDECS – The Religious Dimension of Education in the Catholic School 1988.


Abbreviations in the text and footnotes

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