Study Boosts Parish Religious Ed Programs: Learning on Par with Catholic School Students

Article excerpt

A recently released study reports that the often-maligned parish religious education programs are on par with Catholic schools in imparting a basic understanding of church doctrine.

The findings refute the widely held conviction that Catholic schools are vastly superior to the parish programs in passing on the faith. The study raises questions about whether the church's emphasis on Catholic schools should go unchallenged if similar results can be achieved in parish programs, which accomodate a much larger number of children.

The report, conducted by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., also recommends that teachers in the parish programs, now mostly volunteers, be paid; that parishes charge a fee for the courses; and that a "career path" be created for the lay ministry.

Toward Shaping the Agenda: A Study of Catholic Religious Education / Catechesis used data collected in the fall of 1992 from 1,822 parishes out of a random sample of 4,000 parishes contacted. The study was funded by the Lilly Endowment of Indianapolis.

While it is unknown what effect the study will ultimately have on education policy, several groups, including an independent agency and several official church groups, have already met to discuss the findings.

"The onus now is on those who are critics of parish education programs to demonstrate why Catholic school programs are so vastly superior and why bishops should continue to put the majority of very limited resources into schools," said Neil Parent, executive director of the National Conference of Catechetical Leadership, an independent organization of religious educators. The conference is one of the groups that advocates improving parish courses, formerly called Confraternity of Christian Doctrine or CCD. The courses are normally held once a week.

The study gives a significant boost to those who argue that the church spends inordinate time and resources on Catholic schools -- which serve about 15 percent of the Catholic school-age population -- and does little for the overwhelming majority of Catholic children who either attend parish programs or receive no religious education.

Nationally, church agencies have lobbied for tuition tax credits and, locally, dioceses and parishes often underwrite some of the costs of education, hold special fundraisers and develop endowment funds to help pay for Catholic schools.

The study "points out that those parishes investing in those programs that have full-time (directors of religious education) have a very positive impact ... that the faith knowledge is not that different from what is happening in Catholic schools," said Robert Colbert, executive director of the department of religious education for the National Catholic Educational Association. …