What is really motivating the Federal Government's drive to install more chaplains in Australian schools? Genuine concern for the wellbeing of all school communities and the children at their heart? Or is this a cynical game play in the culture wars, set to inflame old and new divisions in Australian society - between Maoists and Marists, between the secular and the sacred, between heathens and harlots and those deadset for heaven?
It's hard to answer those questions. We are told $20,000 will be available to be handed to any school, anywhere, to subsidise chaplaincy services providing pastoral care and spiritual guidance. Those Australians whose knees jerk fearfully at the prospect of more meddling priests have been assured these chaplains will not be expected to have a religious background. Yet they will be required to provide religious support to students.
Will this involve placing particular tenets of Judeo-Christian faith within a wider framework of philosophy and meaning - encouraging comparisons with theorists such as Marx, Mill, Locke, Steiner, Gandhi and Suzuki? Will it mean fostering an understanding of Islam that goes beyond stereotypes and media hype? How much latitude will be allowed to the still-influential minority of Christian clergy whose core views on sexuality are not too far removed from the "uncovered meat" sentiment of the much-maligned Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali?
Will quality and content control of chaplaincy services be left to each school's principal, governing body and parents and citizens' committee? What options will be available to individual pupils, and their parents, who do not agree with "their" school community's approach? Who will resolve any conflict between stakeholders?
On the one hand, it seems that one feature of the scheme may be light on external governance, which has apparently found favour with Queensland Council of Parents and Citizens Association president Brett Devenish, reported speaking out in favour of chaplaincy programs that aren't "bogged down by processes of procedure and things like that". On the other hand, John Howard has said the Federal Government will reserve the right in "extreme" circumstances to withhold funding when it does not think a chaplain is "appropriate", because it is taxpayers who will be bankrolling this scheme.
Aren't taxpayers also entitled to know what criteria will be applied to assess fitness for service, and by whom, and with what rights of reply or appeal?
Only the churlish or wilfully blind would deny that Australia's young people, across the board, could benefit from better values education. Clearly there's a need to do more to head off behaviour of the kind surrounding the notorious Werribee DVD. This case is just the nastiest visible tip of a much bigger iceberg of behaviour showing contempt or disregard for the weakest in our society. And there are clear connections between this attitude and the widespread failure - by political leaders and parents as much as any school-based educators - to question the morality of the market unplugged.
At their best, and in line with some of the best of Australia's religious tradition, that kind of questioning is what all schools should encourage those in their charge to do. In a lecture several years ago, the Reverend Michael Webber, a former Anglican dean of Hobart and one dedicated to expanding his community's understanding of the intersections between faith and education, said: "Observation and inquiry go on all the time, and in this process fearless honesty, such as good old Socrates showed, is essential if the truly good life is to be lived … Any school worth its salt ought to have as its aim the harmonious blending of personal development with a growing sense of social responsibility."
More recently Labor's Kevin Rudd, writing in The Monthly about church and state, reminded us that the purpose of the church is not to be socially agreeable; it is to speak robustly to the state on behalf of those who cannot speak effectively for themselves. It remains to be seen if Howard's new army of chaplains will add this kind of much-needed value.
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