Pell's Catholic school revolution

Sydney, Australia - THE Catholic Church wants to discourage non-Catholic families from enrolling their children in its schools under a return to strict religious values.

Church leaders headed by Cardinal George Pell yesterday issued an edict to all Catholic schools, demanding that students and their parents be more devout and outlining a plan to lure back thousands of poorer families who have left the system.

The Church will not ban non-Catholic students from enrolment - it says it considered, but rejected, plans for a formal "downsizing to accommodate only those who are committed to the faith".

But it wants to introduce a new four- way selection test to give preference first to children from the school's local parish, then to other Catholics, other Christians and finally children from other religions.

The state's 585 Catholic schools have been urged to "re-examine how they might maximise enrolment of Catholic students".

The edict also tells Catholic schools to increase the proportion of school staff who are "practising and knowledgeable Catholics".

Catholic families will be urged to "maximise their participation".

Students and younger teaching staff will be encouraged to take part in religious events such as World Youth Day.

Church leaders want more people at Sunday Mass and deeper involvement in the life of the local church by students and ex-students.

Fears that the drift of Catholics away from the Church's schools is seriously "watering down" numbers of the faithful has forced Cardinal Pell and other Catholic leaders to take action in a bid to reverse the trend.

Enrolment of students from a non-Catholic background in Catholic schools across the State has more than doubled to 20 per cent over the last two decades.

In a rare pastoral letter, "Catholic Schools at a Crossroads", the Bishops of NSW and the ACT admit changes in enrolment patterns have "radically affected the composition and roles of the Catholic school. . .".

The letter, with Cardinal Pell as head signatory, said: "Half the students of Catholic families are enrolled in state schools and a growing proportion go to non-Catholic independent schools.

"Another enrolment trend of particular concern has been the decline in representation in our schools of students from both poorer and wealthier families."

The letter reveals church leaders faced pressure to "downsize" the Catholic school system to include only students and staff who embraced the religion. But the bishops decided against such a radical change.

Catholic schools educate about 240,000 students and employ 15,500 teachers across the state.

Cardinal Pell was not available to comment yesterday, directing inquiries to the Bishop of Broken Bay, David Walker.

Speaking at the launch of the pastoral letter at the Mary MacKillop Memorial Chapel, Bishop Walker said it was time to reassess the future of Catholic schools.