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Catholic schools and the Australian educational context: between mission and the marketplace

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posted on 2023-10-27, 01:51 authored by Madeleine Elaine Brennan

This thesis explores how the Australian Catholic Church has assisted in the creation of the schooling marketplace and how that marketplace now impacts the ability of Catholic school leaders to meet the religious expectations set by the Vatican and Australian Catholic authorities.  Since colonial times, the Australian Catholic Church has played a significant role in promoting the concept of parental right to schooling choice. In enacting the theological principle which place parents at the centre of their child’s education and which highlights the duty of Catholic authorities to support parents in their educational responsibilities, the Australian Catholic Church has established an Australia-wide system of Catholic schools. However, alongside a theology that asserts that parents have the right to schooling choice and which justifies the right and necessity of Catholic Church authorities to establish its own schools, Catholic theology also conveys an expectation that civil society has a responsibility to financially support such an endeavour.

This thesis explores the socio-political presence and power of Catholicism in Australia’s secular societal context especially as it relates to the engagement of Catholic authorities in school funding debates. The idea that Australian Federal, State and Territory Governments had a responsibility to support parental right to schooling choice via government funding has become embedded in Australian politics, as well as providing parents with choice on the ground. Moreover, Catholicism’s theological views regarding education and its political engagement in funding debates, has assisted in creating Australia’s uniquely funded system of schooling. In doing so, Catholic authorities have promoted a marketplace where parents have the right to seek enrolment in one of Australia’s three schooling sectors — Government, Catholic or Independent.

Alongside exploring the political role played by Australian Catholic leaders in securing government funding for Catholic schools and thus the Independent schooling sector, this thesis also points to the significance of the Second Vatican Council in reorienting Catholicism’s position within secular society. Vatican II brought with it a number of important changes which significantly impacted how Australian Catholic schooling was to develop. The greater emphasis placed on Catholic school enrolment being welcoming of all students, drawing from all religious and non-religious backgrounds, assisted in creating fertile ground for the expansion of the Catholic school enrolment base. Additionally, the decline of Religious sisters and brothers in Catholic schools and the subsequent transference of leadership and teaching responsibilities to ‘laity’ was pivotal for enhancing the urgency of funding debates. Effectively, Vatican II is proposed as being a significant catalyst in creating a new and emerging identity for Australian Catholic schooling which, in the twenty-first century, remains in a state of transition in terms of deciding what constitutes an authentic Catholic school culture.

This thesis proposes that the impact of the Australian schooling marketplace has established a specific set of circumstances and a context which now troubles the ability of Australian Catholic school leaders to achieve the Vatican’s religious goals. Australia’s growing secular societal context and its increasing religious plurality, is a context which is reflected within the Catholic school enrolment base and within school staffing. Creating what Vatican authorities define as an authentic Catholic school culture and identity, within such a plural context, presents both challenges and opportunities for the leaders of Australian Catholic schooling.

However, alongside the challenges and opportunities which the schooling marketplace pose for Australian Catholic leaders, parents — the consumers and partners who Catholicism name as having the ultimate responsibility for their child’s education, have clear views regarding what they expect of their child’s Catholic school. In order to explore parental expectations, especially in terms of the priority placed by parents on the religious context of Catholic schooling, this thesis presents the findings of a Research Project which explored the motivations of parents for selecting a Catholic school for their child’s enrolment.

While the voice of Catholicism, regarding the role and mission of its schools, is available to be heard in a raft of Vatican and local documents, the parental voice is far less apparent in the public arena. The Research Project was established to give voice to parents, as well as to collect data denoting a parent’s religious, or secular affiliation in order to consider if religious affiliation impacted upon how important a parent viewed the religious nature of a Catholic school. Moreover, it explored what marketplace forces may mean for how Catholic, Australian Catholic schooling can afford to be if Catholic authorities want to maintain a strong enrolment base. 

Finally, this thesis does not propose particular solutions or answers regarding how Catholic, Australian Catholic schools can afford to be in an increasingly diverse marketplace. Rather, it argues that the identity and religious mission of Catholic schools, in the context of the Australian schooling marketplace, is yet to be fully revealed, understood and appreciated for what it can, and perhaps, for what it cannot achieve in terms of Vatican ideals of Catholic education’s religious and socio-political mission.


Table of Contents

Chapter One: Introduction -- Chapter Two: The Research Project -- Chapter Three: Catholicism and Education — A Global and Local Mission -- Chapter Four: Catholicism and its Role in Creating the Australian Schooling Marketplace — A Historical and Political Narrative -- Chapter Five: Australian Catholic Schools and the Schooling Marketplace — Assessing the Challenges and Opportunities -- Bibliography

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Doctor of Philosophy

Department, Centre or School

Macquarie School of Social Sciences

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Clare Monagle

Additional Supervisor 1

Michelle Arrow


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371 pages

Former Identifiers

AMIS ID: 262749

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