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Study Compares Religious Education

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After-school religious-education programs operated by Roman Catholic parishes are nearly as effective as Catholic elementary and secondary schools at imparting the basic religious knowledge and values of the church, according to a new study conducted by the Educational Testing Service.

The findings counter a prevailing belief that religious education in Catholic schools is superior to the largely volunteer-staffed parish programs, a recent article in the National Catholic Reporter newspaper suggested.

But Frank X. Savage, an official at the National Catholic Educational Association, cautioned against making direct comparisons between after-school and school programs.

The report's most significant finding, he said, was that "those parishes that had a high level of programming and religious education ... were making a difference.''

It would be a good investment to put more resources into religious-education programming, he added, but not necessarily at the expense of Catholic schools.

The study was based on a survey of 3,896 Catholic 10- to 17-year-olds, who were grouped into three categories: Catholic-school students, students who attend parish-based programs, and "less active'' youths who do not attend either.

A higher percentage of Catholic-school students described themselves as "very knowledgeable'' about their faith. Among 10- and 11-year-olds, for example, 67 percent of Catholic-school students rated themselves that way, compared with 38 percent of parish-program students.

But the study found only slight differences between Catholic-school and parish-program students' understanding of the church's doctrine--such as the sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and the Trinity.

Improved Lay Training Urged

The survey found that Catholic-school students were somewhat more likely than others in the survey to pray by themselves or with friends, say grace before meals, read religious books, and discuss religion outside the home.

But among the 15- to 18-year-olds surveyed, participants in parish programs were more likely than their Catholic-school counterparts to attend mass with their families, receive Communion, read the Bible, or discuss religion at home.

On the other hand, Catholic-school students were more likely to be active in their parishes as adults, the researchers found.

Key problems facing Catholic religious education today, the report says, include the need for improved training and preparation for lay ministers and the development of "secure and financially viable careers for lay persons in church ministry,'' particularly in light of the declining number of nuns.

Other concerns cited include the impact of the church's dwindling financial resources on religious education, combined with a widely held view that religious-education programs "can be offered at no significant cost.''

The study was financed with a $489,844 grant from the religious program of the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment.

Copies of "Toward Shaping the Agenda: A Study of Catholic Religious Education/Catechesis'' are available without charge from the Washington office of the E.T.S., 1776 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Suite 620, Washington, D.C. 20036; (202) 659-8041.

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