Year of Faith
Repenting of the Failure of Parish-Based Catechesis: Time for An Old Idea
It's beyond my scope here to say how devastating and even cruel it is for the Church Militant to perpetuate Her systemic failure in this area. Ignorance leads to suffering. Religious ignorance leads to eternal death.
We are awash in a broader culture of banality, ugliness, and stupidity, and we have several generations of disciples who are completely incapable of coping with it because of their double ignorance of their faith. Double ignorance, from Plato, means they don't know, and they don't know that they don't know.
I'll stipulate that there are some exceptions—parishes here and there that are handing on the faith well and forming solid little disciples. But they are the great exception and we can't let the fact of their existence derail the urgent discussion of what we have to do about rest.
About a month ago, a convert friend called me with pained concern in her voice. "Caitlin has been going to St. Charles' religious education program for more than a year now. She is supposed to make First Communion, but we are worried because she doesn't know anything." This news hit me hard. This was a family that had been catechumens in a RCIA program that I created in Hollywood for people in the entertainment industry who were coming into the Church. Caitlin, her mother and father and her little sister Laurie, were all accepted into the Church a few years ago, and now they were dealing with the scandal of banal catechesis. I agreed to meet with eight-year-old Caitlin.
It was shocking what she didn't know, especially because St. Charles was going to let her receive First Communion in this state of unknowing. She didn't know what Original Sin is. She didn't know the difference between a mortal and venial sin or of what an examination of conscience should consist. She didn't know what grace is, or what the Trinity is, or what we mean by the Holy Eucharist. As a result of all this unknowing, Caitlin hated going to Church and thought the religious education classes she associated with the Church were boring and stupid.
So I told Caitlin's mother that I would meet with her and her daughter for an hour every Saturday for the next three months. We started with, "Who made you?" and "What can we know about God from the world?" and then, "Why did God make you?" and "How does God talk to you?" and we'll be moving on according to the brilliant and sturdy structure of the Baltimore Catechism. Lord knows, by the time we're done, this could probably earn the little girl an honorary doctorate from the sorry, intellectual vacuum that is catechesis in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
We have a problem in the Church in the U.S. We need to suppress the impulse to defend the indefensible, because we don't want to hurt the feelings of the lovely people who have been pulled in to teach the Faith in all our parishes. They are lovely, and God will bless them for their sacrifices. But, in my experience, nice doesn't mean good teaching and we urgently need some good teaching.
Teaching is an art. It is a craft. It can be a profession. It is something people go to universities to learn how to do. There are two key aspects to being an effective teacher. The first is to know your subject. The second is to know how to communicate, translate, and "make enthralling," your subject.
Most parish DREs find their religious education teachers from the rolls of the parents who have kids in the programs. Over and over through my years in the "corporate Church," I encountered people teaching the Faith who had no pedagogical training and little if any theology. The various dioceses count heavily on their one- or two-day religious education congresses to get their catechists up to speed, but it is an absurd expectation. You can't make theologians and educators out of people in a day. Typically, the highlight of these conferences for the attendees is the exhibit hall where they swoop all over booths of Catholic publishers and purveyors of holy hardware, looking frantically for tools that they can use in their classes. Talk about setting people up for failure!
Barbara Nicolosi is the Executive Director of The Story Institute at Azusa Pacific University and an adjunct professor of screenwriting at Azusa Pacific University and at Pepperdine University. She blogs at The Church of the Masses.