The Blogger Who Kicked Over the Hornets’ Nest: More Buzz and Sting about Religious Education UPDATED

Now I know how Jonathan Swift felt when he proposed ending English famine by eating Irish babies. Friday’s post suggesting that we quit catechizing children touched more of a nerve than I expected, opened more worm cans, and (best of all) sparked some great conversations. Thank you for commenting here and on Facebook and Twitter, for sharing the post and linking to it. We’re talking out loud about our larger hunger, and no babies have been harmed in the process.

As clarification and follow-up, these points:

I wasn’t entirely serious about halting the catechesis of children. But I wasn’t wholly facetious, either. By forcing us to think about what the formation of Catholics would look like without the 900-pound-gorilla of children’s religious education taking up the whole sky, I hoped to move us beyond the inevitable debates about which kind (approach, textbook, method, site, era, etc.) of children’s catechesis makes the best Catholics, which is usually the focus of our complete formation attention. Of course children are capable of and deserve to be formed in faith. But they aren’t the only ones, and their formation must be suited to their age and understanding.

I am not anti-homeschooling, honest! I dumped it and all methodologies for “teaching religion” to children into one lumpy category of things that aren’t solutions to the problem of Bad Catechesis, again because I wanted to get beyond the argument that if we just teach children The Right Way we won’t need to worry about adults who are already lost causes anyway. I know great homeschoolers who are forming their children beautifully in faith, but it’s not because they homeschool. It’s because they are adults formed in faith with a passion for making that faith a living presence in their children’s daily lives.

I am not the first (though I truly truly wish I were the last) to ring this bell. Many have written, posted, spoken, and published about our out-of-whack formation priorities, for many decades. Writer Dawn Eden shared a terrific anecdote with me by email, and has graciously allowed me to publish it here:

I found a news article in the Daniel A. Lord, S.J., archive at Georgetown, I think from late 1953, just before Father Lord was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Father Lord had at that time been the leading figure in the youth sodality movement for nearly thirty years. He said in that interview that, if he had it to do all over again, he would have focused on catechizing adults, not youth. Coming just as the winds of change were beginning to blow in the Church, I think that is very telling.

Many have made wonderful attempts at providing some of the kinds of resources that would be needed if we were to take adult faith formation as seriously as we say we do, as seriously as we fret about children’s catechesis. Comments on this post have mentioned, specifically, Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples and the Alpha program. I didn’t in any way mean to imply I was the first person to have this energy-saving low-wattage natural-warm-light LED lightbulb go on over my head. Let’s keep illuminating.

I am not (shudder) advocating for herding adults into parish halls and requiring them, on pain of whatever it is that causes anyone sufficient pain these days, to watch filmstrips or make papier-mache models of Solomon’s Temple or fill out worksheets or listen to a lecture! Replacing Bad Children’s Catechesis with Bad Adult Catechesis: not the answer.

This isn’t just about religious education or religious literacy, whatever that is. Our critical lack of formation for all has resounding implications for the way we celebrate, the way we sacrament (not only the traditional “kid” sacramental prep for First Confession and First Communion and Confirmation, but all of it), the way we understand and promote and even more important nourish vocations, the way we exercise stewardship of God’s gifts. Without lifelong formation (by which I have the gall to mean creating the climate for full-hearted living of our faith by every Catholic of every age in every state of life), who has the will or guts or grace to follow Christ? If being a fully-formed Catholic is only to be expected of children who can pass the ACRE tests or people with advanced degrees and certifications or professional Catholics or parish staff members, why in hell should anyone else know or care about receiving Communion worthily or making use of Reconciliation or articulating Catholic moral teaching in a way that doesn’t bring shame to the name Christian or learning a prayer by heart or showing up for Mass? Children forget everything their parents force them to learn for the white dress and the party. Professional Catholics burn out, or fry their brains noting everyone else’s abuses and ignorance. Parish staff members start thinking of faith as their job. If they do these things in the green wood, what will happen in the dry?

What would switching to a different understanding of ongoing faith formation look like? A big mess, as many have helpfully told me. And at the same time, something quite graced and responsive to Christ’s call at this time, in this world, as my Patheos Catholic neighbors and others have started to envision. Please read what Elizabeth Duffy and Dr Greg Popcak have to say. If any of this touches a chord, if your LED lights (or hoarded incandescents) go off, think and pray about what it would take to make the shift in your parish, in your lifetime. Keep commenting—even if you disagree strongly, please—and I’ll keep linking and updating.

Thank you for taking the famine seriously, and for refusing to keep burdening the babies by making them the solution.

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UPDATE 2/5/14: Please read The Crescat‘s impassioned defense of children’s catechesis, too. We need all the voices we can get, all the possibilities we can dream.

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UPDATE 2/6/14: TJ Burdick weighs in with a defense of homeschooling as the model for formation in faith—and some challenges for Catholic schools. And here’s Leah Libresco, only recently an adult catechumen herself, with another viewpoint on not mistaking the handle for what’s in the treasure chest. Will Duquette speaks from the adult trenches.

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UPDATE 2/7/14: Terrific post from a French blogger who thinks I am crazy because he obviously didn’t get that I wasn’t serious about ceasing children’s catechesis. (Might be a cultural thing. I don’t get Jerry Lewis or Charles de Hell Airport, either.)

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UPDATE 2/8/14: Christian LeBlanc, author of The Bible Tells Me So: A Year of Catechizing Directly from Scripture, has fought in the trenches of catechesis from just about every angle, has argued the value of forming children. Here’s a link to a post on his blog that demonstrates how it works for him.

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  • kmk

    Homeschooling is a small corner of the landscape, but it’s been my observation, over and over, that when the parents are drawn into Catholic homeschooling by the Holy Spirit’s prompting (and it is hard work, it has to be from the Holy Spirit!), they are led into a deeper relationship with Christ, leading to a desire for an ongoing formation. It can’t possibly be the answer for everyone, but we sure are willing to work with our parishes (most of us are, anyway) and show them the little ways in which we build up our little “domestic churches.”
    Not perfect by any means but it is rare to find a Catholic homeschooling family without at least one parent being drawn in deeper to the Church and Jesus.

    RE: Catechesis: It’s a both/and approach (all of us responsible to grow in the faith), but if the bishops and priests were on fire for the Lord, the Church, and the Real Presence, then that attracts adults. It is hard to imagine a huge change here in the comfortable “west” without some kind of suffering or hardship which affects everyone.

  • Deb L

    Thanks to the courage of the pastor and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, Family Formation was created 25 years ago with this very goal in mind and has borne great fruit in many families and parishes ever since. What you are proposing DOES work! And … it’s in line with what the documents of the Church say with regard to the role of parents as primary educators of their children in the Faith. http://www.familyformation.net

  • Andrew Kosmowski

    Dear Joanne,

    Bld. Fr. Chaminade (you might have heard of him from your days in Dayton) strove to re-Christianize France after the French Revolution by catechizing adults. He moved the Marianists into schools as a possible vehicle to catechize parents through the children.

  • RW Cross

    Joanne, there is a lot to criticize about modern catechetical education, but alas, you’re not the one to do it. Your essay reminds me of critics in the book of Job. I was wondering how may children you have educated in the Catholic Faith, or how many Catholic educators you have known, or how many Catholic families over the last 40 years you have encountered that dedicated their lives, their fortunes, and their social status, to the education of their children. To compare yourself to Jonathan Swift I find rather amusing; you do have a flare for irony but it is quite evident that you do not understand children or authentic Catholic education.

    • joannemcportland

      *Cough* Well, I’m not sure how much street cred I’d need to assure you I know what I’m talking about, but I have been active in the Catholic religious education of children and adults, both personally and professionally, for 46 years, in the classroom, as a speaker and workshop leader, and as a writer and executive editor, both on staff and as a contractor, for the leading RE series and publishing houses from Franciscan Communications (back in the early days of multimedia catechesis) to Benziger to Brown-ROA (later Harcourt Religion)–to the point that I am serious when I say people give me the eyeball when they talk about 40 Years of Bad Catechesis. I am proud of my contributions and blessed to have been in the trenches with generations of dedicated parents and catechists of every possible style and method, so I would modestly suggest that I know whereof I speak. It’s because I know the value of a community of authentically catechized and inspired adult Catholics (parents and non-parents) that I suggest that’s the direction we should support. Thanks.

  • http://christopherwesley.org/ Christopher Wesley

    Joanne, don’t apologize for stirring the pot. It was a good article and as a fellow blogger I know what it’s like when people take things out of context. Faith and religion are personal and that’s why people will react strongly, even if it’s not to a main point. What you did do is create great discussion, and we need to lean into the tension.

  • tt

    There are two bad assumptions being made in many comments/responses: 1–every parishioner in every parish has children of school age, thus the solution is to force them to some mandatory catechesis along with their children. Reality: some people do not have children at home; some people cannot have children for various reasons (not limited to infertility), and some are called to singleness and thus remain childless. Are we to pretend those people do not exist? Protestants have perfected that game and it drives people away from their churches. 2–adults have time to attend catechetical events and requiring them to do so would be productive. Reality: people have packed schedules. My husband has at times in the last year worked seven days a week for long periods. Just getting to mass was difficult (he did it, but he was exhausted). Some people work multiple jobs to survive in this economy. The demands of kids, aging parents, etc…take people’s time and energy. Going the legalistic Protestant “must be at church whenever the doors are open” route will only serve to alienate people who are already stretched to their breaking point and need church as a haven and support instead.

  • midwestlady

    You shot at the sacred cow. Naughty, naughty.

  • J.W. Cox

    There is something to be said for parishes/priests focusing on catechizing adults, given the idea that parents, whether they know it or not, are catechizing their children (most often, by example).

    On the other hand, what children may need is an approach to catechesis that is more…catechetical, not instructional-and-classroom based.

    The model that I’m familiar with (I don’t know if this came up in any of the threads) is the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, co-founded by a Roman Catholic, the late Sofia Cavalletti, author of “The Religious Potential of the Child.” You can find the US site here. http://www.cgsusa.org/ Related is the Center for Children and Theology. http://www.cctheo.org/aboutcct.html

    A description of the overall approach, especially on the nature of the child and his or her relationship to God, and on the role of the catechist can be found here. http://www.cgsusa.org/about/default.aspx

    It is a fundamentally and profoundly different approach to proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ the Good Shepherd.

  • Tweety58

    Listen here-I was catechized by my Irish Catholic Mother,Ursuline nuns and Redemptorist Priests.They all with an assist of the Holy Spirit succeeded and I am a Devout Catholic.

    I fall-a LOT but unlike most Catholics I ACTUALLY GO TO CONFESSION.AS DOES MY SON-alone or with me-he partakes of the Sacrament of Reconciliation more often than his Dad.

    This is not a Holier Than Thou retort but your column smacked of condescension and you owe 24-7-365 Catholic parents an apology and not the cutesy,flippant remarks you made explaining your column to we Dullards.

    I have one child 19 whom I catechized each evening through Bible stories and ESPECIALLY through the MYSTERIES of the ROSARY.He is active in Pro-life,an altar boy for 12 years and has taken a vow of celibacy till marriage.He is 6’2” MOVIE STAR handsome-has girls THROWING themselves at him and he has a Catholic girlfriend who has also taken a vow of celibacy.It is my hope they marry when they have finished their studies and begin their careers

    I have a Library of books on the Church,the Saints,and Apologetics which he reads.If I didn’t catechize him WHO would-not the Catholic schools he attended full of CINO teachers or teachers pretending to be Catholic-not THE CHURCh-it gives us the Mass,the Eucharist and thank God my parish priest is orthodox and can he PREACH.

    It is up to PARENTS to know their Faith and to pass it on like the most precious gift or heirloom one has.There are more than a few Catholics like me who consider Catechesis number ONE in raising the children Our Lord has LENT us.

    The Faith is temporarily in eclipse because of 3 generations of uncatechetized Catholics as a result of the Smoke of Satan(Pope Paul VI-SANTO SUBITO !)l which entered the Church by way of MODERNISTIC HERETICAL Clergy and “professional” Catholics, who skewed the teachings of Vatican ll

    Your column was frivolous,insulting,condescending and did a GREAT disservice to the Remnant who evangelize our Families first and others as well..


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