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

Karoly Ferenczy, The Sermon on the Mount (1896)

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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