Sam Rocha’s Primer for Philosophy & Education – A Gentle Wake Up Call for Catechists

I accepted a review copy of Sam Rocha’s A Primer for Philosophy and Education with trepidation: Academics tend to write horribly, and philosophers are the worst of the lot.  Well, I found a jewel. Not only can the man write clearly and well, he can think straight, too.  Sam Rocha’s Primer is a treasure trove of measured, thoughtful reflection on what makes education, and how to become educated.

I recommend his book wholeheartedly to anyone who is serious about education – teachers, catechists, parents, principals and directors of religious education, pastors, students.  The reading level isn’t babyish — you have to put on your thinking cap and reflect on what you’re reading — but it’s geared toward the intelligent layman who truly cares about the topic.  Pour a cup of tea, put up your feet, and get your pencil ready to highlight your favorite lines.

Today I’d like to share a few quotes from the book that I think speak to the state of catechesis today, and share my own reflections on what we educators need to consider.

“Students like these are motivated by a sense of entrapment, a feeling that they must go to school and get good grades in order to get a respectable job, good reviews and promotions, a pay raise for having an advanced degree, so on and so forth – to avoid disappointing family and friends.”

This doesn’t just happen in academia, it happens in the parish.  How many teens are cycled through confirmation because it will please Mom & Dad?  How many parents baptize their children in order to silence Grandma’s nagging?

When someone walks through the door seeking sacraments the way they seek a diploma or their 1st Aid certification, we should welcome them wholeheartedly.  And then show them a better way.

“The problem with grades, credentials, and formal schooling is that it generates a culture and mentality of fear, distrust, and paranoia.”

Our diocese, like most, sets out a few minimum educational requirements for persons requesting the sacraments.  These standards are, at their heart, ordered toward a very serious matter: We must ensure that the individual is indeed prepared to receive Our Lord in a worthy manner.  But it is important that we communicate – in our words and in our policies – that what matters is not the sitting in a room, or the checking off of to-do items, but that the soul be prepared.  Classes are a tool that can help prepare students for the sacraments, and I am grateful for the excellent volunteers who’ve helped my own children grow in their faith.  But education is different than attendance.

“Of course students who attend a school that assigns grades should want to get good grades.  They should obviously not want to get bad ones.  However, you should not confuse this institutionalized process of grade-getting, school-going, degree-worshipping, and job-seeking with what philosophy and education have to offer you. . . . Formal schooling does not have the monopoly on philosophy or education.”

Our courses should be such that students and parents want to attend them.  And in guiding parents and students, we need to direct them not towards the checklist as the measure of spiritual growth, but to the serious questions of heart, soul, and mind.

“Google is full of information, but it has no wisdom of its own. A person who is full of information is not necessarily full of wisdom. . . . To win at games like Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit does not require wisdom, it only requires information.”

In catechesis, information nutures wisdom, and wisdom thirsts for information.  If I love God, I’ll want to know more about Him.  The more I know about God, the more reasons I’ll have to love Him.

We tend to slip into a false dichotomy, setting up hard facts against feelings, or precision against grace.  Not so.  The human mind and soul languish when the scales are loaded on one side only.  Demanding love without knowledge is an arranged marriage; demanding knowledge without love is a business relationship.  In our catechesis, we need to help our students love God in all four ways that He Himself has directed – heart, mind, soul, and strength.

“Read for the truth.  Write and speak to show what seems true.  Ask questions to get at what might be true.  Attend classes to seek the truth.  Do not settle for shallow, impoverished grades, and cheap, degrading awards. . . . Philosophy and education require courage.”

Recently a catechist (not from my parish) approached me privately with a difficult situation: Several fellow catechists in her program had shared with her various ways in which they are freely, and with full knowledge, choosing to act, in serious matters, in ways contrary to the Catholic faith.  They are committing no crimes, and they are not actively teaching dissent in the classroom.  But they clearly do not believe that the Church in her wisdom possesses the fullness of the truth.  The catechist asked what she should do.  She didn’t want to be a tattle-tale, and she did want to address the problem in a way that would help her colleagues grow in their own faith and embrace the fullness of the Church’s teachings.

She also knew instinctively about the essential relationship between education and truth: You can’t teach something you don’t believe is true.


Read the whole book. Beautifully written, and the whimsical line drawings create delightful moments to pause and reflect.  Well worth your time.

About Jennifer Fitz

Jennifer Fitz is the author of Classroom Management for Catechists, and general editor of the Catholic Writers Guild blog. In addition to her pile of Catholic writing for Patheos, you can find her at, New Evangelizers, and Amazing Catechists. When she isn't blogging, teaching, or complaining about something, she likes to play outside.

  • alwr

    As a long time professional educator who is new to serving as a catechist, the last issue you bring up really bothers me. One teacher for our confirmation prep openly shared with the group at a planning meeting that her family rarely attends mass. It is just too “inconvenient” for them because they have “really busy weekends”. I think our DRE feels stuck between a rock and a hard place as it is so difficult to find enough volunteers. But how can we communicate the importance of being actively involved in the life of the church if one teacher can’t even be bothered to go to mass???

    • Jennifer Fitz

      Yes, this is a very serious and difficult situation for pastors and DRE’s. The obvious solution is to set some minimum standards for volunteers, even it means offering fewer courses; but I fully understand the pressures that pastors feel, and the reasons the may be hesitant to act unequivocally.

      In my work as a catechist, I had a year when my helper was an RCIA student still working through various situations — marriage not yet regularized, and so forth. I had no qualms about that — she was sincerely working towards rectifying her situation, and she didn’t claim to be the “finished” product yet, she was there in part to learn along with the kids. That kind of thing, and responding to all the usual human limitations that every parishioner is going to experience, calls for patience and graciousness.

      In contrast, if my pastor were to approach me privately about something I was doing that was contrary to the plain teaching of the Church, and that concerned a serious matter, and I persisted in asserting that what I was doing was perfectly acceptable, he would have to make the hard decision that in fact I wasn’t ready to be a catechist.

      –> Which, as you point out, can ultimately mean making the hard decision that the parish does not have enough practicing Catholics in the pews to offer a full K-12 (or K-9) religious education program. That is, sadly, sometimes the case.

      The good news being that when people are given the chance the learn the fullness of the faith, many respond joyfully and enthusiastically. So in the long run, these kinds of problems are just a sign that we need to evangelize the parish. People are coming to church for good reasons, however imperfect, and deserve the best we can give them.

    • kkollwitz

      I’ve been catechizing since 1998. It’s been pretty much an ongoing trainwreck the whole time. But not in my classroom. So I encourage you to pay no attention to all the depressing/ scandalous/ slapdash stuff you are going to see swirling around your catechetical world, and just focus on the kids in front of you in your classroom, where you will have near-total discretion as to what takes place.