Boom!: Patheos Catholic Bloggers Call for Um…Revolution! UPDATED

Yes, Revolution. It all started with Joanne McPortland, who we know is completely subversive. She wrote “What’s Really Wrong with Catholic Religious Education? Everything!”:

Bad Catechesis has been an integral part of our tradition for a lot longer than 40 years, and it still goes on. Our seeming inability to form Catholics who understand and embrace the basics of the Faith is not the fault of Vatican II or goofy textbook publishers or ill-equipped religious ed volunteers. It’s not even the fault of the Baltimore Catechism or nuns with rulers or homeschooling, although these are just as valid examples of Bad Catechesis.

This morning, sharing a friend’s dismay about yet one more over-promoted but under-attended parish workshop for adults, it hit me. Our catechesis fails not because of our methods or our teachers or our educational philosophy, but because we have been—for as many decades as I can remember in my own life, and long prior to that in ancestral memory—catechizing the wrong damn people.

Specific to Catholic Religious Ed programs, here’s partly what happened: Catholic families used to practice the faith in a world that did not diverge very wildly from its own moral teachings. Often, they lived in whole neighborhoods full of Catholics and the kids were educated in the faith at school, by religious sisters and brothers. If Catholics in general had a 50/50 handle on how much of their faith was catechetical and how much was cultural, they at least got the essentials, especially the most fundamental of them: The Holy Eucharist is the Real Presence of Christ Jesus; Baptism is death and resurrection in Christ; Confession is a vehicle of mercy, grace and peace.

Parents taught the faith by living it, but they didn’t have to expend any more particular energy doing so, because of the Catholic school system.

For many reasons, as religious vocations diminished, and Americans became more transient — less likely to live among family, or tribe — and as public schools began to offer more by way of “extras” than parochial schools, Catholic school enrollment fell dramatically. Catholic parents, however — raised to accept that formal religious instruction was a thing that happened outside the home — relied on parish religious ed programs to teach the faith. 45-minutes to an hour of lessons, taught to a sizable class? That can compete with television, sports, computers, pop-culture and peer-pressure, can’t it?

I remember teaching a second grade CCD class, trying to prep kids for their first Holy Communions. Picking up her daughter, a mother lit into me: “Why doesn’t she know the Our Father?” She demanded.

“I don’t know,” I answered. “Do you pray it with her every day, at home? There’s only so much I can do with 45-minutes a week, and a class of 22.”

She took great offense at that. She had paid $30 for this class; why should anything be expected of her?

Joanne’s point: teach the parents — let them fall in love with the faith and the theology, and they will want to share it with their children.

A revolutionary idea? We may need revolution.

Katrina Fernandez wrote of a similar situation as mine, and wondered are we turning the Sacraments into perfunctory gestures with our current educational model?

A close acquaintance told me that she has several kids in her 2nd grade First Communion class who are obviously not ready. They’ve failed every test and consistently not handed in work. When I asked her if she just spoke to the parents, she said she’s tried. They always promise things will improve but they never do. She wanted my advice.

I suggested she tell the parents exactly what she told me… they are not ready.

Next up, Dr. Gregory Popcak, who started off not liking Joanne’s ideas very much, ended up realized that if our model doesn’t change, Catholic Religious Education is Doomed to Fail:

Parents are primary and principal educators of their children in the faith. That’s not to say that the Church doesn’t have an important role to play in religious education. It absolutely does! But it does an injustice–and in fact, defies its own teaching–if it in practice (if not in intention) ends up communicating to parents, “You don’t have to educate and form your kids in the faith! That’s what religious ed. is for!” That message–albeit unintentional– is not only wrong-headed, it is contrary to the Church’s explicit teaching about the nature of religious education. Again, no one is suggesting the Church means to do this in its current approach to the religious education of children but in counseling there is a saying that, “the meaning of the message is the response you get.” That is, it doesn’t matter what the intention is, if parents respond to the Church’s effort as if it is saying that parents don’t have to educate and form their kids in the faith because the Church will, then that’s as good as the Church actually saying it. Obviously that is a serious problem.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Duffy thinks that yes, the parents are primary, but the church parishes should rethink some things, too:

And I’m not arguing for replacing bad catechesis with worse catechesis (“I am special” textbooks, felt banners, and hand-holding). What I’m looking for is a lived faith, one that takes place in Mass, but finds opportunities in every day life for continued education and growth. That’s how my faith has grown in any case–family prayer and meals that prepare us for the Eucharistic meal with the Body of Christ. When questions arise, as they tend to do when someone cares about a subject, we seek answers. . . What’s missing from American religious education is the simple spiritual fervor of Saint Juan Diego or Saint Therese of Lisieux the absence of which makes any catechesis, both the best and the worst kind, relatively useless.

Which is why, if I were designing an ideal Catechetical program for families I’d start, not with classrooms and catechists– but rather, with a meal– Mass followed by a Parish-wide dinner occurring at least monthly (but each week would be better).

They may not all have the exact solution to our difficulties, but at least these Patheos bloggers are in agreement that it is past time to rethink — not just “re-examine” but really RETHINK — how we are educating our church members in the faith.

Read them all. Pipe in with your own observations and suggestions. Talking is needed. Noise is needed. Maybe a little Boom! and Messiness is needed.

UPDATE: I like it when our writers get feisty-passionate about an important issue! And all the feedback, both in blogs and comboxes, as led Joanne to follow up with some thoughts:

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.

Read the whole thing, including the part where Dawn Eden (another Patheos blogger!) sends a comment to Joanne!

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • vox borealis

    I read these ideas, and I agree, but I can’t help but think also that the Church itself (that is to say, many priests and bishops) have been complicit over the last 50 years or so in blowing up Catholic education. They have contributed to the erosion of cultural Catholicicsm, which for all its problems at least did a pretty good job of transmitting the faith; they have contributed to the collapse of vocations, which has accelerated the near collapse of the Catholic school system; they have contributed to the massive decline in mass attendance, the equally if not greater decline in participation in other sacraments. And now that they whole system is basically blown up, we find ourselves in the situation of having to rethink Catholic education, which (in much of what is written above) basically blames parents for not doing their part in transmitting the faith.

    A fair criticism, to be sure. But while we are rethinking Catholic education, surely we need to consider why institutional Catholic education has utterly collapsed over teh last 50 years. And I cannot believe the answer is simply that “America became more transient” or that “public schools offered more extras.” That may be part of it. But the elephant in the room is, as I suggest above, that far too many churchmen in those heady days following the council blew the system up, and this has been followed by another generation plus of delusional talk.

  • Fiestamom

    My old parish did the Elizabeth Duffy method. Once a month, families came to the parish hall, shared a prepared meal. The kids went to age related groups for one hour class, and parents had a speaker. Families were given a packet on the way our the door of things to work on for the month. It worked pretty good. My husband and I aren’t ‘sharers’, so that was a problem sometimes. The adult group had group talks every once in a while, and I would rather just listen to a good speaker.

    I can only imagine the logistics this method took, but it seemed to work…until the Bishop said the parish had to go back to the old (ineffective) way.

    With the way it is now, it feels like the only reason confirmation is out off until High school, is to keep the kids in the program thru high school. If we *really* believe in all the gifts of the Holy Spirit received in Confirmation, don’t kids need it before high school? Now more than ever?

    And can we talk about how the Pre-Cana marriage classes aren’t working either? 90% of married Catholics use articulate birth control, and how many of them took the class? Or are raising their kids in the faith?

  • MeanLizzie

    I’m certain that you did not mean you expected me to lay out every conceivable reason for the church’s failures and collapses in the last 50 years in a blog post. But just to be safe, I clarified that I meant “specific to Catholic religious ed” and pointed out the most glaring circumstances. Yes?

  • vox borealis

    Right. Of course I’m not expecting your piece to lay out the entire complex of reasons for the great collapse. I didn’t mean it to come across that way. I guess I am little defensive, as a Catholic parent who is trying to pass on the faith to his children in what seems like a world ever crazier and more hostile to that effort, that the various opinions expressed seem to basically blame parents for the Church’s absolute failure to fulfill its own mandate in canon law 793 and 794. (I don’t think that is what you and others are *trying* to argue…that was, however, my defensive reaction.) Yes, it is the parents who are primarily responsible for their children’s education, especially their education in the faith. But a large part of that responsibility should entail having recourse to Catholic education–religious ed, Catholic schools, sound homilies, etc.

    BTW, for what it’s worth, I don’t really differentiate between Catholic religious ed and (institutional) Catholic education in general.

  • Christian LeBlanc

    When the parents get to where they really do function as their kids’ primary catechist, then we can talk. Otherwise, let the little children come to my classroom. Every one of them that can fit.

  • ellecampbell

    Thanks for your insightful articles! Honestly, I can’t think of a better way for parents to radically improve the state of catechism than to receive the Eucharist at DAILY Mass. And here’s a crazy idea – take the kids! And while we’re at it, we can promote and model the practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation on a monthly basis. We must “first put the oxygen mask on ourselves before assisting others.” Our children are watching us and learning quite a lot!

  • oregon nurse

    Why don’t we have the parents and the children in the same class? That way we can hopefully be ensuring that the parents who need to are learning the faith and reinforcing the correct catechesis at home. It would be good for both the parents and the kids.

    When my son was a middle-schooler his (our) Catholic school had parents attending the sex-ed classes along with their children. I thought it worked well and although he didn’t speak up much during the classes we had some very fruitful discussion in the car together afterward as we drove home. I don’t think those would have occurred if we had not been together in the classes and heard the same material and discussion.

  • Christian LeBlanc

    “I know great homeschoolers who are forming their children…because they are adults formed in faith with a passion for making that faith a living presence in their children’s daily lives.” Yes. When the people who teach Rel Ed are like that, we’ll see similar results. One way would be to ask homeschoolers to teach some RE.

  • Dan C

    This at least assigns the blame properly. The “Church is failing in catechesis” is the “blame society” mantra supposedly conservatives rejected when discussing other troubles. It is the parents.

    One alternative is to do for Catholicism what Judaism does: have Hebrew school which is often intense.

    The trouble is, such is expensive. And each parish would have to fund such independently. That would fail.

    But catechesis historically has been rarely great. Because it is expensive. One gets what one pays for in such matters.

  • Christian LeBlanc

    The West is much more inimical to Catholicism than when I was a kid. The institutional Church is slow to respond to that open hostility, and often doesn’t know what to do. It’s incumbent on the laity to act on our own initiative and not wait around on management to get it right.

  • vsm

    Parish bulletins should themselves promote — or at least mention —
    invaluable resources such as EWTN ‘s radio and television programming,
    other Catholic radio outlets (Sacred Heart, Ave Maria,
    Guadalupe, etc.), blogs, websites such as Discerning Hearts and Word on Fire, and publications like Magnificat. Tuning in
    or reading for just a little while each day has taught me more about the faith in the last few years than the thousands of homilies I’ve endured over almost six decades.

    It wouldn’t hurt to have these inspiring and engaging sources
    of rich Catholic teaching mentioned from the pulpit as well. (What I wouldn’t give to hear a priest say — just once! — “Yes, the Real Presence is a mystery you will never fully grasp even if you were to ponder it for the rest of your life, but pondering it is exactly what Christ and His Church invite you to do. And to help you get started, check out Father Robert Barron’s 10-minute talk on John 6 on YouTube…”) Most Catholics are simply unaware of what’s out there.

  • Manny

    “Our seeming inability to form Catholics who understand and embrace the basics of the Faith is not the fault of Vatican II…”
    I absolutely agree. There are so many older people who were pre-Vatican II (my family for instance) who have such a shallow understanding of the faith. Frankly i’ve come to the conclusion that the majority of Catholics don’t really understand it. That’s why the Evangelicals have converted so many Catholics. The Evangelicals have simplified (dumbed down as I see it) Christianity to a third grade level. Yes parents have to do a better job, but I’m with Elizabeth Duffy. We have to figure out a better approach in our schools. You can’t count on the parents knowing it.

  • Manny

    I agree. There is blame to go around everywhere.

  • Frustrated DRE

    This is the crux of the problem. It is not a perfect system, or even an adequate one, but it is probably the only faith formation that some our kids are receiving. When you have parents who get angry when you ask them to bring kids to Mass on Sunday, or to help the kid learn prayers, or to talk about what they did in class, then all you can do is do your best with the kids. Classes for parents? Unless it is a sacramental year, very little come or want to come to a one hour meeting twice a year. I offered a once a month small gathering for parents and only one person expressed interest. It is very frustrating. Also we are restricted by diocesan mandates regarding how religious ed classes are to be conducted.

  • Neihan

    The “Church is failing in catechesis” is the “blame society” mantra supposedly conservatives rejected when discussing other troubles. It is the parents.

    I agree completely with much of the blame being on parents. It’s something which I think is rarely owned up to. Even so, unlike “society”, the Church has a specific mission and a defined, visible hierarchical structure. So it can actually fail in a way “society” cannot.

    It’s the duty of bishops to guard and teach the apostolic faith, just as it’s the duty of parents to bring up their children in the faith. So, absolutely, parents have failed their children, but bishops and priests have also failed their flocks. At a certain point, though, obviously it’s each individual who is ultimately responsible for themselves. If someone in their twenties or older doesn’t know anything about the faith it’s because they don’t care to.

    At any rate, catechesis isn’t expensive; all the resources anyone could possibly require are freely and widely available – at least to those of us in the West. Anyone who genuinely desires to learn about the faith can, and can do so with ease.

  • Kristin Quinby

    For the last two years, all four teachers (me included) teaching in my parish’s two year confirmation program have been homeschoolers. When the homeschoolers teach, I’m not so worried about sending my kids to class (in addition to what we do at home as part of their curriculum) because I’m not worried about them having a teacher that passes out Protestant Ten Commandment cards at Christmas, or tells them that Jesus was conceived in the Immaculate Conception (both happened to us.)

    Unfortunately, as Dan C. pointed out, good catechesis is expensive, and parishes are scrambling every year to find a free, warm body that will show up every week, let alone teach the children well.

  • Theodore Seeber

    I recently had a woman in an NFP discussion on a Catholic facebook page tell me that the Church shouldn’t be responsible for helping poor families, and that’s why poor families needed NFP to reduce the number of children they have.

    Catechesis fail. She had no idea that groups like St. Vincent De Paul and Knights of Columbus even existed.

  • Christian LeBlanc

    Yeah you rite!The church shouldn’t have to struggle to get good catechists.

    BTW, this year I have a homeschooler in my 6th-grade Catechism classs. Sometimes mom sits in, she learns too. I like the cross-pollenization.

  • Almario Javier

    Or Catholic Social Teaching. Or heck, the Church Fathers.

  • Theodore Seeber

    The actual quote was “Who will buy my children food? Who will buy them shoes? Not the Church”, to which I replied that was exactly what the church *should* do. At which point I got asked to delete my post and leave the group for “questioning the reasons somebody would want to practice NFP”. Amazing.

  • Theodore Seeber

    A two year confirmation program alone (as opposed to three months) is a great step in the right direction!

  • Romulus

    When the transmission of the Faith comes to depend chiefly on the talents and energy of catechists (whose abilities drastically vary) we’re in trouble. As a catechist
    I shouldn’t have to agonize every week over whether I was “good enough” to get
    my points across and make them memorable.

    Catechists are not nearly so important as we’re
    said to be, and the church makes a mistake to rely on us overmuch.
    Teaching is a charism that is not equally distributed. It seems wrong to
    me that the New Evangelization should be so dependent on such
    uncertainties. It also seems unhistorical: over the centuries has the transmission
    of faith really been reliant on intellectual gifts and resources available
    mostly to the leisured and well-off? Not unless the Faith is only a
    gnosis for the clever and the fortunate. But the Faith is for everyone. For the most part it was handed down organically and
    unconsciously, and for centuries this worked quite well. Analogously, human life itself is transmitted every day by people with
    no particular training or interest in biology; they’re just doing what human
    beings do. Catechists are necessary to explain and give emphasis, but surely
    it’s the Christian life itself – liturgy and other pious practices, lived as
    daily realities – that inculcate and fortify the Faith. The lived-out practice of the faith should be the primary source of its own transmission. Tradition enables tradition, one
    might say.

    Want better catechesis? Get better liturgy, and start living liturgically.

  • Stefanie

    This way of teaching the Catholic faith is only one hundred years old — I mean, grade level appropriate teaching– similar to scholastic public school teaching. That is several generations’ worth. If the previous 50 years (1910 to 1960) was so great in teaching the faith, why did so many abandon this teaching in their private and public life in the ’60′s? (Not that you have the answer, I’m just wondering out loud)

  • Joe

    If we *really* believe in all the gifts of the Holy Spirit received in Confirmation, don’t kids need it before high school? Now more than ever?

    Such an odd sentence. Either it has gifts or it doesn’t. And that’s part of the problem right there. It’s too easy to type things in google and find out how full of malarkey people are. It’s too easy to spot the dressed up fallacies these days. Try going back to the time when everyone could be sheltered from the world more easily and see if maybe that helps a little.

  • KyPerson

    I wonder too. So, so many of the people I graduated from Catholic school with have quit. Most of them are nones. I have made myself a promise that I will stay with the Church for the rest of my life. As Peter said, “Lord, to who will we go?” The world certainly does not have promise of everlasting life.

  • ellecampbell

    Well said. Frankly, your observation was shared by Cardinal Reginald Pole, key note speaker at the Council of Trent (1542), who made the following statement at the opening of the Council regarding the problems and schisms within the Church,”It will be found that it is our own ambition, our own avarice, our own cupidity that have wrought all these evils on the people of God.” He put the responsibility of abuse and neglect of the faithful squarely at the feet of the bishops.

  • ellecampbell


  • Peggy Bowes

    I once was a member of a parish that promoted “Whole Family Catechesis.” If the parents wanted their kids in the program, they had to enroll too. While the kids were in their classrooms, the parents were being taught at the same time. At the end of the session, all the families got together and prayed the Rosary. We moved shortly after the program began, but after the initial resistance (and plenty of it!) it seemed to catch on.

  • Ann Hessenius

    AMEN, vsm!

  • Briana

    I’m an 8th grade catechist. My kids, have been in CCD for EIGHT YEARS.

    Last week I asked them what the Real Presence was. I got totally blank stares. I had to tell them what it was. CCD is a joke. I’ve taught 1st, 4th, and 8th twice. The madness has to stop.

    Confirmation is not a Bar Mitzvah. I keep saying it, I’ll say it a hundred times more. These kids NEED the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Sacraments need to be put back into order, and parents need to be catechized.

    I’m a 3 year revert, and I spent the last 30 years in the Protestant churches. The Eucharist brought me back to the RCC. But one gift I have from the Protestants is that I know my bible backwards and forwards, and I was always growing in my faith, which made me ask questions, and led me to the door of the RCC.

    Think of Protestant sermons as hour long bible studies for adults. THAT’s why I was well catechized as a Protestant. But the Eucharist– there is no faking the power of the Body and Blood. The RCC has the Eucharist, now all you need is the bible study aspect.

  • Andrew

    While I am not sure I would sign on to the “Whole family Catechesis ” train (I think that may be a prepacked program, but I might be wrong), I do think that it addresses many of the issues being discussed in this thread. I think this is probably one of the best approaches currently available. I wish more posts here would address how to move forward with new ideas, rather than playing the blame game. We ALL know that the current state of things is not ideal. Lets move on with trying to get things right.

  • Andrew

    So, it would be great to formed and on fire adults teaching Rel Ed. It would also be great to see more formed and on fire adults! Which gets to the heart of the matter. Quality education is affected by how much it is or is not supported in the home. Having parents onboard and supportive will make a world of difference because THEY will be making a difference. I don’t have any studies in front of me right now supporting that claim, I will provide links if anyone shows any interest.

  • Christian LeBlanc

    I should add that my decade of catechizing has shown me over and over that it’s often the God-starved kids that get the most out of what I have to offer in our brief time together.