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.