What’s Really Wrong with Catholic Religious Education? Everything. UPDATED

What’s Really Wrong with Catholic Religious Education? Everything. UPDATED March 11, 2015

[UPDATE: A year later, on the way to LA RE/Congress 2015, I’m still asking these questions. You don’t need to comment with last year’s arguments, many of which were convincing, once y’all realized I wasn’t serious about wiping children’s catechesis off the map. But I will be in Anaheim this year looking for signs that lifelong catechesis of adults is A Thing deserving of even half the energy we put into supplying training, resources, and networking support for making kids Catholic. I will share what I find.]

You know that 40 Years of Bad Catechesis you’ve all been scapegoating for everything that ails the Church? That Babylonian Captivity of Sound Doctrine, that Wandering in the Wilderness of the Butterfly Banner for which I’ve been saying a grudging mea culpa ever since my reversion? Well, you’re partly right. And partly really, really wrong.

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.

Our whole formational structure is and has ever been concentrated on children. What formation opportunities most adults—that is, Catholics not engaged in regular liturgical or catechetical or outreach ministries–encounter in the average parish consist of extensions of the parenting of children: sacramental preparation for Marriage, Baptism, First Confession and First Communion, Confirmation, and the occasional intergenerational catechetical activity. There may be adult workshops and classes on a variety of topics related to family life, but they’re rarely attended by those not already in the ministerial loop.

For adults who aren’t parents or parish ministers, there are various sodalities and prayer groups that draw people of similar devotional tastes. There are Bible studies and—Deo gratias—packaged programs like Fr Barron’s terrific Catholicism and the EPIC Church History series (Church history being a big draw, though by no means all there is to adult formation). But even these are options, competing with a million other parish and school and work and life commitments. Once completed, there’s rarely followup or guidance in integrating the “content” of the “class” into the ongoing formation and spiritual growth of the attendees.

And then there’s, well, the homily. We know from the data that for most adult Catholics who attend Mass (and this is, sadly, by no means the majority of adult Catholics) the homily and whatever’s in the bulletin constitute the full extent of their religious formation.

Dear God, no wonder.

The thing is, whatever method you use, from Latin recitation to puppet play, there is no way you can transmit adult faith to a child of 5 or 7 or 11 or 13 or (if you’re really, really lucky) 17. There is even less possibility of success when you expect the child to retain that barely-comprehensible catechesis into adulthood and assume the challenge of becoming not only a lifelong autodidact of the Faith, but also an intentional disciple and catechist of his or her own children.

Other denominations, I’ve observed, do a better job of offering meaningful adult faith formation, and it’s well attended. Yes, there is Sunday school for children, but that’s not considered the central formational focus of the community. There are logistical differences beyond the confessional ones here, of course. Episcopalians and Lutherans and Presbyterians rarely offer 6 back-to-back services on a Sunday morning, and don’t have the same need for childhood sacramental preparation as Catholics do. Many Protestant churches schedule formation opportunities for all ages on Wednesday evenings.

That’s part of the reason the adult formation classes and workshops we do offer are so poorly attended—adult catechesis just not a part of our regular expectation and structure. And adding it to an already overscheduled parish calendar doesn’t seem to be much of a solution.

So here’s my totally immodest proposal, audaciously presented on the virtual eve of the grand ComicCon of Catholic religious education, L.A.’s RECongress: Snap out of it. Let’s just stop catechizing children.

Let’s take the whole Titanic of faith formation–the mechanism of decades, the time and money and energy we spend on textbooks and videos and computer programs and crafts and puppets and afterschool programs and catechist certification and convention receptions with Irish dancers and an open bar—and turn it around so it focuses on supporting adults in their faith formation. Let’s stop expecting 7-year-olds to teach their parents that the Real Presence is not some cannibalistic mumbo-jumbo, or that there’s more to the grace-filled witness of Matrimony than the fact that gay high school teachers get fired over it.

Let’s stop sneering at adults who do Veddy Veddy Improper Things at Mass, and invite them into the splendors of liturgy. Let’s stop expecting Deacon or Father to deliver complex moral theology that’s both impeccably orthodox and eminently practical in under 10 minutes on Super Bowl Sunday, and make support for living authentic adult Catholic lives a part of everything we do. Let’s look at sacramental preparation (for all sacraments) as a parish family affair, in which adult Catholics form and prepare younger Catholics. Let’s make the faith formation of adults a priority, and believe me, their children will benefit.

Some of this is already being done, and done well. But as long as it’s an add-on, an extra, something that’s not seen as fundamentally important both by the institution and the people who engage in it, we’ll just keep going along as we have been, trying to do the impossible and looking for something to blame when we fail.

That’s why I say let’s make it a dramatic break. What if, starting next fall, there were no children’s religious education programs? What if our Catholic schools stopped teaching religion as a subject below the high school level, and instead focused on imbuing academic subjects with Catholic sensibilities? What if, on the other hand, we expected all adults to participate in some form of faith formation on a weekly basis, and provided child care to make it easier? (Thrifty re-use of craft supplies, that.) What if our catechetical conventions and publishers and media producers and speakers’ bureaus focused exclusively on adult faith formation?

Heads would explode, for sure. We’d experience a disturbance in the Force—as though the whole catechetical-industrial complex had cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. (If this takes off, they can blame me for 40 Years of Good Catechesis. Mea culpa in advance.) But a Gibbs-slap to the back of the head might be just what we need. It actually supports the New Evangelization, because that’s what we would be doing—evangelizing. Catechesis follows evangelization, and it has just never worked to catechize children and expect them to evangelize their parents.followup

Let the little children be children. Let the adults come unto Him, and do not hinder them!

Attribution: Photo by the author.


UPDATE 2/5/14: There are some great discussions going on here in the comments, on social media, and around the blogosphere! Thank you for the passion you bring to this! Please read my followup post from yesterday, which contains links to pieces by other bloggers suggesting why adult- or family-centered catechesis/formation is the way to go. And if you hear of well-thought-out arguments for continuing the present focus on children (not just because, by default, they’re the only ones we can corral), please comment with a link! Thanks!

MORE UPDATE: Jen Fitz, on the role of parents.

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  • Patti Day

    I teach the revised Baltimore Catechism to third and fourth graders, and there is barely time enough to work in one very short chapter a week, just a germ of the idea. The children are also expected to spend 15 minutes each week to learn some babyish song to sing at the twice yearly Children’s Mass. With no time to review, children who miss a class, may not hear a basic teaching like the Real Presence or why we should receive the sacrament of Reconciliation more than once in a lifetime (I think this is what their parents believe). Neither my parish priest nor deacon in charge of religious education seem concerned at how little is actually being passed on. I have invited parents to attend or merely drop in to class to hear and see what their child is learning. Not one parent has taken the opportunity, nor even asked a question about their child’s participation. I feel like a babysitter there to watch the children while their parent runs to the grocery store down the street. I pray that the children remember some few things that will serve as the ring of Truth that they hear in their heads in years to come. As each school year is completed I feel like I won’t do this again, but the Holy Spirit keeps calling me back.

    • joannemcportland

      Thank you for your dedication in such a frustrating ministry. You are doing the very best you can, but without a shared vision of why formation is critically important for all of us, I can’t see this changing.

    • Clare Krishan

      re: “but the Holy Spirit keeps calling me back.” ‘cos this is what the universal call to holiness looks like? We aren’t all identical, individually nor in aggregate, nor are we to act identical for the aggregates sake (that’s Marxism/Fascism). God gave us different gifts (and permitted us various and curious paths, privileges) to perfect each other on the journey… in a delicate dance of perichoreisis

  • bonaventure

    This may be a generalization, by it all begins with our cheap and cheesy local liturgies, which are a magnet for liberals… the very people the Church should NOT want to teach.

    • joannemcportland

      I do think it’s a generalization, but then I generalize all through this post. If you’re right, though, why on earth would we NOT want to teach cheap and cheesy liberals? (Asks the cheap and cheesy liberal in me.) Or are you saying they(we) should not be teachers?

      • bonaventure

        Liberals should not be teaching in the Catholic schools. Some sort of mandate should be in effect for elementary and secondary school teachers, as well as diocesan “faith formation” bureaucrats.

        Unfortunately, many religion teachers in Catholic schools and people in the the curia are liberal.

        What’s worse, is that they teach in the Catholic school because, precisely, they are attracted to the cheap and cheesy liturgies (and the overall obsession among Catholic school teachers with social justice).

        • joannemcportland

          Well, there’s a solution nobody’s thought of yet–let’s keep Catholics out of Catholic schools. Because there’s too damn much social justice in the world already, and not enough Pharisees to go around.

          • bonaventure

            Thanks for the sarcasm.

            I am sure that, on any other day, your sarcasm would have been an excellent instrument of conversion and evangelization! Yup, they would have flocked to the Church just to hear some more of such enlightening sarcasm.

            Putting your sarcasm aside, let’s try a bit of this:

            The Catholic Church in the U.S. is so strong, vibrant, dynamic, and spiritually & morally healthy because we have such GREAT teachers in our Catholic schools, with such amazingly true, beautiful and orthodox interpretation of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

            Yup, all them teachers are borderline infallible on this issue.

            And no, their amazing and holy interpretation of the Social Doctrine of the Church has NEVER obscured — nor taken focus away from — the dogmas of the Church.

            And of course, ALL Catholics raised and educated in the Catholic schools excels in dogmatic and moral faithfullness.

            Now, go ahead and ban me from your blog.

            So long, Joanne.

            See you at the next ordination of your dioceses’ 1000 seminarians, and at the consecration of my dioceses’ 1000 nuns and brothers. After all, they are all the faithful products of our fully faithful and orthodox Catholic schools.

          • joannemcportland

            I haven’t banned anyone from this blog yet, and I won’t start with you. (I do trash comments that violate my comment rules.) My sarcasm was not intended to evangelize you or anyone else. It was a response to your sweeping generalizations. I welcome disagreement (I’ve linked to several posts that tell me my original proposal was just plain nuts) and serious discussion, but have little patience with blame-gaming. We agree on what prompted my original post: what we do now, pretty much everywhere, is not working.

          • bonaventure

            Yes, we agree on that last fact: Catholic religious education does not work.

            Catholics are under-educated in the faith, hence the moral turpitude and doctrinal ignorance of most of them. Oh, and also their utter political irresponsibility, whether they are voters or elected officials.

            But what really gets me, is the fact that faithful Catholics with a voice (like yourself, or other otherwise faithful Catholic culture makers and bloggers) seem to be blind to the fundamental causes of the failures of Catholics education.

            For when someone points out that these failures start with the dumbing down of our most sacred institutions (liturgy, sacraments, and theological learning), the Catholic blogosphere (as well as Catholic educators, diocesan workers, etc) seem cornered into a defensive position, and they become sarcastic, aggressive, and end up banishing — and in real ostracizing — those who have the courage to make such truthful observations.

            Many faithful Catholics today are reduced to such defensiveness, that if a man like Chesterton or Muggeridge had lived today, they would have never been allowed to have a voice in the Church.

            Sometimes, when reading comments on blogs or articles on NewAdvent.org, I wonder how many faithful Catholics would, for example, go along with a re-definition of marriage, if it came from the Vatican? This, of course, is a fictional scenario, but the question goes back to the original point of your article: how dumbed-down are we? And where did this dumbing down begin?

          • joannemcportland

            Again, I would beg to differ with the characterization of Catholicism when practiced in a way with which you do not agree as “dumbed down.” I would certainly hope that all faithful Catholics would “go along” with teachings of the magisterium, even when they put themselves in the position of being better able than the Holy Spirit to choose leaders and teachers for the Church. This is not ostracizing. It is simply not acceding to the notion that only you and Catholics who share your opinion possess and dare to speak the truth.

          • bonaventure

            The Catholic faith is not to be practiced in one way or another. Your very premise about Catholics disagreeing among themselves is — as you formulate it — wrong. This dichotomy is fictitious.

            There is nothing to “disagree” on about the Catholic faith. The only valid position there could be, is to assent to the one, holy, catholic, apostolic, an orthodox faith. Period.

            Yes, there must be charity is those matters that are not essential, but when I speak of the “dumbing down” of the Liturgy, I hardly look upon this as a non-essential to be brushed off as a battle between preferences. There is NO ROOM for a “I can have my liturgy” side (with heretical prayers for the legalization of homosexual “marriage”), and a “you can have your liturgy” side (with incense, smells, and bells). Again, that’s a false dichotomy. Liturgies with heretical prayers are not liturgies in the first place. You might as well go to a mock mass at a homosexual pride parade where condoms are raised in “consecration” above fake altars by sodomite men dressed up as women priests.

            And don’t give me wrong: I do not think about the difference of particular rites here (like Tridentine, Novus Ordo, or Byzantine, etc). Nor do I even think about particular styles (like “low” “high” “charismatic” or “ethnic,” etc). Nor even about the quality of preachers (as in, totally cheesy v. well researched and well preached homily). Although these are important and have serious pastoral consequences on the faithful, they can — always have, and always will — co-exist. The former differences are legitimate and needed (differences between rites and styles), while the latter difference (quality) need to be remedied, if poor.

            It is rather the down right apostasy behind many liturgical, theological, doctrinal, and dogmatic abuses that I object to — the very heterodoxy which most Catholic are blind to, because, precisely, the only liturgies they’ve ever seen are dumbed down… and the the only education they have had is heterodox — which in turn causes more dumbing down.

            Finally, I find it amazing that — of all the hundreds of Catholics I know and interact with, very few can tell what will they actually do (I mean, REALLY do and feel and think and act upon their beliefs) if, as I mentioned in my fictional scenario above, someone with authority (say, a bishop) tried to test their faith with a (fictional) announcement that the Vatican has suddenly flipped on the issue of marriage, abortion, ordination, etc. Most people just shrug their shoulders and say, “well if the Pope says so…” That is, if they don’t actually rejoice about such a scenario (or worse: are looking forward to it).

            Two words: dumbed down.

        • pagansister

          bonaventure, with your statement, I guess I shouldn’t have been allowed to teach for 10 years in a Catholic elementary school. I am most certainly not Catholic or conservative. I taught kindergarten.for those 10 years, attended Mass with them, taught them their prayers, etc.as well as kindergarten level academics. In your opinion, did I harm those children by being liberal? Apparently my former employer didn’t seem to think so. I retired from there, after a career totaling 27 years.

  • johnnysc

    I’m with ya. I’m amazed at the number of Catholics that think going to a protestant service is perfectly fine and also think we should have open communion.

  • Tim

    Other denominations, I’ve observed, do a better job of offering meaningful adult faith formation, and it’s well attended. “Other denominations” you say that like “other denominations” matter in the slightest – they are nothing but ‘religious entertainment’ the only ‘denomination’ that matter is the one established by Christ himself – The Catholic denomination,,,,

    • pagansister

      If indeed the Catholic church was established by Christ, then where did all the other Christian denominations come from? Actually, Christ was a Jew as I’m sure you know. Are Jews members of a true faith? Just wondered. IMO, there is no one TRUE religion—-for those that follow a faith, that is their true religion. It is a matter of outlook. In my experience of 10 years teaching in a Catholic elementary school, as a non-Catholic, the teachers never made me feel that they didn’t accept other Christian faiths as less than the Catholic faith.

      • joannemcportland

        Hi, pagansister! I didn’t respond to Tim because his post does not reflect Catholic teaching. The history of Christianity is a bigger topic than I can address in a comment, and you’re absolutely right that that history is seen differently from different perspectives. The Catholic Church teaches that we are indeed the one true Church established in Christ’s name, and that salvation comes through Him alone. But of course we acknowledge that Christianity is deeply rooted in Judaism, the faith of Jesus. We see other Christian churches as separated brothers and sisters, and pray and work for unity. We respect Judaism and Islam as monotheistic “religions of the Book” that share descent with Christianity from one spiritual ancestor, Abraham. And as Pope Francis has recently reiterated, we honor the sincere search for the Divine in all people, whatever their faith tradition, as well as the yearning for the Good and the True that exists even in the hearts of those who cannot find it in religion of any kind.

        • pagansister

          Thank you for your thoughtful reply, joannemcportland. You mentioned that you(the Church) see other Christian churches as “separated brothers and sisters, and pray and work for unity”. In your opinion, would the Catholic church hope that all those who profess to being Christian be Catholic? That would be a tall order, which is never going to happen. As I mentioned, personally I do not think there is one true religion/faith. I do, however, respect the beliefs of those that have found what is to them, a true religion and those who follow no organized faith. I was raised in a Christian home, but left the Methodist church at 17 and have never had a need or reason to go back. My 2 sisters,however, have continued to be devout Christians and raised their families as such. My husband and I did raise our children in a liberal religious environment, UU. They have done just what we wanted them to do–now adults they have followed their own paths. The 10 years I taught in the Catholic school were happy ones. I couldn’t have wished for a better group of people to teach with.

          • joannemcportland

            As I said, this is going off into another topic, and one that I’m no expert in addressing. But yes, I suppose one way to understand it is that Catholics hold that all Christians are Catholics, and we pray for an eventual homecoming. It’s part of the way we understand Christ’s words in John’s Gospel when he prays that all may be one. Certainly looking at history would lead a lot of people to say “not a chance”; that’s why we believe it can’t happen without the help of God, and to give it up would be a lack of faith. I say this knowing that if you ask an Orthodox Christian, he or she would say that the Western (Roman) Church did the wandering away. I do believe there’s a greater case for reunion there than with later Christian separations, let alone a day when all religious differences will become detangled from politics and war long enough for us to recognize our similar call to Truth . . . but I gotta hope and pray. 🙂

          • pagansister

            Yes, you have to have hope and prayer. Never hurts and it might help. 🙂

  • Kris Athomescience

    I’m a homeschooler–ditto on those lines!

    I am a revert and learned most about what I know about the faith from homilies. I found EWTN and became a daily Mass junkie when my kids were very young, and after some time I realized the twaddle being preached in my parish. Changed parishes and, well, more twaddle (but at least it was short.) Changed back, different priest, and wow, imagine, lengthy, meaty homilies like the ones on TV! Now I am a daily Mass goer.

    Loved it when our bishop once quipped something like, “Sometime people read the bulletin during the homily, and sometimes that’s because the homilies are not that great.”

    • You make a great point. A lot has to do with the parish priests and their homilies. People were disgusted with “celebrity priests” after Fr. Corapi went off the deep end, but what we need are priests who can communicate effectively and inspire, priests like the former Fr. Corapi. He certainly inspired me when i saw his talks on EWTN. I have to say I am really lucky. When I got back to being religious, it just so happened I had a great parish priest who did all that.

  • Kudos for bringing this up. I have long suspected that most Catholics of pre-Vatican II didn’t know their faith along with us after Vatican II. My hunch is that the Catholic Church was historically satisfied with people knowing a few rudiments and then let them take the sacraments to get into heaven. Detailed knowledge was left for the clergy and those that desired to learn more. The Church never really had do deal with losing souls to other religions/denominations or to the culture itself until the last half century. And then the culture just created a secularist atmosphere for people to drift off. I don;t think it would have been any different with or without Vatican II. I’m not sure I agree with your solution. Or to be more accurate I think your solution can be part of the overall solution. Yes we have to include the parents in catachesis but we have to still continue to teach in the regular classroom. I don’t know how interested parents are in being catachesized. But I think one approach has to support the other.

  • Nicholas Young

    Parents in todays tend to care more about sports than religion. I agree that sending kids through catechetics is a bit much, however the Church needs to do something because parents aren’t. Most families i see at Mass on sunday don’t even make their children attend the Youth Group at my parish. Parents have little to interest in teaching their children about the Catholic Church. I certainly do not have the answers. I found this article because I am working on my Senior Research Project, I am investigating the field of Religious Education. My opinion it that the Church needs to work more with parents on how to teach the faith prior to baptism. Parents do not fully understand what they are giving their children. On top of parents understanding more youth need to learn to start understanding that the Catholic Church is a fabulous gift that needs as much involvement as one can spare.

  • Analisa Norris Roche

    That’s what we homeschoolers actually mostly do. An idea worth considering, I think.

  • Clare Krishan

    And if you hear of well-thought-out arguments for continuing the present
    focus on children (not just because, by default, they’re the only ones
    we can corral), please comment with a link!
    see my suggestions re: Pedagogy of God and the helical hyperbolic geometry of simplicity of crocheted coral, and NotreDamedeVie’s « Viens, suis-moi » under

    • joannemcportland

      Sorry, Clare. As I noted in my comments policy, all comments are moderated, and there are times–Sundays among them–when I am not online to moderate. Thank you for your response and your patience.

  • Pofarmer

    Have you ever considered that maybe people just don’t buy it?

  • David

    I’m a CCD teacher for confirmation that was introduced as a student’s “teacher” last night to a parent. Not true. The parents are the “teachers” I am a catechist. I suspect that when parents drop their children off at CCD and not teach them at home it’s because of two things: 1-they know they should raise their children to be Catholic, 2-they know they don’t have the education to do so!

    WE are no longer living in a age where an 8th grade education is enough!