How Do We Learn the Catholic Faith (or Anything)?

How Do We Learn the Catholic Faith (or Anything)? May 21, 2014

File:Sermon on the Mount by I.Makarov .jpg

Over at Amazing Catechists, I wade back into the religious education debates with a piece laying out what might be a philosophy of education, but really it’s just what I see happening.

I start with a disclaimer:

This isn’t a scholarly piece, and you could take the components I’ve put here and divide them out differently.  (I tackled the subject from a completely different angle last summer, when I wrote about the Four Ways of Loving God.)  Think of this more as a rough framework to help you think about what you are teaching, and why it’s working as well as it is.

I identified 5 things that I see as the big elements of learning.  #1 is “Interest”:

There’s no education happening unless the student has some desire to learn.  Ideally, in a parish faith formation context, the student desires to learn more about his faith because he is pursuing an active, personal relationship with Christ.

But of course that’s not exactly who shows up at your average parish religious ed program.  I talk about the other folks, and the remedy.

My #2 is “Understanding”:

There are levels of understanding, and in education it is tempting to jump straight to the “deeper meaning” before students even have a grasp of the essential facts of the situation.  In religious education, first we want to make sure students understand the basics . . .

It’s tempting to be dismissive of all this “fact” stuff, but without the facts, our learning is not grounded in reality. Once we have the facts, we can go deeper in our understanding.  We can ask, “Why is this true?”  “How does this fit together?” “How does this apply to my personal life?”  “How does this draw me into a closer relationship with God?”

“Memorization” is my #3, and when you read that word it probably made you either seize and foam at the mouth, happy, or seize and foam at the mouth, horrified.  Or else you went, “Um, yeah. So?”

If we don’t remember what we’ve learned, we won’t get far.

I talk about different ways people remember stuff – stories, telling back in their own words, repetition . . . lots of choices, each has its time and place.

Also I insert my usual reminder about the Holy Trinity, because sheesh how many catechists couldn’t answer, accurately, easy Trinity stuff.  Please.  Pastors, send your catechists to summer school until they at least know that.  (I don’t include that rant at AC.  Patheos exclusive.)

My #4 is “Critical Thinking”:

There’s a fashion in education to favor “critical thinking” but to not be too critical about what that means.  “Critical thinking” does not mean “Whatever I made up because look at me I’m so creative let’s have an argument!”.  Critical thinking means being able to wade through a pile of noise and sort out what’s true and what’s not.

I was going to stop at #4, but then I remembered the obligatory “service hours” component to 98% of American high school catechetical programs.  I thought about it.  And then I was swept into a weird alternate universe where I ignored my inner teenager (“They really are treating you like slaves, aren’t they?”), and allowed that there is indeed a time and a place for practicing all sorts of stuff.  Hence #5, Skill:

It’s not a fully-formed faith if I only go feed the hungry because I want my confirmation certificate; but I’ll never get good at feeding the hungry unless I practice it a few times.

And so forth.

And then I finish with the big surprise answer to the money question, “What’s the Perfect Religious Education Program?”  You probably already know what I’m going to say, but to verify, go read the whole thing.


Also, I think I have a medical condition that causes me to want to punch someone every time I hear the name “Piaget”.  I don’t write about that at AC.


It’s not about Piaget, not really.  It’s about the notion that somehow the only way to become an effective teacher is to have sat through a class where someone told you all about Piaget.  Which I suppose explains why there were no good teachers prior to . . . I’ll stop now.  Carry on.  Nothing to see here.


Artwork: By Макаров ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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