Catechesis and theology

Catechesis and theology August 17, 2011

Catholic colleges and universities have dropped the ball when it comes to educating young Catholics in the faith.

Here in Madrid, among hundreds of thousands of Catholic young people, a common story I hear is that they learned things on their own.  They’ve had to exert great effort to dig deep into the theological and spiritual traditions of the Church, even as their colleges mandate the one or two courses in theology that drive many young Catholics into broad survey courses on the world’s religions.

What we know from surveys like those of Pew and the National Study of Youth and Religion is that young people on the whole are distant from their religious traditions.  What those surveys don’t show, however, is how massively passionate are those who have tenaciously clung to and cultivated their faith.  They desperately want to reach out to their peers and say “there’s more than meets the eye!  There is happiness and joy and meaning here!”

Meanwhile, many theologians wring our hands, recognizing that our students are religiously illiterate, while at the same time desperately trying to keep up academic rigor like our counterparts in the sciences.  So we teach Biblical criticism without teaching a sacred reading of the text.  We teach world religions without sharing why we ourselves have chosen one within which to build our lives and practice our faith.  We teach cutting edge liberation, black, feminist, indigenous, Asian, African, and queer theologies, but are terrified of admitting whether or not we have fallen in love with Jesus Christ.  We dare not catechize for fear that non-Catholics might accuse our Catholic institutions of being (uh–whispered tones) Catholic!  (Because being any one thing in particular means, of course, disrespecting everything else.)

True catechesis must be academically rigorous because otherwise it is empty piety.  How might we catechize about God’s creation of the world without engaging particle physics?  Or about salvation without being prepared to critique contemporary soteriologies like those of Marxism, social Darwinism, and objectivism?  Or about sexuality without being in dialogue with feminists, queer theorists, biologists, and social scientists?  I think that theologians’ fear of catechesis is a red-herring, knee-jerk repugnance for the simplistic version many remember in the Baltimore Catechism.

Catechesis is teaching a grammar of faith the way doctors must learn a grammar of biology or concert pianists must learn a grammar of the musical scale.  Catechesis must be part of a Catholic education so that students can learn how to think about faith.  They need not even be Catholic!  But those that are and those that aren’t will be exposed to one of the oldest and most thorough of traditions of thinking, of worship, of art and architecture, of literature, of ethics.  Why are we afraid of tackling it head on?

Tim Muldoon is a Catholic theologian who teaches in the Boston College Honors Program.  He is writing from World Youth Day, in Madrid.

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