13 July 2012

On the Scandalous State of Catholic Catechesis

Thanks to the archdiocese's Office of Religious Education, I've been teaching basic and advanced certification class for catechists these last few weeks.

Without exception, the veteran teachers in these classes have been attentive, curious, hard-working and. . .surprisingly. . .just a little upset.


Yes, just a little upset.  Maybe surprised is the better word.  In every class so far, I've been told that the information we're covering is largely new to them, or the theology we're using to explain the teachings of the Church is one they've never heard before.

What are you teaching these teachers, Father?!

The Catholic faith.  Plain and simple:  nothing more than the apostolic faith contained in the Creeds, the liturgies, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  Granted, my spin on these is decidedly Dominican-Thomistic, but we are using the most basic texts available to explore what the Church teaches about prayer, the sacraments, and worship.  

And. . .the teachers have found much of what the Church teaches to be. . .surprising.  In every class so far we've had a student-initiated discussion that starts with, "Father, I've been teaching CCD for ____ years and no one ever told me _____!"

Any student of mine from the past knows that the focus of my classes is always the text in front of us.  What does the text actually say?  Why does the text say this?  Why does it say what it says in this specific way?  

Deliberately set aside are questions of personal experience and feelings. For example, in discussing the Real Presence, we look at the relevant paragraphs from the Catechism, etc. and spend our time "unpacking" the language used to teach the truth of Christ's sacramental presence in the Eucharist.  

How we have experienced the Real Presence, or how we feel about the Church's teaching on the Real Presence is entirely irrelevant to the truth of the teaching.  In the initial stages of learning about God's Self-revelation in the Eucharist, our personal take on the revelation matters not one iota.  

Why does this old-fashioned method of closely reading texts cause surprise/wonder among veteran catechists?  They have been taught to teach in a way that privileges experiences and feelings above intellectual content. Are experiences/feelings important to learning the faith?  Absolutely.  But we have experiences of the faith, feelings about the faith.  In other words, the object of our experiences and feelings is the faith, and, in the absence of intellectual content, we are abandoned to do nothing more than tell stories and emote.

When you combine a 40 year legacy of institutional intellectual dissent with an experiential/emotive pedagogy, you get The Current State of Abysmal Ignorance about the Faith. You get a roomful of veteran catechists who are surprised/upset to learn that they never understood the Church's teaching on the basic truths of the faith b/c they were never taught the faith. 

You also get the occasional catechist who rejects the most basic teachings of the Church and even opposes the notion that the Church has the right and responsibility to teach the faith.  

Case in point:  the Diocese of Arlington recently asked its 5,000 volunteer catechists to sign a declaration of fidelity to the Creed and the magisterium.  Four volunteers refused to sign and resigned.  These women get points for having the integrity to resign.  What's interesting is how the reporter describes one woman who refused to sign the absurdly obvious declaration:

Kathleen Riley knows her beliefs on the male-only priesthood and contraception put her at odds with leaders of her church. But as a fifth-generation Catholic who went to a Catholic school and grew up to teach in one, Riley feels the faith deeply woven through her.

Riley's beliefs do not "put her at odds with leaders of her church."  Her beliefs put her at odds with the apostolic faith. But b/c she feels the faith deeply, her rejection of the Church's ancient teaching on the all-male priesthood and the evil of artificial contraception should not disqualify her from teaching Catholic children their tradition of faith, a faith that cannot be sliced up into discrete parts and digested individually. There's no disputing that Riley feels the faith deeply.  But what exactly is she having feelings about?  What is the object of her emotions?  It can't be the faith b/c she doesn't accept the truth of the faith.

The rest of the article trots out all the wearying cliches professional dissidents use to justify their continuing opposition to the Church:  "conscience," "abuse of authority," "polls show most Catholics ignore church teachings," "the bishops vs. the Holy Spirit," ad. nau.  But at the root of the catechetical problem is the widespread rejection of the idea that the faith has intellectual content that can be handed on and the elevation of personal experience and feelings about the faith to the Chair of St. Peter.

Follow HancAquam and visit the Kindle Wish List and the Books & Things Wish List

Click on St. Martin and donate to the Dominicans! ----->


  1. I was chatting with a retired priest this morning. He reckons it will take generations to repair the damage of the last 50 years. Which makes it important to start now! God bless your efforts Father, & the efforts of all of like mind.

  2. Thank you for these thoughts. I am sending them on to our DRE.

  3. Thank you! Thank you! Truth and obedience are *not* optional!

    This is a little off the point, but you can probably use it anyway. I taught my parish's two-year confirmation class for two of my kids, meaning I taught it for four years. Four of the dozen students I had in one class had obviously been well catechized at home, so I had to figure out how to draw everybody into the discussion. I took to starting class with softball questions, and the well-catechized kids realized that these easy questions were not for them.

    So one day I started by asking these eighth-graders who the three persons of the Trinity are. Basic, right? Any first-grader should know this, right? Oh, how I wish!

    I gave it a good long pause, waiting for somebody to say something. Nobody did. So I started to cross myself slowly. "In the name of the . . . " "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!" they all yelled, happy to get something right. "All right!" I beamed at them. "So who are the three persons of the Trinity?" Pause. Nothing. "Okay, who is one of the three persons?"

    One lone kid piped up hesitantly. "Um . . . Mary?"

    It is not a coincidence, by the way, that the four well-catechized students later got into the local magnet high school for math and science, which accepts about 15% of its applicants. Parents really are children's first and most important teachers.

  4. This is an uphill battle, I'm afraid. Our parish had no religious ed for younger students this past year, and the "confirmation prep" class was abysmal. In previous years the kids met once a month, so just 5 or 6 times a year - maybe this was actually a blessing, since what they were being taught was not much more than fluff. I'm a product of "post Vat II catechesis" myself, being born in 1969, but always thirsting for knowledge have taken in upon myself to learn, but also quite aware that my own catechesis is sorely lacking I tend to question what I think I know. I homeschool my boys, to include massive amounts :-) of faith/religious study, and my older son was in the confirmation prep class (even though at 13 he isn't "old enough" to be confirmed), so I saw and heard first hand what was being taught. It is no wonder we haven't seen these kids since the classes ended in April - it is no wonder the families with children migrate to the "Community Church" with the awesome youth program - it is no wonder we have to scramble for altar servers each Sunday and usually end up with an adult - it is no wonder our parish is dwindling. What to do? It is disheartening, especially since no one seems to see that there is a problem here.

    Sorry, you touched on one of my many raw nerves regarding parish-life and the state of the Church in general. Is is maddening, and frustrating, and terribly, terribly sad.

    1. Shelly, so long as the clergy, religious, and parents are embarrassed by the faith, or see the Church's magisterium as a bunch of old men in dresses living in Rome, then your parish's experience will become the norm. It takes a forthright, assertive effort to teach and live the faith. For too long, too many catechists have understood themselves to be little more than sheepish excuse-makers for the Church's teachings. We need strong, charitable, plain-speaking lay folks to step up and volunteer. We do NOT need aggressive, Catechism-thumping Inquisitors who see themselves as mini-Popes. Just tell the truth and let the kids explore the authentic faith! :-0

    2. Just tell the truth! It really isn't any more complicated than that. Great post Father.

    3. Fr. (and possibly Shelly as well)

      I haven't been following Steve Kellmeyer's blog as enthusiastically as I used to and even stopped commenting there but on a coincidence, just yesterday he posted about the issue (even if from a different point of view...). Very disheartening, but from my (limited) parish environment experience, I couldn't change one iota of what he wrote.

    4. Matheus,
      Thanks for the link. Kinda scary, especially considering that I am considering a discussion with our priest this weekend regarding certain, er, liberties he is taking with the Mass. The GIRM is very enlightening, and I wanted to be sure I actually knew what I thought I knew. Knowledge - a dangerous thing.

      And Father, thanks for your reply. I teach my own children - I'd probably get in "Big Trouble" if I volunteered to teach religious ed here! I would have to REALLY watch my Irish temper, not being one who deals well with, shall we say, "bureaucratic nonsense".

      Have a great weekend.

  5. I am a DRE in the Diocese of Arlington AND I FULLY SUPPORT our bishop's implementation of the Profession of Faith for all catechists and their classroom aides. The text of the profession of faith is what the Holy See provides (available at http://www.doctrinafidei.va/). An excerpt from the letter from Bishop Loverde which accompanied the profession of faith text given to DREs states the following:

    “As chief catechist in the diocese, the bishop is responsible for the total catechetical
    mission of the local church” (National Directory for Catechesis, 54). This aspect of my ministry
    is one I share with all who teach and form our youth. In order that we may work together to
    transmit the Faith, I hereby establish, as diocesan policy, that every catechist, together with their aides (if any), publicly make an annual Profession of Faith according to the attached formula. It would seem that the most fitting moment to do so would be on Catechetical Sunday each year,
    collectively at one of the parish Masses in the presence of the pastor (or another priest of the
    parish) and the faithful gathered to celebrate the Eucharist. If an individual catechist is not
    present at this Mass on Catechetical Sunday, he or she is to make the Profession of Faith at
    another opportune time, as close to the beginning of the catechetical year as possible and in the
    presence of the pastor or another priest of the parish. The signed copies of the Profession of
    Faith will be kept at each parish. This policy will take effect on September 16, 2012 and will
    remain in place unless or until it is revoked by the Diocesan Bishop.

    With you, I give thanks for the generous commitment of time, talent and energy shown
    by all who offer themselves for service as catechists in our parish religious education programs.
    Professing our faith publicly is a further sign of our catechists’ commitment to teach in
    communion with Christ and His Church. I hope it will be also an incentive for us all to bear
    witness anew to the content of the Faith that is professed, celebrated, lived and prayed.

  6. Fr Joseph Mack11:42 AM

    Maybe you could start up a new mission for the Dominicans in the U.S. I know many diocese would benefit from having their catechists trained away from the old/useless/counter-productive touchy-feely mess from the last 1/2 century. I for one would welcome you here.

  7. Anonymous12:13 PM

    This is tangential to CCD, but the state of lay marriage prep programs (e.g. Cana) is similarly absymal. The main question the lay leaders of the session I was forced to attend were debating was whether to led a lesbian couple participate (why they wanted to remains a mystery to me). They also were actively encouraging couples of sleep together before marriage to make sure that they were "compatible."

    We don't have these problems in our parish where we have the TLM (and Latin Novus). I know you're not a big fan, Father, but by their fruits you shall know them.

    1. Regarding "traditional" parishes, just for the record, the blogger of the post to which I linked above added an update addressing this very question, and understandably it turns out it's not necessarily the way you mention.

    2. Anonymous1:48 PM

      Sorry, but that's a bit ridiculous. The parish to what I was referring is actual not a exclusively TLM parish, but was founded originally a so-called "national parish" (in this case for Austrian / German immigrants). In any case, it's just a normal parish today, but with a mixture of the TLM and Latin (and English) Novus Masses.

      I have known a number of FSSP priests and I will admit that they sometimes are a bit rigid, and do sometimes over emphasize things like Limbo. However you understand it though, there's still no comparison to the average American Novus parish. And whatever you think about the Feeneyites, they have been reconciled to the Church.

      Obviously I'm not so naïve to think that ever parish with the TLM is some shining light of Catholicism. In fact, I've seen several that left much to be desired. But by any reasonably measure the parish where the TLM is at least a part of the regular Mass schedule is, on average, a more faithful, more serious, and more Catholic place than the typical American novus parish.

      Or, in other words, the liturgy matters and the celebration of the TLM tends to improve the celebration of the Novus, even in the vernacular.

    3. Or, in other words, the liturgy matters and the celebration of the TLM tends to improve the celebration of the Novus, even in the vernacular.

      Well, on that we definitely agree...as matter of fact, if that wasn't the rocket science it seems to be for parish priests, dissenters from both the "left" and the "right" ends of the spectrum would have much less leverage than they currently have and the average parish would be a much better place...

  8. staying anon for this one!12:08 PM

    My diocese uses Faith First curriculum, and it is just as you say. Much about feelings, not so much doctrine. When I taught a lesson on conscience, the focus was on following conscience, but not a word on how we properly form our consciences. Obviously I modify this curriculum constantly. At least one of the teachers of the diocese's catechetical program for all school teachers is a dissenter, which makes it very hard for me to take anything s/he says at face value. I am a firm believer in teaching the faith in its fullness, so that people can at least make an informed decision about following it.

  9. Anonymous11:40 AM

    There is a Sister Johanna who is a professor of catechetics at Steubenville who is one of the world's authorities on catechetics. She is a Sister of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George (Alton, IL) and so is unambiguously orthodox. If I wanted direction on how to construct a good catechetical program for home-school, parish or diocese, I'd be sure to consult her. By the same token, at all costs resist including nuns in secular clothing in any of your catechetical programs if you value orthodoxy. While it is certainly true that some good, orthodox Sisters rank among these groups, the nuns' equivalent of giving the finger to the Church is the veil-less head (and please spare me the reminder that some very orthodox groups were founded in lay clothes for various reasons in history usually related to church persecution. That's true but accounts for very little on the overall picture).