CATECHISM SERIES, PART 15


PHILADELPHIA — Raised in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Leslie Isaac enrolled her daughter, Caitlin, in a Catholic school because she sees religion as an important part of education.

At St. Francis de Sales School in Philadelphia, where Caitlin is a second-grader, all children, regardless of their religion, study the Catholic faith as presented in Loyola Press’ Christ Our Life series. As a result of this approach, many in the culturally diverse school, including Caitlin, who was baptized Nov. 5, have asked to become Catholic.

Caitlin’s mother, who was confirmed and received into the Church two years ago, said her daughter not only is grasping her faith but talks about it to others.

For example, Isaac said on Halloween Caitlin happened to be near her school with her cousins and took the opportunity to explain who Mary is as she paused before a statue to say the “Hail Mary.”

“She knows,” Isaac said. “She understands.”

Isaac said the Christ Our Life books her daughter uses do a good job of explaining the Catholic faith to elementary school children. “The way that they’re written and set up, (the children) are able to understand it,” she said.

Christ Our Life is part of a new wave of texts published in response to an effort begun in 1996 by the U.S. bishops to upgrade the quality of religious education in the nation’s parishes and schools. Some of the texts were approved as they were, while some publishers made changes in order to receive the approval. Newer catecisms were planned with an eye to approval.

In cooperation with publishers, the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism now reviews religion textbooks for consistency with the Catechism of the Catholic Church and completeness of presentation. To have their books reviewed, publishers voluntarily submit texts before publication and agree to make changes needed for a declaration of conformity with the Catechism.

Thus far, the effort has generated 125 books and series that are in conformity with the Catechism, in addition to older ones that were either approved as they were or revised and then approved. (A complete list can be viewed at usccb.org.)

In response to the bishops’ initiative, some dioceses, including Philadelphia, where Cardinal Justin Rigali is archbishop, and Boston, headed by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, now mandate that catechists use books bearing the declaration of conformity. The Register recently examined the policies and practices of both archdioceses as part of an investigation looking at the 20 largest dioceses in the country in terms of elementary school population.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese maintains its own list of approved texts, but everything on it has a declaration of conformity from the bishops. “We don’t approve a series until (the bishops) have,” Joan Fitzpatrick, director of parish religious education, said. “Then, we look through it to see if it fits our diocesan guidelines.”

She said the bishops’ review process has been a gift to the Church. “The publishers have been wonderful and so much easier to work with,” she said. “We’re all on the same page now.”

Parishes are asked to report to the archdiocese which textbooks they are using each year, but Fitzpatrick said that she has never run into an instance of someone using an unapproved text.

A random check of 10 parishes and schools in the Philadelphia Archdiocese showed that the policy seems to be working. Not one school or parish program reported using an out-of-conformity text, and many of the educators contacted said they had considered conformity with the Catechism to be a priority in selecting texts.

Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Mary McNulty at St. Francis de Sales in Philadelphia, for example, said conformity was a major factor in her school’s choice of Christ Our Life.

In Philadelphia, the only anomaly among the 10 parishes checked was an instance of a parish not using any books at all for its junior high students. St. Aloysius in Pottstown, Pa., sends students in Grades 7 and 8 to the parish youth group, where no text is used.

Fitzpatrick said because the archdiocese confirms young people in Grade 6, parishes sometimes have trouble getting students back after they receive the sacrament,  and catechists worry that textbooks will turn off students in this age group. She said she is aware of the problem and is in the process of trying to build up junior-high programs in the archdiocese.

In the Archdiocese of Boston, the bishops’ conformity listing is the principal standard for choosing religion textbooks. “If a book or series has not received that conformity approval, we really do discourage a parish signing on,” Susan Lang Abbott, assistant director for catechetical resources, said.

Abbott said she would expect that most parishes and schools are following the policy. “If we are not at 100% conformity, we’re awfully close to it,” she said. “We survey our parishes every year, and part of that survey is not just numbers, but what texts are you using. ... There are just so many good series on the list that to not use something from that list would puzzle me.”

Indeed, a check of 10 parishes in the archdiocese found nearly all to be using textbooks in conformity with the Catechism. Just two parishes — St. Michael in Bedford and St. Edith Stein in Brockton — were using older sacramental preparation texts for second-graders that had not been reviewed by the bishops.

However, books in conformity with the Catechism were in place for all other grades. The texts in question are Silver Burdett Ginn’s We Celebrate the Eucharist, used by both parishes, and We Celebrate Reconciliation, in use at St. Michael.

At St. Edith, We Celebrate the Eucharist is supplemented with material from Sadlier’s We Believe series, which is used for Grades 1-6 and has the declaration of conformity.

Abbott said the Eucharist and reconciliation books have always been held in high regard and contain nothing deficient. However, she said they are the foundation of Silver Burdett Ginn’s newer books on the sacraments, adding, “People need to put their fear aside and take a look at the newer editions that have been found in conformity.”

She said she would bring up the topic of the older texts in future conversations with the parish educational leaders, suggesting that they look at the newer editions. “I think they will find they have everything the old editions have, plus they’ve been found to be in conformity, which is important,” Abbott said.

The check of parishes in the Boston Archdiocese also revealed that one parish, St. Robert Bellarmine in Andover, was not using any textbooks because of its involvement in Generations of Faith, an intergenerational learning program designed by John Roberto of the Center for Ministry Development.

Instead of textbooks, Generations has planning guides, prayers, “learning experiences” and home activities published by Harcourt Religion Publishers, but these are not reviewed by the bishops’ committee because, according to the publisher, they do not constitute a catechetical series and have no pieces specifically for children.

Archbishop Alfred Hughes, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism, has said that although intergenerational catechesis is a good thing, he would have a problem with any approach that did not use catechetical texts, particularly those found to be in conformity with the Catechism. “It would not be fulfilling what the Church asks in regard to catechesis,” he said.

Abbott said the Boston Archdiocese shares that concern.

“We are extremely aware that all the documents coming out of Rome and the American Catholic bishops talk about a systematic presentation of doctrine, and our children deserve no less than that,” she said.

Abbott said she would prefer that parishes using Generations of Faith implement a blended model combining traditional textbook instruction for children with whole-community events. She estimates that of the parishes in the archdiocese using Generations, more than half employ this blended model.

Abbott said textbooks are a user-friendly way for catechists to pass on the faith.

She said, “A textbook provides you with a road map and it has been written by faith-filled people who do this for a living,”

Judy Roberts is based in

Graytown, Ohio.

At a Glance

What’s it about — The Register is examining 20 U.S. dioceses with the largest elementary-school populations.

History — To improve the quality of religious education, the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism, which was formed in 1994, began reviewing textbooks in 1996.

At issue — In the past, textbooks were found to be deficient in 10 fundamental areas: the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the magisterium, Christian view of man, an emphasis on God’s action, not man’s, grace, the sacraments, sin, Christian morality, and eschatology.

What we’ve learned — New Orleans, Buffalo, Baltimore, St. Louis, Miami, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Newark, Cleveland, Trenton, N.J., Brooklyn, Detroit, Philadelphia  and Boston all require texts in conformity with the Catechism. St. Paul-Minneapolis does not, nor did Cincinnati when reviewed in November 2005. However, in many dioceses, except New Orleans and Philadelphia, outdated and other nonstandard texts were still found to be in use in some places.

What’s the holdup? — Diocesan officials fail to clearly communicate and enforce policies, some publishers are continuing to sell older and/or unapproved texts for a variety of reasons, some catechists prefer familiar or popular texts and others reject textbooks in favor of designing their own programs.