CINCINNATI — Until recently, Teresa Steinmetz didn't know that the bishops of the United States evaluate her children's religion textbooks for conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
“I think it's a good thing, though,” Steinmetz, the mother of a kindergartener, a fourth-grader, and an eighth-grader, said. “They have to coincide with the Catechism. If they don't, it's just a mockery to our faith.”
Although the books her children use in their religious-education program at Sacred Heart Parish in Fairfield — Resources for Christian Living's Faith First series — bear a declaration from the bishops saying they are in conformity with the Catechism, the Cincinnati Archdiocese does not require parishes and schools to use only books with that declaration.
The archdiocese, led by Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, instructs catechists to choose a book from its own preferred list of textbooks. However, that list includes more than 30 elementary and junior high texts, sacramental preparation materials, and family life education books that have not been found in conformity with the Catechism.
Kenneth Gleason, director of the archdiocese's office of evangelization and catechesis, said the out-of-conformity books were added before the bishops’ review process started, and that any new books added are those that have been reviewed by the bishops. Books not on the conformity list will remain on the archdiocese's preferred list until they are no longer available from the publisher, Gleason said.
He said that although most parishes and schools choose books from the preferred list, the archdiocese allows any book to be used as long as it has an imprimatur and a “nihil obstat,” which ensure the text is free from doctrinal error. The bishops’ conformity review assesses books not only for error, but completeness of presentation.
In spite of Cincinnati's flexible policy, a random check of parishes and schools in the archdiocese found many to be using texts in conformity with the Catechism. In cases where out-of-conformity texts were in use, they often were supplementary materials for sacramental preparation or a text for a particular grade. A number of catechists, in fact, expressed a commitment to using texts in conformity with the Catechism.
At Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Cincinnati, for example, Leisa Anslinger, pastoral associate for evangelization, catechesis and stewardship, is using Harcourt Religion Publishers’ Call to Faith series for Grades 1-6 and Sadlier's Faith and Witness series for Grades 7-8. Both series are on the bishops’ conformity listing.
Anslinger said in addition to consulting the archdiocese's preferred textbook list, she looks at the bishops’ conformity list when choosing books.
“We want textbooks that are going to be clearly giving a systematic and intentional presentation of the faith, and the best way to know they're doing that is to know they're in conformity with the Catechism,” Anslinger said.
She added, “I've met so many parents who are uncertain about what the Church teaches because either they weren't catechized well themselves or don't remember. So I feel very strongly that the materials we use need to be good, solid materials for this generation of children and for their parents.”
Elsewhere in the country, a Register investigation has found that other dioceses have responded to the bishops’ efforts to make sure religious-education textbooks are in conformity with the Catechism by instructing religious educators to choose only books bearing the bishops’ declaration of conformity.
A third of all dioceses are estimated to have such requirements and include Miami, headed by Archbishop John Favalora; Baltimore, where Cardinal William Keeler is archbishop; New Orleans, led by Archbishop Alfred Hughes, and St. Louis, headed by Archbishop Raymond Burke. The Diocese of Buffalo, N.Y., headed by Bishop Edward Kmiec, directs catechists to use textbooks in conformity, but finds it difficult to enforce the policy because of limited staff.
Even where strong policies are in place, the Register has found some schools and parishes use materials that have not been reviewed by the bishops. In many instances, educators who selected the books did not know the texts failed to meet the bishops’ standards for conformity with the Catechism. Diocesan officials in turn were unaware such materials were being used.
When such cases are discovered, many dioceses follow up and let religious educators know that better materials are available.
The U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism has been reviewing textbooks for conformity with the Catechism since 1996 in cooperation with publishers, who submit texts voluntarily and agree to make changes needed for a conformity declaration. The ad hoc committee also cites “recommended” and “suggested” changes, and in 90% of the cases, publishers make all the changes, according to Archbishop Hughes of New Orleans, the current chairman of the committee.
At the start of the review process, the ad hoc committee, which then was headed by Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, OSB, of Indianapolis, identified 10 areas in which textbooks were lacking: the Trinity and the Trinitarian structure of Catholic beliefs, the centrality of Christ in salvation history and his divinity, the ecclesial context of Catholic beliefs and magisterial teachings, a distinctively Christian anthropology, God's initiative in the world with an overemphasis on human action, the transforming effects of grace, presentation of the sacraments, original sin and sin in general, the Christian moral life, and eschatology.
As a result of the bishops’ efforts, 95 texts and series now bear the declaration of conformity with the Catechism, giving religious educators multiple choices of materials that teach the fundamentals of the faith and make learning interesting as well. A list of such texts is updated quarterly and available on the U.S. Bishops’ website (usccb.org).
In Cincinnati, one of 20 dioceses being examined in the Register's investigation, the preferred textbook list is developed by reviewing books to see if they match the archdiocese's graded course of study and for age-appropriateness and adequacy of the teachers’ manuals.
Kristina Krimm, assistant director of the archdiocese's office of evangelization and catechesis, said even though catechists are told to choose books from the preferred list, there is no mechanism in place to enforce the policy. The archdiocese leaves the ultimate choice to the pastor, Krimm said.
Debbie Muskopf, who has three children in the parish school at Sacred Heart in Fairfield, said she thinks the textbooks they use are generally good, but that the presentation is sometimes “sugar-coated.”
“It's kind of a feel-good thing, but not a have-to thing,” she said. For example, she said that the requirement of fasting for one hour before receiving the Eucharist was never mentioned in her child's preparation for first Communion text. And while the option of receiving Communion in the hand is presented, there is no mention of the traditional way of receiving — on the tongue.
“I'm thinking of some of the things I was taught 30 years ago that are still in place, but these kids haven't a clue they exist,” she said. “They're good as far as incorporating faith into your life, but not overly good at rules.”
Jeanne Hunt, director of faith formation at Sacred Heart, chooses the books for both the parish school of religion and the elementary school. She said she has observed an improvement in doctrinal presentation in religion textbooks since the bishops’ review process began.
“I have noticed a much more disciplined approach to teaching religion, where before, anything kind of went,” she said. “It was supposed to be a thoughtful, reflective experience, but there was not a lot of content. The bishops truly brought that up a notch because we've got a whole generation of Catholics that don't know a lot about doctrine.”
Hunt said, however, that even as the pendulum swings back to a more traditional method of teaching religion, catechesis has to be combined with evangelization.
“There has to be a combination of both because no Catechism is going to convert if you don't open someone's heart,” she said. “The bishops are right to do this, but it has to go hand in hand with evangelizing folks.”
Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.