National Catholic Register


National Catechism Under Consideration by U.S. Bishops

BY Brian Caulfield

August 09-15, 1998 Issue | Posted 8/9/98 at 1:00 PM


NEWYORK—Acatechism for the United States based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church may soon be in the works if the nation's bishops approve action on a feasibility study to be presented next month in Washington, D.C.

The study, commissioned by the administrative board of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) almost three years ago, was conducted by the NCCB's Office for the Catechism, whose most public role thus far has been ruling whether catechetical texts submitted for review are in keeping with the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Indianapolis Archbishop Daniel Buechlein OSB, episcopal director of the Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism, will present a report on the study.

His report last year to the General Assembly of Bishops that a significant number of catechetical texts reviewed by the committee were deficient in areas of doctrine and moral formation fueled an urgent desire among bishops, pastors, and laypeople for more orthodox guidance in religious education.

The call for national catechisms throughout the Church comes from Pope John Paul II himself in his 1992 apostolic constitution Fidei Depositum, on the promulgation of the Catechism. It states that the Catechism is not intended to replace “local catechisms” approved by episcopal authorities on diocesan or national levels; rather the Catechism is “to encourage and assist in the writing of new local catechisms, which take into account various situations and cultures, while carefully preserving the unity of faith and fidelity to Catholic doctrine.”

This statement has been taken by some educators as meaning that the Catechism should not be studied directly by the laity, who should wait for the “experts” to present it to them. The Pope's other statements discount this interpretation. The Catechism, the Holy Father writes, is offered “to all the faithful who wish to deepen their knowledge of the unfathomable riches of salvation.”

A national catechism could take two basic forms, said Father Michael Pollard, executive director of the Committee for the Catechism, who headed the feasibility study. A single text for adults could be issued, or a catechetical series for elementary and high schools could be published, with textbooks appropriate for each grade level. The latter format is used by catechetical publishers who supply texts to schools and parish religious education programs nationwide.

The bishops also could issue national guidelines to define what doctrines of the faith are to be taught and at what time in a religious education program. There are no such guidelines presently recognized; dioceses and even parishes have been left to draw up their own.

A number of catechetical experts have lobbied for a U.S. catechism in the hope that the bishops would in this way exercise more control over the contents of textbooks put out by these various publishers.

“I have been a great proponent over the years of a national catechism as a way of unifying our efforts in the field of religious education, now that we have the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a certain guide,” Msgr. Michael Wrenn, author of two books on catechetics, told the Register. “A national catechism will help place catechetics back in the hands of the ones who are divinely charged with handing on the truths of the faith — the bishops.” As a New York pastor, Msgr. Wrenn is special consultant on catechesis to John Cardinal O'Connor. His most recent book by Ignatius Press, Flawed Expectations, critiques the attacks on the universal Catechism by high-profile dissenting Catholics. His other book, Catechisms and Controversies, gives a well-documented, behind-the-scenes look at the persons and secular educational theories that changed religious instruction in the wake of Vatican II.

“In recent years, certain people in the religious education establishment have moved catechetics away from content-based and propositional-statement methods to methods of experiential knowledge,” said Msgr. Wrenn. “There has been a great concern for social-gospel outreach and religious socialization and very little for the great creeds of our faith. The result is a generation that by and large does not know the faith and is unable to pass is on to others.”

The basic catechetical text in the United States for almost a century was the Baltimore Catechism, which in its various editions had greater or lesser episcopal input and oversight. Written in a precise question-and-answer format and used for both adults and children, the Baltimore Catechism defined the faith for many generations of Catholics, and was considered the all-purpose answer book for inquiries and disputes.

Criticism of the question-and-answer format, which required heavy doses of memorization, and claims that too many Catholics were learning but not living the faith, led to the development of new catechetical methods and an almost overnight shelving of the Baltimore Catechism. The method was not perfect, and did tend toward a legalistic understanding of the faith, but the texts that replaced the Baltimore Catechism in American classrooms were deficient in more ways than one, said Msgr. Wrenn.

“What we should be moving toward is an integration of the learning and the living of the faith, not an exclusion of one in favor of the other,” he stressed.

The fact that a number of catechetical texts used today in Catholic schools and parishes are deficient has been no secret to pastors, principals, and parents over the years. Kelly Bowring, a father of four children and chairman of the theology department for the past two years at a Catholic preparatory school in San Antonio, Texas, has written a treatise on the shortcomings of modern catechetical methods and the need for a national catechism.

Proponents of the new catechesis have implemented “a creedless, contentless, non-cognitive, and non-deductive kind of experiential catechesis” that has resulted in a religious illiteracy in countless numbers of Catholics, Bowring writes. “A national catechism would significantly contribute toward the unity of the faith within the Church. It would tend toward guaranteeing universal fidelity” to Catholic doctrine and enable catechists of good will to pass on the faith “whole and entire” to the next generation, he concludes.

Archbishop Buechlein reported on the sad state of some current catechetical texts to the assembly of bishops in June 1997. He cited a number of catechetical series for “a relatively consistent trend of doctrinal incompleteness and imprecisions” in vital areas such the Holy Trinity, man's action in the world in relation to God's initiative, the Incarnation, Original Sin, heaven and hell, the transforming power of grace, the centrality of the sacraments, the ecclesiastical context of Catholic beliefs and teachings, and a “meager exposition of Christian moral life,” to name only a few of the shortfalls.

Recommendations for corrections were made to the pertinent publishers and, the archbishop reported, steps were to be taken in future editions to bring the deficient texts into conformity with the Catechism.

Despite Archbishop Buechlein's upbeat conclusion, he also reported at the meeting that the feasibility study for a national catechism was going forward and a task force of experts had been commissioned to explore the development of a “scope and sequence chart” based on the Catechism, which would outline what matters of the faith would be taught in what grades throughout the nation.

The feasibility study to be presented in September has five basic components, according to Father Pollard:

• a survey of other national episcopal conferences that have national catechetical texts or guidelines;

• an in-depth report on the national catechism effort in Canada, which has had such texts for a number of years;

• results of discussions with representatives of the major catechetical publishers;

• an outline of the basic doctrines and recommendations when they should be taught to school children; and

• a report on the continuing review of catechetical texts, with an eye toward showing how good or poor a job the various American publishers are doing.

Any catechetical series for grade schools will almost certainly involve present catechetical publishers, so an assessment of each one is important, Father Pollard explained. The cost of the NCCB preparing, publishing, reviewing, and updating such materials would likely be prohibitive, he said.

Italy was one of the countries studied closely because it has a four-volume national catechetical series, with each volume written for a different age level. Most national catechisms are written for adults, with grade-level texts based on them, said Father Pollard.

The Pope's call for new local catechisms was reiterated last year by the General Directory for Catechesis issued by the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy. It replaced a similar directory put out by the Vatican in the 1970s.

The General Directory stated that local catechisms “are invaluable instruments for catechesis which are called to bring the power of the Gospel into the very heart of culture and cultures.” The catechisms do this by presenting a synthesis of the faith “with reference to the particular culture in which catechumens and those to be catechized are immersed” by identifying aspects of that culture that conform to the Gospel and using them as a means of conveying the entire message of Christ.

Quoting the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, the General Directory states that local catechesis must seek out “more efficient ways — provided the meaning and understanding of them are safeguarded — of presenting their teaching to modern man: for the deposit of faith is one thing, the manner of expressing it is quite another.”

Father Pollard, who has been with the Committee on the Use of the Catechism since its formation in 1992, is leaving his post Aug. 15 to return to the Archdiocese of Chicago, where Francis Cardinal George has appointed him vicar for education. Replacing him as executive director is Father Daniel Kutys, director of catechetics for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

The most satisfying development during the past few years, said Father Pollard, has been the bishops' immediate response to the promulgation of the universal Catechism and their efforts to make it a normative text for all religious education efforts.

“The bishops did not miss the defining moment in the history of catechetics that the Catechism presented,” he said. “They have made a significant input on the renewal of the catechetical mission in the United States, and we will see the results of that in the coming years.”

Brian Caulfield writes from New York.