4 Big Mistakes We've Made With Catechesis

Jules-Alexis Muenier (1863-1942), “La Leçon de catéchisme”
Jules-Alexis Muenier (1863-1942), “La Leçon de catéchisme” (photo: Public Domain)

One of the great struggles in the Church today is effectively catechizing God’s people. In a world so full of error, distortion, and half-truths, this has never been more necessary. I was asked recently to present my thoughts on this topic at a conference. I did so from the perspective not only of a pastor but also of one who grew up at the end of the era of the “old Church” and through the cultural revolution of late 1960s. Today’s post is the first part of my presentation at the conference; I’ll be posting the remainder over the next several days. (See “Here's How to Help Fix the 4 Big Mistakes We've Made With Catechesis”.)

Many approaches and experiments in catechesis have been tried over the past several decades and, frankly, all have ultimately failed. Though we need to try something new, that something new is really something old. We must go back to basics and tell the old stories again, within the family environment rather than just at the parish level.

In this first part of this article I’d like to reflect on four failed models of the past. I do not refer to specific programs, but more to some of the educational philosophes that underlie our practices then and now.

I. The professional class

At some point, especially in the immigrant years of Catholicism in this country, the task of catechesis shifted from the family and the culture experience of the home to a kind of “professional” class of teachers, largely priests and religious sisters.

In this system, religious education was almost always conducted away from the home. It took place in Catholic schools, which were being built in huge numbers in those years and staffed by ample numbers of religious nuns and brothers. In a largely Protestant culture, which also dominated in the public schools, the building of Catholic schools was considered a high priority for Catholics. Parents were strongly encouraged to enroll their children in Catholic schools.

Catholic schools and C.C.D. (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) programs were remarkably effective, well-staffed, and well-attended in the immigrant years of the first half of the 20th century and well into the 1970s.

Religious education and upbringing became a task largely conducted away from the home. Children either attended Catholic school, or if that was not possible, went to C.C.D. classes (established to educate children who attended secular schools). The point was that the education of children in the faith was entrusted to professional religious educators, priests, sisters, and some lay teachers.

Surely there were many reasons that this scenario came to be. Industrialization, urbanization, and poverty often put great strains on immigrant families. Educational levels in general among largely poor Catholics were low and to some extent it made sense to entrust the critical task of religious education to the Church. But the effect was the marginalization of parents as the primary religious educators of their children.

And this would have lasting effects when the system of priests and religious collapsed in the 1970s. Religious sisters and priests, once a numerous and effective army of teachers, diminished and largely disappeared almost overnight. Despite this, parents were still kept on the periphery. But, frankly, how could catechesis have been redirected back to the home at that time? For at least three generations, Catholics had been led to relegate religious formation to the parish rather than the home. Attitudes change slowly and there was also little catechetical experience to rely on within the family.

In reaction to this, many well-meaning but at-first-untrained laity stepped into the gap to prop up the parish-based system. Despite the revolution of the late 1960s and the exodus of religious, parish-based religious instruction continued as usual.

Add to this problem the fact that “professional class” of religious leaders and teachers in the 1960s and later came to be infested by dissenters. Poorly trained adults were at first little equipped to resist those dissenters and were easily led astray.

So the first problem is that it is never good when parents and other adults are told to consign the religious education of their children to others. It tends to remove faith from the home and allows a class of dissenters too much access and influence. As we shall see, this left many chronological adults with a faith that was little more than elementary.

II. The priority was on children

In all the immigrant years and into the 1960s, the whole focus and priority was to teach children the faith. So critical was the Catholic education of children considered to be, that bishops often instructed pastors of new parishes to build the school first (holding Mass in the hall) and build the church later.

With the education of children in the faith such a priority, the education of adults suffered and in many places was non-existent. Certainly there was little attempt to teach parents to hand on the faith. Why should there be when the parish was handling the teaching of the children?

But something sets up when the faith is taught only to children and not “translated” to an adult audience. Children are great at learning the basics, but they are not always able to “connect the dots” or to discern the deeper meaning and relevance of what is taught. That sort of process requires ongoing formation as people progress through the various stages of life. Most parishes were so focused on the elementary education of children that few resources were left to devote to the ongoing formation of adults through the various stages of their lives.

Even if adults had some access to the “nuts and bolts” of elementary doctrine from their childhood instruction, there was little capacity for most to build upon this foundation and apply the faith to the increasingly complex moral issues of the modern world.

Frankly, most parents were poorly equipped to be spiritual leaders in the home (and their children did not look to them for instruction in the faith). Neither were they equipped to be spiritual leaders in the community or to apply their faith to the temporal order or within the community. Some of this explains why, despite so many Catholics in this land, we have so little influence within the temporal order, the political realm, and so forth. Many Catholics make little or no connection between their faith and how they vote or how they think about any number of worldly topics or matters. Quite frankly, most were not taught to do so. Faith was something discussed “down at the parish” by priests, nuns, and catechists. At home and out in the world, the laity had not been encouraged to say or do much other than to engage in a few pious practices (e.g., saying the rosary, not eating meat on Fridays, and attending Mass on a few holy days here and there).

Living or discussing the faith outside the parish was minimal. And inside the parish, the faith was taught almost exclusively to children. Add to this the tendency, even the demand, for short sermons and Masses, and adults were left largely on the margins of educational outreach.

This child-centered focus of Catholic education was not only unhealthy but practically guaranteed that Catholics would be (and still are) sitting ducks when error and demanded compromise came knocking at ever increasing levels as the culture melted down.

III. The process was perfunctory

Rote learning through the use of memorized questions and answers was the common method of educating youngsters in the first half of the 20th century. Two factors influenced this: the focus on children and the size of parishes.

As we have seen, with the focus of religious education almost entirely on children, there developed an educational model that best fit children. The “rote learning” of the Baltimore Catechism was good in itself. It presented the basics of the faith well in a concise question and answer format. As a rule, children are much better at memorization than are adults. Further, it is appropriate to provide them with basic principles as a foundation on which to build.

But therein lies the weakness as well. If all that is done is to memorize pithy questions and answers, much is left undone. For example, what do the answers mean at a deeper level? What are the consequences for our spiritual, moral, social, and emotional lives? It is true that “God is everywhere,” but what are the implications of that? Jesus is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who became flesh and dwelt among us. But more deeply, who is Jesus Christ and what does it mean to call him Lord and God, yet also our brother? How do we experience Him? The rote method of memorizing questions and answers can supply substance but is there time for adequate reflection? Usually there was not.

And that leads to the second factor that influenced this quick, rote method: huge parishes. Many of the parishes of the immigrant period and up to the middle of the 20th century were huge. Some of the ethnic parishes of Chicago had as many as 20,000 members. Some of the parishes took up an entire city block, with the parish and school buildings along with convents and rectories (housing armies of priests and religious). Many parishes had gymnasiums, credit unions, and social halls as well. Imagine the Mass schedules and confessions in parishes of this size! Many parishes had as many as 15 Masses on Sunday in the upper and lower churches and sometimes in the school hall—all celebrated before noon. Confessions were heard for as long as six hours on Saturdays with as many as six priests in the boxes. Parochial schools sometimes had double shifts in order to accommodate the large number of students, and there were as many as 60 children per classroom.

It’s an amazing picture, but it also shows how and why a “quick and basic” approach to just about everything took hold. These parishes were too easily like factories, quickly churning out product. Masses were usually low Masses, and the confessions were often hurried. Religious instruction had to be quick and focused. There is little time to go deeper in such a “factory system,” in which quantity too easily eclipses quality.

In reaction to this atmosphere, the Baltimore Catechism was pure genius. It captured a lot of content and memorably set it before students. But the questions posed in the catechism weren’t always the questions that the world was increasingly asking, as a cultural storm brewed heading toward the 1960s.

The depth of knowledge needed to apply the faith to changing and complex situations was not the strong point of the rote system. Add to this the fact that the home was seldom a place for further discussion of the faith and you get a generation or two that is schooled in the basics but has no model to apply them to daily life. Such models are best seen in family settings.

IV. The premise was authority, not truth itself

Before the cultural revolution that threw out (among other things) respect for authority, an argument made from a position of authority carried a certain amount of weight. One might be exhorted to go to Mass, or to believe a certain doctrine because “the Church said so.” Such exhortations were common because they worked.

But after the revolution, not only did the argument from authority carry little weight, it was often an additional reason not to accept something as true, even a reason to scorn it all the more. The argument from authority certainly has a place, but its effectiveness varies a lot from person to person and from culture to culture. Some believers are more prone than others to accept the simple weight of authority. Others seek evidence and demand more reasons.

In the end, the argument from authority has a flawed premise. Something is not true because the Church teaches it; rather, the Church teaches it because it is true. Authority is helpful because issues can be complex and disparate, and authorities or experts can present them coherently. But at the end of the day, something is true of itself, not merely because an authority says so. While the Church is an important vehicle for truth, the truth is from God, and the Church believes, teaches, and proposes something for belief because God has revealed it through the Scriptures, the Book of Creation, and Sacred Tradition.

Pedagogically, this argument from authority, which carried a lot of weight and was a common Catholic appeal, had the drawback of encouraging acceptance of a declaration without going deeper through questions such as these: Why is this so? How is this related to this other teaching that seems to say something different? Are there distinctions to be made and if so what are they? How do we know this is revealed by God and not mere human doctrine? These questions need not be asked in an impudent or contrary way; they are the stuff of rational inquiry, of faith seeking understanding. In the “because the Church says so” mode, one risks accepting a teaching and suffering the same fate as the seed that falls on rocky ground and withers for lack of root, or the seed that falls on the path and is taken away by the the birds of the air, or the seed that falls among thorns and is choked off.

And this is precisely what happened when the revolution hit. The beautiful, docile (docile meaning teachable, not gullible) faith of many Catholics lacked the depth necessary to endure the tsunami that came in successive waves. Thus the generations raised on rote, authority-based systems in which both the questions and the answers were supplied could not withstand the questions raised by a post-revolutionary world. Parents, especially, were ill-equipped to set up a wall of truth for their children, since catechesis had not been their bailiwick for generations and the catechesis they did have was rooted in the child-centered systems of Catholic parishes and schools.

Sadly, as we know, a lot of these structures remain in place today. Family-based catechesis is still rare; whatever religious education does occur is still mostly consigned to schools and parishes rather than taking place in the home. Opportunities for adult education have increased, but most parishes are still heavily focused on catechizing children (not a bad thing) and provide limited opportunities for adults. Further, there is almost no effort made to help parents to be better catechizers of their children at home.

So although the “old days” at least had good content, we know that by the 1970s the content had become quite poor—even in some cases erroneous and heretical.

As a way forward, we need both good content and better support structures. I’ll continue with more on this in next week's post.