Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
All parents have the primary responsibility to educate their children. This is a duty that parents cannot in good conscience shirk off or place on others. They are obliged to find a good school for their children or educate them at home. For Catholics the duty of education especially includes teaching their children the precepts of the Catholic faith and showing them how to live as faithful Christians. But religious education from a textbook, as it has been traditionally done, has a danger of becoming either completely shallow and soppy, or at the other extreme of becoming entirely cerebral. A true religious education is that of the whole person — the heart, mind, soul, strength, and even the body — but primarily the heart.
Yet, how does one go about educating their children in the faith?
The easy answer is to send them to a Catholic school where they will have religion or catechism class, sign them up for CCD if they go to a non-Catholic school, or teach them their catechism at home from a curriculum. These days there are a wide variety of books for educating our children in faith.
Still, studies show that young Catholics are leaving the Church as teenagers. A diocese I worked for had a problem of families coming to Mass only on the Sundays when their religious education program required it for their children to receive the sacraments of First Holy Communion and Confirmation. And the one hour per week that catechists spent with the children was spent reading a religious text that neither delved into actually explaining the faith nor taught them how to talk to God in prayer. Everything was superficial. My husband, who teaches philosophy at a university in the Catholic tradition, has had students who were raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools, but who never learned that one could use reason to come to the knowledge of God’s existence. Sadly, this poor state of catechesis is one that the Church has been striving to remedy for decades.
As a parent who is raising children in the Catholic faith and as one raised in a family where all four children are devout, practicing Catholics as adults, I hold that learning one’s catechism from a book or going through an unsystematic, light religious textbook is not enough. My experience in home schooling shows me that children need more.
I have been teaching my children from the St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism for six years. It has been easy for my children to understand and memorize the straightforward, systematic presentation of the content of our faith. The classic illustrations add to the content. One of my children particularly loves an illustration of members of the Church represented as lambs being bathed in the precious blood of the Lamb of God. The content of the faith is not watered down but presented in its full beauty and in a manner that respects children’s natural reason and encourages the virtue of faith. But the Baltimore Catechism does not provide the tools to bring the intellectual knowledge into the heart.
I turned to the Faith and Life textbooks to try to fill in some of the impersonal feel of the Baltimore Catechism. This series teaches the faith through explaining Salvation History, beginning with the theology of the Trinity and the creation of the world up through the biblical timeline to the Incarnation and the teachings of Christ. My children like the story method of this approach, but age-appropriate summaries of a biblical text are inadequate to encounter the Living Word. They often become bored with the summaries, preferring the actual Words of Scripture. And the question-and-answer section that teaches the precepts of the faith is not as clear as the Baltimore Catechism.
I recently read a review copy of the YOUCAT for Kids, which claims to be “cheerful and modern and appeal to children between the ages of nine and thirteen.” The tone of the text is simple and straightforward. Illustrations of a stick figure boy and girl accompany each question and notes for parents give a few more details at the bottom of each page. While there is nothing false in this book with a question-and-answer format, the answers to the tough questions leave room for false interpretation. The answers emphasize believing things on faith that one could actually come to through reason. For example, the question on how we know there is a God focuses on him revealing himself to us and ignores that there are many ways his existence has been argued for through natural reason.
It seems that even modern catechisms cannot cover every important detail, though that is the nature of catechisms. They are a starting point, a basic guide to something the saints in Heaven will spend eternity contemplating.
The inadequacies of these books and any book for catechesis should remind us that encountering our faith through a book is not enough. We are persons created by a Trinity of Persons, and while catechisms help us know things that have been taught by faith and which we can come to through our reason, they cannot be the only place we come to know God. Our children need more than this from us.
We educate our children for the sake of their eternal happiness in Heaven. We know from Scripture that in order to inherit eternal life, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your strength, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Part of doing this is “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). Our children’s book learning of our faith should be in addition to their parents’ modeling a life in pursuit of holiness. Lessons with their catechism texts should be in addition to a family life of regular, daily prayer, the reading of Scripture together, learning the lives of the saints who model the Christian life, and weekly (if not daily) Mass attendance.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives a beautiful picture of what a Christian home where children are educated in the faith should look like. Parents teach the faith “by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery — the preconditions of all true freedom” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2223). This is the beginning of their religious education, which must become a lifelong endeavor of growing in love and knowledge of God.
The Eastern theological tradition teaches that the goal of the spiritual life to descend with your mind into your heart. Our lives of faith should be an experience from the heart — one of true love and trust in God. This is the final goal of religious education. For when one opens one’s heart to the love of God, one discovers a love that they could not fathom leaving. Whatever text we start from in teaching our children will never be enough if we do not model for them the love of God.