Archdiocese Keeps the Faith in Religious Ed

MIAMI — When Lorena Palmiotto's children come home from their religious education classes, they always want to show her what they have learned.

“The way they teach it to them, it's something they can actually understand for their age group,” Palmiotto said. “They bring their papers home, show them to us and talk about it. They just enjoy it. It's a fun thing, yet they get to learn at the same time.”

Palmiotto and her husband have three boys in the elementary religious-education program at St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Lighthouse Point, Fla.: a kindergartner, third-grader and sixth-grader. Their daughter, a high school senior, is an assistant teacher in the second-grade class. All are using textbooks in Sadlier's We Believe series that reflect an emphasis on teaching the faith according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Since 1996, the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism has been reviewing texts for conformity with the Catechism through a system in which publishers like Sadlier voluntarily submit manuscripts before publication to the ad hoc committee.

The committee then provides a report listing changes required for a conformity declaration, along with “recommended” and “suggested” changes. In 90% of the cases, publishers are making all the changes, according to Archbishop Alfred 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

— eschatology

As a result of the bishops’ effort to upgrade educational materials, 95 texts and series now bear the declaration of conformity with the Catechism, giving religious educators a wide variety of choices that not only teach the fundamentals of the faith, but make learning interesting for students.

A list of such texts is available on the U.S. Bishops’ website

Around the country, many dioceses and archdioceses — including Miami, where the Palmiottos live — are following the lead of the bishops’ conference and instructing religious educators to look for the declaration of conformity when picking new textbooks.

John Vitek, president and chief executive officer of St. Mary's Press in Winona, Minn., has estimated that only a third of the dioceses in the country have such requirements.

As part of a Register investigation, the 20 dioceses with the largest elementary populations are being examined to see whether policies are in place that ensure American Catholic children are getting a sound and thorough religious education.

So far, the Register has learned that the archdioceses of Baltimore, headed by Cardinal William Keeler; New Orleans, led by Archbishop Hughes; and St. Louis, headed by Archbishop Raymond Burke, require books to be chosen from the conformity listing.

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.

Must Submit List

Even in dioceses where strong policies are in effect, the Register has found that some schools and parishes are using materials that have not been reviewed by the bishops. In many cases, educators who chose the books were unaware that the texts did not meet the bishops’ standards for conformity with the Catechism, and diocesan officials did not know such materials were in use.

In Miami, where the ordinary is Archbishop John Favalora, all religion textbooks used in Catholic elementary schools must be ones that have been reviewed and declared in conformity with the Catechism by the bishops.

“That's [priority] No. 1,” Josephine Kenna, assistant superintendent of elementary schools, said.

Each year, every school in the archdiocese must submit a listing of the textbooks being used.

“If they're not up to date, they have to give a good explanation as to why,” Kenna said. “This is one of our better areas of cooperation. If we did have someone not using an updated text, we would have to bring them in and meet with the superintendent, have them give an explanation why, and ask them to change textbooks.”

She added, “It's a mandate from our archbishop that you have to be in conformity, period. There's no question about it.”

The archdiocese's religious education department, which oversees parish religious-education programs, has a similar policy and follow-up procedure.

However, Elizabeth Levitz, director of the department, said because the idea of having a list of approved texts is still fairly new, her staff is continuing to make people aware of it.

Two department consultants visit each parish program once a year or every two years to find out what books are being used. In most cases, programs are using an approved text. If something not on the bishops’ conformity listing would turn up, Levitz said she would contact the pastor to let him know.

Random Checks

Random checks of parishes and schools in the archdiocese found most to be using texts in conformity with the Catechism. However, St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Miami, had been using an older Sadlier series called Our Catholic Faith, and St. Paul the Apostle in Lighthouse Point had no text for seventh and eighth graders.

At St. Michael, the out-of-conformity text is being used for just one class of about 15 to 20 young adults who come to the parish with no previous religious instruction and need to learn fundamental teachings to prepare for the sacraments. George Briz, director of religious education, said he was under the impression that the book, which provides a summary of basic beliefs, had been approved by the bishops, as are the other texts the parish uses.

At St. Paul in Lighthouse Point, Judith Sherlock, director of religious education, said she put together her own program on Church history and the Eucharist for seventh and eighth graders using Scripture, the Catechism, and excerpts from books that are in conformity because she couldn't find a series she liked for those grades.

Levitz said she was surprised to hear that Our Catholic Faith was not on the bishops’ conformity listing because it was published by Sadlier.

“Whatever they publish seems to sell well and be fine,” she said. Concerning St. Paul's use of a program put together by the religious education director, she said, “We never think that's a good idea.”

Levitz said she planned to give the information about the parishes to two consultants who work in the department and visit parishes, documenting what is being used and providing advice about textbooks. “I will follow up and see what's going on,” she added.

Among the schools checked in the Miami Archdiocese, two were using questionable materials.

At St. Stephen in Miramar, eighth graders are using Harcourt Religion Publisher's Living Our Faith Morally, which is not on the bishops’ conformity listing.

Principal Maggie Ruiz said she didn't think to question the book because it was recommended by Nelson Bonet, a teacher who also works for the archdiocese. Other books in use at the school bear the bishops’ declaration of conformity.

St. Coleman School in Pompano Beach has just begun using God's Own Making, an older family-life series published by Sadlier that has not been reviewed by the bishops. The school uses two Sadlier series from the conformity listing for its other religion classes. Assistant Principal Liz Huntenburg said she made the change with archdiocesan approval.

When informed about the out-of-conformity texts in use in archdiocesan schools, Kenna said she had been under the impression that everything being used in the schools was approved by the bishops.

She said she was very concerned about the findings because the archbishop has directed that only texts in conformity be used.

Kenna said she planned to look more closely at the textbook listings that were due in her office at the end of September to see what is in place for the coming school year.

Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.