Judging Newark

RAHWAY, N.J. — Donna Smorol loves her parish’s religious education program and the books her sixth-grade daughter, Michelle, is using.

At St. Mark Parish in the Archdiocese of Newark, students in Grades 1-7 learn from Loyola Press’s Christ Our Life series, and eighth graders use Resources in Christian Living’s Faith First. Both texts are among 111 that have been declared in conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church by the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism, which was formed in 1994.

Smorol, who is 46 and also has a son in high school, said she thinks the quality of her children’s religious education is better than what she received growing up.

“I don’t remember knowing half the things my kids know. ... I don’t even remember using books that much,” she said.

Since 1996, the bishops’ ad hoc committee has been reviewing children’s religion textbooks to make sure they give a complete and accurate presentation of the faith based on the Catechism. Publishers voluntarily submit the texts and agree to make the changes required for a conformity declaration. In response, many dioceses around the country now mandate that catechists use books that bear the bishops’ declaration of conformity. John Vitek, president and chief executive officer of St. Mary’s Press in Winona, Minn., estimated that only a third of the dioceses in the country require the use of books bearing the conformity declaration.

But the Archdiocese of Newark, led by Archbishop John Myers, is one that does. All textbooks are to be chosen from the bishops’ conformity listing, and schools and parish programs are asked to report annually what books they are using, according to Ronald Pihokker, director of the Newark catechetical office.

With the bishops’ list growing wider and longer all the time, especially at the elementary level, Pihokker said, there is no reason not to use materials in conformity with the Catechism.

Because of Newark’s policy, Pihokker said he was confident that most parishes and schools in the archdiocese were using materials in conformity with the Catechism.

“The policy is clearly listed in the administrative manual, and the staff makes itself available to schools in the market for books,” he said.

Using Older Books

A random check of schools and parishes in the archdiocese by the Register found that he was largely correct, especially in the case of books used for Grades 1-6. With one exception, the use of Harcourt’s The Children’s Catechumenate for children preparing to enter into full communion with the Church at St. John the Evangelist in Bergenfield, texts for Grades 1-6 at the parishes surveyed all were on a listing of those found in conformity with the Catechism. That list is on the U.S. bishops’ website (www.usccb.org)

However, at four parishes, junior high students were found to be using materials that do not have conformity declarations. Our Lady of Good Counsel in Newark was using the St. Mary’s Press Discovering series, an older product that has never been reviewed by the bishops partly because it does not fit the format of materials submitted to the ad hoc committee. St. Mary’s Press also has not sought a review because it is only sending new products to the bishops’ committee.

Both Holy Spirit Parish in Union and St. Elizabeth in Wyckoff are using Harcourt Religion Publishers’ Crossroads series, another older product that has not been submitted to the bishops for review because, like St. Mary’s Press, the publisher is only sending new texts to the committee.

And, Our Lady of the Valley Parish in Orange is using Silver Burdett Ginn’s Connect leaflet series, which was published in 1994 before the review process began. Although Silver Burdett Ginn was the first publisher to submit its texts to the ad hoc committee, the company has not had Connect reviewed.

Ray Latour, president of Silver Burdett Ginn Religion, has said the company decided to publish new junior high texts as part of its Blest Are We series and submit them for review rather than invest in a revision of Connect, but keeps Connect on the market because students respond favorably to it.

Program directors at the four parishes using the texts were either unaware that the materials were not in conformity with the Catechism or didn’t see using them as a problem. All said the archdiocese had not questioned the texts.

Margaret Novak, CCD coordinator at Our Lady of the Valley in Orange, said she has never seen anything in the Connect series that is not in conformity with the Catechism. And, Marlene Malenda, pastoral associate for catechetics at St. Elizabeth in Wyckoff, said she doesn’t see using Crossroads as a major problem. For one thing, she said, other materials from Harcourt are approved by the bishops. She uses Crossroads primarily because it fits the type of program the parish has for upper-grade students.

However, the problem with such texts is that even though they may not contain material in conflict with the Catechism, they may give an incomplete presentation of the faith, something that is assessed by the bishops’ review process. Furthermore, just because a publisher receives a conformity declaration for one text doesn’t guarantee that all the other texts offered by the company meet the bishops’ standards. In fact, older texts are more likely to have some of the deficiencies that led to the current review process.

In addition, two other parishes in the Newark Archdiocese, Church of the Annunciation in Paramus and Church of the Presentation in Upper Saddle River, had no textbooks for junior high students and instead were using materials developed by their own staffs, supplementing them with items that have not been reviewed by the bishops. These include the Discovering series and FaithWays, a program for adolescents by the Center for Ministry Development.

Curriculum Is Key

Although Pihokker was concerned to learn that textbooks not on the conformity list were in use in the archdiocese, he said the most critical factor is that all religion teaching be in conformity with the archdiocesan curriculum guide, which itself is in conformity with the Catechism.

“Curriculum is the key,” he said, “and the textbook is one among many tools used in the classroom.”

He said he would be concerned, however, about programs that were “thrown together” because the major publishing companies have gone to great lengths to provide developmental programs that cover all the bases.

“The danger is that when we put something together ourselves, something is falling through the cracks,” he said. “That’s why it’s critical that we follow the curriculum guide. It’s kind of the guide we want to hold any textbook up against.”

Pihokker said designing a program using several different sources can not only result in copyright infringement, but can be confusing to catechists. Textbooks, he said, are not just books, but are based on programs that have various types of ancillary support, including teacher’s guides.

“So if you don’t buy into the whole series,” he said, “you’re running a number of different risks. You’re losing all that support, losing the continuity of the curriculum as it’s designed for that particular series and I think it can be confusing to the catechist.”

Judy Roberts is based in

Graytown, Ohio.

At a Glance

Catechism Series

What it’s about: The Register is examining 20 U.S. dioceses with the largest elementary-school parishes.

History: To improve the quality of religious education, the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism began reviewing textbooks in 1996.

At Issue: Textbooks are checked for conformity to the Catechism in 10 areas: the Trinity; the divinity of Christ; the magisterium; Christian view of man; an emphasis on God’s action, not man’s; grace; the sacraments; sin; Christian morality; and eschatology.

What we’ve learned so far: New Orleans, Newark and Pittsburgh are in conformity. Cincinnati is not. In Buffalo, St. Louis, Baltimore, Miami and Milwaukee are partially in conformity, but outdated texts often remain in the hands of students.

What’s the holdup? Diocesan officials fail to clearly communicate the policy, and some publishers are continuing to sell older, unapproved texts for a variety of reasons.

Judy Roberts