Pittsburgh ‘Strict’ on Kid Texts

Catechism Investigative Series

PITTSBURGH — Laryn and Glenn Weaver’s four children love going to religious education classes at St. John Neumann Parish in Franklin Park, Pa.

“My kids can’t wait to get [there],” Laryn Weaver said. “They’re disappointed when there’s a week off.”

Weaver said the key to her children’s enthusiasm is the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a Montessori-based religious-formation program in the Diocese of Pittsburgh that St. John Neumann began for preschoolers about seven years ago and later expanded up to seventh grade. Founded by Sofia Cavalletti, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd uses the Bible and liturgy as teaching tools.

According to Barbara Matera, St. John’s Good Shepherd coordinator, more parents are choosing the program for their children over a traditional classroom model, which the parish also offers.

Andrew James, director of religious education at St. John’s, said he likes the way the Good Shepherd program helps children develop their spirituality.

“It’s very orthodox in the different presentations, which are tied to liturgy and Scripture,” he said, “but it allows the children to reflect personally and to develop a sense of the holy on their own.”

There is just one problem: It does not use a student textbook, meaning there is no way of determining whether participants are getting a systematic, comprehensive presentation of the faith in conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Matera said she believes children in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd receive a full understanding of their faith.

“I think they could pass any test you could give them,” she said. “We don’t have a check-off chart for learning the Hail Mary, but when they are 3 we give them a presentation of the Annunciation and they learn the Scriptural words. ... By the time they get to Level 2, they have prayer times and they organize the prayer themselves. They know the Hail Mary.”

Since 1996, the U.S. Catholic Bishops have been working to improve catechesis for children and young people by implementing a textbook-review system that assesses whether educational materials in schools and parish religious-education programs are teaching the essentials of the faith in keeping with the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism has been reviewing textbooks in cooperation with publishers who voluntarily submit them before publication. This has resulted in a list of 106 books and series that bear a declaration of conformity with the Catechism. The list is updated quarterly and is available on the bishops’ website, www.usccb.org.

Closely Monitored

But because the committee reviews only catechetical programs in which doctrinal content appears in student materials, it cannot evaluate Good Shepherd for conformity.

Many dioceses, including Pittsburgh, where St. John Neumann is located, have responded to the bishops’ effort by requiring catechists to choose books from the conformity listing.

Catechists in the diocese, which is headed by Bishop Donald Wuerl, a member of the bishops’ Committee on Catechesis, must submit a list of materials to the diocesan Office for Catechesis. If those materials are not in conformity, parishes and schools are asked to make changes.

Kenneth Ogorek, director of the Pittsburgh Diocese’s Office for Catechesis, said he knows about St. John Neumann’s use of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and is in the process of clarifying the diocese’s position on it through a letter and in a religious-education newsletter.

Parishes can use the program, he said, but need to make sure that children are also receiving printed catechetical materials that have been found in conformity with the Catechism.

“We see a lot of good in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd,” Ogorek said. “We also know from experience that part of catechesis is having some clearly defined content. That’s actually a child’s right — to have the faith proclaimed to them systematically and comprehensively.”

St. John Neumann uses Resources in Christian Living’s Faith First textbook series, which has been found in conformity with the Catechism, in its traditional program, and gives copies of the books to Catechesis of the Good Shepherd participants so that parents can use them with their children at home. However, the books are not used in Good Shepherd classes.

As part of its investigative series, the Register is looking at the Pittsburgh Diocese and 19 others around the country with the highest number of elementary religious education students to learn how they are applying the standards that have been set by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for catechetical texts and materials.

Compared to other dioceses, Pittsburgh’s policy is fairly strict, both in the way in which it is conveyed to catechists and enforced. Except for the situation at St. John Neumann, random checks by the Register of parishes and schools found nearly all to be using texts in conformity with the Catechism.

In addition, several catechists said the diocese has made a point of calling to their attention materials not found in conformity.

At St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Glenshaw, Pa., for example, Rose Stegman, faith formation minister, was using two resources that had not been reviewed by the bishops for a liturgical-based catechesis program begun three years ago. At the diocese’s suggestion, she added Resources in Christian Living’s Our Catholic Identity to make sure all essential Catholic doctrine was covered in her program.

Stegman said several parents also had expressed a desire for such a supplemental text and that they were satisfied with Our Catholic Identity.

Similarly, Sheryl Skowronski, coordinator of religious education at St. Joseph the Worker Parish in New Castle, Pa., recalled getting a call two years ago from the diocese telling her the text she was using for her high school program was unacceptable because it didn’t conform to the Catechism. She subsequently changed the text to Living Justice and Peace from St. Mary’s Press.

About a third of the dioceses in the country are estimated to have policies similar to that of Pittsburgh mandating use of books in conformity with the Catechism. Others that do and have been part of the Register’s investigation include New Orleans, led by Archbishop Alfred Hughes, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism; Buffalo, N.Y., headed by Bishop Edward Kmiec; Baltimore, where Cardinal William Keeler is archbishop; St. Louis, headed by Archbishop Raymond Burke, and Miami, headed by Archbishop John Favalora.

By contrast, the Cincinnati Archdiocese, led by Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, instructs catechists to choose a book from its own preferred list, which includes more than 30 texts that have not been found in conformity with the Catechism.

Catechists in Cincinnati also are allowed to choose any book as long as it has an imprimatur and “nihil obstat” ensuring the book is free from doctrinal error. The bishops’ review process checks books not only for error, but for completeness of presentation.

Despite Cincinnati’s policy, a random check of parishes and schools there found many using texts in conformity with the Catechism.

The Register’s investigation also has found that even in cases where strong policies are in place, enforcement may be lacking. Buffalo, for instance, does not have a large enough staff to follow up when out-of-conformity texts are discovered to be in use, and not all catechists there were aware of the importance of selecting books in conformity with the Catechism.

The Work Is Done

Even in dioceses with strict policies and good enforcement, parishes and schools have been found to be using books that do not have the bishops’ declaration of conformity with the Catechism.

In many cases, catechists who selected the books did not know the texts failed to meet the bishops’ standards for conformity, and the diocese was unaware of their use. When alerted to such instances, dioceses did follow up by letting religious educators know that better materials are available.

The U.S. bishops began reviewing catechetical materials, starting with those at the elementary level in 1996, three years after publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and two years after formation of the Ad Hoc Committee.

In an initial report in 1997, Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, OSB, who then was chairman of the committee, identified 10 fundamental areas where most catechetical texts then in use were seriously deficient:

— the Trinity and the Trinitarian structure of Catholic beliefs and teachings,

— the centrality of Christ in salvation history and an insufficient emphasis on the divinity of Christ,

— the ecclesial context of Catholic beliefs and magisterial teachings, a distinctively Christian anthropology,

— God’s initiative in the world with a corresponding overemphasis on human action,

— the transforming effects of grace, presentation of the sacraments, original sin and sin in general,

— the Christian moral life and eschatology.

Under the review process, publishers agree to make changes required for a conformity declaration. In 90% of the cases, they also make “recommended” and “suggested” changes.

Sheila Riley, principal of St. Thomas More School in Pittsburgh, said she switched to Sadlier’s We Believe and Faith and Witness series, both of which are on the bishops’ conformity listing, four or five years ago. “It really made a difference,” she said.

The curriculum alignment between what is in the text and what is on the national ACRE test (Assessment of Catechesis and Religious Education), which measures religious education, proficiency and practices, seemed easier with the Sadlier series, she said. “It works really well for us, and our ACRE test scores are excellent.”

Riley said she would not even consider using something that was not on the bishops’ list.

“I can’t see why you need to re-create the wheel,” she said. “They’ve done the legwork.”

Judy Roberts is based

in Graytown, Ohio.

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