The Excitement, Romance of Orthodoxy

WHAT's THE problem with religious education? Consider this. Writing recently in The Tablet of London, David Toverell angrily rebuffed critics of a new religion text who complained that it calls into question the bodily Resurrection of Christ. Denouncing the criticism as “unfair,” Toverell, a senior lecturer at Liverpool Hope University College, said: “Incorporated into this section is an opportunity for pupils to explore and think critically about such doctrines and beliefs. Questions are included about meaning and differences of interpretation.…”

No doubt they are. But does the book say the Resurrection happened or not? Toverell does not say.

Everyone agrees that it is a good thing for Catholic children to explore religious doctrine and think critically about it. One would think it just as obviously a good thing that children learn the content of the Church's faith and accept its truth. Alas, to a considerable extent in the last 30 years or so, that has not been happening—at least, not happening in the case of far too many children in Catholic schools and religious education programs.

The new catechists have no better way—but still they are eager to trash memorization.

Why is that so? There are many reasons of course, chief among them the continuing war waged against faith by the process called secularization. But by now it also is clear that no small part of the problem lies with catechesis itself.

In the years before Vatican II, Msgr. Michael Wrenn and Kenneth Whitehead point out, something called the “new catechesis” came into vogue among religious educators. They explain:

“The new catechesis no longer looks primarily to the Church's Magisterium for its fundamental guidance and inspiration. Rather, it looks to the modern social sciences and to fashionable new educational theories. “Within the Church it tends to look especially to what we may aptly call the new theologians, the new exegetes, and the new liturgists … in short, to some of the same revisionists and minimizers responsible for much of the confusion and dissent in the Church.”

The result has been a disaster: a generation of Catholics shockingly ignorant of the faith (recall The New York Times poll in which two-thirds of American Catholics agreed that the mode of Christ's presence in the Blessed Sacrament is symbolic only), steep declines in religious practice (it appears that the Sunday Mass attendance rate in this country is now about one out of three or four)—in other words, a Church in crisis. The new catechesis did not accomplish this all by itself, but it did a lot to help.

Flawed Expectations is not, however, simply an analysis of an aberration in religious education. Its focus is on the great remedy proposed by Pope John Paul and the bishops—The Catechism of the Catholic Church—and on its “reception.” They paint a mixed picture.

The Catechism is a cause for much hope. It is orthodox, comprehensive, and, for a committee document, surprisingly well done. But there's a problem. Too often, Wrenn and Whitehead point out, implementation of the Catechism has fallen into the hands of the “catechetical establishment” that produced the catechetical crisis the Catechism is meant to overcome.

The authors are well qualified to argue their case. Msgr. Wrenn is a veteran of the catechetical scene, a consultant to Cardinal O'Connor of New York who for 10 years directed a graduate catechetical institute. Whitehead, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, has written widely on religious topics.

Their book is not mere speculation about things that might happen. It exhaustively documents the distortions and misrepresentations already introduced into materials widely used to introduce the Catechism to classroom catechists. As they point out, there are some excellent commentaries on the Catechism. There also are some truly atrocious ones.

Thus they speak of a new “inculturated” catechism that claims to be based on The Catechism of the Catholic Church: “This is a book by and for people who have precisely lost the excitement and romance of orthodoxy.… These people secularize and trivialize the faith of Jesus Christ in exactly the same way that many modern religion textbooks do—because, evidently, these people no longer believe the faith of Christ in its fullness.”

Permit me a personal note. It was, I suppose, some 25 years ago that it occurred to me why the argument against memorizing catechism answers missed the point. Having memorized vast quantities of religious formulae as a child, and having forgotten almost all of them as soon as I could without suffering for it, I was aware of certain weaknesses in memorization as such. But memorization did convey something crucial. The message was this: There is a body of religious truth out there which it is vital for you to know.

If there is a better way than memorization to get that idea across to children, it. If not, better stick to memorizing. The new catechists had and have no better way—but they were and still are eager to trash memorization. This appears to reflect hostility to the very idea that there is a body of teachable, knowable religious truth.

Wrenn and Whitehead end on an optimistic note: “As the years go by, the Catechism will be used and accepted even more widely than it is already, and simply because it is there. Meanwhile, it is safe to predict, the kinds of commentaries and parodies of the Catechism which we have been looking at … will be forgotten.” No doubt they will. But they can also do a lot of harm before that happens. Almost certainly, there is a hard fight ahead.

Russell Shaw is based in Washington, D.C