A public school with a dropout rate of 50 percent and two-thirds of area parents opting out of it would be considered failing. If the school were unable to turn those numbers around in a few years, it would likely be shut down. And yet for decades, Catholic parishes in the United States have invested in religious education programs that have proven no more effective. Today, more than half of Catholic millennials report going to Mass a few times a year or less, and, according to a 2014 poll, 68 percent of Catholic parents decide not to enroll their child in any formal Catholic religious education.
To say that there is a crisis in religious education in this country is not to discount the profound generosity of many volunteers and teachers who sustain parish programs around the country. If their dedication were the only factor determining success, there would be no problem. Yet in many if not most settings, religious education is not accomplishing its purpose: to hand on the faith from generation to generation. Both surveys and our experience tell us the U.S. church is reaching a possible breaking point in that chain. Ineffective catechesis—whether in the parish setting or in Catholic schools—is not the sole cause of the rise of the so-called nones; but for the most part, religious education as presently conducted does not give these young people a compelling reason to believe.
The first step is admitting there is a problem—and any parent who has dragged a squirming fifth grader to an hour of Sunday school can say what it is: Most 10-year-olds do not want to spend their weekend in a classroom. More fundamentally, the assumptions built into the current system of religious education, developed at a different time and in a different cultural context, no longer hold. There was a time when religious belief and self-identification were default positions, supported by social norms. But today, when young people are surrounded by a culture in which choosing to believe is more and more a revolutionary act, religious education must do much more than hand on the basic tenets of the faith. Unless the option of belief is made real by family and community relationships that offer examples of true Christian discipleship, creedal affirmations are taking root in rocky soil.
The good news is that innovative models of catechesis that look beyond the classroom, like family-based religious education, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and programs that center on small group discussion and service, have shown great potential. What seems to be the key is that these models are not just about education but formation. They work to make discipleship tangible and imaginable first, rather than focusing on transmitting the content of the faith. Not coincidentally, they can also be resource-intensive, requiring greater involvement and investment on the part of families, parish staff and clergy. No program, however, can ever replace the central role of parents as “the principal and first educators of their children” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1653). We must also discern how to form parents for this mission.
Changing “Sunday school” culture and Catholic schools’ religion classes into a relational process of faith formation is no simple task. It will require church leaders to admit that the path we have been on for decades is not sufficient to respond to today’s needs and cannot be fixed merely with different books, better curricula or more training. And it will require parents to demand and to help build parish communities that not only teach the faith but live it out joyfully. “Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said, “and do not hinder them.” Now is the time for the church to reflect on these words and move urgently to develop religious formation programs that introduce children to the person at the heart of our faith, who desires not only well-informed students but lifelong disciples.