"Faulty Guidance" or "A Sturdy Framework"?

The 28 September issue of America has a very interesting article by Alfred McBride, titled "A Sturdy Framework: A Defense of the Bishops' New High School Catechesis." Recently, on this blog, I tried to buck up William O'Malley's splendid article raising questions about the new US Bishops' document on high school catechetical curriculum -- while gently raising a few questions about O'Malley's case. (See my post "O'Malley's 'Faulty Guidance' is Refreshing Guidance"). McBride's article is a response to O'Malley. 

In the spirit of helping keep these issues in the open (insofar as the blogosphere represents open dialogue), I would like to post a few thoughts on McBride's article. He takes an easygoing approach to O'Malley's rather pointed analysis, finally agreeing with O'Malley that the Framework needs (at least) a prologue to help contextualize how it might be most profitably used in catechetical contexts.


But McBride's most fundamental point is that the Framework is, after a fashion, the rational, doctrinal guts of the Christian story, which is "the grandest narrative in all of history." (Whether "grandest narrative in all of history" is the most credible way to, in McBride's words, "communicate and defend the faith," especially in, as he notes, a religiously pluralistic culture, is a question.)

But let's grant that what is given in the Framework is a love story written through "doctrinal study," as McBride suggests. This approach is necessary, because "Faith will give [students'] lives purpose and focus. It must be taught in a way," he argues, "that is rationally secure..." But McBride also discusses, before his more detailed apologia for the Framework, how a good story "temporarily subverts logic-chopping and communicates the peaceful meaning of divine truth." Indeed, before, during, and after making his case for the Framework being an example of the doctrinal fine points of a divine love story, McBride tells no fewer than three faith-related stories, more or less "logic-chopping," about Abraham Heschel, Cardinal Newman, and John Paul II. He rightly cannot keep himself from trying to clinch the case for the cultural importance of the proposition-intensive Framework without recourse to the kinds of stories that he wagers will truly persuade his readers.

Whether the Framework is susceptible to being pedagogically characterized as being part and parcel of a wondrous story is what seems to divide O'Malley from McBride. O'Malley seems to me to carry the weight of lived authority in his questioning whether the lack of derived contact with contemporary adolescent life has hampered the Framework'spastoral relevance from the outset, whatever creative "translations" or "inculturations" of it -- and those will inevitably appear soon -- there may be. McBride, by contrast, cannot counter this point and so offers to "comfort teachers" by quoting the Framework's Introduction to the effect that more materials are coming that will make this material teachable.

O'Malley stated in his article that, based on his own investigation, "no veteran high school catechists were involved in the document." McBride, in a sort of countermove, states that "Drafts had been sent to bishops, diocesan leaders, teachers and religious communities for consultation." Let's call this an unresolved matter.

If I am not entirely persuaded that the separation between theological content and pedagogical method toward which McBride urges readers, and which O'Malley (in his older Catholic style) questions, I am even less persuaded by McBride's rhetorical flourish following on his citation of Malcolm Gladwell. "Why repeat," McBride asks, "in the four years of high school the review of the grand narrative of divine salvation?" His answer: "Why not?"

Sensing this is not enough, he adds, "Has anyone, student or teacher, yet spent the requisite 10,000 hours to pierce the wall of love and mystery that is the divine desire to be with us?" Now that's a subtle question because it is so impossible to answer. If you say you've spent 10,000 hours in service of the church and/or of theology, one could of course argue that not enough of those hours were truly dealing with "love and mystery" or "divine desire." Who could quarrel with that? On the other hand, many of us who have given our lives to theology and ministry have spent much more than 10,000 hours on love and mystery. But is this really a case for a 4-year "review of the grand narrative" as currently envisioned?

McBride and O'Malley's arguments do share one thing: queasy metaphors. I wrote (in my above entry) of O'Malley comparing his catechetical task to that of a "Panzer commander." McBride, for his part, warns of "some educators becom[ing] 'soft' in teaching the faith." Followed by: "The old adage 'knowledge maketh a bloody entrance' is still true." I know that catechists have other metaphorics from which to choose.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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9 years 3 months ago
As a catechist, I am (at one level, anyway) pleased this is getting as much airplay as it is. I have also seen - an occasionally taught from - Fr. McBride's text. I also respect the points brought up by Fr. O'Malley.
One thing of which we ought not lose sight is the importances of making sure a student BOTH understands AND knows. Throughout the decades one aspect has been emphasized at the near-exclusion of the other. This is akin to asking someone to climb stairs using only one leg.
9 years 3 months ago
As a high school religion teacher who is currently working on implementing the framework, I have a number of concerns about the project and McBride has assuaged few of them:
1) McBride discusses the value of "repeat[ing] in the four years of high school the review of the grand narrative of divine salvation." One of the major problems with the framework though is that it assumes that this is in fact a "repeat" or review for most students. The truth of the matter is that many of the students that we teach in our schools are uncatechized Catholics or non-Catholics. Unfortunately the framework presumes that students already have a basic grasp of many of the fundamental elements of the faith. (e.g. It saves the teaching of Sacraments until the 11th grade.)
2) My second concern is very much related to the first. The General Directory for Catechesis states that "there is an absolute necessity to distinguish clearly between religious instruction and catechesis’ (#73). The framework fails to make this distinction and treats learning in high school religion classrooms as if it were no different than parish based catechesis for teens.
3) The framework says that it does not specify a particular pedagogy. But there is an implicit pedagogy in the framework. By treating “The Identity of Christ” separate from and prior to “The Mission of Jesus”, the framework virtually mandates a high-descending Christology. In my experience, students generally respond much better to a low-ascending Christology where Jesus’ true identity is revealed slowly through an examination of his earthly ministry and mission.
4) Finally, I also share O’Malley’s concern that despite the framework’s assurance that it is not meant as an outline for courses or texts that it will be treated as such by publishers, dioceses and schools. The framework is most decidedly not narrative, and to use it effectively teachers will need the freedom to rearrange elements of the framework to provide it with a narrative structure.
9 years 3 months ago
To be fair, this document is titled ''Doctrinal Elements of a Curriculum Framework,'' which suggests to me an implicit acknowledgement that this is decidedly not the whole faith formation package being envisioned by the authors.  Still, as publishers rush to fulfill the bishops' mandates, I wish there were more integrated aspects of the catechesis of teenagers available simultaneously.  It is true that dealing with parish programs is an entirely different task than teaching a ''religion'' class in a Catholic school.  But I wouldn't assume that the Catholic school students are ready, faithwise or knowledge-wise, for this framework either!  I spend  great deal of time and energy incorporating ''remedial religion'' into our Confirmation classes, which are about a 50/50 mix of Catholic and public school students.


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