The September 14-21 issue of America features one of the most frankly (and therefore, for a Catholic magazine, refreshingly) written pieces I've read in the magazine over the last fifteen years. It is by William J. O'Malley, "Faulty Guidance: A New Framework for High School Catechesis Fails to Persuade." O'Malley's basic point is that the new guidelines from the U.S. Catholic Bishops, called Doctrinal Elements of a Curriculum Framework for the Development of Catechetical Materials for Young People of High School Age, are "pedagogically counterproductive" because they take the teaching task to be one of authoritatively presenting official truths to be believed rather than cultivating a more modest, because more personal, but eventually far grander, encounter with mystery in the life of the high school student. The document, he suggests, overcontrols what must count as a Catholic faith life, because it fails to take any substantial bearings in the very lives of the high school students who are to be made to stand and face this wind tunnel of Catholic facts. O'Malley perceptively sees that the way faith is presented in this (and similar) documents mitigates against "pastoral application" or "inculturation," whatever the prefaces or conclusions of such documents might recommend. The "content" is divorced from any real seat in adolescent life.
His frank speech is remarkable only for its rarity in Catholic discourse about such important matters, writing with love but without sentimentality regarding high school students. When he mentions that sophomores, in this Curriculum Framework, are to study how "Jesus Christ's Mission Continues in the Church," he imagines students asking, "You mean the same church that forbids artificial birth control to committed parents? The one with child-molester priests? That church?" The theological and ecclesial sources cited in the document are "utterly without persuasive force with young people." And there is much more.
I noticed that rock culture is invoked a few times during O'Malley's discussion. For example, he adroitly sees "rock concerts" (and "American Idol") as the "actual competition" for parish sacramental life. However, he seems to contradict his own patient and searching theological-pedagogical impulse when he suggests that the difference between a "retreat" and a "rock concert" is akin to that between the "self-giving of the kingdom" and the "self-serving of the world." The differences between choosing retreat and rock, of course, are important, but thankfully neither so stark nor so exclusive.
I have other reservations about O'Malley's argument. He seems to assign what he calls a "nearly universal relativism" to high school students (or at least to their world). I cannot understand the relativism argument. In and through their practices, high school students (and college students, with whom I am even more familiar, and many of whom are fresh out of high school) are indeed vesting their world with orders of values. "Relativism" has become a kind of Catholic name-calling. As I think O'Malley might agree, it takes studying practice and not only speech to get at whether or not (young) people are relativists. (Ditto for O'Malley's surprising statement that teenagers "do not have" such theological attitudes as "faith, awareness of the transcendent, [and] appreciation of altruistic values." (And I wish for reasons personal and ecclesial that he would not have referred to himself and his task as that of a "Panzer commander ordered to advance on Stalingrad when the oil in [his] tanks is black ice.")
O'Malley states that (presumably his) "inquiries revealed that no veteran high school catechists were involved in the document; it is the product of theorists and administrators." "No experienced classroom teacher," he argues, "could ever have approved such an uninformed document." If true, this would be an unhappy reminder of the Reiki conversation a few months back.
I wonder how much of this trend in Catholic education is being influenced by well-publicized social-scientific surveys on young people and faith. Many of these reports emphasize how little about their faith Catholic students actually know. I have tried to argue, against this trend in the research, that many of the theological assumptions undergirding these studies are problematic and that we need a much different way of "measuring" young people's faith. (Chapter Six in my latest book, Witness to Dispossession, takes this question on directly with respect to Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton's Soul Searching study that has been influential in Catholic contexts, and can easily be imagined as one backdrop for Doctrinal Elements). But unfortunately, there seems to be a willingness to hear that Catholic students are religiously "illiterate" and Catholic education after the Council has stalled out.
There will no doubt be many who experience O'Malley's kind of "feedback" as disloyalty, but we are well beyond the luxury of entertaining that canard. Much gratitude to O'Malley for suggesting not only the need for a different paradigm by which to teach Catholicism to high school students, but for raising so many issues relevant to the appreciation of what kind of faith can be had in contemporary culture.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
Cross-posted to Rock and Theology