O'Malley's "Faulty Guidance" is Refreshing Guidance

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.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

Cross-posted to Rock and Theology

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9 years 4 months ago
Not being a subscriber of America, I haven't had the opportunity to read Fr. O'Malley's article.  I did, however, read the guidelines at
Given the near-universal ignorance of the Catholic Faith among Catholic high school graduates that I have encountered, I am encouraged by the guidelines.  Doubly so as once upon a time I was a Catholic HS teacher shocked by the ignorance of the Faith by the students entering my classes.  The guidelines are indeed a ''wind tunnel'' of Catholic facts, a rude awakening for Catholic HS students who for over a generation have considered religion to be a subject far less rigorous and serious than ''academic subjects'' and athletics. 
Now with the catechetical standards nailed down, we need to address the $64,000 question:  how do we EVANGELIZE these students, who for the most part come from poorly-practicing and under-evengelized homes that are the status quo for Catholicism in the US?
9 years 4 months ago
Thank you for this interesting post; it appears you and O'Malley are both right - and both wrong; your engagement with high-schoolers sometimes challenges his experience; you both somewhat challenge the "authorities" -could it be there are different personalities involved - in the teenagers, and in the teachers? Maybe blanket prescriptions of any kind will miss; anyways, how does 'school time' integrate with tv time and internet time; any of what you all prescribe will be on the menu thereon, some of it force-fed!
Like a screaming headline that is on Yahoo just now; "Experts say birth control will help the environment". Who doesn't want to help the environment? (Just don't forget that some kinds of birth control hormones may thru the toilet find there way into the drinking water). I suppose teachers need to be at least believable.
9 years 4 months ago
I am a 24 year old Catholic woman. I was raised like the vast majority of Catholic young people, meaning that I went to public school and my family did NOT attend Mass most Sundays.
The one thing that is clear is that we can not continue with what we have been doing since Vatican II. In the latest Pew Poll, 25% percent of people in my age group (18-29 year olds) stated that they were atheists. In fact more youths identified as atheists in the poll than as Catholics. Let me restate, that is ONE OUT OF FOUR. Whether you choose to believe it or not, high schoolers do not become atheists because they are boiling mad that the Church won't condone the use of contraception. "The Church forbids artificial birth control to committed parents! There must be no God!" I'm not sure but I'm guessing Mr. O'Malley falls into a certain age bracket and that he is a "committed parent" who finds this particular commandment vexing. Humanae Vitae was penned 40 years ago and the birth control issue is an obsession of an older generation, not mine.
What has contributed to the failure to hand on the Catholic faith - or even faith itself - is the complete collapse in catechesis. At this point I sincerely believe that an illterate serf probably was better catechized than your average American Catholic, or at least had more of the sensus catholicus which is almost as important. At college I saw so many young Catholics "picked off" by evangelical groups like Campus Crusade for Christ, easy prey for anti-Catholic evangelists because of their ignorance of even the ABCs of their faith. I suspect people my parents' age do not fully grasp the gravity of this situation and just how clueless their children are.
After how many decades of contentless education, and these results to show for it, I think we have had about enough. The bishops may not have the best plan but I am glad that they have recognized that the status quo is intolerable and that something must be done.
9 years 4 months ago
Fr. O'Malley writes: "Freshmen study “Divine Inspiration,” which after my own four years of study of theology and decades of teaching still baffles me. We would not offer this audience Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade or the apostate Joseph Campbell."
I disagree and would initially offer this audience Jung, that is, the Myers-Briggs personality test. That test, because these youngsters are consumed with identity issues, would get and hold their attention. Second, I'd have them read, because it would connect them here and now, personally, meaningfully, with the indwelling Spirit, aka the "unconscious," the late John Sanford's book, "Dreams, God's Forgotten Language." (Sanford was an Episcopal priest and Jungian analyst.) It is not coincidental that the OT and NT and loaded with dreams and visions, and these students are all dreamers, as we all are.  
Why "apostate" Joseph Campbell? What does O'Mally fear such that he has to denigrate Campbell with such appellation? It's a rather cheap shot that discredits his otherwise excellent piece.
9 years 4 months ago
While I certainly do not take up the well-worn conservative cliche that ''Catholic education after the Council has stalled out,'' as a high school religion teacher myself, the ''religious illiteracy'' of Catholic students has certainly been my experience (both from engagement with my own students as well as those from other high schools).  In my opinion, the answer to this very real problem is not to advocate for some return to an imaginary pre-Vatican II ''heydey'' when students ''knew their catechism'' (which is not what Mr. Beaudoin is suggesting, but implicit in some comments to his reflections).  Of course they did, but mostly as the result of rote memorization rather than the knowledge that comes from a kind of deep, critical thinking wherein ''knowledge'' is defined as inclusive of the conceptual, affective, and practical. Acknowledging the paucity of a meaningfully conceptual understanding of faith among Catholic students does not have to equal a reductive return to the Baltimore Catechism.  We can strive for an inclusive knowledge that endeavors to educate body, mind, and soul, and at the same time focus on moving our students out of illiteracy, as long as we understand that a rigorous knowledge of the conceptual content of the faith does not guarantee its meaningful apprehension, i.e., literacy and meaningfulness need to be held in a constant tension.  Part of moving toward the latter goal of literacy will require taking on the major and necessary project of fully educating religious educators (a project which should be backed and paid for by every diocese).
     Of course I haven't seen Mr. Beaudoin's critique of recent research into religious literacy and teens, so I can't comment on his charge that such studies are theologically faulty, but I can attest to the fact that myself, and many, many, many, other religion teachers resonate with the findings in Soul Searching.  Some of these teachers are very conservative, and some are very progressive, and both tend to skew the research in ways that advance their own agendas.  Such political maneuvering (which I actually think is both inevitable and not an evil in itself) shouldn't divert attention from the findings, but rather engage all of us in seeking solutions - which, of course, is just what Mr. Beudoin is doing, and so in this sense I appreciate his comments, even if I don't agree with his contention that Catholic students aren't suffering from a major form of illiteracy.  
     Finally, I think O'Malley's understanding of the doctrinal frameworks for high school religion courses is spot on.  It's great that there's so much the bishops would like our students to know, but whether most adults (let alone religion teachers) have the compentency to teach what they suggest is one of the gaps they didn't attend to.  If, as O'Malley suggests, they had consulted with acutal teachers, such gaps (including the gap between what they present as necessary to know, and what might acutally be meaningful in terms of students becoming faithful and intelligent persons and Catholics) might have been filled in, and indeed, the frameworks themselves might have been both pasotrally and pedagogically relevant.
9 years 4 months ago
I wish that all the Catholic students of today could spend a semester with the theology teacher I had my 2nd year at Spring Hill College (Mobile AL) in 1969: Fr. Harry Heightor (sp?).  I was a rebellious Catholic at that time, ready to throw the baby out with the bath water.  The Catholic Church seemed to me to be one dumb collection of "rules" that one must obey for fear of the fires of hell, and following along blindly seemed like herd mentality to me. 
Then along comes Fr. Heighter - "Happy Harry", we called him, he was so enthusiastic and in love with God - with a class called, "A Christian View of Man".  Who are you? he asked.  How do you see yourself?  How do you fit into your world?  How does God see you?
He started with the very questions of identity that plague most teens.  From there he challenged us to examine our lives and our society with questions like: Can a person be fully alive without a value worth dying for?
He had us read Erich Fromm (Man's Search For Meaning) and pulled material liberally from the 2nd Vatican Council.
It was this class that truly deepened my Catholic Faith.  Fr. Heightor showed me a way of being Catholic that would guide me the rest of my life.  Without this, I would have left long ago.  I am forever grateful to Fr. Harry Heightor S.J.
9 years 4 months ago
I loved him in The Exorcist.
9 years 4 months ago
A yes, the pill and rock concerts. Someone has his thumb on the pulse of the generation (that came of age 40 years ago). 
9 years 4 months ago
What must be emphasized (and usually isn't) is how abysmally under-catechized the parents of these students are. As a catechist, I spend copious amounts of time explaining basic tenets of our faith to the parents of the students. During my first few years, I was stunned and dismayed by this. Now I just shrug my shoulders and keep on doing my impression of Sysyphus.
In a way, this reminds me of Tom Lehrer's satire song "New Math" where the new goal is "to understand what you're doing rather than get the right answer." (When I was a CCD student in the abysmal period of the late 1970s, we used to say that CCD stood for "cut, color and draw." We couldn't name two of the works of mercy - corporal or spiritual - but we were wizards with felt and burlap.)
A lot of the points/counterpoints mentioned in this entry, in the O'Malley piece and in the USCCB guidelines have both weight and merit and are worthy of serious discussion, but what undergirds the entire enterprise is a knowledge of "chief truths of our faith" and without this, NOTHING else will hold, like the house foolishly built up on a foundation of sand, since you cannot understand what you don't know.
9 years 4 months ago
I was raised  under the Baltimore Catechism.  But, we didn't "know" it - we were just required to memorize it, word for word, pause for pause, sentence for sentence.  Understanding wasn't necessary.
It turned lots of us into pious agnostics.
9 years 4 months ago
Just a note for Magdalena: I've been a Jesuit since 1951 and a priest since 1963.  I practice the most secure and approved form of birth control.
9 years 4 months ago
I heartily agree with the main thrust of Fr. O'Malley's article. The doctrine of the faith can only be important and influential to those who actually believe. The problem isn't that Catholic young people (and many of their parents) know so little about doctrine and practice, but that so many of them have yet to be evangelized. As Americans (and citizens of ''the world''), they have been immersed in the popular culture. No one should be surprised, therefore, that so many of them believe more in the ''American Dream'' than they do in the Kingdom of God. Since the vast majority of Catholics have been educated in public schools, they have been conditioned to think that religion is a private enterprise that is confined largely to weekend church services. I certainly give credit to parents who do what they know how to do in obtaining a Catholic religious education for their children and by leading them to Mass and the sacraments. But without personal conviction the faith they practice and pass on to their children is not likely to be transformative. Jesus came to  call disciples who seek to live in and for the kingdom he proclaimed. The early disciples grew hungry to know and understand more about the Lord and this gave rise to the development of doctrine. I commend every catechist and parent who because they strive to practice the faith that comes to us from the apostles make every effort to pass this faith on to children and youth. We have a long way to go. Thanks, Fr. O'Malley, for your provactive article.


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