For a long time Catholic parents, grandparents and other adults in the pews have observed that many parish religious education programs have failed to teach youngsters in public schools the elementary facts of our religion. Whole classrooms-full of our children cannot name the four Evangelists, cannot describe what a sacrament is or think “dislike of gay people” is an official teaching of the church. The good news is that “the elephant in the classroom” has grown so large that the bishops have taken public note of it.
Earlier this year I wrote to several bishops regarding the status of religious education programs in the church. Cardinal Timothy Dolan replied that he felt “the (arch)dioceses of the nation” must do “what needs to be done to improve and strengthen” religious education. Bishop Richard Malone of Portland agreed, lamenting that two generations have been lost to poor catechesis and warning that we must not let the same “be said of the next generation.” Bishop David Ricken, the current chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, in a pastoral letter to the Diocese of Green Bay, called specifically for catechesis that would provide “a basic standard of knowledge of Christ and of the teachings of the Church.”
Meanwhile, Pope Benedict has convoked a Synod of Bishops, which is to meet in Rome in October, to focus entirely on catechesis and evangelization. In declaring an “educational emergency,” the pope reveals how far the church has come in just a few years from a refusal to question its faith-formation methodologies. Why has the turnabout taken so long?
One reason is that appearances are at odds with reality. The catechetical community is one of the most impressive organizations under the umbrella of the U.S. church. It is staffed by tens of thousands of dedicated volunteers as well as salaried directors of religious education; it is served by a textbook industry that competes nationwide for parish business. The whole vast enterprise bristles with an air of success. Equally impressive is the jubilant atmosphere at religious education conferences. And in parishes youth groups abound; first Communion and confirmation programs teem with candidates. Last year’s World Youth Day in Madrid boasted a million more young people than assembled at Woodstock.
But such polling organizations as Gallup, the Pew Research Center, Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and Cardus, at the University of Notre Dame, focus on a very different set of numbers. From these we learn that four out of five Catholic youngsters fall away, defect to other denominations, embrace New Age cults or succumb to unbelief. The same sources rank Catholic students lower in religious knowledge than any other group, including Protestants, Jews and nonbelievers. There are sterling exceptions among young Catholics, of course, but we ignore the countervailing data at our peril.
Back to the Basics
Bishop Ricken’s insistence on a baseline of religious literacy—a “true north” in his words—takes us back to 1979, when Pope John Paul II spoke against the “memoryless catechesis” that was depriving young Christians of a spiritual compass, giving them neither guidance nor a place to call home. This theme becomes central in the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy’s General Directory for Catechesis of 1997. Importing Pope John Paul’s frame of reference, it advocates the “use of memory” as a historically sanctioned “constitutive aspect of the pedagogy of the faith.”
In “Learning by Heart,” a chapter in the National Directory for Catechesis (2005), the U.S. bishops concur, proposing the memorization of “the principal formulations of the faith; basic prayers; key biblical themes, personalities and expressions; and factual information regarding worship and Christian life.” The function of such knowledge, they emphasize, is not to promote “rote religion” on the model of the Baltimore Catechism. Rather, the purpose is to nurture Christian identity and unity, providing an “accurate exposition of the faith” for the developing Christian and a “common language” with which to express, share and celebrate it. A discipleship and spirituality sustained by knowledge create the triad of “mind, heart and will” that the bishops establish as the goal of a “comprehensive and substantive” catechesis in their 1997 pastoral letter “Renewing the Vision: A Framework for Catholic Youth Ministry.”
The church documents are at pains to clarify that “mnemonic learning” does not replace “other functions of learning” but should be “harmoniously inserted” into a holistic faith-formation process. Nor can youth religious education be considered apart from a concurrent educational outreach to adults and families, as the bishops counseled in 2000 with the publication of “Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us.” But the bishops’ vision of an integrated catechesis, one that values memory as an essential component of spiritual development, has not been taken seriously. Indeed it was not until late last year that their National Directory for Catechesis, in print for over five years, was granted shelf space in the library of The Catholic University of America, a bastion of religious education only two blocks from the bishops’ national headquarters in Washington, D.C.
A List of Essentials
The New Evangelization calls for “the new,” not more of the same. Ironically, the new in this case is what the bishops have been calling for all along. In urging the use of memory, they directly and concretely seek to overcome the scandal of religious illiteracy. Implementation is straightforward and hands-on. The bishop in each diocese, consulting with his priests and educators, drafts a few lists of questions and answers to be “learned by heart,” based on items for memorization specified in the directory. Use of the Internet and social networking technologies would free the process from burdensome infrastructure and expense and quickly make it classroom-ready.
Lists would be different for each grade level of the parish program and would conform to existing lesson plans. A small portion of class time could be set aside during which questions and answers would be practiced out loud, always followed by discussion. Going forward, all students in the bishop’s jurisdiction, empowered by the use of memory, could at least be counted on to articulate the listed items of the faith—perhaps 10 to 15 in all—as each phase of their formation concludes. Written or oral tests would hold students accountable, as testing does in any respected educational setting. The list for students “graduating” from parish religious education programs, usually after confirmation, would reflect their cumulative knowledge and correspond to a norm of basic Catholic literacy (see sidebar below).
A dozen or so facts and concepts retained in memory might seem to set a very low standard, but the need for the suggestion itself reflects the extent to which our current standards of religious knowledge have otherwise collapsed. It is absurd to expect that youngsters who know virtually nothing about their religious practice or belief will continue for very long to practice or believe. We do not need statistics to tell us this. We should urge the bishops, our primary teachers, to restore knowledge to its role in religious education as they themselves have urged us to do—a proposal we have ignored, but one that can deliver us from the consequences of a memoryless catechesis by sure and simple steps.
A What-to-Know List
• The Ten Commandments
• The Beatitudes
• The Nicene Creed
• The seven sacraments
• The parts of the Mass
• The fruits of the Spirit
• The corporal and spiritual works of mercy
• The key themes and personages of the Bible
• The doctrine of the communion of saints
• The precepts of the church
• The mysteries of the rosary
• The Our Father and the Hail Mary