Click here if you don’t see subscription options
David ImpastatoSeptember 10, 2012

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

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Douglas Cremer
9 years 8 months ago
While I'm in full support of more catechesis and evangelization, there is no evidence that rote memorization of a list of facts will lead to greater retention of young Catholics. Moreover, I can't find where the "four out of five Catholic youngsters fall away, defect to other denominations, embrace New Age cults or succumb to unbelief" data comes from. The Pew research, on the contrary, states that "while nearly one-in-three Americans (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24%) describe themselves as Catholic." (http://religions.pewforum.org/reports) This means that less than one in four Americns are former Catholics, and as further review of the Pew data shows, is actually a greater retention rate than almost any other faith. Compartively, we're doing pretty good. If we want to do better, and we should, we should be expanding participation in those activities that are already working: retreats, yourh ministries, congresses, youth days, sacramental education aimed at the entire family, etc. Too many parishes and dioceses do not have the resources and programs to develop these effective means and we need to dedicate ourselves to finding them; settling for an inexpensive and ineffective return to memorization of the caechism will not improve the situation. Rich, robust, energized faith formation, strong modelling from adults and Church leaders, and active participation in liturgy, works of charity, and social justice involvement that leads to all Catholics truly living their faith, not just reciting it, will.
Bill Taylor
9 years 8 months ago

A discussion about back to the basics is fine and dandy, but the real problem is the delivery system. I can only use my diocese as an example.

1) First and foremost comes the Mass. This is the only place where most Catholics get the knowledge of their faith. The Catholic attentions span for a sermon is ten minutes. Often, the priest has not studied and has not prepared. He has not worked to tone his sermon skills. Just as often, the priest speaks in a heavy foreign accent. That poor man will never preach an inspiring sermon for his entire priestly life, but he often doesn't work to hone his language skills.

2) Most of the parish wealth and energy goes into the parochial school, which might hold 10% of the children in a large parish. The "religious education program" gets by on gas fumes: no money, poor facilities, no energy. The teachers are wonderful volunteers but often they have no solid knowledge of their own faith and have little teaching skill. Attendance is hit and miss. One parish I know of, famous for its art, has no religious education program for children beyond the sixth grade.

3) All the above is often true for highschool programs and for young adult and young married programs. No money, no energy, no time, no trained staff.

4) Compared to Protestants, education for Catholic adults is pitiful. It is not part of our self-expectation as Catholic adults. The same for spiritual formation programs.

If we want to continue losing Catholics, the problem is not so much theology but the lazy, haphazard way we hand on the faith.

Jane Justin
9 years 8 months ago

Congratulations to America for having the courage to publish a lead article about the American church’s "dirty little secret" – youngsters who know nothing about their faith. The proposed solution makes simple, practical sense. In his skeptical comment on the article, Mr Douglas Cremer applies a special reading to the known facts about the failure of Catholic religious ed and ignores surveys such as Pew’s "US Religious Knowledge Survey" of Sept 2010 in which Catholics rate behind both the religious and general population in knowledge of the Bible and Christianity. Cremer also accuses Impastato of proposing a "rote" catechesis, which is exactly what the article argues against. Learning a beatitude such as "Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God" instills actionable, inspirational knowledge that builds and articulates Christian identity, providing "a habitation and a name" for Christian praxis. Cremer is absolutely right to say that the experiential component of faith-formation is essential, but it must occur in a both/and context: knowing the faith and living the faith are inseparable and mutually affirming. And how can anyone possibly object to having our children "learn by heart" what’s going on in the Mass, or learn the Creed that provides a roadmap of their faith? As for Taylor’s comment, he has identified the problem perfectly: the appalling (virtually non-existent?) "delivery system" of parish religious education. This is precisely why the solution proposed in the America article is so perfect: it is not dependent on the inherent pedagogical skills of the instructor. May this common-sense approach, suggested by our bishops and indeed by the all the available church documents on catechesis, find its way into our classrooms, desperate for a solution to this historic crisis.

Jane Justin
9 years 8 months ago

I feel so affirmed by this article! I’ve been carpooling and sitting in on parish religious ed for years. It’s only been getting worse. On the way home at the end of last semester I asked my second-year Confirmation kids what I thought was a basic question: "The church you’ve been going to all these years is named ‘Transfiguration’ – what does that word mean?" None of them knew, and the guesses would not be believed. How can there be any doubt about the connection between these teenagers’ ignorance of Catholicism (and "local" Catholicism at that!) and their eventual departure from the Church? And who can doubt that they are leaving? According to a recent survey, lapsed Catholics now make up the largest "religious" group in the US!

However you want to spin the numbers, no one can doubt that parish religious ed has bottomed out, and the suggestions in this article are the first signs of hope, realistic hope, that something can be done about it. To insist that religious knowledge doesn’t matter is a dangerous accommodation to failure, besides being absurd on its face. I hate to resort to cliche, but doing the same thing over and over and expecting things to change is the path of insanity. Trying something new – as this article (and the Bishops and John Paul II, etc) suggest – stands a fighting chance of putting us on the path to, well, transfiguration.

9 years 8 months ago
Although I have been teaching for over 50 years, 40 of them either catechisis or theology, I have always been glad of having memorized the Baltimore Catechism when I was a "public" going to CCD.  The things I remember have been starting points for continued reflection and meditation. I have been reading America for almost 65 years and thus always aked questions of my parents who were classmates of Bob Lax and inquiring minds also.
In my teaching of undergraduates I have encouraged questions and at the same time shared some of the interesting things I remember from my background.  I think we got led astray in catechisis with the incorrect emphasis on the warm and fuzzy "God is love" instead of "God is Love."
9 years 8 months ago
Modeling, modeling, modeling from all of us! The mirror neurons will do the rest. Also the young should be encouraged to read, read, read books about the faith, Catholic spirituality, novels with serious, ethical themes. (Lucky for me, our local public library has lots of these kinds of books!) Sadly, for many of our young people, religious education ended after confirmation. Religious education is for life. It doesn't end.
John David
9 years 8 months ago

Yes, Norma, modeling is critical, of course. But don’t forget that kids get modeling from everywhere. Atheists can be good models. Yoga instructors model "good karma." Public high schools mandate community service. Philanthropy is universal. Do works of charity and social justice automatically make you Catholic? What, then, does create Catholic identity? What this article suggests is that when youngsters learn, say, the corporal works of mercy or Matthew 25, they can then understand how a life oriented to the good of others is specifically located within the tradition. This "baptizes" it for them. It makes right living a Catholic thing, part of their spirituality. If they don’t even know who Matthew is, right living is just the decent thing to do. Dorothy Day is celebrated for her deeply-lived discipleship, but she was profoundly knowledgeable about Catholicism, attended daily Mass and read the Bible every chance she had. She would have found the argument against religious knowledge unintelligible.

John David
9 years 8 months ago

Yes, it’s modeling AND knowledge AND social action AND prayer AND worship AND....! One of the things that’s happened in catechesis is that people have split into camps. Some say it’s all one approach or the other. I say it’s all these things, they all work together. This article is pointing out the importance of one aspect and suggesting what seems like an effective way of going about it. It’s not saying that we should stop doing everything else. Considering how fewer and fewer people young people are seen in the pews, we must remain open to all ideas and methods.

Michael Dale
9 years 8 months ago

If we can teach our children what we ourselves believe, that the Eucharist is "the source and summit of Catholic life," then they will understand how and why good works are Catholic, part of the sacramentality of Christ’s presence in the world. But recently a young boy, who was a year or so past his First Communion, asked me about the "little round things." It took some questioning for me to learn he was referring to communion hosts. He never learned the terms in his parish religious ed, indeed never learned what Eucharist was or signified, other than Mass is almost over. Praise to America for a long-overdue consideration of how we might find a better way to lead our little ones to Christ.

Rich Bartolo
9 years 8 months ago
This article expresses the sentiments of many a parent, grandparent and parishioner.  The ineffectiveness of religious education has been painful to deal with. On the one hand, we are personally fond of the wonderful volunteers and workers who have dedicated themselves to the task.  On the other hand, the results are dismal. Sure, the kids have their first Communions and Confirmations. But with all respect this is mostly the equivalent of "social promotion." We have had our meetings with the teachers and the DREs, and even gone to the diocesan level to express our concerns.  But no one in charge seems willing to admit that the emperor has no clothes.  The negative statistics are denied or "spun" and even the evidence in the pews is dismissed.  Their response is that "catechesis must do what it's doing, only harder." But at what point does that verge on Einstein's famous warning about "insanity"? The article in America has the vision and courage to suggest that the church documents may be on to something and it's time to try what we haven't yet tried. It doesn't propose a radical dismantling; it's compatible with our current parish programs and above all has the virtue of simplicity. The last thing it does it argue for a return to "rote religion." Learning the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes "by heart" allows our young people to experience how the Christian LIfe we model for them has its origin in the word and heart of God. Isn't that what the New Evangelization is all about?
Monica Doyle
9 years 8 months ago

My family of origin was not born in the United States. In order to protect everyone's privacy I will not divulge too much information. A number of the elder members of my family had no formal education beyond the 8th grade. This is not talked about, as they assimilated into American society and could function quite well with the skill set they had.

Time and time again other well educated Americans, (college, graduate school, etc.) are amazed at the level of knowledge of the basics of our faith exhibited by these immigrants. They can recite not only the easy ones to remember, but also everything you listed. I remember the fruits of the spirit were recited at the Confirmation celebration for one of my kids. None of the more formally educated guests could do that.

So there is something to be said for rote memorization.




9 years 8 months ago
No, no, no! I know a lot of information about my husband, but more importantly, I know my husband. And as I fell in love I sought and remembered the names of his parents, his siblings, his uncles and aunts, his schools, his place of birth and the highlights of his life before we met. That remembering grew out of love, not arbitrary lists that I memorized and passed tests by regurgitating the information. And really, that information is not the most important part of our relationship by a long shot.

In the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd religious formation is not another school subject. It's providing a space and materials and a community that respectfully nurtures the child's relationship with God, providing appropriate scriptures and signs from the liturgy, and building the skill and desire to contemplate those texts and discover the meaning of those signs. It's beginning to build a life together.

There is no graduation, and every adult in the community should model that life together as part of the child's faith fomation. 

Don't copy a failed traditional education model. Don't connect experiences of high stakes testing with a child's relationship with Jesus.
Betsy Sherman
9 years 8 months ago
Catherine; The suggestions in "Back to Basics" are not about "regurgitation"! Please re-read the article and its emphasis on "harmoniously inserting" retained knowledge into a "holistic" catechesis. It is anything but a "failed model' - it has never been tried! The author is NOT recommending a return to the Baltimore Catechism. He is talking about "basics" - kids learning the names of the four evangelists, for example. What conceivable objection could be raised against that? You may not be aware that there are kids who go through First Communion who don't even know the difference, say, between the Old and New Testaments. What would be the harm in having students learn "by heart" that "The Old Testament is before Jesus and the New Testament is after Jesus"?

The students enrolled in The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd mostly likely know fundamentals of this kind because Good Shepherd is a very fine program. One of the reasons for this is its accountability - it actually holds students responsible for what they have learned, it isn't just about showing up and being a nice person. In fact I once asked a young student what the difference was between the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and the parish program she had previously been in and her answer was "We actually learn something." This is a scathing indictment of the
majority of parish programs today. Something must be done about them, and
"Back to Basics" does not suggest that we do away with them, but strengthen the well-meaning efforts in place with elemental information that all Catholic kids should know, just as we ask our youngsters to learn that American Revolutionary War was fought against England and North America lies between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. How is that a failed educational model?

9 years 8 months ago

I would like to go back to Catherine’s analogy about deepening her relationship with her husband. She said it wasn’t about dates and data, it was about her personal present-time witness of what he said and did. Absolutely the same in the case of our relationship with Jesus! Jesus says, for example, "I have come so that you can have life and have it to the full!" That is potentially "awesome" and appealing stuff for young people, but how will they witness it if never hear it and therefore never learn it and therefore remain unable to identify it as a saying of Jesus? Please understand this discussion is about kids in religious ed who retain NOTHING. It’s like the Jay Leno real-life sessions when he goes outside the studio and asks one of the crowd where Venezuela is and the answer is "somewhere in Mexico." It is this zero level of literacy that’s at issue here. If all that kids can remember of Jesus’s sayings is that they were "nice things" ... how is that a help to their spirituality? Or, to go back to Catherine’s analogy, how does it help them to "know" Jesus and to draw them into a deeper relationship with him? The world is full of people who say nice things. Surely we can, and must, give them more than that. And, yes, always continue to embody and model the Christian life through example and community.

Finally: the text of the article makes it clear that the published "sidebar" represents a very high or "cumulative" level of catechsis (yes, of course, catechesis never ends... but the discussion is about "youth catechesis").  It's suggested that questions and answers would be up to the local diocese, but I could imagine First Communion-level items, for example, that are vastly more elementary, along the lines of "How do we know what Jesus said and did?" Believe it or not, Catherine, that's a tough one for many, many students.  Why should kids not know where and how the story is told?

The latest from america

At times, by over-emphasizing our efforts to do good works, we have created an ideal of holiness excessively based on ourselves.
Pope FrancisMay 15, 2022
The lives of the saints prove that holiness is not an unreachable goal accomplished by a select few but comes from acknowledging and sharing God’s love, Pope Francis said.
In “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” Marvel took all the toys that they know the fans want and then smashed them in front of us.
Jim McDermottMay 13, 2022
The greatest evangelization we can offer is a joyful church.
Damian J. FerenceMay 13, 2022