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Matt EmersonSeptember 10, 2012

I am the Xavier success story,” she said. “I used to be a total atheist downer, and now I’m reading The Seven Storey Mountain.”

The speaker was a senior, one of several with whom I was chatting as we returned to Palm Desert, Calif., from Riverside, where nine Xavier College Preparatory students had argued and objected their way to victory in a mock trial. As Interstate 10 curved past a chain of outlet stores and a casino hotel, our conversation moved from the night’s competition to God. Recalling a column about Catholic education, I asked my students about Xavier’s influence on their faith and about their view of Catholicism. It was the question that led to my student’s response, and then to Thomas Merton’s book.

The column I remembered was written by Charles J. Chaput, the archbishop of Philadelphia. Published on Jan. 21, 2012, in The Philadelphia Tribune, the archbishop wrote, “Catholic schools exist, first and foremost, to form believing Catholic Christians; people of the Gospel; people of justice, mercy and charity. If they produce something less, then we need to ask ourselves whether they deserve to survive.”

Initially, the archbishop’s statements struck me as truisms, no more provocative than saying a U.S. history course should be about U.S. history. But on second thought, his comments raise serious questions for educators. If Catholic schools produce something less than believing Catholic Christians, then shouldn’t we try to figure out why? And what might be changed? Some basic terms would also need to be defined: What is a “believing Catholic Christian”? And how does a Catholic school know it has formed one?

The answers to these questions are not obvious, and a failure to attend to their nuances could lead people to determine that Catholic schools are failing in their mission and therefore do not deserve to survive.

What Is a ‘Believing Catholic Christian’?

Consider again Archbishop Chaput’s remark that the purpose of a Catholic school is to “form believing Catholic Christians.” In light of that, imagine a hypothetical senior at a Catholic high school, whom we will call Sarah.

Imagine that Sarah wants to help the poor and offers a compassionate heart to both stranger and friend. Though Sarah comes from a conventionally secular home and began high school without interest in a creator, she has developed a nascent belief in a loving God. She has attended retreats and led immersion trips, including a week of service and solidarity in Latin America. During her senior year, she continues to tutor children in a poor immigrant community even though she has already completed her school’s required hours of service. As a direct result of her time at the Catholic high school, she is now applying to colleges that combine faith and service, something that would have been unthinkable to her four years prior.

But imagine also that Sarah is unsure about Jesus’ identity as the incarnate God and doubts the exclusive claims of the Catholic Church. She disagrees with the church’s positions on major social issues, especially on contraception and homosexuality. She attends Mass only when the school requires it.

Is Sarah a “believing Catholic Christian”?

Much can be said on her behalf. Though Sarah cannot (at least not yet) affirm essential Catholic dogmas, she serves her school and community in ways that are Jesus-like. Her warm heart and service to the marginalized call to mind the self-sacrificing love revealed in the Gospels, an admirable commitment to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Sarah is not explicitly or formally Catholic, however, and she does not believe in central Catholic claims about God and reality.

Can a Catholic high school be said to have failed if it produces people like Sarah, or if the majority of students are like her? Is the threshold for Catholic success someone like another student, call her Maria, who knows and understands the doctrines of the faith, commits to the church’s moral and social positions and also lives out these teachings consistently and concretely? Is anything short of Maria a disappointment? A failure?

I do not think so. A Catholic school can remain true to its mission and identity and fairly be labeled Catholic, not only when it forms students like Sarah but precisely because it forms students like her.

Schools of Today

To understand why that is the case, note the context in which today’s Catholic high school finds itself.

In his collection of lectures titled Faith Seeking, the great philosopher-theologian Denys Turner of Yale University, speaking of the question of God’s existence, writes that “for very large sectors of the populations of Western countries, life is lived broadly in a mental and emotional condition of indifference to the question.” Professor Turner’s statement is not simply a sociological description; its meaning and effects are embodied in individual lives—the lives that produce music, make movies, write books, lead schools, coach teams, tuck in children at night and send in applications to Catholic schools. Anyone interested in Catholic education must acknowledge that today’s students emerge from a culture indifferent to the existence of God. And to the extent they do consider the matter, students typically doubt that God exists. They are skeptical about religious belief and sometimes hostile to it, and they are convinced that there is no objective truth.

What might account for this outlook?

In addition to the influences of culture, religious belief rarely receives support in the crucible of faith formation, the home. If religion receives any attention, it is often one item on a menu of activities that compete for the family’s time. A surprising percentage of students are also wounded. Every week, as a teacher of sophomores and seniors, I learn something that stuns me, something of the powerful aftershocks of divorce, alcoholism or depression. Many young people have no consistent, loving authority figure, no reliable model of virtue and no stable community. They often have no one to trust.

We educators cannot simply blame the media or parents and assume that Catholic schools and the church will produce disciples simply by modifying outside forces. Even students from stable and devoutly Catholic homes reject or resist formation in Catholic faith. Why?

Not Simply Catechesis

We have to be honest; part of the reason for this inertia lies within Catholicism itself. The deposit of Judeo-Christian faith confronts students as both rational and mysterious; even, at times, disturbing and strange. It involves doctrines and dispositions, liturgies and practices and a way of life that threatens what teenagers (and adults) usually presume to be necessary for happiness. It intersects with history, with politics, with anthropology, with archaeology, with etymology, with philosophy and with literature. While this is fascinating, it means there are snares along the way.

If you doubt it, spend a week teaching high school religion. Imagine a 15-year-old who emerges from the setting I described above. Imagine that one of the first things he learns in freshman religion class is that God has not only entered the world through a virgin, but that now Jesus wants us to eat and drink his blood. How do you think the student will react? His incomprehension will usually mirror that of Jesus’ listeners in John 6. (One sophomore, after hearing my explanation of the real presence, said, “Ugh, that’s disgusting.”) But the snags are not just the teaching of the real presence or the more shocking assertions of faith. Engage a group of teenagers on how suffering can be reconciled with a loving God, or how Scripture is inspired, or on the allegorical nature of the first 11 chapters of Genesis. Try talking to teenagers about the church’s position on homosexuality and contraception or the reasons for a male-only, celibate priesthood.

Sometimes there is progress. Most of the time, however, you will find resistance and argument; you may not even be taken seriously.

It is not the case, as many tend to believe (and I once did), that more or better catechesis will solve the problem. Ultimately, formation in the Catholic faith is not simply a matter of reading or memorizing, or knowing a “bunch of stuff.” I have had students who could list the seven sacraments, expound on the real presence and discourse beautifully on the meaning of Jesus—but who did not believe in any of it. Belief, as Pope Benedict XVI told Peter Seewald in an interview (published in God and the World), “is something living, which is inclusive of the whole person in all his dimensions—understanding, will and feelings.”

Those who have studied the Catholic intellectual tradition sometimes think that if one reads enough and if one thinks enough, one will gradually accept the truths of Catholicism. We forget that brilliant minds—minds well acquainted with history, philosophy and theology—have rejected Christianity; others have taken years to accept it. We forget that faith is a mystery and a gift, something outside human control and not the result of even the best-designed curriculum.

Accepting Sarahs

Given these factors, we have to be realistic when we talk about a Catholic school creating “believing Catholic Christians.” We must be mindful of the milieu that shapes the students we teach, the challenges Catholicism itself presents and the mystery of belief. When our students enter into formal study of the Catholic faith, they can find it off-putting in complexity or strangeness, or in its apparent unverifiability. Combine this with the students’ widespread relativism, throw in parental agnosticism, and you have a high percentage of students entering Catholic school primed to reject or resist formation. In some sense, this is a clash of civilizations.

What is a Catholic school to do? Are we to despair and conclude that Catholic schools should abandon their mission to form believing Catholics? Absolutely not. Outstanding young men and women enroll in Catholic schools, and we educators are privileged to be among their guides as they begin their journey toward faith. Yet we may have to modify expectations and sacrifice a surface Catholicism for a deeper receptivity to foundational principles of faith.

What would it mean to refashion our expectations in this way? In Catholic schools there is a necessary and graced place for someone like the hypothetical Sarah and many others like her. A student like Sarah will leave her Catholic school having made significant strides in the spiritual life. She will have grown from a position of skepticism to a position of belief; the seed of faith—no minor matter given the widespread indifference to the question of God—will have sprouted. She will have moved from praying not at all to praying frequently. She will have developed a genuine sympathy for the poor, the homeless and the immigrant. She will have undergone a transformation in self-perception and priorities hinting at the metanoia called for by Christ (Mk 1:15).

In other words, Sarah’s personal exodus has begun. Maybe that can be the role of a Catholic high school today: to liberate students from slavery and to point them in the right direction, toward the desert, knowing that confusions and idolatries will persist but having faith that these students will continue their transformation.

I am not suggesting that Catholic schools should give up on a fuller formation in Catholic Christianity. These “preambles” to faith (to borrow from Aquinas), which a Catholic school can instill in Sarah, are not ends in themselves. Ultimately, a Catholic school seeks to develop Sarah’s belief in Jesus as Lord, her desire for the sacraments and her commitment to Catholic moral and social principles. But a failure to develop all those, especially in today’s culture, cannot obscure the tremendous progress in the spiritual life that Catholic schools can and do provide.

A student like Sarah is a success story, a great example of the need for Catholic schools and of their salutary effect in the modern world.

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Joseph Keffer
11 years 9 months ago
This is a brilliant artlicle. I read it as Chairperson of our parish Educational Commission dealing mostly with an elderly retired community of Chrisians. The same principles described here in regard to hight school students apply as we cope with the frustration of trying to entice our seniors to taste and ingest the riches of our Christian faith. One line said a great deal: "Those who have studied the Catholic intellectual tradition sometimes think that if one reads enough and if one thinks enough, one will gradually accept the truths of Catholicism. " There is so much more. Much depends on the Holy Spirit to open up the individual to a fuller life in Christ. We call that the gift of Faith.
Mike Evans
11 years 9 months ago
It is not that Catholic schools are doing anything wrong, or overlooking any key methods to infuse their students with faith. It is simply that they can't do it all by themselves. If the faith is not lived at home, in the neighborhood, even at work (ashes on forehead apparent, asking for time off on Good Friday, etc) it will not be contagious nor even seem like the thing to do. In fact in our current culture, the practice of the faith is becoming more of a rarity, with fewer examples of simple piety and belief and regular practice. When I was a kid, even at secular Boy Scout camp, us Catholic kids were carpooled by Protestant scoutmasters to the nearest parish or mission church for Mass. My non-Catholic dad would go to great distances, literally, to be sure both of us boys got to mass on Sunday even when we were off deer hunting or salmon fishing. If our kids and their parents are among the seldom seen at mass while in school, we can hardly expect to see them later when they are ready to marry or raise their own newborns. And the experience they might encounter? A foreign born priest with a thick accent, pre-vatican II theology, mysogyny and nothing inspiring to say. A stilted new missal which speaks an arcane set of prayers. They will not be loyal to the church as we were because they have never developed the habit of going. And frankly, the product is substandard and not spiritually nourishing. Thus they do good works but forget sometimes, why. If a bank manager was losing customers so quickly, he would soon be fired. Maybe it is time for some others now in charge to be 'let go.'
randy ward
11 years 9 months ago
Patience.  My best friend encouraged my belief in God for thirty years before I came to believe.  His words were not wasted. 

The words and deeds at Catholic Schools are not ever wasted.  The final outcome of each child may not be known by the seed sowers at the School.  We are ordered by the Lord to tell the Truth, the outcome is not our responsibility but is the responsibility of the Holy Spirit.
ed gleason
11 years 9 months ago
As today's Gospel says .. knowing the rules is almost worthless ...until they come from the heart.. Francis had the clue.." Peach the Gospel and use words if necessary'
. so the answer is holy teachers.. Thanks for the article Matt.
11 years 9 months ago
Excellent piece. Great responses too! I think we should remember that Catholic religious education doesn't end after high school. From early elementary up to high school the seeds are just being planted. I think religious education is a continuing process.....there is so much to be learned about our Catholic faith, that if we are serious about living it we never stop learning about it. Many years ago a Professor said to our class that we really don't understand Shakespeare until we've lived life a bit! I'm sure that goes true about Catholicism. When we were young the rules (10 commandments, Catholic Church rules, etc. etc.) were very important, we were expected to memorize them. And with good reason, we are literal at that age. But notice as we mature we cease to be literal. We don't need the rules to be spelled out. We are expected to have internalized them Perhaps the reason Jesus reduced the rules down to two: 1. Love God above all things, 2. Love your neighbor as yourself, was/is that he expected/expects us to be mature adults.
11 years 9 months ago

Norma, I don't understand why you were so opposed to "Back To Basics" which affirmed exactly what you say here: "When we were young the rules ... were very important, we were expected to memorize them. And with good reason, we were literal at that age." Exactly! And of course we internalize them as we grow up ... but aren’t you glad you had something to internalize? This is called "basic education" and applies to every field including faith formation which, yes, involves knowledge. The point of "Back to Basics" is that kids today are being given nothing to internalize! It’s as if we want them to skip the first stage of learning the piano (scales, chords, rules of harmony, fingering) and magically become concert pianists. How is that supposed to work? That’s not how you did it. Of course as you say"example" is a crucial part of it, and of course religious education is a lifelong process, etc. The failure today is in inculcating the basics at a young age .... as if basic don’t’ matter any more. But they do!

Fred Close
11 years 9 months ago

Good article, and replies! Not perfect! (Nor this one either!)

In "Year B" Mark provides us with the parable of the seed growing secretly (Mk 4:26-29). Rather than being concerned so much with what "WE" (our schools (or parishes) "produce," why not focus instead on what the word of God produces? "First the blade, then the ear, finally the ripe wheat in the ear. When the crop is ready he wields the sickle, for the time is right for harvest." It would be tragic if the "Sarahs" we encounter end up as well meaning Pelagians, doing good according to their own lights, but missing all that God is offering, but at least that would be as well as Jesus himself did in Mark's Gospel! In the original ending, the 11 Apostles ran away when Jesus was arrested, and (arguably) Mark himself ran away naked! Not only that, but the women who encountered the angel at the tomb "because of their fear, said nothing to anyone." The whole point of Mark's "Messianic secret," is that what is impossible for all of us Sarahs (denying ourselves, taking up the cross, and following the Lord to glory) is possible for God. What we all need to learn is humility.

Mark Asselin
11 years 9 months ago
I appreciated Matt Emerson’s realism when, appraising Archbishop Chaput’s exhortation that Catholic schools above all “form believing Catholic Christians,” he concludes that the mission hasn’t failed if, under cultural conditions that foster skepticism among youth, the schools at least “point them in the right direction” in their faith development (“Help Their Unbelief,” 9/10).  In his discussion, though, I think he makes a slight misstep when he reduces catechesis to “a matter of reading or memorizing, or knowing a ‘bunch of stuff.’”  

Catechesis, I’m sure Mr. Emerson knows, is much more than rote learning about the faith: it is about evangelizing people with incipient faith to be in “communion with Jesus Christ.  Catechesis leads people to enter the mystery of Christ, to encounter him, and to discover themselves and the meaning of their lives in him” (National Directory for Catechesis, p. 55).  Seen in this context, true evangelizing catechesis gets to the heart of the process Mr. Emerson describes.  Rather than merely targeting the mind with theological and ecclesiastical concepts, catechesis hopes to set the heart aflame with an apostolic zeal for serving Christ.  The hypothetical Sarah that Mr. Emerson talks about, with her budding spiritual life and love of service, is just the sort of person that catechesis serves.
11 years 9 months ago
Like a previous commentator, I, too, was struck by the paragraph which begains with these sentences: "Those who have studied the Catholic intellectual tradition sometimes think that if one reads enough and thinks enough, one will gradually accept the truths of Catholicism. We forget that briliiant minds—minds well acquainted with history, philosophy, and theology—have rejected Christianity; others have taken years to accept it." These words ring truer to me than the following statements by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Immortale Dei: 

"No one can have trouble identifying the true religion who will just apply himself carefully and sincerely to the question. Proofs multiple and clear, the fulfillment of so many prophecies, the recurrence of miracles, the rapid spread of the faith despite active opposition or impending circumstance, the witness of the martyrs, these and like things show that the only true religion is the one Jesus Christ first established himself and then turned over to the Church to be kept and carried to others."


Matt Emerson
11 years 9 months ago

Thank you for reading the article and for offering your thoughtful responses. I appreciate them immensely. My goal is to provide a way forward and to resist any "either/or" thinking.

Mark Asselin - #8, above - makes a great point, one that I should have been attentive to in the article. I think I was using the term "catechesis" in a more colloquial sense, as it usually seems to be associated with a kind memorization or accumulation of information. But Mark is right; true catechesis does much more. I should have been more precise with what I intended.

Dr. Keffer's point above is one that I've returned to more and more: faith is a gift. It requires the grace and the "interior helps" of the Holy Spirit Certainly we situate ourselves to receive that gift, but it cannot be forced.

All of us, it seems to me, recognize that whatever faith is, it's a lifelong project that requires the balancing of many factors, seen and unseen.


Thanks again,

Matt Emerson

Palm Desert, CA


11 years 6 months ago
Matt - I read this article in Sept and was thrilled with your insight and common sense, and faith. I spent 20 years in Catholic School work, most of the time responsible for both the curriculum, including the religion curriculum, and the hiring and supervising of the teachers. I have spent a fair amount of time and energy cultivating my own faith and spirituality. iT IS A PROFOUNDLY ELUSIVE EXPERIENCE, THIS THING CALLED life. Immediately I think of Jesus and his disciples and after 3 years of intense Catholic Education, under pressure, even Peter can't stand up and affirm his faith. But Jesus hangs on, and even dies for him. I cannot imagine that Peter had it once and for all after he left the tomb, or holed up for the Resurrection appearances. But Christ renewed the gifts of faith and gave Peter new and different opportunities to profess his faith. By the lake, with a good catch of fish, he seemed to get it. The faith experience is a human experience of getting and losing, having and doubting. Religion teachers have to believe in their kids, as Jesus did. Teaching religion, running Catholic Schools, is a profound experience of getting and losing the everyday belief in your own self, and the gifts of Jesus patience and love. I wonder about the faithlife of the Bishops who make such statements as that of Archbishop Chaput. I wonder about their prayer. I doubt that they have walked with your Sarah, and I doubt that their short walk (ALA cONFIRMATION CLASSES) with the Marias will prepare them for the realities of an enduring Catholic life. Your article was wonderful, and needs to be told a hundred times over. Keep writing. Thanks. PS the next time I get to Palm Springs, I will call and see if I can come visit...
Jennifer Buttlerr
9 years 9 months ago
"What is the difference between faith and believe" when we comes to find the answer of this question it might be confuse our self. "Faith " Means that this thing is possible and we are sure about this. It's a divine type word which means not have seen but have faith. While believe comes something with confidence . Like when we looking to get a refrigerator we blindly buy that brand to whom we know and even confident on that it going to worth my investment.

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