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James J. DiGiacomoSeptember 10, 2007

Future generations of Catholics could call our era “the bad old days.” Or they might look back on this troubled chapter of church history and conclude that while Catholic adults suffered from many religious ailments, apathy about handing on the faith, at least, was not one of them. As evidence they can point to a healthy movement, going on right now, to address the troubling religious illiteracy of our young people. Why are teenagers so ignorant of the faith into which they were born and so uninvolved in the life of the Catholic community? Specifically, what can Catholic schools do to contribute to understanding, engagement and vitality among a generation that seems to be slipping away from us? To find the answers, we will have to address a whole other list of questions: What should we be offering students, both Catholic and not Catholic? What would we consider success in religious nurture and development? What can we realistically hope to achieve? What of the religious dimension of the whole school? What are our limitations? Can they be overcome? How?


Go for the Gold

A good way to start is by thinking of the process of religious education as a contest in which medals are awarded in recognition of different levels of achievement. Students come to us from different religious backgrounds and with various levels of religious receptivity. Think of our success in reaching them as deserving of gold, silver and bronze medals.

Gold. In working with Catholic students, the highest achievement is turning out well-informed, convinced young believers who identify with the faith community and participate in the sacramental life of the church. Besides being well informed and observant, they aspire to a life influenced by Christian values. This includes moral sensitivity and a developing social conscience.

For non-Catholic students, the goals are necessarily different. One is that they take seriously the religious dimension of life. The school’s religious instruction and activities support and encourage commitment to their own religious tradition. They have an understanding and appreciation of the religious traditions and points of view of the Catholic community. They show signs of growth in moral maturity and practice.

Silver. Although not convinced of or practicing their faith, students are religiously literate. They know what well-informed Catholics and other Christians believe and stand for, and why it is important to them. All students should know what authentic religion is, though they do not feel ready to take an active part. They want to lead morally responsible lives.

Bronze. Students are unresponsive to religious insights or concerns and have a basically secular outlook on life. Yet they take moral questions seriously, care about justice and are learning how to form their conscience. They recognize the impoverishment of much of what passes for moral discourse in society at large. They are building resistance to materialism and consumerism, and they aspire to something better.

The descriptions above overlap and blend into one another. They are not exhaustive, but may help us form realistic expectations and assessments of our efforts at religious instruction and formation. We must always go for the gold. When we fall short, we must acknowledge it as a failure, even if no one is to blame.

Educational Consumerism

Some might call this description “not-so-great expectations,” but let’s be realistic. More and more of the young people who enroll in Catholic schools come for reasons other than religious development. Research has shown repeatedly that the religious illiteracy and tepidity of the young are usually a reflection of their parents’ spiritual mediocrity. Often parental motivation in seeking a Catholic school education for their children has little or nothing to do with religion or even learning itself. And for many students, education is not about exploring and questioning, enjoying learning and taking pride and satisfaction in accomplishments. It is about getting good marks, excelling in sports, padding college applications and cheating compulsively in desperation to gain admission to colleges that guarantee success. It’s not what you know, but how high up you go.

This is education’s peculiar brand of consumerism, where the product must be purchased at any cost, including the loss of honesty, integrity, curiosity and culture. Education is not about becoming a cultivated human being, but about getting what you need in order to elbow a place at the common trough of conspicuous consumption. Most disturbing of all, many parents buy uncritically into much of this scramble for upward mobility. The school’s faculty and administration may have problems, too. They may be tempted to measure the school’s success solely by which colleges their graduates attend, not by what kinds of persons they become. In such an environment, religious formation can hardly be expected to exert much impact.

These are daunting obstacles to everyone committed to educating young people for a living faith. They do not condemn us to failure; but if we do not confront them honestly, we will be tempted to settle for a bland kind of religious identity that employs the terminology of traditional Catholic institutions but does little to implement its ideals.

Aiming Higher

How can we overcome these limitations? What should we offer students in religion classes and campus ministry? What kind of support do such activities need from the whole scholastic environment within which they operate?

The content and style of religious instruction have gone through many stages in the last 50 years. We went from rote catechism recitation to the “balloon books” of the 1960s and ’70s that replaced the plastic Jesus with the friendly Jesus, whose main job was to assure all that God does not make junk and to shore up their positive self-image by telling them that God loved them just the way they were and would not want them to change a thing. Fear was out, love was in, and both were soon replaced by boredom. The transcendent God who offers answers to questions of ultimate meaning yielded to a benevolent deity who provoked mostly yawns from youngsters who got tired of being told to be nice to one another.

Into this theological rice paddy strode the alarmed bishops, who tried to restore order by making lists of doctrines and teachings and pointing out errors and inaccuracies. This brought some clarity to the enterprise, though not without some of the usual authoritarian stifling of creativity. But it left undone the task that only educators themselves can accomplish (outside of the home)—teachers must start from a sophisticated sensitivity to the psychological needs and capacities of the young, then offer them a presentation of the Christian message that is not only orthodox but also challenging and inspirational. Don’t play catechetical “Jeopardy.” Instead, help students ask religious questions before offering them the answers to the deepest questions we can put to human life. Young people, growing up in a dominant culture that discourages serious religious searching, need a lot of help. If the questions do not mean anything to them, why should the answers?

Creative Tension

While exploring religious questions with young people, teachers must preserve a creative tension among some basic aspects of Christian belief and practice. God must be presented not only as creator, lord and judge, but also as friend, lover and companion. Jesus must be presented not only as comforting and affirming, but also as challenging and demanding. Christian living must be presented as involving both the carrying of the cross and the sharing in the joy of the risen Christ. One-sided emphases in these areas tend to produce religious styles that are either grim or flabby.

This creative tension has a particular relevance in campus ministry, especially in the conduct of retreats. In the years preceding the Second Vatican Council, most retreats were characterized by an individual kind of piety that stressed acknowledging guilt and seeking conversion, especially through the sacrament of confession. The years following the council saw a healthy, new stress on the communitarian dimensions of prayer and celebration. Several different forms of group retreats evolved that did much to improve the quality of personal relationships among the participants, often affecting positively the life of the school. Some of these retreats, which inspire a vibrant fervor and quiet enthusiasm, are still among the best things happening in Catholic schools.

Retreats present educators with the challenge of maintaining a creative tension. The communitarian, face-to-face experiences of interpersonal relating can sometimes become so effectively horizontal that the vertical dimension of religious discourse all but disappears. God-talk can lose its place, and after a while it is all about us and not about God. Students can begin to look on retreats simply as an experience of making friends. How about making friends with and getting close to God? One possible indication of progress on that point is whether students go to Mass where the congregation is not made up of their peers.

Another part of school life that can enhance the Catholic dimension is the program of service projects in which students serve the poor and the needy. This is one of the positive developments that arose in the postconciliar era. Faith became a matter not just of words but also of deeds, and much good continues to be done by and for the young. But even here a word of caution is in order. What exactly does “Christian service” mean to the girls and boys involved? Does it mean any more to them than it does to their peers in public schools? Of course, good deeds have a value of their own, but here we are considering formal education. Catholic school students need to engage in guided reflection on the meaning of their service, or they may simply be engaging in secular humanism without any faith dimension. That does much for others, but it could do more for the students. Service becomes a learning experience when students reflect on the sources of people’s neediness. Does the need come from unjust social structures and insensitive public policies?

Confronting the Culture

All these efforts at promoting a living faith must be complemented by a hard look at opposing aspects of the surrounding culture. Help young people to be “culture smart”—make them intentionally aware of the contradictions and tensions between mass culture and what the school stands for; offer them a level of sophistication not available elsewhere; help them recognize those elements of the dominant culture that seek to manipulate them. Consumerism is not just about buying things. It is a whole worldview, a way of perceiving and dealing with reality. It defines the human person in terms of material things owned and consumed. Explain how advertising, the machine that powers consumerism, plays on our fear of not being loved, and then promises us that we will be loved if we buy something.

Speak frankly about one of the greatest obstacles to conversion and moral sensitivity: comfort. People who are comfortable don’t want to hear criticism of the status quo. They label as “do-gooders” or “bleeding hearts” or “fuzzy liberals” anyone who has the temerity to suggest that this is not the best of all possible worlds. Clearly offer an alternative vision of life, one that is designed not to soothe students but to wake them up.

Some people equate serious religious education with dogmatism and the restriction of intellectual freedom. But education for a living faith, as proposed here, is just the opposite. It promotes critical intelligence and rational commitment. The best weapon against mindless herd behavior is the human mind. Don’t just teach kids how to make Web sites; teach them how to think. Encourage them to ask questions and demand explanations. At a time when critical thinking is discouraged in both church and state, employ one of the most underused words in education: why. Why can’t this country provide health insurance for its citizens, when many other countries do? Why are we the last industrialized country to resort to capital punishment? Why can’t women be priests? Why are Americans divided on issues like abortion and assisted suicide? Many of us came to adulthood after years of schooling. We learned all kinds of skills except how to raise our hands and ask “Why? How do we know that?” It is time to break new ground, but watch out. If you let students ask questions, you had better know the answers.

A Pervasive Environment

Teachers, campus ministers and service program directors are the adults who explicitly carry the school’s religious dimension. But can they do it all by themselves? There is a temptation, already yielded to by many Catholic school communities, to do just that. We have all heard the argument: “Who ever heard of Catholic math?” But it doesn’t work that way. Older Catholic school graduates who speak positively of the religious formation they received, look back on it as something they absorbed throughout the school day. Subjects like history, English and social studies had a Catholic flavor that was pervasive without being intrusive. They were encouraged to see Christianity as a distinctive way of life, and they got the impression that the adults around them had bought into it. Today, if faculty members and administrators are not Catholic or not interested in the religious dimension of the school, the term “Catholic atmosphere” can become little more than a vague abstraction.

And the most important adults—the parents—must be addressed, too. They may be the hardest to reach, but we have to try. Parents-night activities, which usually involve questions of scholastic achievement and college placement, could make a little room for discussing levels of religious involvement and development.

The “bad times” are not going to go away very soon, but we can nudge our young people along a day at a time. And one of the best ways is by making an investment in the future they represent in our Catholic schools and communities. How? By going for the gold. Stop tiptoeing around issues and impress upon students the difference between cultural Catholicism and the real thing. Tell them that being a genuine Catholic includes free and committed participation in the life of a believing and worshiping community. Those who accept it will contribute to a newly vibrant church. Those who leave the church will at least know what it is that they have left.

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