More than 50 years ago, an elderly priest told my education class that “the three most important things to high school boys are baseball, ice cream and holy Communion.” Even in those days, when Lucy and Desi had twin beds and before consumerism had subjugated adolescent hearts and minds, we howled. But that perilous naïveté still reigns unchallenged throughout much of the American church.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has launched Doctrinal Elements of a Curriculum Framework for the Development of Catechetical Materials for Young People of High School Age. It is a colossal effort and theologically unassailable, but in the judgment of this 43-years-in-the-trenches veteran and others, it is pedagogically counterproductive. Inquiries revealed that no veteran high school catechists were involved in the document; it is the product of theorists and administrators.
The Framework exemplifies how Jesus did not teach—analytically and preceptively; instead, he taught in stories, as societies have done since the caves. It also ignores the church’s consistent practice of teaching first humanities, then philosophy and only then theology. Jesus often validated claims with Scripture, but to a people who all but adored it. Presuming such reverence in today’s high school students is risky.
The Framework is inflexibly “top down,” preceptive, rigorously certain. It is, as theorists describe academic theology, faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum). That could hardly be further from our primary task as educators. Our audience does not have personally validated Christian faith. A majority are baptized but never converted and prefer not to be. Many have a real, albeit vague, faith in God based on their parents’ faith, but the question is too peripheral to merit personal probing. After all, the reality of death (without which resurrection has no meaning) is a lifetime of distance from relevance for most young people. In my experience, kids are admirably polite, but if you keep at it, you had better be entertaining! As they approach the age of reason, they begin to absorb cultural suggestions that the Roman Catholic Church might be something less than it claims.
A few years ago, one diocese dismissed its entire catechetical staff, reasoning that “we have about 20,000 baptisms and about 20,000 marriages every year. Why are only a fraction of those going to church?” This is justified puzzlement. But the question never seems to be posed as: “Why do nonpracticing Catholics demand engagement with the church at the three crucial life-moments: birth, marriage, and death, yet feel no sense of loss—much less guilt—for otherwise ignoring the church?” No one asks, “What if the liturgy were more engaging?” Or, “Why now, without hell as our ace of trump, do we still force-feed our catechesis into kids so early and often that when questions about religion become relevant, our answers are no more meaningful than hero-worship and Barbies?”
I base my critique on decades of teaching religion to high school seniors, college freshmen, teachers and night school adults, and on reading 80 to 100 reflections a year from about 4,000 respondents. Conservatively, this means 300,000 papers, which might be a Guinness world record. Thus I respond to the Framework with the loyal frustration of a Panzer commander ordered to advance on Stalingrad when the oil in my tanks is black ice.
Flaws of the Framework
In its Introduction, the Framework states: “The definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ.” Any catechist would warmly accept that goal. But then: “These ends are evident in this framework—designed to guide catechetical instruction for young people of high-school age...so that each may come to know him and live according to the truth he has given to us.”
Not really. Intimate knowing was the meaning of the word “know” for a Jew, whose primary understanding was knowing with the whole self, as in “he knew his wife.” But for the next 53 pages, the Framework’s “know” shifts definitively into a Greek understanding, meaning to grasp as the result of logical research, as in “science tells us” or “2 + 2 = 4.” (Or, more to the point, “the church says.”) That seemingly slight semantic shift makes all the difference between persuasion (conversion) and indoctrination (brainwashing). This model syllabus does not aim at knowing God, but at knowing about God. The difference is vast. The exclusively cognitive smothers the affective. That’s why so many Catholics are not “going to church.”
The text remains as personally uninvolving as the Baltimore Catechism. No segment addresses kids the way they are: polite but hostile. There is no attempt to make the material even vaguely relevant to their lives and felt needs. (The framers say that is “up to the publishers,” but Internet articles show that dioceses are scrambling to outrun them.) No element pretends to elicit faith, but simply presumes it. Despite excellent material to help students know about God, one finds not a flicker of inducement to intimacy, unless one can be “intimate” with a total abstraction.
The text cautions that “the order in which the doctrinal elements within each theme are identified should not be understood to be an outline of a text or course.” But 53 single-spaced, double-columned-for-density pages seem hardly a neutral “suggestion.”
The content for the first semester of ninth grade centers on “The Revelation of Jesus Christ in Scripture.” No one could cavil with the subject’s worthiness, just its relevance. What if the kids start from the assumption the Scriptures are as boring (therefore as unprofitable) as Mass? In the second semester they are asked “Who Is Jesus Christ?” outlined in a rigorously academic way, suitable for graduate students in religious education.
The second year begins with “The Mission of Jesus Christ (The Paschal Mystery).” The very word “Paschal” belies connection to 15-year-olds. It’s a buzz word for liturgists and theologians, but meaningless to a normal teenager. In their second semester, sophomores consider how “Jesus Christ’s Mission Continues in the Church.” But kids might ask: “You mean the same church that forbids artificial birth control to committed parents? The one with child-molester priests? That church?”
The first semester of junior year covers “Sacraments as Privileged Encounters With Jesus Christ,” which again no believer could gainsay, as long as students’ actual experience of parish rituals makes sacraments even remotely as engaging as a rock concert or “American Idol.” Those are, after all, the actual competition. Finishing the core courses in 11th grade is “Life in Jesus Christ.” The very first item reads: “God creates us to share eternal love and happiness with him in Heaven.” This is hardly a ploy for boys and girls in an ethos where anyone over 18 who is still a virgin is puzzling. Experienced religion teachers might suggest searching for a more immanent, this-worldly motivation and payoff. At least for starters.
The very first segment is: “How Do We Know About God?” Any parent or teacher or even camp counselor might assume this would start with 14-year-olds’ receptivities, perhaps nature walks, exercises in centering prayer, the story of Helen Keller in her lonely, yearning darkness suddenly, miraculously, realizing at the pump that she was not alone, then sharing experiences where each person felt God “touching” them. Not so here. Nothing can be put forth unless it is preceded by written ecclesiastical validation. Freshmen can no more discern a transcendent dimension to the onset of adolescent angoisse than an infant can tell why it’s O.K. to bite the breadstick but not the cat’s tail. No experienced classroom teacher could ever have approved such an uninformed document.
Under “Contemporary Arguments,” we are directed to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which offers not one concrete suggestion where to find modern testimony to God’s presence. Both works suggest sources like the Fathers and councils, utterly without persuasive force with young people, but lack even a hint about classic novels or stories (much less films) to trigger a suspicion of God’s provident presence.
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.
Would it be heretical to ask the preliminary question: Why should any intelligent young person rooted in the kingdom of this world even consider the kingdom of Jesus Christ?
By the time high school students come to the Framework, they will have spent unimaginably more hours in the grasp of TV, video games, iPods, the Internet and movies than they will spend before all the teachers they will ever have through graduate school. Few religion teachers will be as convincing as “Survivor” (“To win you have to screw your teammates”) and “The Bachelor” (“If it feels good, why not?”). Their sex education courses, even in Catholic schools, thoroughly explain the mechanics, with little or no emphasis on the fact that human beings make the interchange much more than that. Through the media, students have witnessed more deaths than a veteran in the army of Genghis Khan; as a result, death—and ipso facto resurrection—have no felt meaning for them. The number of teenage drunken drivers caught yearly by police, and by death itself, shows that many teens are unfazed even by the law of cause and effect. The fear of hell that motivated my generation’s virtue is nullified, and the thought of spiritual atrophy carries no sting. In role-playing moral dilemmas, their motives can be as relativistic and utilitarian as any atheist’s. Yet the Framework makes bold to begin by idealizing a crucified felon who could have escaped if he had only shut up. Kids cannot fathom that.
Needed: A Prologue
If the church to which I have given my life were to make a well-intentioned but tragic mistake and I kept silent, I would be no loyal servant. The Framework needs a prologue that acknowledges the horrific obstacles educators face just to get a hearing among teenagers. It presumes too much of what our audience does not have: faith, awareness of the transcendent, appreciation of altruistic values, among much else. It must make explicit provision to:
• Heighten awareness of the miraculous order of the universe, the omnipresence of the immutable laws of physics, the innumerable elements that had to fall into place just for life, much less intelligence, to emerge from inert matter. It should help students develop sensitivity to the numinous presence of God in nature and not presume that science teachers evoke this (even Catholic ones). They don’t.
• Slowly develop, very early on, a familiarity with centering prayer, a budding relationship with God, without which “religion” (religare, to connect) has no meaning.
• Demand at least a rough understanding of epistemology, the study of which opinions are true and why (it establishes that subjective opinions are valid only if they are substantiated by objective facts) to challenge nearly universal relativism. Make clear that faith is not absolute certitude, as taught by Aquinas (who described absolute, physical and moral certitude) but moral certitude, which is a calculated risk.
• Through the legends and myths of all cultures, grasp the universal truth-bearing value of stories, which makes libraries worth preserving. Few English teachers engender this.
• Foster a felt awareness of the insidious influence of media brainwashing; it is an influence high school kids routinely deny. Brainwashing is useless if the victim is critically aware he/she is not free, so that awareness is critical.
• Grasp what Ignatius Loyola called the radical difference between the two standards—the self-serving of the world versus the self-giving of the kingdom. After 12 years of our religious education, would most kids choose a retreat over a rock concert? Evangelize this audience.
• Understand that morality means simply being a decent human being, while Christianity goes a quantum leap further: forgiving before a perpetrator has “earned” it.
This audience does not need catechists with the skills of Thomas Aquinas but those of Professor Harold Hill from “The Music Man.” Jesus might admonish today’s sowers, “Plow before you plant!”