Faulty Guidance: A new framework for high school catechesis fails to persuade.

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.

The Audience

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!”

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Andrew Russell
9 years 4 months ago

Thank you Fr. O'Malley for your review of the new Framework for Adolescent Catechesis. 

I would add that the Framework operates almost exclusively from the first pillar of the catechism (What we believe).  There is only a breif mention of the third pillar (moral life).  The other pillars, liturgy / sacraments, and prayer are only mentioned in reference to the first pillar.  As you pointed out the methodology is all head learning.  It does not fully explore the whole range of catechisis. 

I have been teaching religion to teens for 20 years.  We have been following the "Challenge of Adolescent Catechesis" which was written in cooperation with the NCEA, NCCL, National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministers, and the USCCB.  It is startling that "The Challenge of Adolescent Catechisis" is replaced with little consultation.  Thank you for bringing this to a national forum. 

andrew cevasco
9 years 4 months ago
Superb! Resonates with my personal experience and my observation of my four kids
Andrew Russell
9 years 4 months ago

Thank you Fr. O'Malley for bringing this issue to a national forum. 

I would add that the Framework reflects, almost exclusively the first pillar of the Universal Catechism, "Creed."  There is a section in the framework that reflects the third pillar, "Morality."  There is very little that reflects Liturgy / Sacraments (pillar 2) and Prayer (pillar 4).  When the framework reflects these subjects it refers back to the first pillar - focussing almost entirely on head - knowledge, and very little on how we live out our beliefs, or how our faith informs our everyday life. 
In 1986, the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, in collaboration with NCEA and USCC issued a paper, "The Challenge of Adolescent Catechisis."  The framework presented in it covered the "head knowledge," and the applications of that faith in young people's lives.

It is shocking that a framework that is supposed to be implemented across the country did not consult the very people needed to implement it. 

Martin Story
9 years 4 months ago
Thanks so much, Bill, for standing up with the loyal opposition.  Is it any surprise or wonder that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has sponsored this new (but old) foray into the catechesis of our youth.  "O tempora, O mores" (Oh, the times, Oh the customs) as the Latin poet mourns.  So should we.  The climate which the Church finds itself today only substantiates the textual framework of the current effort by the American Bishops.  Hierarchical retrenchment into an old unworkable model.  I have been teaching Catholic high school students and now Catholic teachers going on for postgraduate degrees in Theology for fifty years.  O'Malley has hit the hammer on the nail on every count.  Until the Church learns, until the Papacy realizes that this is the 21st Century, until the Bishops assume some real prophetic courage and stand up for struggling adults and kids, until the bastion of clericalism begins to crumble, until the People of God are given their rightful place in and outside of the pew, until women are recognized by the Vatican as equal partners in the evangelization of the world, then and only then will the Roman agenda propped up by the Bishops be seen for what it is - an anachronism trying to sing new songs and tell new stories, but only failing because ecclesiastical authority cannot really connect.  Continue "raising the roof" Bill and inspiring those of us who have followed your lead over the years.
9 years 4 months ago

As a former high school teacher of religion and, for many years, a teacher of freshmen and women in college theology, I say Bravo to William O'Malley. Thank God for his courage in objecting to this out of touch and impossible to observe document. His words will be balm to many a person trying to impart the faith to contemporary youngsters (among whom I include first year college students).

My years of teaching convinced me that we were missing the boat in precisely the ways O'Malley outlines.  It is the mystical connection that students crave, and seek outside a church that insists on giving them (a) history or (b) dogmatic assertions. Please God there is someone in the hieararchy who will listen.  But if they consulted with no flesh and blood teachers, what hope is there?
God bless you, Bill O'Malley.

9 years 4 months ago
Amen!!  Jesus played with children and taught adults.  We ALWAYS have it backwards.  I am a convert.  I give thanks every day of my life that I am a product of neither Sunday school nor catechism class - just an encounter with Jesus - and a love for liturgy.
9 years 4 months ago
This is an outstanding article.  Although my experience teaching teens religion in an academic setting (13 years) pales in comparison to Father O'Malley's, practically everything he writes resonates with my experience.  However, for me the most chilling line in the entire article was this: "Inquiries revealed that no veteran high school catechists were involved in the document; it is the product of theorists and administrators."  I think that it explains why the bishops seemingly have gotten in wrong.  How any committee can compose a curriculum without the input of teachers who have long and tried and true experience in the classroom is beyond.  Shame on the bishops for this major oversight.
9 years 4 months ago
William O'Malley never ceases to hit the nail right on the head! As a teacher who has labored in the trenches of high school for more than 30 years I continue to marvel at his ability to view his students with such a clear eye and the tasks before us with such level-headed passion. I'll be sure that all of my colleagues have a copy of this article in their mailboxes tomorrow morning. Like Harold Hill, Fr.O'Malley knows the territory very well.
9 years 4 months ago
Have our Bishops forgotten the words which opened the Second Vatican Council..."The important point of this Council is not therefore a discussion of one article or another...instead the work of this Council is to better articulate the doctrine of the Church for this age...The substance of our central beliefs is one thing, and the way it is presented is another." ?
My prediction is that some future Council or Synod will look back on these Post Vatican II years and will realize that we missed a magnificent opportunity to evangelize not only the teenagers mentoned in the article but also their parents because we failed to courageously trust the ever new Spirit in our midst!
Kathy Berken
9 years 4 months ago

I am pursuing a master's degree in theology (after a life of various experiences in and out of ministry) and find your essay refreshingly straightforward and sensible. Among other things, I've taught teenagers over the years, and raised two children. In my theology classes, of course we are studying many aspects of God, church, religious formation, history of Christian Spirituality, sacraments, etc., with an eye to scholarship and a finger on the pulse of the living Church, the people of God. Story is the most powerful teacher we have, and yes, even in the driest of classes, story still carries the idea forward.

I applaud your respectful critique of the Framework piece, and hope that somewhere along the line, as you say, some future Council or Synod will look on these days and wake up to the fact that we did, indeed miss a great opportunity to teach and trust the Spirit (yes, ever new!) in our midst. But then, perhaps this IS how the Spirit works. We fail and we learn from our mistakes.

Rick Malloy
9 years 4 months ago

Fr. O'Malley, brilliant as always. Yet another amazing article from your pen (or computer) for AMERICA.

For all who hear his call to engage movies as "plows," try taking kids through The Bells of St. Mary's (1945), The Cardinal (1963) and Dogma (1999) to show them the evolution of Catholic images in popular culture.  Compare and contrast the views of religious life shown by Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story (1959) and the images of the sisters in The Sound of Music (1965).  Also, have them check out The Mission and Black Robe. Show Entertaining Angels (Dorothy Day's Life Story) and Roses in December (about Jean Donovan. Show them On The Waterfront.

Most kids desperately want to find a way to live the call to heroism in Varsity Blues and ignore the siren call of the American Pie movies.  Most college kids really need to learn that college should be With Honors and not Animal House.  Places in the Heart, First Knight, Life is Beautiful, Hotel Rwanda, A Beautiful Mind, Pay It Forward, Remember the Titans, Hoosiers, Rudy, Patch Adams, Life is Beautiful, and IMDB's #1, The Shawshank Redemption; there are so many good movies out there.  Movies can be powerful tools preparing people, both young and older, to really have hearts that want to know the reality and power of Christ's presence and grace in our lives.
Fr. O'Malley is so right:  Start with the stories!

9 years 4 months ago
Sincere thanks to William J. O'Malley for expressing with amusing eloquence what I have been thinking and feeling about the new framework for high school catechesis ("Faulty Guidance", Sept. 14 - 21).  A Catholic high school religion teacher for 35 years, I find the myopia of the new framework dispiriting and depressing, and I share Father O'Malley's view that no religious educator with classroom experience could have produced a document so out of touch with the realities of contemporary American teen life.  He is exactly correct when he states that "the framework needs a prologue which acknowledges the horrific obstacles educators face just to get a hearing from teenagers",  and his seven proposed provisions aimed at "plowing before planting" are precisely on target.  Dare I suggest the article be required reading for pastors and bishops and anyone genuinely concerned about promoting the spiritual development of adolescents?
9 years 4 months ago
I am catchist who is in the trenches of "Faith Formation"  working with teens.
How did I get there? Years ago, my oldest son pleaded with me to take over his class because the person in charge was nothing but a warm body to who had no experince with teens and was tossed to the lions because "we had to do something." How times haven't changed!
That being said, the major thread I have observed over the 30 years I have spent trying to assist in teen formation is the incredible disconnect between the texts and the life that these teens are living, especially with the incredible media saturation of todays' world. Reading this article confirms my experience the bishops have absolutely no idea what is going on on the Wednesday or Sunday conclaves where we are desperately trying to form the people of God for the future. It appears to me that our Bishops'  are spending too much time talking to peers and staff, and not enough time talking to the troops in the field. It is safer that way.
We cannot depend on the few in our Catholic schools for leadership, we need to conciously mine the great majority of the people who send their children to us who (hopefully) can experience us as a signpost on their journey to salvation.
Jerry Galiger
Nancy Azzaro
9 years 4 months ago
I am offended by the sentence below which appears in your article. You're not talking about our Lord, Savior and Redeemer are you? If so, in future articles you should speak of Jesus more respectfully.
 "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."
9 years 4 months ago
Every article of Father O'Malley's that I have read over the years made me sorry that I was reading them AFTER my children had left high school. I always believed that his pieces on raising teenagers were so full of wisdom and that if they had been written 10 years earlier, I would have done many things differently. I hope his students at Fordham Prep (and their parents) appreciate him!
9 years 4 months ago
I am not a sports fan in the least. But only a sports metaphor describes the experience of reading "Faulty Guidance" (9/14). The basketball center drives the lane and, while being fouled by the defense hanging on him, goes up and slamdunks.

Seriously, I also understand what Fr O'Malley is saying from experience. A few years ago our diocese dismissed the entire catechetical staff. When I questioned the deacon responsible, I learned that education was in and formation was out, the Pastoral Ministry Formation Program included. Take an advanced catechism class and get a bogus certificate for the program you didn't finish.

I thought it sad to go back to the mistakes of my youth. In 1955-1963, high school and college operated on the same principle. I wonder how many of my classmates see the inside of the church. Learning Greek, Latin, Scripture, theology and philosophy does not prepare you to be an adult Christian. It took life to do that.
vivat Jesus
9 years 4 months ago
God bless Fr. O'Malley for speaking truth to authority in his trenchant analysis of the shortcomings of the US Bishops' CURRICULUM FRAMEWORK for high school catechists. His students, all adolescents for that matter, would be well-served by having to tackle his "Faulty Guidance" as their first reading assignment in the new school year.
Indeed, thinking about such a prospect almost tempts me to end my decade-long hiatus and return to the classroom I haunted for over thirty years. On second thought, I lack the courage and stamina O'Malley has displayed for over four decades and leave the job to brave souls like him.


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