Liberating Catechesis: A call for imagination and renewal

Are we confirming them or ordaining them?” an exasperated parent once asked a bishop after a confirmation liturgy as the two stood talking in the parish hall.

“What do you mean?” the bishop replied.


“Well, it was a two-year program with homework assignments, tests, retreats, parent conferences and service projects. I thought my son was getting ordained!”

The sentiment is perhaps indicative of a larger trend. Since the publication of the English edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992, the number of catechetical guidelines, curricula, standards, frameworks, formation programs, magisterial documents and assessments for the church in the United States has exploded. Some of these provide content and structure for handing on the faith to the next generation of Christians. Others are used to train and form those who work in catechesis, including confirmation programs. (See sidebar, pg. 19.)

The scope of official church documents on religious education has also increased, as has the publication of such documents. And there have been numerous training and formation resources developed by publishers, catechetical programs produced by dioceses, diocesan certification institutes, university master’s degree programs and older but seminal documents.

The seminal documents reflect the church’s attempt to standardize a ministry that has experienced its share of instability over the years (compare the description of the church as a “force for freedom” in Sharing the Light of Faith, 1979 [No. 190] with the treatment of personal conscience in the current United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, 2006 [p. 314]). Standardization has brought about significant gains in the expertise of catechists, the number of catechists and religious education programs throughout the United States and a flowering of adult faith formation as individual Christians respond to the needs of the church. There can be no doubt that the dedication and sacrifice of those working in parishes, schools and campuses across the country are a sign of the Spirit’s activity in the church and of hope for the future. Those who are committed to their ministry as administrators, professors, publishers, consultants and speakers also play a vital role in a practical and theoretical way.

But there is a downside to standardization: In seeking to make a profession out of a ministry and create an instrument of ongoing conversion, the church in the United States has modeled itself on its closest secular counterpart—the U.S. education system—and its conceptual framework on education theory. This involves more than the application of developmental psychology to stages of faith or the implementation of age-appropriate learning tools. It includes adopting the latest developments in pedagogy and assimilating the culture of secular education. Religious education now has certification programs, competency standards, learning outcomes, evaluations, mission statements, strategic plans, so-called “best practices” and even preschool programs to ensure that religious education students do not fall behind in the race to achieve excellence. That the goal of each is different does not diminish the overwhelming influence of the larger society on the ministry. This is especially true in a high-tech, media culture in which the method is too often the message.

A Pervasive Influence

The publication of the catechetical documents at issue occurred in a definite historical context. The pontificate of Pope John Paul II was concerned with restoring the solid intellectual footing in catechesis that it believed had been lost in the 1960s and 1970s. In “Catechesi Tradendae,” the pope called for the “word of faith” to be delivered “not in a mutilated, falsified or diminished form but whole and entire, in all its rigor and vigor” (No. 30). In calling for the ministry to remain grounded in doctrine, the pope gave expression to the belief that human experience in itself is not revelatory but rather leads to revelation and that there was a serious lack of knowledge of the faith and religious sensibility among the faithful.

This “intentional catechesis,” which prizes knowledge of doctrine, liturgy and community, has already moved beyond standardization to institutionalization, with all the official safeguards in place to guarantee its survival. Catechesis now has everything the secular professions have. Professionalization has become the de facto goal of many training and formation efforts, parish mission statements notwithstanding. Catechesis now exists as a subculture in the church with its own language, licensing, rites of passage, governance structures, iconic figures, sacred texts, membership associations, professional education and an annual day of public recognition (Catechetical Sunday).

Has the ministry become too influenced by mainstream education? The same texts used to support the institutionalized view of catechesis also call for a transformation of the heart, mind and soul so that the person catechized is “impregnated” with the word of God (“Catechesi Tradendae,” No. 20). But impregnation requires intimacy; intimacy demands risk; and risk has little to do with master catechist certification. There can be no room for an institutionalized mind-set, no matter how well trained or updated the catechist. Pope Paul VI recognized as much when he asked everyone engaged in evangelization and catechesis to move beyond conventional notions of teaching to offer the world an “authentic witness of life” that goes beyond societal norms and gives “hope in something that is not seen and that one would not dare to imagine” (“Evangelii Nuntiandi,” No. 21). If the point of evangelization and catechesis is to help people dare the unimaginable, then the best form of catechesis would stimulate the imagination rather than confine it.

There is a need for imagination in the 21st century. What Cardinal Henri de Lubac, S.J. (1896-1991) once referred to as the “drama of atheistic humanism” is making the rounds again as the “new atheism.” What this new version lacks in intellectual depth (no one would accuse Christopher Hitchens of being another Nietzsche), it more than makes up for in intensity, which should cause concern. While catechesis remains fixated on uniform standards and conformity to the catechism, society is questioning whether there should be a church at all.

None other than Jürgen Habermas, standard bearer of Enlightenment rationality, now concedes that something is missing in a society that turns its back on religion. Modern liberal states, he declares, are missing “the essential contents of their religious traditions,” which alone can “rescue the substance of the human.” These contents are the transcendental, mythic, ritualistic and communal aspects of the tradition that historically have moved people out of themselves. They provide meaning not just beyond the material, but beyond the human. In catechesis, one essential element touches on all these aspects: the proclamation of Christ (kerygma). It, too, seems to be missing in action despite laudable attempts, like Go and Make Disciples: A National Plan and Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the United States (1993), to keep it foremost in the minds of catechetical leaders. In practice, the growth of catechesis as an institution has coincided directly with a decline in emphasis on the kerygma.

One does not need to delve too deeply into the history of religious education to find a similar situation. The modern kerygmatic movement spearheaded by Josef Jungmann, an Austrian Jesuit, began in earnest in 1936 with the publication of Jungmann’s Die Frohbotschaft und unsere Glaubensverkündigung (translated into English as The Good News Yesterday and Today). Jungmann proposed a return to the kerygma as a corrective to the abstract, highly deductive approach of the catechetical model in use at that time, which was based on the Roman Catechism. The kerygmatic model stressed salvation history, biblical narrative and liturgical life as a way to make the faith come alive for a new generation of Christians. Jungmann believed that this was crucial, since “all that is genuinely Christian, the truly supernatural?the merciful plan of God revealed in the humanity of Christ, calling for man’s inmost participation—all of this has been largely lost from sight. Christianity such as this is not the Good News proclaimed by Christ!”

It might seem unfair to claim that it has been lost from sight again or that the drive to create a professional class of catechists is the latest version of what Jungmann criticized as “conventional Christianity.” But there are parallels. The disillusionment of many in ministry, the emergence of a catechetical bureaucracy preoccupied with its own version of No Child Left Behind, the growing number of seekers and unchurched, the failure of American Catholicism to offer a prophetic vision and moral voice to the issues of the day—all point to the conclusion that something has been lost.

What has been lost is the kerygma, so there is a need for a second renewal. But new times call for new measures. What worked in the 1930s will not work today, and so a new kerygmatic movement cannot rely on Scripture and liturgy as the basis of renewal, though these remain vital for the church. Rather, the movement must go to the heart of the Christian faith—Christ—as Son in relation to the Father and Spirit, Christ as second person of the Trinity.

A Trinitarian-focused renewal will resonate with contemporary people, who are moved not by professional credentials but by relation and the struggle for freedom. Being-in-relation—Trinity—is the fundamental ground of theology and faith. It is where the Christian understanding of grace, salvation, redemption, forgiveness and suffering comes from. It is also the source of freedom, since entering into relation requires a deliberate movement from self to another. This encounter is both ad intra, comprising an authentic experience of self, and ad extra, or directed to others in such a way as to create community. As Cardinal Walter Kasper has observed, human beings are “relational and dialogic,” finding their fulfillment in “respectful and loving recognition of the otherness of the other.” As the source and model of relation, the Trinity could become the focal point of this new movement.

A Path Forward

Relation requires equality. A relationship without equality among the parties will result in coercion, direct or indirect. One party’s having the upper hand is not conducive to the communio the documents call for. Establishing true equality may require a shift in a faith community’s self-identity, the way it makes decisions, and its definition and exercise of authority. Theologically, it would mean that the expression of Trinity would become manifest in relationships among parishioners and between parishioners and the wider community. Practically, it would require the parish to put its resources into adult faith formation and to institute a governance model based on charisms rather than office. It would also mean that the catechetical program would identify empowerment of the faithful as a goal, recognizing that knowledge of the faith is an important part of empowerment. Knowing would take a back seat to relating, with emphasis on grace and Christian freedom.

Further, a second kerygmatic movement must take into account the global nature of political, economic, social and cultural issues today. The current economic crisis, for instance, will probably decrease Western aid to Africa, which will affect the development of its infrastructure, including banking, transportation, education and health care. The word of God has much to say about these issues, but unless the horizon of catechesis in this country and elsewhere moves beyond the question of whether a text is in conformity with the catechism, that word will be muffled.

The role of bishops will be extremely important in this new movement of the Spirit. As the head of the local church, the bishop must provide the necessary vision and leadership to inspire the faithful and attract those who have fallen away from the church or have never been part of it. It is up to him to remind the faithful—especially catechists—that they are called to something greater than conventional Christianity; that they have great freedom and opportunity in being called to radical discipleship with Christ.

Current Resources

Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) The first universal catechism to be issued in more than 400 years, the catechism is a uniform compendium of Catholic doctrine.

Protocol for Assessing the Conformity of Catechetical Materials with the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997) An evaluative instrument for assessing whether catechetical materials from publishers conform to the catechism. See also Guidelines for Doctrinally Sound Catechetical Materials (1990).

General Directory for Catechesis (1997)

A revision of the earlier 1971 directory, this addresses “crises, doctrinal inadequacies, influences from the evolution of global culture and ecclesial questions derived from outside the field of catechesis which have often impoverished its quality” (No. 2).

National Directory for Catechesis (2005)

A corrective to and an expansion of the national directory of 1979, which emphasized human experience, and added “knowledge of the faith” and “missionary spirit” to the tasks of catechesis (No. 20).

National Certification Standards for Lay Ecclesial Ministers (2006)

Sets standards and “core competencies” in the areas of personal and spiritual maturity, ministerial identity, theology, pastoral praxis and professionalism for catechists, youth ministers, pastoral associates, parish life coordinators and music directors. See also Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord (2005)

Doctrinal Elements of a Curriculum Framework for the Development of Catechetical Materials for Young People of High School Age (2008)

An apologetic approach to curriculum development concerned with imparting knowledge of the doctrine of faith “authentically and completely.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Charles Erlinger
8 years 4 months ago
So, Prof. Brancatelli, will my grandkids who have completed at least 8 years of Catholic schooling have to go to a 2-year Confirmation prep course or not?
Mike Evans
8 years 4 months ago
The faith is ultimately caught, not taught. Nevertheless, unless our kids are exposed to some kind of religious faith formation process, they will never have a chance to catch even a cold, let alone religious fervor. The biggest issue we face in parishes is just getting the kids to attend, anything! Most programs are pretty good and have pretty dedicated leadership. But no where is there the urging to attend among Catholic parents as in the past. Hence our kids have huge gaps in their faith learning and faith experiences. And by the time they reach Confirmation age, over half have completely dropped out. The issue is not so much with methodology or curriculum or texts or catechist certification as it is simply in getting kids and their parents to attend at all. Unless it is seen as a vitally important part of their lives, they will not come. So, how do we recruit? Well, perhaps we could start with Sunday mass - does it invite and inspire? Then we could focus on recruiting campaigns - even home visitation! Then we can put our best foot forward and really 'form' our kids in the faith.
8 years 4 months ago
The problem with Catholic religious education is apparent in Professor Brancatelli's approach to the issue.  His pedagogic vocabulary, (kerygma?!) made me want to stop reading.  But I agree that teaching the message of the beatitudes, Christ's message, must take center stage in educating young Catholics, so that their faith will be meaningful to them as adults.
Richard Sullivan
8 years 4 months ago
I have attempted to be a catechist in three different parishes over the past six or seven years but I have no idea as to how I have affected the faith of the students. My desire was to share my faith, that is, my commitment to Christ and the Church. I hoped that I could form the students into a small Christian community in which they came to know, love, and respect each other. I relied heavily on the Scriptures of the Sunday liturgy. In that few if any attended Sunday mass they were at least exposed to the liturgy of the word.

One can wax eloquently about the beauty and richness of the liturgy and the relationship within the Trinity being the fundamental ground of theology and faith, but I suspect that most people are not electrified by these words. Anything we can say about the Trinity is speculation, probably not guided by the Holy Spirit.

It seems to me that we need a new catechesis that presupposes that neither the children nor their parents are church going catholics. Would it be our aim to get them to be church going catholics? I would like that to be one of our aims. Other aims would flow from "Christ the way, the truth, and the life," not so much the magisterium which has gotten it wrong often enough.

We are all human. Christ showed us how to be the best we could be in simple language. our focus should be on listening.
8 years 4 months ago
Reading Brancatelli's piece reminded me of Supertramp's 1979 "The Logical Song."  Does he really know who he is, or where, or <i>when??</i>

We should not lament over the fact that the Church in America is raising the bar for catechesis to a level near that of our Protestant brethren by setting clear, uniform standards for our children and their teachers, and pulling us out of the faddy vacuousness of the 1970's and 1980's.  And we should not apologize one little bit for the work done by our bishops and publishers to professionalize Catholic catechesis or improve the quality of material. 

A solid parish-based program will provide age-appropriate treatment of Catholic practice and dogma, and still have plenty of room for the kerygma Brancatelli speaks of.  A parish should expect much from those who commit to pass on the faith, and provide leadership through those who are vocationally present as lay ecclesial ministers.  One simply cannot hope to empower future lay ministers (who get their start as catechists) and/or future vocations to priesthood or religious life with anemic, "homespun" formation. After all, how could one hope to open the minds of young Catholics to the "imagination" of the witness of Augustine, Newman, O'Connor or Merton when all there is to work with are flannel boards and "Kumbayah?" 

As for the parent who couldn't distinguish between "confirmation" and "ordination," the problem would not exist if we restored the order of the Initiation Sacraments on a nationwide level, and follow the path laid out for us by the restoration of the ancient Catechumenate in the RCIA.  "Oh, but you'll never get youth in the door," some may argue.  May I direct your attention to our Protestant friends again, who have no such sacraments, but have youth groups busting at the seams.  We have done quite a bit in the last two decades, but, oh, we have so much more to do!
Damienne Smelt
8 years 4 months ago

We are created in the image and likeness of God who is relational, whose very nature is relationship.  Children are hard wired for relationship, and we do not foster relationship when we perceive children as empty vessels to be filled or as people who are not already in relationship with God. God is in relationship with them!  (Ps 139)   Another model regarding catechesis (that is not pedagogical in nature) is one where the catechist sees him or herself as a witness to the reality of God in a child's life and who helps the child develop the vocabulary and discernment skills so that they can begin to perceive God's presence in their personal history.  We can use the vocabulary of the Church in this conversation and maybe if we did that more, youth might have something meaningful to fall back on when they face challenging life circumstances outside of the Church walls.  The Church could even be perceived by a young person as a resource to turn to, if we demonstrate unconditionality through respecting them and being trustworthy toward them. 

Part of the problem here is that Church is for adults.  Adults are the norm for catechesis.  Catechesis is about conversion, it's a lifelong process.  Much of what Catholics call "catechesis" is actually indoctrination.  Indoctrination is valuable in helping us have a sense of identity in terms of Roman Catholic culture, but it shouldn't be confused with personal faith.  Personal faith is about relationship with God, indoctrination lends itself as part of the vocabulary used in that relationship, but it is not the same.  I may have a stroke and lose every scrap of knowledge I have regarding the indoctrination I've learned, but my faith will still be intact because faith is a relationship.  The best learning we attain about "relationship" results from the relationships we are in.   

Perhaps this is really why young people leave the Church: because they ask for "bread" of relationship, authentic engagment and dialogue and we hand them a "scorpion" of traditionalism and top-down pedagogy. 

8 years 4 months ago

In re M. Erlinger's comment above, which 8 yrs of Catholic schooling did the grandchildren have? Catechesis of each sacrament depends on age, i.e.the developmental level of the child. In RCIA, it is easier to cetechize a person who has had no Chirstian faith formation than a person who has had some. Painting on a blank canvas is different that painting over an existing work.

Dealing with persons who have an immature formation requires not denying what they have learned but growing it. Growth often requires pruning. That is not easy.

8 years 4 months ago
It does concern me that our Bishops, and even our pastors, are so concerned with teaching information to the faithful (whether in Catechetical classes or RCIA).  I have found that it really is important that people feel that they are a part of something, a community.  This is done more by spending time with people and sharing our faith than in preaching, (or as one person has said, indoctrinating). It also helps to invite them to share in the community building.  Unfortunately, I don't see that happening in many (most) of the churches I attend.  There really is something to be said about the quality of liturgy we experience in our parishes.


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