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