Fostering Faith

Editors Note: This article first appeared in the Jan. 26, 1974 issue of America

The past three decades have seen substantial positive developments in both content and educational methodology in the field of religious education. The German catechism of the mid-1940s first incorporated the riches of the scriptural and liturgical awakening that had occurred in Europe. These developments rapidly spread around the world, and the number and quality of catechetical texts abounded. Increasingly, the insights of contemporary secular education—especially the principle of psychological adaptation of content—have modified and improved these materials.


While contemporary religious educators can take much satisfaction in these developments, they still have the challenge of making these materials understood and accepted by their constituencies. It seems to me, however, that we need to evaluate the whole religious education apostolate from a broader perspective. In many ways, religious education is in its infancy. In the past, resources and personnel were assigned to it with great reluctance. As the religious education apostolate begins to emerge in American Catholic life as a more significant endeavor, it is imperative that we ask certain basic questions about its present efforts and future directions.

Religious education is like an uncharted ocean—there are no maps or assured blueprints to follow for success. In this sense, religious education is unlike many other ecclesial apostolates. If one is engaged in school work or in the social work apostolate, there are other secular models at hand that have only to be adopted and modified. This is not the case with religious education, whose goal as stated by the Second Vatican Council is to nourish “a faith that is living, conscious and active” (Decree on the Bishops’ Pastoral Office in the Church, No. 14). Since its goal revolves around the highly mysterious and intangible reality of faith, it will be unique among human endeavors.

Secular sciences in recent years have contributed valuable insights to religious education. Educators like Sidney Simon and Louis Raths have developed techniques for enabling us to help people clarify and discover the values by which they live. Even more refined research by such scholars as Lawrence Kohlberg is giving us new data on the psychological and moral development of infants, children and adults. These insights can serve the cause of faith transmission, but they do not provide us with the comprehensive direction we need.

Increasing pressure will be felt by religious education administrators in the years ahead to produce a viable framework for their apostolate together with clearly enunciated goals and precise objectives within that framework. This pressure is already somewhat present as religious education programs expand in sheer numbers because of the large number of young people added to parish programs by the gradual and unfortunate demise of the Catholic school system.

The pressure will increase in the years ahead as dioceses throughout the country organize unified departments of education and involve interested and informed lay persons in diocesan advisory boards whose role will be to evaluate, supervise and fund the organized education apostolate. Indications are that these representatives of the People of God will rightly demand far more in terms of accountability from religious education administrators than was ever expected in the days of exclusive hierarchical supervision.

Religious educators are therefore called on more than ever today to research, reflect and pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to chart the proper course for their service to the church. It is providential that the Catholic community of the United States has embarked at precisely this moment on a project to be known as the National Catechetical Directory. This project will hopefully prove to be a catalyst that will involve many interested Catholic Americans in the prayerful reflection we have mentioned.

As religious educators search for the appropriate framework for their apostolate, there are many, outside the field and in it, who take for granted that the C.C.D. school of religion model is the preferred framework and that the goal must be to make it work better. In such a view, the objectives of religious educators should be to build catechetical centers containing classrooms, stock them with the best audio-visual hardware and software, improve the quality of teaching through further training of teachers and perhaps even financial remuneration of volunteers.

While these efforts are not to be denigrated and will be necessary for many decades, many wonder if this is in fact the preferred framework for the future of the religious education apostolate. For one thing, even secular education is rapidly moving away from the strict graded classroom approach to education and moving toward nongraded, nonwalled learning-resource centers, where children are more encouraged to develop personal abilities and talents than submit passively to a regimented, predetermined curriculum.

Even more problematic from the religious education point of view is the fact that the school of religion model focuses on the separate learning of the child isolated from the impact of family and the wider community, which, in fact, are more important influences in its life.

Family Oriented

The effective framework of the future must be much more a genuine family-oriented framework. In the normal course of events, a child absorbs the value system of his family and all efforts external to the family succeed or fail with this value system, as the Greeley-Rossi study demonstrated. Accordingly, our religious education framework must work with the family as a family and with the value system of the whole family.

The growth of supernatural faith in the adult is not unrelated to a home atmosphere that allows the child to have a sense of security, trust and acceptance. Conversely, studies have demonstrated that faith-rejection in later life is often related to the child’s rejection of an unfortunate childhood relationship to family that was characterized by hostility, insecurity and rejection.

Faith, then is a reality that is closely tied to the affective dimension of man’s life and his whole development as a person in the family from birth onwards. Fostering its growth will require that the church give serious attention to the implications of this fact. Accordingly, a religious education approach that waits till the child is of school age is beginning too late and ignoring some important realities. Religious educators must find a framework that offers opportunities of alerting parents to the fact that religious and human growth are integrated realities. This means that the future religious education approach will have to give serious attention to the parents of infants and preschoolers.

A total religious education framework will have to take more seriously the challenge of adequate adult religious education over and above what must be offered to parents. The church must come to recognize the complexity of modern life and especially assist Catholic professionals—doctors, scientists, lawyers, politicians—to examine the important issues they face in the light of Christian principles and Catholic tradition. The church does not have all the answers to the many dilemmas they must face, but it does have some answers and principles that could cast important new light on their problems.

Many bemoan the alleged lack of response to adult religious education programs that have been offered on diocesan and parish levels. Yet, too often these programs have failed to evoke a response because they were perceived as dealing with abstract theological issues unrelated to people’s daily concerns. Efforts in a more vocational framework may overcome this handicap and be a real service to many intelligent adults who would welcome opportunities for information and dialogue on relevant subjects in the context of the faith.

Another area of adult religious education that needs to be fostered is programs for the elderly. This important segment of the People of God is too often ignored by those perhaps unconsciously seeking more tangible results by preparing persons for Christian life in the world. If the goal of religious education is faith transmission, whose faith deserves more attention than those drawing closer to that ultimate faith-affirmation which is Christian death and their face-to-face rendezvous with the Lord?

Challenging Prejudice

There are many other areas of adult religious education that need to be investigated. The prejudices of many of our people in topics relating to poverty, justice and peace must be challenged in the light of the Gospel and official Church teaching. In these areas, religious educators should strive to work with communications persons so that more effective use can be made of public media to relate the Christian dimension to the daily news.

All of these efforts demand careful research and planning for effectiveness. Too often, religious educators have been—not without some justification—accused of superficiality in their work. The task is too important and the time now too opportune to allow this danger to be realized.

The full vision of what the future holds for religious education is only in the preliminary stages. Special instruction of children and adolescents on the intellectual content of the faith will always be necessary and our efforts at improving this dimension of the total religious education effort must not slacken. It is important, however, not to be so engrossed in the tasks of the moment as to lose sight of a total vision and of the need constantly to evaluate the degree to which we may more effectively contribute to fostering “a faith that is living, conscious and active.”

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