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Random, possibly acrimonious thoughts on catechesis

The Patheos Catholic brigade is talking catechesis. This is a hobbyhorse of mine and on which I have strong and inchoate intuitions. Damn Leah Libresco for turning me on to this!

I know that if I spend too much time on this I will never finish the post so allow me to be brief quick and perhaps abrasive. The debate has raged on for many posts and I am a busy man so I’m going to go by The Anchoress’s summary. (By way of introduction, I attended Catholic schools for most of my K-12 education (until I got expelled) and have been teaching catechism with some interruptions since I was like 16). 

First off, a post titled “What’s Really Wrong with Catholic Religious Education? Everything!” 

That much I agree with!

But then, right off the bat:

The thing is, whatever method you use, from Latin recitation to puppet play, there is no way you can transmit adult faith to a child of 5 or 7 or 11 or 13 or (if you’re really, really lucky) 17.

Um, no. This is demonstrably false. It’s not only demonstrably false, it is dangerous. 

However, the best way to guarantee that you won’t transmit the faith to a child is to have that kind of attitude. The cardinal rule of interacting with children is that, however smart you think they are, they are actually smarter. Treating kids like they’re dumb is the best way to fail at whatever you want to do to them. 

This is particularly true to raising children in the faith in the acid bath of the contemporary world which constantly hammers them with the message that religion (particularly of the Roman Catholic kind) is a body of superstition imposed from above for people who can’t think for themselves, and praises “thinking for oneself” (defined in a very narrow way, of course) above all. The best way to reinforce this narrative is to have catechesis and catechists who talk down to children. 

Of course, talking down to children seems to be the one thing that all catechesis methods (but one, see below) I’ve seen have in common. And this is a general malady of the Church. I am always stunned by how late First Communion is. A child who is 5 or 6 is perfectly capable of understanding Real Presence at a level sufficient for licitly receiving the eucharist. (Of course, if I really had my way, infants would commune as well, as the Orthodox do.)

Now, catechesis for children up to the age of 12 is a problem that’s been solved, the problem is the Church ignores it. By all accounts and every information available, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd works perfectly, as it should, since it is based on the Montessori Method, another ignored treasure of the Church. That Sofia Cavalletti is not revered in the Church at the level of an Aquinas is baffling to me.

The other point that is being missed is that all cradle Catholics have a different adult faith from the faith they had as a child. Conversion is an ongoing process (#SorryProtestants), and I think most adult faithful cradle Catholics can point to a moment or period when they reconsidered their faith anew with adult eyes and recommitted to it in a way that is different from the way children embrace the faith. But it should be self-evident that a childhood faith is the seed of the adult faith. It’s self-defeating to want to skip planting the seed so we can move to harvesting the plant faster.

With all that being said, I love the idea of catechizing adults and coach them on catechizing their kids. But I don’t think it’s either/or. We should steal the idea of small groups from the Evangelicals. My wife decided to have our daughter at a Catholic clinic because they offered classes of spiritual preparation for birth. Why is this not standard? We should fold baptism prep into a broader parenthood prep. (Of course, even as I write this I dread the psychobabble our bishops’ conferences will produce.) But I would love for there to be a Catholic equivalent of, say, the Love and Logic Method. 

Anyway. Here’s The Anchoress, on talking to a parent when she taught catechism:

She took great offense at that. She had paid $30 for this class; why should anything be expected of her?

God bless America! Over here if the Church tried to charge for catechism, there would be a riot. (Also, I always have to repress laughter when I go to Mass in the US and see ads in the parish bulletin. Again, God bless America.)

Kidding aside, her post makes a great point: it used to be that Catholicism was not just taught in school and church, but was also part of the culture and the “air” we were breathing. Not anymore. This calls for different models. 

Moving on to the role of parents, here are two quotes from other bloggers:

Parents are primary and principal educators of their children in the faith. That’s not to say that the Church doesn’t have an important role to play in religious education. It absolutely does! But it does an injustice–and in fact, defies its own teaching–if it in practice (if not in intention) ends up communicating to parents, “You don’t have to educate and form your kids in the faith! That’s what religious ed. is for!” That message–albeit unintentional– is not only wrong-headed, it is contrary to the Church’s explicit teaching about the nature of religious education.


And I’m not arguing for replacing bad catechesis with worse catechesis (“I am special” textbooks, felt banners, and hand-holding). What I’m looking for is a lived faith, one that takes place in Mass, but finds opportunities in every day life for continued education and growth. That’s how my faith has grown in any case–family prayer and meals that prepare us for the Eucharistic meal with the Body of Christ. When questions arise, as they tend to do when someone cares about a subject, we seek answers… Which is why, if I were designing an ideal Catechetical program for families I’d start, not with classrooms and catechists– but rather, with a meal– Mass followed by a Parish-wide dinner occurring at least monthly (but each week would be better).

This seems right to me. 

With parents as principal educators, it seems to me to be something that is (a) obvious; (b) not applied; and (c) nobody seems to mind.

My mother and I didn’t pray nightly, but you bet your tushus whenever I asked a deep question she found a way to connect it to the faith. 

With regard to children in Mass, we’re getting to one of my other hobbyhorses. Many parishes are hostile to families with children, who are presumed guilty of noisemaking (isn’t the Mass supposed to be a wedding feast?). They shuffle them away from the wedding feast to a separate room to color, a practice which makes sense only if one considers Mass as a perfunctory, obligatory, meaningless and boring affair. (And which is also in stark opposition to the Gospel.) Step 1 if you don’t want your kids to be bored at Mass: don’t tell them it’s boring. (My friend Matt Frost calls these extra-Mass sessions “The Little Future Atheists Club”)

The Mass is an encounter with the Living God. When I was a small child, during the eucharistic liturgy, my father would embrace me—we would kneel together on the same prie-Dieu—and narrate. When the priest would say “Let us raise our hearts” he would cup his hands on my chest where my heart was and raise them up, whispering in my ear “And now we raise up our hearts to God!” During the elevation, he would whisper into my ear “And now the bread is becoming the Body of Christ”, “And now the wine is becoming the Blood of Christ.” The tone of his voice made it absolutely clear that he not only believed what he was saying but that he was moved by it. You better believe that seed grew into my adult faith. To this day, I can’t think back to those memories without feeling seriously moved. And when I questioned my faith as a teenager, what kept me in the Chruch was as much abstract ideas as my utter inability to rid myself of the belief that the host is truly the Body of Christ.

Only when I had kids of my own did I notice that during the offertory, families ignore their kids and keep them “busy” with coloring books—again, publicly proclaiming that Mass is boring and unimportant. 

Again, we go back to this very widespread and resilient looking down on children in Catholic culture. 

And we go back to another hobbyhorse of mine, which is that it would be harder to miss the transcendent features of Mass if we didn’t work so hard to hide them ; and it would be harder to be bored if so many weren’t so intent on being boring.

But what’s most striking about this parental behavior, however, isn’t that it happens. It’s that priests don’t do or say anything about it! 

Yes, parents are the primary educators of children in the faith. So how come I’ve almost never heard a priest say that? (The only exception is the priest who was my spiritual father—and who gave me first communion at 5, nya nya nya.) 

It’s always been obvious to me that it was up to parents to raise their kids in the faith, because that’s how my parents did it. I went to catechism in school, but I found it exactly as boring as every class, and just as every other class I spent most of it trying to hide that I was doodling and/or writing science fiction stories—even though as a child I was passionately faithful.

Anyway—to go back to the beginning, Leah has suggestions for teaching catechism for kids after 12. This is really hard, and something I think about often. You have many things to keep in mind.

First of all, when they start puberty, kids start to question everything—in particular the ideas they were brought up with, especially our society, especially if that faith was inculcated as nothing more than tradition or superstition or cheap, rigid morality (every catechist to young kids who equates “sin” with “not obeying your parents” should say ten Ave Marias in penance!). 

Catechism should accompany this questioning—it is good to question! (Mary, the perfect disciple, questioned the angel when he appeared.) Even though reason is not sufficient for faith, God addresses itself to our rational nature. But it’s tricky, it’s essentially spiritual jiu-jitsu: you want to use the “momentum” of that questioning to lead a spirit and a soul which is tempted away from faith on a higher plane of faith. A tall order! 

Second of all, catechism has several goals, often in tension. In particular, good catechism has several goals: memorization, understanding and assent. Obviously, a requirement of catechism is that people should come out of it knowing specific facts about the faith. And (ideally) that they actually understand these things instead of simply being able to recite them. But unlike, say, history, or math, the goal isn’t merely that your student know something, but that they believe it. And these two goals are in obvious tension: if your catechesis is all about rote memorization, that’s the best way to turn off your pupils about the faith. 

(Though I don’t want to sell memorization short. I’m impressed—and sort of jealous—that my grandparents can still recite by heart the pre-VII catechism they were taught as small children. There are some things Catholics ought to know by heart. All else equal, the more the better; that the all else is rarely equal shouldn’t make us lose sight of that completely.)

Another delicate thing is the level of sophistication of your “curriculum”. On one side of the spectrum, it’s very easy for the Catholic faith to seem like an impenetrable body of incomprehensible doctrine and for your eyes to just glaze over. On the other side of the spectrum, the thing a smart, questioning teen needs the most is the full intellectual richness of the faith, and the best way to turn such a teen off is to give a too-simplified version of the faith.

Here’s where I tentatively land:

1. I think the heart of catechesis for grown-ups (i.e. over-12s) should be spiritual direction. Each individual child should have a spiritual director with whom they meet regularly (each individual Catholic, too, of course, but that’s a whole nother ballgame). Just like Ignatius developed his Spiritual Exercises mostly through experience and trial-and-error, we should evolve spiritual exercises and practices that help awaken preteens and teens to the fullness of faith. This spiritual direction would be concerned with the faith of the child, not with transmitting knowledge (except incidentally of course). In any case, it’s always good for preteens and teens to have counseling and to have someone out of their family and school that they can talk to. Things should be organized so that they go to confession regularly.  

2. I think (this is a long-term project of mine) we should have a sort of Khan Academy of Catholic faith. Or Khan Academy-meets-Fr Barron’s Catholicism series. Watch at your own pace. Drink as much as you want from the firehose. Have some structure to it—have regular group meetings where you update each other on how much you’ve seen/read, or something like that. But fundamentally, have an all-you-can-eat buffet. Also have high production values. Actually, my wife and I are currently in the process of watching the Catholicism series, which I know is at least in part intended for RCIA classes, and each time I watch them I’m struck that they would be great for teenagers. (“But they’re too young!” “No, YOU’re too young!”) For people who enjoy teaching, there’s this vague thing where using videos feels kind of like cheating. But video is great! Obviously, motion picture gets at our brains and our heart in this very powerful way when well done. Plus, you can do something beautiful, really well done, with great quality and sound doctrine, and so on. A great one-hour video plus guided discussion would be a great format. (I also think of Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose videos (also a PBS series like Catholicism), where you had not just the documentary half, but also the discussion half.) Video is such a powerful medium! The key thing is really to have high quality. Nothing turns off a teenager more quickly than a poorly-produced PSA-style video. 

Anyway. Stray thoughts.

Notes about this post from the Tumblr community:

  1. mynameisntsir reblogged this from pegobry and added:
    Brilliant should be in the title
  2. pegobry posted this