One of the most common memes in the conservative Catholic blogosphere is the poor quality of catechesis received in schools and parishes. It’s happening now. It’s all but getting YouTubed. It happened in the 90’s, the 80’s, and the 70’s. Breaking news: I hear about poor pre-Vatican II catechesis from older people who were never taught about the Bible, the sacraments, or social justice.
At the Catholic Key blog earlier this week host Jack Smith and I got into a bit of a discussion on it. You can read the thread here for some background. An Arizona Mike suggested it was an interesting topic in its own right. And he’s right.
Even though Jack and I are both committed, educated, and church-employed Catholics today, we have greatly different backgrounds. Unlike many Catholics on the conservative side of my generation, I seemed to benefit from not being a cradle Catholic. As my peers were checking out of the Church in our teen years, I retained a curiosity and commitment. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that my experience was normative. On the other hand, I can’t characterize the worst of my teachers as “loons.” Even if they were reared and themselves catechized in pre-conciliar Catholicism. Sidebar: it sure must have been a strong, orthodox, and sound entity to produce so many seemingly incompetent people in religious life and among its committed laity, right?
There are three important principles involved with Catholic education, aside from the one we all agree upon: catechist competence.
1. Parents are the first and best teachers of the faith. It happens, but not too often, that embittered Catholics will criticize their parents for falling down on their responsibility. This responsibility, by the way, is written into the rites of baptism and marriage. I would seem to have two check marks against me, as both of my parents were Protestants. My mom actually shouldered a commitment to get a catechist certification. Not to teach in the parish, but she wanted to be prepared to respond to our questions about the Catholic faith. In the homeschooling movement, I’ve seen parents who take very seriously the charge to rear their children in the faith. This is a good thing.
2. Pastors and school principals making catechesis a priority. It’s also rare, but not uncommon for people to criticize clergy. Rarely do I see school principals vilified for hiring straight-up schoolteachers who can’t teach religion. I have to say that when I was in high school I saw the worst of both ends. My home parish had no youth catechesis programs at all. The emphasis was on Catholic high schools. I do remember having a lay man teaching religion in my 10th and 12th grade years. He tried to buck the trend among seniors to coast to graduation, and students in general to coast through religion class. He butted heads with my class by giving us a serious final exam. Only three of us passed, and the other thirty-some had grades of sixty-five percent or lower. The teacher lost, as enough parents complained to the administration, and all grades were raised on a sliding scale above an F. Everybody passed. Or if you prefer, everybody lost. Lesson learned: administrators treat Religion as a second-class subject.
3. Which leads me to what is probably the most vital point. In order for a person to be taught, she or he must be ready to learn. My advantage over Jack and the rest of my 70’s and 80’s peers is that I was motivated as a new Catholic from age eleven to learn about my faith. My catechists planted a seed, certainly. But I read the Catholic encyclopedia section at the back of the Bible my mother gave me. I read the texts of the Mass in the missalettes, which I brought home after they had expired. I read the Bible. For the most part, I paid attention in religion class. Unlike my conservative brothers and sisters, I also questioned some of what I was taught. If something didn’t strike me as sensible or true or real, I would check up on the facts. If a young girl or boy of conservative sensibility is taught that miracles don’t really happen, they might not possess the natural curiosity to dispute, or even doubt the point. Others may disagree, but a questioning person is often in a stronger position religiously and spiritually.
This is all why I tend to dismiss complaints about catechesis, especially the ones directed to the distant past. Yesterday’s “loon” may have been hired to teach science, then switched off to religion because they had their degree from a Catholic college. That “loon” may have been handed poor textbooks, no teacher’s manual (it disappeared ten years before) and given the understanding that everyone passes through. Throw in a snickering, disrespectful class of adolescent boys (or girls) and I can certainly see why the experience was poor for all concerned. How many Catholic high school athletic coaches can throw up two or three consecutive winless seasons and still cash a paycheck? Don’t be fooled: the values sometimes aren’t much different from the culture at large.
The Culture of Complaint reinforces the notion of whining just to express one’s feelings. A more effective piece of journalism would be to find people who are well-catechized Catholic adults and ask what made the difference for them. As for the horror stories? Sure, I have them too. The lay brother who insisted he could forgive sins. Another teacher who wrote the word “penis” on the blackboard and said he’d give a prize to the one who came up with the most synonyms. The priest who “ordained” twelve deacons in his parish because he saw himself as a “Jesus” who needed “twelve apostles.” Another priest who told divorced, but un-re-married people they needed annulments.
Unlike the complainers, I don’t like to get caught up in this crap. I tell the story, share a few laughs. Then move on.
As for the state of catechesis in the Church, if you’re serious about it, do something about it. Otherwise, tell your story, have a laugh, and then move on.