Moving On Catechesis

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.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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8 Responses to Moving On Catechesis

  1. Jack Smith says:

    Actually, all the theology teachers at the school in question and also at the other school referenced where Pelosi sent her daughters, were priests, sisters and/or had advanced degrees in theology.
    Frankly, the coaches would have done a better job had they been forced to teach theology.
    And speaking for myself, I always had the “natural curiosity to dispute”.
    But one of your points is spot on – “the values sometimes aren’t much different from the culture at large.” That is changing in many places and certainly has thankfully at my alma mater. Many schools are much more intentional than they were in the 80s.

  2. Todd says:

    Thanks for visiting, Jack. You mention “intentionality,” and that’s an element common to both conservative and progressive persons, groups, and communities fruitful in proclaiming the Gospel.

    It brings to mind a point I left out of the post. When catechesis is seen as an educational endeavor, and catechists evaluated on academic achievement–this is a place where the effort has the potential to run off the rails. And I say this as a person with an advanced degree in theology: nurturing good young Catholics is much, much more than education. Our examination of RCIA hammers away again and again at the notion that we don’t teach students, we guide apprentices.

    Certainly, we learn about miracles, to use one of your examples. We also look for the experience of miracles in life. And by that, I don’t mean the teacher getting sick on the day a test was to be administered, thus giving us an extra day to study. Are young Catholics open to the grace of God to work real miracles instead of being cultivated to admire the supernatural?

  3. Liam says:

    Another apt Catholic proverb: the Devil sends evil in pairs, so that we may run from one to embrace the other.

  4. Mike E. says:

    Todd- You make a good point about the pitfalls of seeing catechesis as primarily an educational endeavor. The General Directory for Catechesis lies out 6 areas, or tasks of catechesis, of which promoting knowledge of the faith is only one.

    I think part of our current problems with catechesis is that we tend to neglect the other 5- Liturgical education, moral formation, teaching to pray, education for community life, and missionary initiation.

    I also think that people on both ends of the ideological spectrum have their own preferred tasks and have a tendency to ignore those tasks that don’t neatly fit into their line of thought.

  5. Great post and love the kicker: “tell your story, have a laugh, and then move on.” Amen, amen. As an adult convert from Judaism, I have abundant opportunities to look at my RCC sisters and brothers in Christ with amazement at their ability to hold on to a grudge and inability to make a difference by doing something different/better.

  6. As to the state of catechesis today – it is not nearly as bad as some would paint it. All texts are checked for conformity by the USCCB Committee on the Catechism, the National Directory for Catechesis contains sound, culturally friendly principles (including using media), but we still have some challenges: poorly formed catechists and parents (from the generation you are describing.) Until parents and catechists can be convinced that their learning has to be lifelong and continuous, their poor knowledge and incomplete conversion will continue to “rub off” on children and youth.

  7. Dear Todd:

    I do not think that it is taking part of ‘The Culture of Complaint’ to note, without harking back to the ‘good old days’ (whatever THEY were), that the Council Fathers had quite high expectations as regards the training of priests, the liturgical formation of priests and laity, and the theological education of the laity.

    I also think that it is not simply a matter of ‘whining’ to suggest that compared to the expectations of those Council Fathers, we have quite a way yet to go.

    I would therefore appreciate it if you did not go out of your way to construct such ‘straw men’ as this. There is a need for better theological education for both clergy and laity.

  8. Jared Dees says:

    You are making some great observations about the complaints floating around the blogosphere these days. It is unfortunate that the teachers and catechists who are working hard to teach the faith are given so little credit. On the other hand some recent research suggests that “catholic identity” is declining. This can be seen in the number of parishioners, Catholic school enrollment, and parish/school closings. See also some recent studies by CARA ( and Pew Forum (

    For my part, I hope to help religion teachers and catechists become effective teachers. I recently started a blog at to provide resources for Catholic educators. The hope is to avoid #2 by treating religion as a subject on par with all of the others. It is also my hope that religion teachers and catechists will be able to foster #3. This is how ALL effective learning and teaching occurs. When we are interested and engaged in a topic, we learn. In religion/theology this means more than just the cognitive “knowledge of the faith” as Mike points out.

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