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Education in the faith

In the course of conversations after one of my recent talks on Vatican II, the question came up about how knowledgeable about their faith U.S. Catholics are. At one point, it dawned on me that the overwhelming majority (over 90%) of them have never had an adult course in their faith. This estimate is based on these considerations:

  • the great majority of Catholics do not attend Catholic elementary or high schools;
  • of this number the great majority do not have any religious education after Confirmation;
  • as of the 1990's only 50% of white Catholics were attending college (are there later data?);
  • 90% of Catholic college students are at non-Catholic institutions;
  • many Catholic colleges do not require more than two courses in theology; at some of them, courses in religious studies can satisfy the requirement.

Given all this, it seems fair to say that it is the rare U.S. Catholic who has taken an adult course in his faith. It is possible, of course, that deficiencies in formal religious education or theology is made up for by diligent work on the part of individuals or even groups of adult Catholics; and I would love to have some data on this, too.All this makes me interested in whether sociological surveys include questions about levels of religious education or of religious literacy, these two not being identical, of course. I should think that the authors of surveys would want to take these levels of education and literacy into account in assessing the data they collect; but I dont recall seeing much made of the matter, certainly not as much as of religious practice.Another way of getting at pertinent data would be to ask about the reading-habits of Catholics. What percentage have read any books, or even articles, on their faith, on the history of the Church, the Bible, biographies, etc.? What percentage subscribe to Catholic periodicals? (A rough estimate would be that only one of every 4,000 U.S. Catholics subscribe to Commonweal [0.00025%].) What percentage have read any of the great classics of Catholic thought or literature? Where do Catholics get their information on the Church?The claim is often made that contemporary Catholic laity are the best educated in history, and this may be true when it comes to their general education; but this does not necessarily mean that they are well educated in their faith. The image comes to mind of Catholics limping: one leg is well developed, the other stunted in its growth.A few years ago, the Jesuit journal Conversations devoted an issue to the place of philosophy and theology at their colleges and universities. This article gives the core requirements.

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Fr. Thomas Keating, one of the founders of the Centering Prayer movement, is a great teacher, and, I suspect, a saint. About 10 years ago I bought his series of about 5 tapes on practicing Centering Prayer, and I offered to show them to my parish as a series. With just an announcement in the parish bulletin, I was amazed when 63 people showed up the first night, and they continued through the whole five showings. They were all ages.What this shows, I think, is that when the people are offered real meat, I mean what they are deeply interested in they will respond. Again, I suspect it's a matter of answering their questions and needs, not our own, and no doubt in each parish there is a variety of questions and needs. Here's the CP site. It's also into lectio divina and a couple of other spiritual practices.: http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/Note: I just discovered when Googling CP that a New Orleans Methodist church now has *several* Centering Prayer groups going. I tell you, there is a deep thirst for such practice when even Protestants start doing Catholic contemplation. If you're interested check out the site. It has listings of CP groups in cities all across the country. Who knows, CP might even attract the attention of your high school kids. It does sometimes.

Wow, Ann, 65 people is a lot! And what a great way to reach out to those in other faiths!Many years ago, I tried organizing a community program through the parish using the Five Wishes materials. Even though there is nothing that goes against Catholic teaching in them (the founder is an attorney who worked with Mother Teresa), the Church Ladies threw up so many roadblocks that I just gave up. Now that Raber is prez of the Men's Club, I'm thinking about trying to refloat it through him. I think the Church Ladies probably could smell a future lapsed Catholic and weren't too crazy about having me organize something in the name of the parish. But they love Raber, so he might be able to get it going.It seems to me that inviting the community to the church to open discussions about end of life care would not only be a public service, but would help the parish identify people who need help with elderly family members.

On the Atonement, I heard a theory for the first time when I was a teenager at summer camp. A British boy with red hair and long teeth put his hand on mine: Humanity (my hand) was covered and weighed down by Sin (his hand). Then Christ - his other hand - came in between and lifted the burden of Sin so that Humanity could be free again. It was a fascinating explanation with compelling concreteness. After summer was over, he sent me a couple of letters with more theology, but, since letters cannot convey explanations at the same level of concreteness, I lost interest.

Jean --I read that the bishops are considering how better to use the new technology to evangelize. Hmm. How about having a blog for each parish (mediated by someone elected by the parish) where parishioners could have discussions of things like end of life care that you mention. No doubt the hot button issues would come up too, but that's part of what the internet is for, I'd say. And the priest would discover what the people are really thinking.

As luck, or the Holy Spirit, would have it, I just found this article at LaStampa. It's about the USCCB and use of the internet. (Most of them find it difficult to use the net themselves.) The question is being considered at the meeting in Baltimore today. Yes, it considers the use of blogs, with all their potential for nastiness, but comes down in favor of them. Some interesting statistics are included. For instance, only 5% of American Catholics use the internet to learn more about the Faith. http://vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/en/world-news/detail/articolo/19677/

Our diocese set every parish up with a Web site years ago, but many of the rural parishes haven't done anything with them. One of the Church Ladies wrote up a monthly newsletter about important holy days and observations that she sent out monthly. It was pretty interesting, but, like so many Catholic enterprises, it was a one-way communication. In our old Unitarian Church, they had to flick the lights on and off to break up discussions after the service, and programs were (and still are last time I visited) very well attended. As a kid, I just figured all churches were like that. Despite the rep Unitarians have as "unbelievers," they sure take religion seriously and talk about it a lot. Many are very well read in other religious traditions. So I miss that kind of thing.

"I read that the bishops are considering how better to use the new technology to evangelize. Hmm. How about having a blog for each parish (mediated by someone elected by the parish) where parishioners could have discussions of things like end of life care that you mention. No doubt the hot button issues would come up too, but thats part of what the internet is for, Id say. And the priest would discover what the people are really thinking."Hi, Ann, I'd say that the bishops are welcome to consider such things, but I suspect that forward-looking parishes are already on it and will forge ahead whether the bishops consider them or not. Our parish will be launching a new website soon. I'd get really fired up if I could post the text of a homily and let parishioners talk about it.

I'm not suggesting that each parish have a website. The ones here already do, but who cares except for checking the Mass and meeting times. They're bulletin boards.I'm suggesting that each paris have an honest-to-goodness blog, like this one. Sure, sermons could be a good topic -- IF the sermons were about topics that people are really, really interested in. But most sermons aren't. And i suspect it would be even better to let the parishioners present the topics. That way you'd know they're interested.Or have two blogs each parish -- one led by the clergy, one by laity. Why not?

Isnt it a common complaint that most homilies lack intellectual content?https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B5FGuFFkfrDvVUJUeWU0SEtRYTA/view?pli=1&s...

In case anyone is still reading this: here's an obvious question that hasn't been answered in any of the many comments: what to recommend to an adult who has not had "an adult course in his faith". Is there a particularly good book out there that would be adequate for that population?

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About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.