Ignorant Catholics

The alarming void in religious education

Perhaps the religious illiteracy of so many otherwise well-educated young Catholics is too familiar to bear mentioning again. One has come to expect that even at elite Catholic colleges and universities, entering students will not know what is meant by the “Immaculate Conception”-hardly anyone knows that anymore. No surprise, either, when students do not know the proper number of natures and persons in Christ, Mary, and the Trinity-what’s an extra nature or two here or there? Besides, who’s counting? It’s not a chemical formula and it doesn’t take rocket science to believe God loves me anyway. As for ignorance of more technical terms, for example, confusing homoousios with a Near Eastern dish made of chickpeas (a good guess), or conflating the temperature at which paper burns with the date of a church council, who can worry? Still, when more than a third of the students have to guess how many Gospels are in the Bible, or think that the phrase “original sin” refers to sex; when more than half have no idea what is meant by “Incarnation” unless it has the prefix re-; when only ten out of a class of fifty know what “Exodus” refers to, or what is meant by the phrase “Real Presence,” and only a slightly higher percentage can give a credible definition of “sacrament”; when one student can convince a large group of classmates that “Catholic Social Teaching” refers to restrictions on same-sex marriage-we can perhaps bear to mention the problem of religious ignorance yet again.

This vast ignorance is not just a question of missing bits of information, retinal holes marring an otherwise excellent field of vision. It is something more like a retinal detachment, a whole field of vision pulling inexorably away toward blindness. Not only are the words gone, the bits of information, but the system in which the words made sense is fading. At the University of Notre Dame, most students still enjoy the required theology courses and have a sense that it is somehow important to take them. But this too will change, as the years go by, and even the residual feel for a “system” recedes. Does it matter?

Maybe not, if one has lost the expectation that Catholics should be effective agents of moral change, bearing witness to gospel values in the triple vocation of Jesus as “priest, prophet, king.” Yet if one still believes this, Catholics must have a vocabulary to articulate the values to which they bear witness, the world view and system in which such convictions make sense, the sources of renewal in sacramental practice, the reason we talk about the dignity of human persons, and why the church takes an interest in sexual mores. “If they don’t know the faith, John, we have nothing to build on,” Father Theodore Hesburgh once summed it up to me.

Who is to blame for this situation? There is plenty of blame to go around, but perhaps there is no more useless exercise than rehearsing the list of suspects. It is the academic theologians, who insist that “catechesis” is not their job, and so absolve themselves of responsibility for teaching the “basics.” It is the generation of catechists who left behind the Baltimore Catechism in favor of experience-based models that eschewed passing on the doctrinal content of the faith. It is parish leaders and parishioners who do not value catechesis enough to provide trained young people with well-paid careers in the field. It is bishops who for too long paid no attention to any facet of this situation, so that catechesis never developed much past the first post-Vatican II “touchy-feely” phase, and who offered no incentives to parishes to attract and keep young catechists. Maybe there is truth in all of these accusations, but they get us nowhere. I am sure of the truth of only one accusation: I am to blame. I had a share and perhaps even a stake in this oblivion. I contributed to it. As an educator I noticed it but figured it was someone else’s problem. I left it to someone else to think about, someone before me (unnamed and unnumbered catechists), someone above me (the bishops), someone after me (premarriage and prebaptismal parental sessions), but not me. Yet I have come to see that it is, in fact, my problem. One good thing about being at fault-if it is partly my fault, then I can help to fix it.

Here is my proposal-let us implement across all our educational projects and institutions what we could call a “renewed pedagogy of the basics.” By “basics” I mean the fundamental doctrines of the Catholic faith as summarized in the Creed and catechism, so that students will know that Catholics believe God created the world, that God is a Trinity, that Jesus is the Word made flesh, one person in two natures divine and human, that sacraments are efficacious signs of God’s grace instituted by Christ, that the church is the Mystical Body of Christ, that Christ has triumphed over sin and evil, that there can be salvation outside the visible church, that God loves us, etc.

Now for the “renewed” part. A renewed pedagogy of the basics is not simply a return to the basics, as in the expression “back to basics.” It doesn’t mean a return, for example, to the pedagogy of the Baltimore Catechism. It can’t mean this at the college level, and shouldn’t mean this at earlier levels of education or catechesis. At the college level, the academic theologians of the last generation were right to try to separate theology from catechesis construed as memorization of the one-sentence answers to several hundred questions. For one thing, most students resent and resist anything that seems like “indoctrination.” More important, the primary apologetic moment in teaching theology is not learning (as it were) the facts. Rather, that moment comes when students, all of a sudden or in the course of a semester, realize that faith can have as sophisticated and articulate a voice as any other perspective present at a university. Moreover, that the faith which has this voice is no different from the faith their less-articulate relatives and friends have relied on for challenge and consolation for years. In my experience, this realization has a unique power to reconnect students to the church’s faith. When this realization is combined with an awakening to the sense of the sheer beauty, richness, and sophistication of Catholicism’s two-thousand-year-old tradition, there is no substitute for the impact it has on students. It is not indoctrination but formation-an intuition of both sympathy for the faith and the affection for it that comes from the first true glimmers of the understanding proper to theology.

For a renewed pedagogy of the basics, it is not enough, then, that students learn that God created the world, but also what that means and why it matters. A renewed pedagogy of the basics will make sure that students not only learn the basic doctrines, but pursue an understanding proper to theology. They might learn that creation is a theological concept not reducible to scientific categories; that the first chapters of Genesis should not be viewed as primitive in any way and, least of all, as primitive science; that the doctrine of Creation is proclaimed unto faith and not unto proof from empirical observation, because it teaches such things as the goodness of the cosmos, which no scientific instrument, however carefully calibrated, can detect. It offers the only hope for grounding our desire to conserve and preserve nature as we know it. So, this renewed pedagogy offers the basics not as answers that close the door to further inquiry, but rather as answers that are the normative articulation of a mystery that, precisely as mystery, invites continuing and deepening reflection.

A renewed pedagogy thus grants access to the basics, so that they do not seem to be mere neutrons of information, but parts of a whole system of teaching, meant to hand on in a time-tested way the story of God’s love in Christ. Learning that Catholic teaching talks about Christ as two natures in one person is not a mildly amusing intellectual puzzle, something like two-in-one breath mints, only less useful. It is a special shorthand for talking about how the Son of God truly threw in his lot with us. Christ is the real God, not a high-ranking relation of God’s who accepted the sorrows of human life under the same conditions we know. Thus, in speaking about the Incarnation, the connection to the doctrine of the Trinity emerges. Only by presenting the whole system is access granted to any of its parts.

It is my hope that a renewed pedagogy of the basics will obviate the old dichotomy between catechesis and theology. Although it will make theology more catechetical, it extends the reach of the basics into an academically rigorous theological realm. This will help university theology departments move ahead in solving this problem, because move ahead they must. We can no longer credibly say that theological illiteracy is not our problem. One colleague in another department pointed out that lack of knowledge of the basics is a problem across the curriculum, and all disciplines must find ways of addressing it. Why would theology be an exception?

That said, remedial work at the college level will almost always be too little, too late. Besides, many do not continue education beyond high school. Thus, strictly speaking, a renewed pedagogy of the basics must also inform catechesis at all levels. If this means that the theological becomes more catechetical, it must also mean that catechesis becomes more theological, featuring special attention to the doctrine and the content of the faith. Again, we are not talking about a return to the Baltimore Catechism. We must not simply leap over the last forty years of catechesis as if they were an unmitigated wasteland, but take the basic thrust of post-Vatican II catechesis seriously: namely, that the doctrines mean little unless they are related to one’s experience, to one’s desires, hopes, fears, and dreams.

The problem is that somehow the doctrines got lost and we were left with only our desires, hopes, fears, and dreams, together with broad-stroke connections to a few marquee items like Jesus, God (the relation between them left fuzzy), the Spirit, God’s people, table fellowship. Most other items were left behind in a penumbra of distinguished but cozy irrelevance (Mary the ever-virgin Mother of God, all the angels and saints, the ministerial priesthood and hierarchy, 85 percent of the Bible, the Mystical Body, the Real Presence, etc.). The trouble is that fuzzy or incomplete teaching does not generate retention, reflection, deepening understanding, or increasingly sophisticated articulation. It only engenders more fuzziness, forgetfulness, and the eventual irrelevance of Christian doctrine. Instead, a renewed pedagogy would teach the doctrine as precisely as possible, granting access to doctrine by highlighting the connections between Christian teaching and our hopes, fears, and dreams. The ultimate goal of catechesis, which is to bring people ever more deeply into the mystery of the person of Christ, is not at odds with the teaching of doctrine but would come about in the teaching of doctrine.

I offer another proposal: partnerships between Catholic universities and colleges and the local churches. Nothing will benefit the church’s ability to pass on the faith more than smart, idealistic young people, both women and men (in a field that suffers an acute shortage of men), well trained in the basics of the faith and in the habit of theological reflection, serving as agents of renewal in catechetical pedagogy. There is at present no lack of such smart, dedicated young people. Nearly 75 out of 200 theology majors at Notre Dame serve as catechists in local parishes.

Still, to consider catechetical leadership a career path when it is common knowledge that one cannot even begin to think of raising a family on the wages parishes pay, strikes most students as foolhardy. We won’t have a theological culture schooled in the basics, a catechetical renewal, until the church decides to pay for it. Nothing will happen if bishops identify catechesis as a priority but do not forcefully assist parishes in raising the needed funds. Nothing will happen if laypeople like me are unwilling to contribute enough out of our substance to show that this is a priority. Nothing will happen unless the Catholic academy is willing to educate people in a way that merits this sort of commitment. So, let universities and dioceses form partnerships of mutual accountability.

We are at a crucial turning point. In thirty years we may find, as Hesburgh warned me, that we have “nothing to build on”-that we can no longer explain why we resist destroying the environment, why we should oppose abortion and capital punishment, why we should defend the family or workers’ rights, why we believe that evil will not triumph in the end, why the good is worth pursuing no matter what the cost, or why we find the courage to love in the practice of the sacraments. There will always be saints who cannot explain any of these things, but even saints depend for their ideals on an articulate, intellectual Catholicism that can nurture a culture that will go on generating ideals of heroic virtue. Without prejudice to any other area of catechesis-in fact, to enhance them all-let us return in a renewed way to a pedagogy of the basic doctrines of the faith. Those very doctrines will stretch our horizon for inquiry and action to a consummation as unbounded as the mystery they represent.

Published in the 2004-04-09 issue: 

John C. Cavadini teaches in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, where he is also McGrath-Cavadini director of the Institute for Church Life.

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