Letters | More on that '70s church

Formative years

Thank you for the excellent article by Cathleen Kaveny (“That ’70s Church,” October 24), in which she rightfully challenges the claim that the decrease in Mass attendance, as well as Catholic attrition, is the result of poor catechesis following Vatican II. I began my thirty-year career in catechetical ministry teaching religion in a Catholic high school in 1966, and I served in both parish and diocesan settings as the director of religious education. I agree with Kaveny’s analysis that catechesis was not at all poor. In accord with the documents of Vatican II, the General Catechetical Directory, and the National Catechetical Directory, many Catholic publishers (Sadlier, Benziger, Silver Burdett, Paulist, and others) worked with outstanding, dedicated Catholic authors to develop new catechetical series. These materials were solidly grounded in Scripture and the aforementioned documents, and were implemented in accord with authentic teaching and learning principles and processes.

Those materials emphasized a close relationship with Jesus and one another, and assisted students in understanding Jesus’ command to “love one another as I love you” (John 13:34, 15:12). They also helped students understand Christ’s mission to “bring glad tidings to the poor... liberty to captives...recovery of sight to the blind...[and] to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18–19). This differed from the question-and-answer approach of the Baltimore Catechism, but it is not inferior. The Baltimore Catechism (I still have my copies of Baltimore I, II, and III) included very little about Scripture, and emphasized personal morality without much attention to social justice. The extent of lay involvement is given in question 269 of Baltimore Catechism III: “What is Catholic Action? Catholic Action is the activity of the laity under the direction of their bishops in promoting the growth and spiritual welfare of the church.” No mention of the challenges presented in the gospel of Luke.

As Kaveny recognizes, catechesis was led by thousands of deeply committed and well-formed women and men who served as parish CCD teachers and catechists. They were prepared and supported by a new group of lay ministers who emerged after Vatican II—those who became parish and diocesan directors of religious education. This role was first held by religious sisters; they were quickly joined by lay women and men, many of whom earned graduate degrees in religious education through excellent programs developed by Boston College, Notre Dame, Fordham, Loyola University Chicago, and many others. I was privileged to serve as the first lay director of religious education for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

This cadre of parish and school catechists and professional religious educators brought energy and competence to the demanding responsibility of sharing our Catholic faith. For children and youth, the effort was strong. But the effort to find a comprehensive approach to adult faith formation has not received the commitment of funding and personnel required to make it a significant reality in most parishes.

Many excellent programs, like the RCIA, RENEW, and Little Rock Scripture Study, were eventually developed. But lifelong, comprehensive faith formation that prepares Catholic adults to participate fully in the decision-making and ministerial processes of the church for the transformation of society is not a major part of many parishes. Consequently, as Kaveny observes, a person’s involvement in faith formation generally ends with confirmation.

In the years following Vatican II, there was an effort in many parishes to hire coordinators of adult faith formation. Diocesan offices also employed coordinators of adult faith formation to train parish committees. Sadly, over the past ten years many of these positions have been eliminated because of severe budget reductions.

One of the reasons for this situation is that too many church leaders are not comfortable relating with well-formed Catholic adults. Catholics who have been well formed in an adult understanding of the faith (the Baltimore Catechisms ended with high school) will inevitably ask difficult questions. They will also understand the scriptural challenge to pursue justice and peace and will seek to be involved in the church’s social ministry. As Kaveny explains, a child or adolescent understanding of our faith is not sufficient to deal with life in our changing society. Well-formed Catholic adults want to be treated as adults.

How many church leaders today are willing and able to encourage and empower well-formed Catholic adults to participate actively in the decision-making processes at all levels of church life? To achieve this requires authentic dialogue, a willingness to address hard questions, and being open to considering new and challenging approaches to dealing with our rapidly changing society. Pope Francis seems to be very comfortable with this approach. Will it permeate the whole church?

James J. Deboy Jr.
Catonsville, Md.

Published in the November 14, 2014 issue: 

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