It is not uncommon to run into a debate on how best to solve the issues plaguing the Church. There is no dearth of suggestions about what to do to combat the many forces, both within and without, that assail the Church. I’ve heard many great suggestions, from a renewal to the liturgy to a focus on the re-evangelization of the West. While these suggestions are important to a renewed life in the Church, one thing continues to stick with me: until we stop forming our children with subpar catechetical materials, we will continue to raise generations of Catholics that either lack any knowledge of their faith or are actively hostile towards it.
I recently reviewed materials from a few Catholic publishers aimed at elementary aged children and the results were bleak. The materials generally fell into three categories: those that contained the teaching of the Church, but were incomplete, those lacking the basic teachings of the Church, and those with formal errors. It was not uncommon to find materials that exhibited a mix of these categories based on the topic. In the first category, I found materials that explained the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence and transubstantiation, but lacked any reference to the sacrifice of the Mass. These materials did a good job describing the theological and cardinal virtues, but were silent on the topic of personal sins and the tendency humans have to give into those sins. These materials generally taught what the Church teaches, but required good catechists to shore up holes in the content. Using materials like these would feel a bit like choosing the lesser of two evils.
In the second category, I found materials that simply skirted any mention of actual Church teaching. Real Presence? Nope. Transubstantiation? Not a chance. What I did find was chapter upon chapter on respecting the environment, complete with quotes from pagans describing precisely how a Catholic does not view creation. Saints were often replaced with secular “role models,” including ones whose lives completely contradicted Church teaching. While these materials would certainly fit in any mainline Protestant church, there was nothing particularly Catholic about them. One could go through years of catechesis with these materials and be a very comfortable Episcopalian.
In the third category, I read things that I thought had long ago been lost in the mists of time. I found Catholic materials teaching children that God wrote the Koran and that the Hindu gods are different forms of the Christian God. I found the Eucharist described as bread and wine that symbolize God’s love for us. I was even surprised to learn that Vatican II changed our view of the Church from one of hierarchy to the people of God. Multiple materials used the oft scorned “we are the Church” aphorism to describe our ecclesiology. Incidentally, while I think it is great that children’s materials cover Ecumenical Councils like Vatican II, when chapter upon chapter is dedicated to our most recent council, but not a single mention is made of any previous council, I think we may have missed the mark.
One thing I found across all the Religious Education materials I reviewed is an unfortunate distinction between God and Jesus. I know that in English, we have taken to referring to the Father as God in common parlance, but when it comes to forming children, there is simply no reason not to invoke the first person of the Trinity when speaking of the Father’s relation to the Son. Phrases like “God sent Jesus” or “God told his Son” are needlessly confusing to kids who are trying to engage the most difficult mysteries of the faith.
The purpose of Religious Education materials should be to support what parents are doing at home, but the reality is that many children are receiving little to no Catholic formation at home (an issue that needs to be addressed in its own right). These materials may be the only exposure to Catholic teaching that these children have, which makes the stakes for having good, sound materials even higher. This is by no means an indictment of all Religious Education materials. I know that there are good materials put out by faithful Catholics, but unfortunately, those are the exception to the norm.
The Church will continue to feast on the fruits of dissent and indifference as long as we poorly form the majority of our children. While the so-called “biological solution” is often touted as the way to handle many of the problems the Church faces, simply waiting it out for a better formed generation is ludicrous if we are forming children with the same 1970’s spirit of Vatican II mentality that has haunted the Church these past decades. Without a concerted push to ensure that the materials used are truly Catholic, we will continue to perpetuate a cycle that is harmful to the Church.
This article, Subpar Catechesis is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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