Critical Keys for Catholic Catechesis: Discipline and Content

Almost no one in the Church would claim today that we have done a good job of handing on the faith to our children. Depending on how we reckon it we have lost two or three generations to an ignorance and inability to articulate the  faith. Even the most basic teachings are unknown to the young.

A few years back I was talking to Catholic sixth graders about Adam and Eve and it became clear to me that they had little idea of who Adam and Eve were except that they were “in the Bible or something.” That was it. I collected all the glossy page religion books and instituted a “back to basics” curriculum at every grade level. We started with creation and the fall of man  and used the Biblical narrative along with memorized questions and answers and culminated  the year with a “religion bee” wherein the children were expected to demonstrate their mastery of the material for prizes. The  kids did well and they whooped their parents. The following year we instituted a parallel program for the parents. While their kids were in Sunday school class the parents were being instructed in the same material by yours truly.

I am no expert in pedagogy (educational theory) but it seems rather clear to me that we seriously lack in two major areas of catechetical instruction: discipline and content. Pretty devastating gaps it would seem! Not much is left over except self-esteem and slogans like “God loves you.”

In terms of content, it seems we have made improvements. The publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and stricter standards that our Catechetical materials conform to it,  has been the single greatest reform. Our materials are more orthodox, and the content is more substantial than the darkest years of the 1970s and 80s. Several good series have been published as well which have good content and are visually pleasing as well. I will not mention them by name since this is a blog of the Archdiocese and it is not appropriate for me to single them out. (It seems to me that you are free to speak of series you like in the comments since the Archdiocese does not endorse every comment that appears here). So I think content is improving.

But content is not enough. Academic discipline is also required. All the best material and visually beautiful as well cannot alone help children master the faith. Stronger and more rigorous academic discipline must be reasserted in the catechetical process. There are a number of elements of this academic discipline that I would like to mention and perhaps you will add more.

  1. Repetition – There is an old Latin saying: Repetitio mater studiorum (repetition is the mother of studies). Learning requires a lot of repetition for it to sink in and become second nature. One of the major flaws in the current catechetical process in most parishes and Catholic Schools is the way the curriculum is divided up. In second grade we talk about Holy Communion and Confession (but never again). The fourth graders are talking about Commandments – but never again. In fifth grade we talk about the Church (history and structure) – but never again. The sixth graders are talking about the life of Jesus – but never again. And so forth. The catechetical process is compartmentalized and doesn’t always seem to build on mastery of what came before. To discuss things but once hardly seems effective, especially if the material does not build on what came before. Back in public school, at least in my day,  mathematics did a great job of a kind of spiral curriculum which combines repetition with increasing mastery as new material was introduced. First we learned numbers. Then we used numbers to count. Then we used numbers and counting to go backward and forward by adding and subtracting them. Then we used numbers and counting and adding and subtracting to learn multiples and divisions. Then we used numbers and functions to realize that whole numbers can be fractioned and that numbers could have negative values and we learned how to count in fractions and to add and subtract them, multiply and divide them. And the material continued to build and the mastery of what went before was not left behind but folded into the new material and was used in an upward spiral. It is true that faith is not so simple as Math but the narrative of the faith does build in a spiral way. From God to creation to fall to promise of salvation to paschal mystery, to the life of grace by the sacraments to ultimate restoration with God forever in the paradise of heaven.  These basic elements must be reviewed over and over in an ascending spiral that respects human development at its various stages. But just talking about creation and the fall in the early grades and not at all later is bound to lead to a forgetful and confused student. If the wound of original sin and the loss of a relationship with God is forgotten, how will redemption make sense? No wonder it all seems “irrelevant” to many of them.
  2. Memorization –mastery of material is almost impossible without good old fashioned memorization. We just have to know things like the seven Sacraments, the Ten Commandments, the seven deadly sins, the basic prayers, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Further, basic definitions like grace, redemption, Mortal and venial sin, incarnation, etc have to be memorized and understood. Answers to basic questions like why God made me, who were our first parents, what is the Church, who were the prophets etc. Answers like these need to be committed to memory. Without these basic building blocks being committed to memory very little building is going to go on. These basic memorized things are like hooks on which many other things hang. Without the hooks, everything falls flat. Early in school I memorized my ABCs and then many words and how they are spelled. So much depended upon my simply committing these basics to memory. The same was true with my multiplication tables. My parents and teachers were clear, just memorize them! Do the work now and everything else will be easier and make sense as you go. I struggled but I got it and I have never lost them. Give me any two numbers between 1 and 12 and I’ll give you their product instantly. Memorizing those tables opened a whole world for me and simplified life enormously. Why should the faith be any different? In memorizing and knowing the seven deadly sins I am greatly assisted in examining my conscience, grasping the deeper drives of sin in my life, understanding and anticipating the moves of the world, the devil and the flesh, and helping others understand the negative drives in their life. It all starts with simply memorizing and grasping basic concepts.
  3. Time – Most people spend barely an hour a week trying to master their faith. This is not enough. Mastery of any discipline requires something more than one hour a week. We cannot expect magic. If we only ask kids to spend an hour week with no homework or expectations in between, we should not expect any mastery of the material. Another time related problem is that catechetical instructions in parishes are not year-round. Most Protestant Churches I know would never think of cancelling Sunday School  for the summer. They attach the same priority to Sunday School that we attach to mass. Sunday School is every Sunday almost without fail. In the Catholic Church we call the whole thing off from May through mid September. And every single three day weekend also seems to get lumped in as well. In many parishes the children have religious instruction only half the weeks of the year when summers, holidays and snow days are subtracted out. In my parish we are gradually increasing the coverage with the goal of making Sunday School year round.
  4. Accountability– at some point we need to expect young people to demonstrate mastery of the material. Things like tests, religion bees, presentations etc. should be used. Why should children take religious education seriously if they will never have to render an account for what they have done or failed to do? Things like religion bees can be fun and challenging. Rewards can be offered. Religious “It’s Academic, or Trivial pursuit formats can be fun but serious ways of assessing mastery of the material. Things like this and tests also impose certain deadlines for mastery of  the material. Deadlines are really lifelines since they awaken urgency and discipline. In the end both student and teachers must be accountable. Accountability must be returned to the catechetical process.
  5. Resourcefulness – In school I could not learn everything. But one of the disciplines I learned was how to find answers. I remember trooping off the school library and being taught the Dewey Decimal System and how to use a card catalogue. We were introduced to encyclopedias, journals, and later in College, to abstracts. Today things are easier with the Internet but we sill have to teach young people how to find answers. Sites like ; The EWTN Libraries; and the Bishops Website and many others are places where answers can be found. In the end, one of the best fruits of my education was how to be resourceful.

OK. That’s enough from me. How say you? You will surely have some thoughts to add to this discussion on Catechesis, particularly in terms of  content and discipline. Especially helpful are things you have found to work. What further disciplines would you add to the list?  We can all stipulate we’ve done a poor job in the Church of late. Content and resources are improving but what of discipline?

This video is a good commentary on the problem of content which I did not develop as fully here. Msgr. in the video does mention a Catechetical series. Again I must issue a disclaimer that posting this video does not amount to an official endorsement of the series. I am not empowered to make such endorsements on the part of the Archdiocese. But the video is a good reflection on the need for content as well as technique and discipline.

Source: Archdiocese of Washington

2 Responses to Critical Keys for Catholic Catechesis: Discipline and Content

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