Good and Bad Catechesis

“I had six children, and none of them remained Catholic. Father, what did we do wrong?” “We had eight children, raised them all in the Church, and today only one is still Catholic. I guess I’m not much of a parent.” Sadly, I have heard statements like these quite often. If you have not actually said them yourself, you have probably heard someone close to you say it. It is not uncommon, and we all have to admit it. So then, what are we doing wrong?

Why is it so common that children fall away from the faith in this day and age? It is not as though it never happened before, but it is hard to deny that it is more common than it used to be. Sometimes we try to ignore it and assume it is just an anomaly; other times we lament the state of things (and rightly so). Yet, what we cannot do is continue to use the same methods of catechising our children that got us into this situation.

Catechesis; that is the real issue. Yet, catechesis is not just a matter of what we stick in our children’s heads. Most will admit that it is also a matter of HOW we do it. You can catechize in a manner that is detrimental to a child’s faith (and not every parent or catechist thinks about that fact). Just getting children to memorize a few doctrinal details and do a service project does not transmit the faith properly. Furthermore, you can teach the dogmas of the Church in such a way that you bore the children to death with it. If we do not love God’s truth, how can we expect our children to?

Even with that said, however, there is another factor that I believe is missed by most people. That factor is: what else we stick in our children’s heads outside of their formal catechesis. What I speak of here is not merely the right details of education, or the right amount of education; neither quality or quantity is the key. It is a matter of what is destroying that education. One can eat healthy every day of his life, and yet if he ingests poison as well, all the healthy food will not keep him alive. Our ancient English Catholic patrimony is a beautiful thing and it will benefit the Church everywhere for it to be retained. The Anglican heritage is now under the protection of the Roman Catholic Church, and that means that it is safer than it ever was for the previous 500 years. That does not, however, guarantee that it will be passed on properly to the younger generations.

I want my great-grandchildren to enjoy our traditions, but that will not likely be the case unless my children enjoy those traditions today. This means that I cannot just pass on facts to them. I cannot just tell them, “this stuff is great, you should like it too”, because that is not very convincing. Beauty is, of course, beautiful, but that does not mean that our children will automatically see that. They may be “catechized” by the world to think that immorality is more beautiful than the Divine Worship Mass, and this often happens quietly and without notice.

If we think about the past 100 years, there have been radical changes to society. I am not just speaking about technology, but also about the way that we view the Church and its place in the world. Religion as a whole has been steadily marginalized so that it has become nothing more than “a personal opinion”. With the philosophical changes that were occurring in the 20th century and the frenetic pace of technology invading our homes, most families were largely unprepared to deal with it. The saw these changes as merely a neutral issue, and continued to teach their children the same way. Most continued to rely on the Church’s CCD programs, and yet the Church was just as unprepared as were the parents.

We were blindsided both by the entertainment industry (assuming it to be “just entertainment”) as well as the school systems promoting a world devoid of any reference to God. Many parents inadvertently allowed these other sources to gain a heavy influence on children’s moral and spiritual formation. The end result was numerous children who reached maturity and said, “Why should I believe this Church stuff, when there is much more fun available elsewhere?”

Continuing to teach the same things as in years past may be a good thing (truth does not change), but if our methods do not take into consideration the radical changes in society and the means of temptation, then we will steadily become less effective in our catechetical efforts. Parents are supposed to be the “first teachers” and that means that they are supposed to guard against any bad “second teachers” for their children. What other ideas are the children being taught that contradict the faith of our fathers? How do we pass on the truths of our Anglican patrimony that Anglicanorum Coetibus commissions us to do? It cannot be just a matter of transmitting information, we must go deeper than that.

We must consider the broader context of a world that is against us, and the evil one who wants us to fail. We must realize that catechesis happens at Church, at school, and at home; but it also happens in the music we listen to, the shows we watch, and web pages we visit and the character of any teachers that we hire to educate our children. Parents, protect your children’s hearts and minds, for they are the ones who will take this patrimony and hand it on when we have “gone to be with the Lord.”

3 thoughts on “Good and Bad Catechesis

  1. I rather think that catechetical failure is not a novelty, at least in the Catholic Church, but rather something that began in the fourth century. When Constantine ostensibly “became a Christian,” he actually enrolled in the catechumenate and began a process of formation leading eventually to his baptism — which finally occurred when he was on his death bed. Suddenly everyone in the Roman government had to be a Christian, at least officially, so many officials of the Roman Empire — and even soldiers — did likewise. Ah, yes… the magisterium responded to this by emphasizing the dogma of original sin… so people started getting baptized, but with no real conversion having taken place, creating a situation that was even worse and that endures unto the current day. I doubt that much of this changed in the Anglican realm: there were always some people who found authentic faith in spite of the culture, but they were a minority in most places.

    What has changed in the past fifty years, though, is that many young people have moved away from the Catholic enclaves where they faced social and familial pressure to pay lip service to the faith and to go through the motions: attending a college or university that was distant from the family home or service in the armed forces brought them to locations where there was no external pressure to conform to the hollow practices of their childhood. In many cases, such individuals married and found employment near their colleges or universities or near their last duty stations, where they were no longer under their parents’ watchful eyes, and went through the motions of the faith only when visiting their families or origin or when their parents came to visit. They saw to it that their children were baptized, made first communion and confirmation, and married in the church only because it seemed easier to do so than to explain the failure to do so to their families. Nevertheless, their counterexample taught their children profoundly that the faith was not important, with a prevailing attitude of “you have to do it, but don’t take what they teach you seriously” — with the consequence that the next generation did not even see the need to pay lip service to the faith, but at least this is honest!

    Methinks that the church will be much stronger, albeit much smaller, without the baptized unbelievers, a chain being only as strong as its weakest link. And we now have fruitful soil for real evangelism. It’s time to discard the minimalist approach of the “precepts of the church” and to replace it with a standard of total commitment of one’s life and one’s very being to a relationship of love with our risen Lord.



    • While I find the thesis advanced here sadly plausible, this – ” Suddenly everyone in the Roman government had to be a Christian, at least officially” – is a bit of an exaggeration. Christianity became legal in 313, with the Edict of Milan; Constantine was baptized on his deathbed in 337 – but until Theodosius issued the “Edict of Thessalonica,” making Catholic Christianity the official religion of the Empire, in 380, the “pagan establishment” remained intact, with temples, priesthoods, religious brotherhoods, public holidays, etc., all supported, and in many cases financed, by the government. Theodosius’ co-emperor, Gratian, renounced the pagan title of “pontifex maximus” in 383, and Theodosius followed (it was not adopted formally by the papacy until 1464). In his last years, 389-395, Theodosius began to repress paganism, abolishing pagan holidays, removing funding from pagan rites and religious institutions, and authorizing the shutting of pagan temples, at least in Rome and Egypt. So it was all a slow, not a sudden, process.

      Interested readers may wish to listen to this January 2013 lecture by Professor Peter Brown of Princeton, which illustrates how inconceivable it was to Christians, even in the time of Constantine, that their religion might ever become the established religion of the Empire:


  2. What might shed light on the issue of effective and ineffective catechesis is James Fowler’s concept of Stages of Faith. To cut to the chase (before I ramble, as usual), if Fowler is correct, catechesis should not be regarded as basically a one-time event, i.e., catechetical instruction when a child reaches the age of reason. Sitting down with one’s eight-year-old and the catechism is a good beginning, but it’s only the beginning. A catechesis that conveys the idea that everything presented to a child will look and sound exactly the same all through adolescence and adulthood would be problematic, in my opinion. As Newman’s theory of the development of doctrine applies to the Church’s development of doctrine, it can also apply analogously to an individual’s developing understanding of doctrine. My guess is that as children enter adolescence, they might be reassured to know that it’s normal that their faith formations will not always make sense as they seem to have done thus far and that they will even crack a bit here and there.

    Fowler’s work is controversial. I join some of his critics in questioning how scientific his data can claim to be and whether his definitions are too broad to be serviceable in specific religious and/or ideological contexts. For example, his “universalizing faith” stage could easily go in the direction of all-out syncretism. But it can also go in the direction that seems to have been expressed by some of the most brilliant and perceptive minds of Christianity who regard their own pellucid writings as nothing more than straw (St. Thomas Aquinas) or as mere shadows and symbols (Bd. John Henry Newman).

    Caveats to Fowler’s basic work noted, I attach an attempt at a summary of his stages of faith below.

    A pitfall one can fall into if reading Fowler’s work superficially is to regard his language of childhood, adolescent, and adult stages of faith as somehow tracking emotional, psychological, and intellectual development. But if I understand his thesis correctly, well-educated and emotionally mature adults can be at adolescent stages of faith and vice versa. Indeed, Fowler’s research suggests most of the adult population does not progress beyond an adolescent stage of faith. (I suspect this has always been the case even when western culture was considered to be pervasively Christian.) If true, this means the Ph.D. sitting in the next pew might still be at the “synthetic-conventional faith” stage while the teenager at the end of the pew in the back of church might be at the “conjunctive faith” stage. So too, one’s children might be further along than oneself. This seems to have been extraordinarily so with St. Bernadette Soubirous and her parents, for example. Though M. et Mme. Soubirous no doubt had their share of challenges, how to catechize Bernadette, once she experienced the apparitions, was apparently not one of them.

    Br. John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.

    • Primal Faith :: “Earliest faith is what enables us to undergo these separations [from parents] without undue anxiety or fear of loss of self. Primal faith forms before there is language. It forms the basic rituals of care and interchange and mutuality. And, although it does not determine the course of our later faith, it lays the foundation on which later faith will build or that will have to be rebuilt in later faith” (p. 103).
    • Intuitive-Projective Faith :: “The next stage of faith emerges in early childhood with the acquisition of language. Here imagination, stimulated by stories, gestures, and symbols and not yet controlled by logical thinking, combines with perception and feelings to create long-lasting faith images … Representations of God take conscious form in this period and draw, for good or ill, on children’s experiences of their parents or other adults to whom they are emotionally attached in the first years of life … When conversion experiences occur at later stages in ones’ life, the images formed in this stage have to be reworked in some important ways.” (p. 103)
    • Mythic-Literal Faith (coincides with Piaget’s “concrete operational thinking”) :: Here concrete operational thinking—the developing ability to think logically—emerges to help us order the world with categories of causality, space, time and number. We can now sort out the real from the make-believe, the actual from fantasy. We can enter into the perspectives of others, and we become capable of capturing life and meanings in narrative and stories. (p. 105)
    • Synthetic-Conventional Faith (coincides with Piaget’s “formal operational thinking”) :: “The next stage characteristically begins to take form in early adolescence. The emergence of formal operational thinking [the ability to think abstractly] opens the way for reliance upon abstract ideas and concepts for making sense of one’s world. The person can now reflect upon past experience and search them for meaning and pattern. At the same time, concerns about one’s personal future—one’s identity, one’s work, career, or vocation—and one’s personal relationships become important” (p. 107). Keep this in mind: During the Mythic-Literal stage a child understands concrete concepts—things she/he can see or touch such as a policeman, lawyer or pastor—but is unable to grasp abstract concepts (things you envision in your mind) such as law enforcement, law or theology (and yes, that includes God too). Abstract thinking emerges in the Synthetic-Conventional stage. It’s also important to know that everyone proceeds from stage-to-stage at her/his own pace. In fact, some people never develop the ability to think abstractly at no fault of their own.
    • Individuative-Reflective Faith :: “In this next stage two important movements have to occur. One the one hand, to move into the Individuative-Reflective stage, we have to question, examine, and reclaim the values and beliefs that we have formed to that point in our lives. They must become explicit commitments rather than tacit commitments. “Tacit” here means unconsidered, unexamined, uncritically approved. “Explicit” means consciously chosen and critically supported commitments … In the other move that this stage requires one has to claim what I call an ‘executive ego.’ In the previous stage … one could say that a person’s identity is largely shaped by her or his roles and relationships … In moving to the Individuative-Reflective stage, one has to face and answer such questions as, Who am I when I’m not defined by being my parents’ son or daughter? Who am I when I’m not defined by being so-and-so’s spouse? Who am I when I’m not defined by the work I do? Who is the ‘I’ that has those roles and relations but is not fully expressed by any one of them?” (pp. 109)
    • Conjunctive Faith :: “At midlife we frequently see the emergence of the stage we call Conjunctive Faith. This stage involves the embrace and integration of opposites and polarities in one’s life. It means realizing in one’s late thirties, forties, or beyond that one is both young and old, and that youth and age are held together in the same life … It means coming to terms with the fact that we are both constructive people and, inadvertently destructive people. Paul captured this in Romans 7 when he said, “For I do not the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do …Who will rescue me from this body of death?’” (19, 24 NRSV; p. 111)
    • Universalizing Faith :: “Beyond paradox and polarities, persons in the Universalizing Faith stage are grounded in a oneness with the power of being or God. Their visions and commitments seem to free them for a passionate yet detached spending of the self in love. Such persons are devoted to overcoming division, oppression, and violence, and live in effective anticipatory response to an inbreaking commonwealth of love and justice, the reality of an inbreaking kingdom of God.” (P. 113). Not everyone reaches this stage. According to Fowler, this stage includes the Mother Theresas, the Martin Luther King, Jrs. and those whose faith is integrated into an unswerving commitment and devotion that cannot be hindered or quenched.


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