Magazine article Commonweal

Ignorant Catholics: The Alarming Void in Religious Education

Magazine article Commonweal

Ignorant Catholics: The Alarming Void in Religious Education

Article excerpt

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. …

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