Magazine article Commonweal

Teaching Catholicism: Downs & Ups over Four Decades

Magazine article Commonweal

Teaching Catholicism: Downs & Ups over Four Decades

Article excerpt

Things are different now. For forty years I have been a New York priest teaching the Catholic faith in two diocesan high schools and as an adjunct professor in several colleges and graduate schools. This has entailed living with significant and continuing change: social, ecclesial, pedagogic. Not all the change has been easy, pleasant, or even healthy; some has been near-disastrous. In my experience, as will be seen, current trends are hopeful.

In September 1959, I was assigned to teach in what was then the largest Catholic boys' high school in the Archdiocese of New York. The faculty - forty diocesan priests, fifty religious brothers, and three laymen - taught a student body of 2,200, drawn mostly from lower middle-class Irish and Italian families in the South Bronx. Academically it was a fine school. More than 90 percent of its graduates went to college, many with scholarships. Most of the priests on the faculty had or were working toward advanced degrees.

Religion was no minor subject in that era. Ponderous textbooks were in use in all four years. Topics were formidable: God's existence, the Trinity, creation, the Incarnation, the church, the sacraments (especially the Eucharist), and morality. The teaching of Catholic morality was structured around the Ten Commandments but was defended by natural law arguments, particularly in the field of sexuality. Scripture was used sparingly, often only to provide "proof texts" bolstering the rational argumentation and the magisterial teachings. This traditional approach to religious education was fortified by an extensive program of spiritual activities. The school provided opportunities for daily Mass and frequent confession; weekly Benediction and frequent Marian services were well attended; every year during Holy Week the students took part in a three-day silent retreat. No doubt some of the religious instruction was arid, and some of the retreat sermons were full of hellfire and brimstone. But today most of the school's graduates remain grateful for the quality of the education and religious training they received.

Changes began slowly in the 1960s, gained momentum in the '70s. Many of them were societal and/or economic, but inevitably affected the school's atmosphere and its approach to education, including religious studies. By 1970 the flight to the suburbs, rises in tuition, the opening of other Catholic high schools, and the physical decay of the South Bronx had reduced the enrollment from 2,200 to around 1,200. Ethnic changes in the community the school serves and problems in urban public schools brought increasing numbers of inner-city Latino and black students to the school. Many were non-Catholic and even more from poor, one-parent households. A significant number had language problems, weak academic backgrounds, poor self-discipline, and minimal instruction in religion. Meantime, the collapse of vocations plus leakage from religious orders and the diocesan priesthood reduced the number of teaching brothers to seven and teaching priests to fifteen. Male lay teachers made up the majority of faculty. Most were dedicated and effective; yet the changes in faculty, along with the increased number of non-Catholic students, weakened the once-pervasive Catholic identity of the school.

These decades were times of societal turmoil. The civil rights movement, the Vietnam War protests, major political scandals - all these came at the same time as the Second Vatican Council. Social unrest and Catholic reform fed each other and in a way lived off each other. Living in the midst of fundamental social and cultural change, the American church was prodded from within to bring itself up to date.

Not all the results were happy ones. Various programs introduced to "update" every level of religious education in response to Vatican II and to the challenges of the times led to confusion in religious studies. Many were extremely weak in intellectual content; some were introduced to support some specific social, religious, or political agenda. …

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