The American Cultural Context for Adolescent Catechesis

By Dinges, William D. | Momentum, February/March 2007 | Go to article overview

The American Cultural Context for Adolescent Catechesis

Dinges, William D., Momentum

This is the sixth article in a series on adolescent catechesis sponsored by the Partnership for Adolescent Catechesis, a collaborative effort by the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry (NFCYM), the National Conference of Catechetical Leadership (NCCL) and the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) with support from the United States Conference Catholic bishops (USCCB), to enhance the quality of adolescent catechesis in parishes and schools.

In the reflection that follows, I discuss aspects of the cultural context in which catechesis occurs among young American Catholics. I start with the common-sense observation that handing on the faith never occurs in a vacuum. Aside from individual, life cycle and interpersonal family dynamics, a complex array of social, cultural and historical factors-each with its own mechanisms and patterns-fosters and impedes this process.

American Cultural Context

Young people today-and at an ever-younger age-are exposed to cultural forces with significant implications for faith development. These forces include a pervasive commercialism, the blandishments of mass marketing and a pop culture milieu saturated with violence and hyper-sexuality. They also include increasing age and generational segregation along with transformations in how we define "family."

There is also the communications revolution globalized through the Internet. This digital revolution dramatically facilitates networking and the ability to access and convey information. Through chat rooms, weblogs,, spam and games, it influences the computer-savvy young and competes aggressively for their attention.

In addition to these influences, Catholicism in America continues to be transformed by a new church and world relationship stemming from Vatican II and by the demise of the ethnic Catholic subcultures that long carried Catholic identity. ("New wave" Hispanic and Asian Catholic immigrants are obvious exceptions to these trends). The waning of anti-Catholicism, long-term alterations in the Catholic class structure and growing evangelical influences on Catholics are also elements of the wider cultural gestalt impacting the task of catechesis.

While many aspects of the contemporary religious gestalt are important, three stand out: religious diversity, the commodification of religion and the enduring influence of American individualism.

Religious Diversity

No society is as religiously diverse as the United States. Every major world religion can be found in America today. Religious diversity not only means the presence of world religions, but differences within them, an array of sects and cults and the spread of new and increasingly unconventional forms of individual spirituality.

One view sees religious diversity in negative terms, especially where this diversity promotes an attitude of religious pluralism that is perceived as corrosive of religious certitudes. Especially in a political environment that separates church and state, religious pluralism relativizes all religious beliefs, weakens claims to uniqueness and promotes the privatization of religion and a deeper cultural relativism encapsulated in the "I-have-my-truth-you-have-your-truth" view of reality.1

This perception of the relativizing impact of religious pluralism stems from a growing awareness of historical contingency and of the socially constructed nature of all human knowledge. It also derives from contradictions and logical falsifications posed by competing religious claims. It is promoted by a postmodern cultural climate in which civility and the aversion to being perceived as intolerant or judgmental temper assertive or absolute claims on the part of many individuals.

Collaterally, and especially within the parameters of Christianity in America, religious diversity also gives expression to a denominational sensibility. This, too, has important consequences with regard to relativism, even where denominational loyalty has grown weaker, and where liberal or conservative value orientations often are stronger predictors of belief and behavior than denominational identity per se. …

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