“To Hell with Hell!”: The Spiritual Dumbing Down of the Generations

The Affective Shift

When Rome recently asked for churches to again start the “Forty Hours” devotion, I found myself asking people exactly what that entailed. So I struggle even in adulthood, reaching back like an orphaned child searching for her parental roots. At one time in history, the roots of traditional Catholic prayers and truths might have been easy to find. But that is no longer true. Sadly, one can no longer simply walk into any Catholic church and find all those universal things that are part of true Catholicism.

The loss of authentic truth is also reflected in some academic institutions. In the book Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves but Can’t Read, Write or Add, Charles J. Sykes discusses the shift in teaching over recent years to a focus on feelings and attitudes:

Even as evidence mounts that American students are lacking in basic academic skills such as writing, reading and mathematics, schools are increasingly emphasizing so-called “affective” learning that deals with the feelings, attitudes, and beliefs of the students, rather than addressing what they know or can do. (p. 10)

The Pertinent Questions

Similar to the “affective” shift in academia, one might note a parallel shift that occurred in Catholic religious education. Such a shift took children away from learning standard Catholic prayers and catechism questions, and moved them toward a “soft” mentality about God. Lacking balance, this shift included a heavy focus on heaven, and a suspicious omission of hell. It is a shift designed to have children feeling very good about themselves; a shift that leaves great uncertainty that these children who we want to feel so good about themselves understand even the basics of Catholic catechetical teaching. Try asking Catholic children to answer the question of why God made them. Ask them if they can name the four reasons we pray (to adore God, to thank God, to tell Him we are sorry and to ask for graces or blessings). See if they can define the three theological virtues, the four cardinal virtues, the seven deadly sins or the meaning of a sacrament. (Catholic homeschooling religious instruction typically includes this formation, so questioning a homeschooler does not count.)

As I continue the struggle to learn what our faith really teaches, and what Catholic prayer means, I try to keep the connection alive for our children. I don’t want them one day to be forced to struggle as I have to learn the truth of all that it means to be Catholic. But even that is hard. For example, many children are consistently taught post-1960 Acts of Contrition. The problem with these prayers is that all but the original Act of Contrition excludes “the pains of hell.” If children do not learn the full Act of Contrition, including “the pains of hell,” for their first penance, then when will they learn it? Is there any connection between the “pains of hell” being purged from the modern-day Act of Contrition prayers, from Sunday homilies, and from many catechism books, and the fact that so many children nonchalantly wander off into mortal sin, acting as though heaven was real place, but hell was not?

It is as if someone with too much time on his hands, and not sure which battle to fight, raised a booming voice, flicked a mighty switch and said “To hell with hell.” In so doing the lights were turned off and the rooms were left dark. Why would the words the “pains of hell” be removed from the Act of Contrition? Father Richard Rego, Pastor at Immaculate Conception Church in Ajo, Arizona, offers his insights. “When the Act of Contrition was revised some years ago, it was part of an effort by many to see change as a separation from the past. The thinking was that anything that smacked of the past was not good. The exclusion of “the pains of hell” has been, in effect, very detrimental. It has fed the mentality that heaven is automatic. Therefore sin, which is now called ‘inappropriate behavior,’ is not so bad….”

Up, Up and Away

I visited a Catholic school kindergarten class a while ago, and the experience was so odd that it hasn’t left my mind. On this particular day they had scheduled a special part of the agenda for “children’s prayer.” Being somewhat of a sap for Catholic school kindergarteners who pray, I envisioned their sweetly bowed heads as they reverently recited the rosary, or perhaps a decade of it, before a crucifix and a statue of Our Lady. In my mind I could see the cute little boys with the fresh hair cuts and neat ties, and the sweet little girls with white polo shirts, and Catholic school jumpers. I thought perhaps the children might stand from their seats for the prayers, or perhaps even kneel for parts of it. I was in for a shock.

There were no instructions to stand, kneel or fold their hands. The prayer did not start, as traditional Catholic payers do: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy spirit.” Instead the children sat and were told to “close their eyes.” Things spiraled down from there. The teacher then read a reading that went something like this: “Now children, pretend that you are going up in a hot air balloon. There you go, higher and higher, you feel yourself floating higher. Now you are floating over your back yard. Now you are floating over your neighbor’s back yard, and there you see Jesus….” Don’t get me wrong. I am all for children being able to go directly to Jesus to talk to Him. But this is not what happened here. This was something of a meditation; perhaps it was a New Age meditation at that. How strange to see Catholic children pretending to be in hot air balloons, looking down, rather than looking up at Christ on the crucifix when they “prayed.” Rosaries have protected families and ended wars. When one day crosses come into the lives of these children, will they be saved by a ride in a hot air balloon?

“My people perish for want of knowledge,” says Hosea 4:6. Knowledge is necessary to keep us on the path to heaven and off the path to hell. Knowing that, one might think it of the utmost importance to arm our children from a young age with certain fundamental truths. For all the “progress” and novelty we have seen in recent years, has there ever been more of a need to return to the basics? While we have bent over backwards to assure children of God's love, isn’t it time to ensure that they understand what is authentically Catholic? The Church has provided so many means for us to receive graces. Is any one of us not in need of more grace? Isn’t there a need to bring back novenas, May crownings, benediction, statues of saints, Gregorian chant, Stations of the Cross, rosaries, scapulars, confession, first Friday and first Saturday devotions, catechism memorization and Eucharistic adoration? Can’t we take the interior steps toward prayer prescribed by the Catechism and teach them to our children? And finally, since “the pains of hell” are real, shouldn’t we face that truth and, with our children, return to the hell-inclusive act of contrition which reminds us of that?


O my God,

I am heartily sorry for

having offended Thee,

and I detest all my sins,

because I dread the loss of heaven,

and the pains of hell;

but most of all because

they offend Thee, my God,

Who are all good and

deserving of all my love.

I firmly resolve,

with the help of Thy grace,

to confess my sins,

to do penance,

and to amend my life.


And while we are at it:

Why did God make us?

God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven.

What are the seven deadly sins?

The seven deadly sins are pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth.

What are the three theological virtues?

The three theological virtues are faith, hope and charity.

What are the four cardinal virtues?

The four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude

What is a sacrament?

A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.

© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange

Mary Anne Moresco writes from Howell, New Jersey.

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