In Faith, Parents Are the Best Teachers

Over at Egregious Twaddle,  Joanne McPortland has a provocative post about What’s Really Wrong with Catholic Religious Education?  You should go read it.

Her argument is essentially that the academic model of the religious education of children is a completely wrongheaded approach that should be scrapped forthwith.  But really, you should go read what she says for yourself.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Back now?  OK.  Let’s chat.

My first reaction to Joanne’s piece was, “That’s not right!  You can’t baptize babies and then not teach children to appreciate the gift they’ve been given!  Of course we need religious education for kids.”  But see, that’s not what she’s saying (and I did confirm this with her directly). Her point isn’t that kids shouldn’t be catechized. It’s more that the Church shouldn’t be doing it.  The religious education (and formation) of children is the job of their well-formed parents.  It is the process by which children are discipled in the faith by their faithful mom and dad.  What’s that you say?  Parents aren’t well-formed?  Exactly.

And that’s the problem.  The Catholic Church is trying to make up for parents’ lousy faith-formation by teaching children the faith in the parent’s stead.  But there are several problems with this.

1.  Church-Based Religious Ed.  Fills Head with Facts, Not Hearts with Love.

The first problem with Church-based catechesis is that the Church, or more specifically, a parish school–or worse, CCD program (or whatever they call it now)–simply can’t create the kind of loving atmosphere that disciples a child’s heart and leads him or her to love Christ and his Church.  All it can do is (a) fill the kids head with faith-facts or (b) recognize that facts aren’t enough, so go in the other direction and produce a lot of tree-hugging, “you are special” twaddle that lacks authenticity or credibility much less content.

If it is true that education is not so much the filling of a bucket as it is the lighting of a fire, so much moreso is religious education.  Research actually convincingly demonstrates that religious education and formation of anyone–especially children–can only  be effectively done in the context of a loving, discipleship relationship.  It’s interesting that Joanne would have picked this past weekend to write her post, because this past weekend, the NYTimes did an article about a new book, Families and Faith:  How Religion is Passed Down Across Generation by USC Social Work Professor, Dr. Vern Bengtson.  The entire article is worth a read, but here is the piece that is most relevant to our reflection.

As to why some children follow their parents, spiritually speaking, Professor Bengtson’s research confirmed some common-sense assumptions. For example, it helps if parents model religiosity: if you talk about church but never go, children sense hypocrisy. And intermarriage doesn’t help. If you’re Jewish (or Mormon, Catholic, etc.), and want your child to share your religion, it helps to marry someone of the same faith.

But Professor Bengtson’s major conclusion is that family bonds matter. Displays of parental piety, like “teaching the right beliefs and practices” and “keeping strictly to the law,” can be for naught if the children don’t feel close to the parents. “Without emotional bonding,” these other factors are “not sufficient for transmission,” he writes.  

(Incidentally, the article goes on to say that an emotional bond with a religiously involved FATHER is the. single. most. important. factor. in transmission of religious faith to the next generation–but that’s another blog post entirely).

The bottom line is that any institution, including church institutions, can’t bond with anyone and if bonding is essential for faith transmission to children–which it is–then Church-based catechesis is doomed to fail because if can’t provide the most important element of faith transmission; that is, the emotional bond that serves as the heart of the faith that beats behind the facts of the faith.

2. Church-Based Religious Ed. Can’t Stick.

In addition to the fact that an institution can’t provide bonding, even if the Church offers the best catechesis possible in the most supportive environment imaginable, it is still doomed to fail because catechizing children and then sending them home to poorly formed parents is the exact definition of sowing seeds in rocky soil–and Jesus had something to say about that.   It is extraordinarily difficult for a child to learn to cherish and develop what his own parents don’t appreciate, validate or practice themselves.  If you want a disturbing illustration of how true this really is, check outThe Crescat’s powerful post.  Terrifying!

3.  Church-Based Ed. of Children is (potentially) Against Church Teaching (sort of).

In Gravissimum Educationem, Pope Paul VI says,

Since parents have given children their life, they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators.(11) This role in education is so important that only with difficulty can it be supplied where it is lacking.

Catch that?  Parents are primary and principal educators of their children in the faith.  That’s not to say that the Church doesn’t have an important role to play in religious education.  It absolutely does!  But it does an injustice–and in fact, defies its own teaching–if it in practice (if not in intention) ends up communicating to parents, “You don’t have to educate and form your kids in the faith!  That’s what religious ed. is for!”  That message–albeit unintentional– is not only wrong-headed, it is contrary to the Church’s explicit teaching about the nature of religious education.  Again, no one is suggesting the Church means to do this in its current approach to the religious education of children but in counseling there is a saying that, “the meaning of the message is the response you get.”   That is, it doesn’t matter what the intention is, if parents respond to the Church’s effort as if it is saying that parents don’t have to educate and form their kids in the faith because the Church will, then that’s as good as the Church actually saying it.  Obviously that is a serious problem.

4.  Knowing isn’t the Same As KNOWING

The fourth problem with the Church-based approach to the religious education of children is that this approach fails to consider the Christian context of knowing.  For the Christian, “knowing” doesn’t mean head knowledge.  It means “having a transformative encounter with.” Institutional religious education is not giving children an encounter with God that truly prepares them for receiving Jesus in the Eucharist or any of the sacraments. The current approach to catechesis is to teach kids fun facts (or, really, not-so-fun facts) about the faith and then “reward” their time in class with a pretty dress and a Jesus-cookie.  We have to do better. All we’re doing now is inoculating most kids against a real encounter with Jesus. The Church can’t catechize kids. Only parents can because faith is relational and kids have a relationship with the parents, not the church. Kids “catch” their relationship with the church from their parents.

So What Do We Do?

How do you fix the problem?  I believe that the short answer is that we need to do as Joanne at Egregious Twaddle suggests.  We need to stop focusing 99.9% of our effort on educating children–not because they don’t deserve a religious education, but because this approach to religious education doesn’t work.  In fact, in most cases it is an anti-education.  It is a faith inoculation.  Instead we need to make intentional disciples out of parents so that they can form their own children.  How do we do that? I’m sure there are lots of ways, and I don’t have a definitive answer to this question.  But the first step is to scale back on our effort to keep doing what doesn’t work (church-based religious ed of children) so that we can put our energy, thought, and effort into adult education and formation–almost any form of which would work infinitely better than what we’re doing.

For more information on raising faithful kids, check out the chapter titled SOUL FOOD in Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.

Dr. Gregory Popcak


Dr. Gregory Popcak is the Executive Director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to tough marriage, family, and personal problems.

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  • S.

    The Institute for Catholic Culture does a great job at adult faith formation, and all their lectures are free on the internet> Check them out here:

  • Becky

    I keep thinking that Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is the solution to a lot of these problems. It is a form of catechesis that touches the heart of the child, instead of simply filling his head with facts. But it is not as easy a form of catechesis to institute as teaching by textbook is. CGS catechists have to undergo almost 100 hours of training to be certified, and they have to assemble an Atrium, a collection of hands-on materials that allow children to learn about the faith. Catholic parents should also choose an Atrium carefully, because a lot of the people involved in CGS have, I would say, an overly ecumenical spirit. But if you are blessed to find a sound Atrium, as I have been for my children, I think there is no better way to establish a secure faith foundation for them. As one parent in the same Atrium put it, “It’s easy to walk away from an institution. It’s hard to walk away from a relationship.” CGS is all about establishing a relationship with Jesus, through the Church, that a child will be less likely to walk away from.

  • JMC

    “(Incidentally, the article goes on to say that an emotional bond with a religiously involved FATHER is the. single. most. important. factor. in transmission of religious faith to the next generation–but that’s another blog post entirely).”
    I could not agree more. My mother was the visibly religious one in our family; she was the one who kept a shrine, complete with candle burning 24/7 except when we weren’t home; she was the one who insisted on – and led – family Rosaries. But there was a very large downside there: She was mentally unstable and frequently abusive, to the point that each of us five kids, by the time we were of middle-school age, deliberately “tuned her out,” as the saying goes. The balance was my father, who rarely spoke a word about his faith, and most times wouldn’t even walk into the church until he was sure the sermon was over. There was a dual reason for that: One was because, after going to grade school and high school taught by priests, he said he’d had enough sermonizing to last him the rest of his life; the other was that, even in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was little of substance being said at the pulpit, at least in our parish. On the other hand, everything he did in his life reflected his faith. The occasional offhand comment pointing out some religious aspect (or lack thereof) in a movie or TV show, the sacrifices he made, the suffering he silently endured, even making jokes about it, all made a very profound and lasting impression on all of us. And the final proof was in his death. The look on his face had us all weeping with joy instead of grief; there was no doubt at all in our minds that the man had gone straight to Heaven.
    Contrast this with the lives of some of my friends, coming from homes where both parents worked, mostly because the families were immigrants who were supporting not only themselves, but also relatives in the old country. Those kids either roamed the streets unsupervised, or were raised by a succession of babysitters in an era when daycare centers didn’t yet exist. As small children, we were often jealous of their freedom, but as we got older, we saw how, in reality, we had it better, family dysfunctions and all.
    The point here is, even in her instability, my mother had many consistent good qualities, and when we got past completely tuning her out, we learned to sift the things we learned from her. Most of what she did wrong was directly attributable to mental illness, because of which, by definition, she was not wholly culpable. The bonds may have been weak, but the examples were consistent.
    I’m not saying a lot of this as clearly as I should; I just can’t find the words to express most of it. But the gist of it all is, even when the family bonds are imperfect, parental example is the biggest and most important role model any of us will ever have.

  • JMC

    Thank you for that link, S. I’ve just added it to my bookmarks, and anticipate many hours perusing it.

  • Mary

    I couldn’t agree more! I just wanted to suggest going to the website for the national organization for the catechesis for more information: My children are in a wonderful atrium and just love it. There are really only two sources for everything they teach scripture, given directly from the bible not rephrased except in very minor ways, and the liturgy itself. The the method focuses on teaching children to read the language of signs in the liturgy, such as the various gestures of the mass, and the signs in the scriptures, parables, etc., but as not in an instructional way, but rather as one child of God listening to his words with another and wondering at his goodness to us and our right response to his gifts. The materials are wonderful for kids since they are so tactile, but the heart of the method is to allow the Holy Spirit to be the teacher, while the catechist is the “matchmaker.” It can’t replace the parents, whose role as this article points out is crucial to faith formation, but I do think that the atrium can bring children into a relationship with God to some extent even when parents are failing in their duty as the first teachers of their children.

  • catholicexchange

    I hear you. My parents were not Catholic, but good and faithful folks who did their best and instilled in me a love of Scriptures and prayer.

    What probably really set in with me, and one of the major reasons I came to the faith, is that my grandmother took me to Mass and my aunt sent me books and even my first rosary. While reading and learning was helpful, I still remember the first time I attended Mass as an adult and how familiar everything was. Psychologists can better explain this, but my grandma’s example and the way her faith kept her sane probably sunk in on a subconscious level. I can never be thankful enough!


    Michael Lichens