They Don’t Know Anything!

One quiet evening, I decided to call my brother to ask how his new teaching position as a religion teacher was going. His first position took him to an all-boy’s Catholic high school in Southern California. After an initial pause he emphatically stated; “They don’t know anything!” I asked him to clarify his statement. He told me that very few of his students had a grasp of Church teaching. However, a larger segment did not understand “the Story” i.e. Salvation History. As my brother began to ask for my assistance on how to effectively teach the faith to freshmen a sudden pause came over him and then, a volcanic eruption of emotion came spewing out of his mouth. Teaching teenagers can do this regardless of the subject matter taught. My brother quickly came to the realization that the majority of his students lacked significant doctrinal formation.

Understanding Doctrinal Methodology

Teaching Catholic doctrine to teenagers may appear like trying to find water in the Mojave Desert. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. This backdrop brings me back to my brothers’ original point, “They don’t know anything!” If a student is struggling to capture the essence of Church teaching at the freshmen level, what happened during their primary years of religious education formation? Was there any attempt toward some form of catechetical instruction? At the sake of sounding somewhat cynical to these questions, many will probably say no. Was there a faithful curriculum that was followed? Was the content and methodology sound? Do Catholic schools teach the faith effectively? The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides a framework for doctrinal instruction. “Catechesis is an education in the faith of children, young people . . . which includes especially the teaching of Christian doctrine imparted, generally speaking, in an organic and systematic way, with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life” (CCC 5).

The Art of Catechesis

Pope John Paul II reminded us in his Apostolic Exhortation, Catechesi Tradendae that the definitive aim of all catechetical instruction rests in forming an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ (CT 5). The term catechesis means to re-echo. In essence, Catholic schools are directed to form the heart and mind of the child to Christ. Many people will generally argue Catholic schools have failed in this regard over the past 40 years. While this position may have its limits, examples of a discontinuity of the faith are evident. For example, an emphasis on social justice themes at times provided a student with the only means of doctrinal formation and instruction. Thus, exclusion of key doctrinal teachings e.g. sin, contraception, the Resurrection, the true presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist and so on rarely appeared in classroom instruction or religious education textbooks. Catechetical texts from the 1980’s, for example, reflected a theme of love without necessarily directing this love towards God. The word, “happy” was more evident than the term “sacrifice.” These themes reflected an experiential approach to catechetical formation that rested on emotion, obscure symbols in a non-sacramental form, liturgical experimentation involving dancing, secular music, misinterpretation of the Gospel within the liturgy and so on. Re-echoing God’s Word through sacred scripture evolved into a paraphrasing of the Gospel. This approach mined the authentic Word of God and its’ true hermeneutic.

Interesting Trends

Over the years I have seen the implementation of experiential based catechetical instruction where the emphasis is horizontal rather than vertical. In other words, instruction was based on the realization of man apart from God and not of God. Emphasis in most catechetical schools of thought rested on the love of God without identifying the truth or origin of that love. The most devastating development of this failure is the lack of doctrinal formation centered on Jesus Christ.

In 1997, a USCCB report was issued by Archbishop Daniel Buechlein OSB of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis who headed the USCCB Ad-Hoc Committee to oversee the use of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in catechetical texts. His committee found several troubling symptoms at the time of the report of woeful catechetical instructional materials. The list systematically revealed an obscurity in teaching on the Blessed Trinity, Jesus Christ as the centrality of Salvation history and so on. Since the publication of this report, extensive work has been done in the implementation of the Catechism and the conformity of texts. The committee has issued an approved conformity lists of texts that reference the Catechism. However, the committee does not systematically gauge sound pedagogy or methodology i.e. measurement of effective doctrinal instruction of the texts that are presented to the committee.

The Catholic School Dilemma

My brothers’ experience as mentioned in the beginning is not to far off from many Catholic school institutions in the United States. The question(s) of fidelity and sound doctrinal formation has been the subject of debate for many in Catholic education. With the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the development of the Ad-Hoc Committee to over-see the use of the Catechism in Catechetical texts, doctrinal content has improved somewhat. However, there is still much work to be done in catechesis with respect to methodology, precise doctrinal instruction and the catechetical training of teachers in the faith. A wealth of resources has come to the forefront in the field of catechesis i.e. The General Director for Catechesis , National Adult Catechism , and most important, the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

And this leads to my underlying point. Do Catholic schools teach the faith? I should qualify this question by emphasizing “fidelity” in teaching the faith. Over the last decade I have encountered families tell me one of the main reasons they decide to send their children to a Catholic school is the faith. At the same time, families have told me the reason why they leave a Catholic school is because of the lack of faith and sound Church teaching throughout.

The erosion of sound catechesis had taken a heightened position in the last 30 years. The Baltimore Catechism became taboo. The mass exodus of religious and priests from our Catholic schools, the shedding of an authentic faith for an experiential exercise in something other than the blessed Trinity became all too commonplace. Gone was the understanding and memorization of scripture. The revelation of Christ as the Son of God was a mere historical note for all to read but not to be understood. As many parents saw this erosion, the question was naturally asked; is it worth sending my child to Catholic school?

Have Catholic school retained a faithful Catholic identity? In many respects, Catholic identity has been blurred in our schools. It has become a token only when needed for a special occasion i.e. monthly mass, Advent penance service, May Crowning, etc. Please, do not get me wrong. The examples I just provided are sound expositions of the faith aimed at fostering a conversion of the heart to Christ. The problem is that these events are too few, far, and between to adequately maintain a consistent Catholic formation process in our schools. The Catholic faith is more than just a subject to be taught and learned. It must be lived and witnessed by all. Because of the high percentages of laity in Catholic school across the country, emphasis on catechetical formation is a must. I firmly believe that the two-headed monster that has blurred our Catholic schools of a rich vibrant faith is the lack of catechetical formation of our teaching staffs and the breakdown of the family unit.

The Aim of Teaching Religion

Frank Sheed, in my opinion, one the great catechists, theologians, and apologists of the 20th century properly emphasizes correct catechetical instruction in his book; “Are We Really Teaching Religion.” He states, “the aim of teaching religion in Catholic schools, that we are agreed on something like this: that the indispensable minimum is that Catholics coming out of our schools should emerge with a tremendous devotion to Christ, Our Lord, with an awareness of Him, a considerable knowledge of His life and Personality, and a desire to increase that knowledge; if they have got that, they are all right; even if they have got nothing else, they are still all right, they will come to very little harm” (pp. 2-3). His proclamation seems pretty straight forward and obvious. However, this is where assuming correct instruction of the faith is taking place, should be looked upon more carefully.

The Catechism teaches us that the “desire for God is written in the human heart” (CCC 27). Meaning, we are created to love God. Our desire is formed at the moment of conception. This desire will either deepen us towards God or turn us away by our own choice, influences, and actions. Sound religious education leads the student to establish a desire, a thirst for God’s love. A Catholic school is called to foster this desire in the hearts and minds of their students. It sounds simple and it should be. Fidelity fosters freedom to engage the heart and mind of a student into the saving realities of Jesus Christ. Taking the virtue of simplicity to a deeper understanding, St. Frances De Sales commented on the virtue of simplicity this way; “Simplicity is nothing but an act of charity pure and simple, which has but one sole end-that of gaining the love of God. Our soul is then truly simple, when we have no aim at all but this, in all we do. The office of simplicity is to make us go straight to God, without regard to human respect or our own interests. It leads us to tell things candidly and just as they exist in our hearts. It leads us to act simply, without admixture of hypocrisy and artifice-and, finally keeps us at a distance from every kind of deceit and double-dealing.”

Renewal and Hope

Why should families have hope in the renewal of catechesis in Catholic schools in light of what has already been discussed? I believe a conversion of heart is taking place by many in Catholic education circles. The necessity of sound doctrinal content is essential for the very identity of a Catholic School. The continued exposition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as evident through the approval of catechetical texts is a step in the right direction. Second, the use of the Catechism in the formation of teachers also fosters hope in the renewal. In the Diocese I work in, we have made great strides in the implementation of the Catechism through our religious education curriculum for elementary grades, formation of Catholic school teachers in sound doctrinal methodology, and approved religious education texts faithful to the mission of the Church.

In conclusion, I can honestly say we are on the road to simplicity with Christ. We are striving to teach our children and direct them to the love that never ends (CCC 25) . I see a horizon where parents, faculties, and staffs in our Catholic schools are realizing more than ever, the importance of an authentic love that is true and genuine for the salvation of these little souls.


Have served in the field of Catechesis as a teacher and administrator for the last fourteen years at the Parish, High School and Diocesan levels.

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  • I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, and I remember little of my catechesis besides one good class on the Pentateuch, a lot of coloring, and hearing that the Sacrament of Confirmation was “a rite of passage into adulthood.” If it were not for the priests of the Dominican Order whom I met as a young man shortly after my reconversion, I might never have been catechized at all.

    Now that I am a catechist of adults, I am aware of the weight of my responsibility to authentically transmit the Faith. People go to Hell because of bad catechesis, because the Church isn’t doing her job. But I also keep in mind the words of the Prophet Daniel, “Those who are wise will shine as brightly as the expanse of the heavens, and those who have instructed many in uprightness, as bright as stars for all eternity” (Daniel 12:3). That is my hope for eternal life.

  • jtms

    PrairieHawk; I do agree with you. I beleive that one of the problems we face in Church society today is a fear of telling people the truth about what living an authentic Catholic life truly is all about; that it involves sacrifice and yes, pain and suffering, to say nothing about about the possibility of eternal damnation. The key is, at least I think, to ask the Holy Spirit for guidance on how to present these truths in a way that is charitable without the force of them being lost. I once gave a talk on the reality of Hell to a men;s group, and Praise God, the talk was well accepted. it was firm, but charitable as well. That is because I prayed asking the Holy Spirit for that approach before I delevered the talk. Perhaps there has been such a turning away from these truths because for a long time before Vatican 2 they were presented in such a fire and brimstone way that people began to fear God rather than to love Him, and the approach for the last 40 years has been a backlash. I do not mean to overgeneralize about catechesis before Vatican 2; I am merely suggesting the fire and brimstone approach was in play over consistently, and people were afraid that God was going to smite them in their sin. I have found that the best way to tell people who have that approach to God (as I did for many years) is that God truly is a loving Father, and that Jesus came not to threaten us with Hell, but rather to save us from all it! Of course, the best thing to do before we share the joy of our faith with anyone is to pray for the people we encounter, and then pray for ourselves that the Holy Spirit will give us the charitable love of Christs’ own Sacred Heart. God Bless you.

  • mallys

    As true as all this is for our Catholic school systems, it is increased by orders of magnitude in parish Religious Ed programs. We have barely an hour a week, are given catechetical texts designed for daily use in Catholic schools and expected to “cover it all” and our students come from families that range from “drive-by” (drop them off on Wednesdays, rarely go to Mass on Sundays) to very faithful and well formed.

    In these circumstances, prayer is the only option. What man cannot do, God can accomplish (in me as much as in those I am charged with catechizing.)

  • Christi Derr

    This is such an important topic!!! Sadly, it seems your brother’s experience is the norm not the exception. A holy priest once commented to me that some Catholic schools are actually damaging a child/young adult’s faith life, because the school in effect immunizes him/her to Catholicism. The child receives just enough (and that is scant!) knowledge of the faith to THINK they know it, and are no longer interested in pursuing any further knowledge. Because of How the faith is taught they forget that Truth is a person – and the most wonderful person they will ever know. They are not falling in love with Jesus.

    … as Mallys wrote, we parents must make up for what is lacking – not rely on others to teach our children the love of Christ.

  • mschu001

    I had six years of Catholic education and prior to that several years of CCD classes on Saturday mornings. In all honesty, I learned nothing from those experiences and I only recall insipid and futile exercises. The only teacher I had that put any interest into religion was my Bible teacher in 9th grade, Mrs. Gould, a protestant who went to the same Bible College as the infamous Jim Jones. Everything that I know about my faith has come about from the little seed of interest that she planted and from self study that resulted from that curiosity. Thank God for orthodox websites such as CE, great Holy Fathers like John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and apologists such as Tim Staples, Scott Hahn, CS Lewis, and Ronald Knox, and some historians like Christopher Dawson and Michael Burleigh to keep me informed and interested. I would also like to mention my boyhood priest, the late Msg. O’Sullivan, for who liturgy and worship was something beautiful and solemn.

    Unfortunately, despite many years of “Catholic” education no seeds were planted in my nieces. Both have left the Faith and one is militantly anti-Catholic today. The rest of the younger generation in my family whether here in America, in Mexico, or in Germany are my like my nieces and basically for the same reasons.

  • krby34

    One small correction to Christi’s comment which is the core to all of this issue. In all the documents mentioned as well as many others it is stated quite clearly the PRIMARY teacher of the child is the parents. We parents are to make up what is lacking in the schools because we should be teaching it first. The Schools and Classes are resources to assist the parents in solid doctrinal formation, as a secondary support of what we lead at home.

    If we sent our children to school to read and write and then change all those rules or completely disregard or never practice them at all in the house would our children be great students? No. Occasionally one or two would break out and be splendid (Hey we see that in faith formation with kids, that one kid that “gets” the Eucharist and wants to go to adoration for lunch once a week rather than to recess.) but in general all would struggle or lack any great skill.

    The issue we are running into is that the parents are at a complete loss as to how to teach/support doctrine and scripture because for the last two generations schools and classes left the realm they should have been in (doctrine and scripture) to form the heart and person which is the role of the parents!!

    Now these parents that only had a good heart and a desire for truth and right behavior have nothing to “stick it to” because they have no awareness of scripture and doctrine. This “sandy soil” of feelings creates relative judgments that are based on how I would feel. We ask “What would Jesus do?” and they respond with their best guess of what they know about Jesus which was given to them as a merciful loving person that helped everyone and was always happy. They have not had their faith formed on the “solid ground” that helps them to remember the hard teachings of Jesus. The statements that indeed promised damnation for some, some who even called Him by name! Nor do they remember the love He had that accepted sinners but pointed out the sin for what it was and challenged the sinner to sin no more. (Remember the women caught in adultery or the Samaritan woman at the well.)

    We not only need to form the young new souls in our schools but we must also form the young souls of their parents. We must find ways to engage them in the process so they too can benefit as we return to a solid foundation. We could use Sacrament Preparation processes to provide retreats/classes for the parents to re-introduce them to the faith on a solid ground. Help to form them up to be the parents that they can be when they know really what Jesus would have done.

  • LarryW2LJ

    Got my catechesis from the good Bernardine Sisters and my Mom and the Baltimore Catechism. This did a world of good for me; and for the life of me, I can’t understand why we’re still not using it anymore. Call me old fashioned, call me whatever – it was good and it worked.


  • Wow, the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph is luck to have you at the helm. I couldn’t agree more with your assessment and challenges to Catholic schools today. As an experienced religion teacher myself, I have seen the challenges that come with catechizing young people of all ages. It is difficult to find the balance between teaching doctrine and giving students the opportunity to personally and emotionally connect with the Lord. I have an advanced degree in education, but I have found that there is so little research being done on sound pedagogy when it comes to catechesis. I would love to see more Catholic colleges and universities doing work in these areas and providing catechists with practical resources and strategies for teaching the faith. In the meantime, we need to work together to help each become better with the help of the Holy Spirit.

    I have developed a hobby of blogging about catechesis to help connect teachers and catechists with the best resources out there. Please join in the coversation and share your ideas:

  • Four years of Catholic school — with nuns, yet! — and CCD until Confirmation in my case. And I sort of figured out, on my own, that Easter is more important than Christmas. My parents didn’t really inquire into what I knew, and I think they really should have. Beyond that, everything I know about my Faith I pretty much taught myself (much of it from the Web), or learned from conversations with my two brothers, after I got interested in it in my adult life.

    Faithful catechesis is one of our most important

  • In teaching social studies, factual writing, and religion in a Catholic school, I found controversy and debate to be the best way to interest students in their religion. There are a number of ways to involve students in a simulated defense of their religion. Three that generated spirited writings or discussions in my classes were these:

    1. Find a non-blasphemous article that challenges their faith, and assign them a one page essay summarizing the main points, taking a position, and defending that position. If they support the author’s heretical views, be sure to take time in correcting papers to give good written responses; but avoid grading a student down for doctrinal, as opposed to stylistic, errors. The idea is to encourage thought, gently correct departures from r/c teaching on faith and morals, while grading them for the literary quality of their essay.

    2. When some inquisitive and confident student challenges you – the teacher – on some point of faith; entertain that student with a Socratic sort of interchange. The class invariably gives the matter rapt attention, simply for the pleasure of seeing the teacher challenged. Cheerfully encourage the student, but make sure you can outsmart and out debate him/her, otherwise the effect could be detrimental – to the faith of your “opponent” as well as others in the class.

    3. Read a selection from the religion textbook in class. In discussing the passage, play the devil’s advocate yourself. Identify yourself as resembling some anti-Catholic school teacher they might conceivably have in the future. (Under no circumstances select a student to play devil’s advocate on a religious question). Give students participation points for each occasion when they raise their hand and articulate a defense of the r/c position on the particular question. Don’t rebuke anyone for a well-meaning errors or doctrinal blunders, but reward everyone who attempts a defense of the faith against the anti-Catholic view. Encourage students who correct each other’s opinions kindly as regards points of faith and morals expressed in class discussion.

    During 13 years of teaching 8th grade religion in a Catholic school found the foregoing pedagogical methods to work quite effectively.