Why American Catechists Don't Teach the Catechism

Author: Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw

Shaw is Our Sunday Visitor's Washington correspondent and director of public information for the Knights of Columbus.
A new book documents how religious education leaders undermine the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

"Don't be surprised that your children have all become Unitarians," a priest told a group of middle-aged Catholics recently. "That's the kind of catechesis they got — Unitarianism with a Catholic veneer."
It was an exaggeration, of course, but how much of one? Polls and subjective impressions both suggest that something resembling a massive collapse occurred in religious education in the United States after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The result is a 
generation of Catholics —perhaps two generations by now —woefully ignorant of their faith.

The question no longer is whether it happened, but why. Much of the explanation undoubtedly lies in large cultural forces — summed up by the word "secularization" —that were impossible either to anticipate, prevent or do much about.
But that is not the whole story.

In their new book Flawed Expectations: The Reception of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), Msgr. Michael Wrenn and Kenneth Whitehead take a close, devastating look at the world of professional catechetics in American Catholicism 
since Vatican II.

They conclude that the "religious education establishment" — a body composed of leading figures in catechetics, often holding positions in Catholic colleges and universities and the Church bureaucracy — not only played a key role in the disaster, but goes on doing so.
The authors are hardly newcomers to this field. Msgr. Wrenn, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in New York, is a religious education consultant to New York Cardinal John J. O'Connor. He was founder and for 10 years director of a graduate catechetical institute.
Whitehead is a former career diplomat and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education who now works as a writer and translator. He has published widely on religious education and related topics.
Thirty years ago, the authors point out, leading figures in religious education began promoting a "new catechesis" — a new form of religious education — that was long on "experience" but short on content.
The efforts on behalf of the new approach continued, and indeed, continue today, despite its manifest failure. As a result, Msgr. Wrenn and Whitehead say, "the faith of an entire generation of Catholics —some say two generations —was gravely compromised."

But now, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is speeding to the rescue, is it not? Perhaps so. And then again, perhaps not.

The best-selling Catechism was published in 1992 under the auspices of Pope John Paul II, nearly seven years after the idea for a compendium of religious doctrine to address the contemporary crisis in catechesis surfaced at a world Synod of Bishops in Rome.
Described by the Pope as "a sure norm for teaching the faith," the Catechism is the first "universal catechism" for the whole Church in 400 years.
Its many admirers view it as a providential boon to teachers, parents and others trying to cope with widespread doubt, dissent and simple ignorance in religious matters.

Msgr. Wrenn and Whitehead also see the Catechism as a providential blessing. But they consider it at risk of being subverted by the very people to whom, in many cases, its implementation has been entrusted —the leaders in religious education.
Flawed Expectations is a scathing indictment of the catechetical establishment, one that names and documents its charges with chapter and verse.
According to Msgr. Wrenn and Whitehead, some major figures in American Catholic religious education opposed the Catechism before it was published and now are bent on undermining it. They write: "The implementation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is in too many instances being given over to professionals 'in the field' who do not, in fact, accept the Catechism."

Worse still, lower-level catechists — the people in the classrooms — in many instances look for guidance to these people, whose workshops and lectures they attend and whose books and articles they read, rather than to the Pope and bishops, the official teachers in the Church.
In their documented study, Msgr. Wrenn and Whitehead cite numerous examples to back up their charges. An example of prepublication subverting, they contend, occurred soon after the Catechism's first draft was circulated to the world's bishops for comments in 1989.
A group of self-described "Catholic scholars" —gathered at Georgetown University in Washington for a symposium organized by the Woodstock Theological Center — declared the draft to be "fatally flawed." Not only that, Msgr. Wrenn and Whitehead add, "they even called a press conference to draw maximum public attention to their open efforts to discredit the draft."
Not much better, in the authors' view, was a post-publication symposium held in the spring of 1993 under sponsorship of the school of religious studies at The Catholic University of America, also in Washington.
The line there was that the Catechism was too difficult for ordinary Catholics to understand and needed to be "mediated and interpreted by — who else but the experts of the religious education establishment themselves?"

Msgr. Wrenn and Whitehead review a distressing assemblage of tools —commentaries, videos and the like —prepared by members of the catechetical establishment to guide other catechists in using the Catechism. Of one new "inculturated" catechism purporting to be based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church they write:

"This is a book by and for people who have precisely lost the excitement and romance of orthodoxy.... These people secularize and trivialize the faith of Jesus Christ in exactly the same way that many modern religion textbooks do — because, evidently, these people no longer believe the faith of Christ in its fullness."

But all is not lost. Millions of copies of the Catechism are now in circulation, despite warnings from the "establishment" that it was over people's heads, and the U.S. bishops' conference has established a special committee on Catechism implementation.
Msgr. Wrenn and Whitehead also note the existence of a few sound commentaries and guides. These include Essentials of the Faith by Father Alfred McBride, O.Praem., and The Mystery We Proclaim by Francis D. Kelly (both published by Our Sunday Visitor), as well as A Concise Companion & Commentary for the New Catechism (Christian Classics) by James Tolhurst, The Splendour of Doctrine (T&T Clark) by Aidan Nichols, O.P., and New Vision, New Directions (Thomas More) by Robert J. Hater.
Despite its tough line, Flawed Expectations ends on a positive note. The authors look for the Pope, the bishops and the Catechism to prevail. Dissenting theologians and religious educators will go on putting up a fight, they say.

"But they cannot win. The real battle for the Church's faith... is already over, and won: the Catechism has been issued in its present form containing an authentic statement of the faith in its fullness. Henceforth this will be the undeniable standard by which questions of the faith will have to be judged.
"As the years go by, the Catechism will be used and accepted even more widely than it is already, and simply because it is there. Meanwhile, it is safe to predict, the kinds of commentaries and parodies of the Catechism which we have been looking at in this book will be forgotten....
"Those who reject the Catechism are the ones who stand self —condemned; they, along with the audience and adherents they so often manage to find only because of the positions which they unfortunately happen to occupy within the Church's educational structure, will become increasingly irrelevant in a Church which...  will be moving forward on the right path in very great part on the basis of the new impetus now provided by the Catechism."

Let us hope they are right.

This article was taken from the September 15, 1996 issue of Our Sunday Visitor
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