children-in-classroom

Why Johnny Doesn’t Believe

Several years ago I wrote an article entitled “Why Johnny Doesn’t Believe” (Homiletic & Pastoral Review, January 1984). In my article I showed how defective textbooks and teaching methods based on the experiential approach to learning resulted in widespread religious illiteracy among Catholic youth. Young Catholics were rejecting the Church’s teachings because they lacked even an elementary knowledge of such basics as the Ten Commandments, papal infallibility, original sin, grace and the sacraments.

Today a majority of young Catholics, like the generation educated before them, know very little about the Church and its teachings. Although the Catechism of the Catholic Church was published in 1994 to serve as a point of reference to insure the teaching of sound doctrine, its teachings are often ignored. In their book, Flawed Expectations, Msgr. Michael Wrenn and Kenneth Whitehead note that “significant numbers of theologians and religious educators who, in normal times, would have been considered the bishops’ first line of support in implementing the Catechism, nevertheless today do not, on the evidence, appear to accept the Catechism. They not only do not accept it; they do not intend to implement it in any real sense; some of them intend to prevent or subvert its proper implementation to the extent they can.”

Religious educators who ignore or attempt to subvert the Catechism are producing another generation of alienated Catholics. The following deficiencies present in modern catechetics are in large part the cause of the widespread religious illiteracy and disbelief found in today’s Catholic youth:

1. Disrespect and disregard for the Church and its teachings. Lack of respect for the Church and its teachings is clearly evident in the March 1997 issue of Catechist magazine, the official magazine of the National Catholic Catechists Society. In an article entitled “Liturgy and Catechesis in Dialogue,” under the heading “From Your NCEA, Dept. of Religious Education,” writer Ed Lewandowski cites the following statement from the 1976 Murphy Center Report on the Partners-in-Dialogue Program:

Too often our “baggage” gets in the way of dealing with this question of religious experience. And now we have a whole new set of baggage: we are armed with newly revised rites and with new catechetical schemata, yet these may prove more oppressive than liberating, unless we first help people to identify the experience of God touching their lives. For many, this experience is a theoretical one. “The-Church-teaches” or “the-Church-celebrates” content mentality is a form of tyranny which objectifies that which must be evoked from within—the living word of God in the heart.”

In his article, Lewandowski says that this statement “merits our attention today.” Really? Instead of perpetuating the myth that “the-Church-teaches” and “the-Church-celebrates” mentality is a form of “tyranny,” shouldn’t Mr. Lewandowski be helping catechists see the truth and beauty of the Church’s teachings and liturgical rites?

The real tyranny in the Church during the last thirty years has been the imposition of subjective theological speculation and unauthorized liturgical practices on unsuspecting Catholics. Instead of evoking deep faith, liturgical abuses and the teachings of dissenters have led to a weakening of faith in Christ and a scandalous disunity among those who call themselves Catholic.

In addition to Lewandowski’s article, the March 1997 issue of Catechist magazine contained another article which promotes a negative attitude toward the Church and its teachings. In his article, “Jesus in Today’s World,” Dr. Robert A. Ludwig, Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University, states that “the role of the Church is to facilitate the experience of Jesus.” But Ludwig indicates that instead of facilitating the experience of Jesus, the Church, after the early years of Christianity, has stifled it.

He writes: “While the past hundreds of years exhibit many, many examples of people who are genuinely caught up by this experience, there is also, generally, a domesticating trend. Jesus is tamed; the fire is taken out of his searing presence and message. The revolution of inclusive compassion and radical egalitarianism becomes hierarchy and classes, self-righteousness and judgmentalism. The conversion required in ‘crossing over’ is swallowed by infant baptism . . . Jesus becomes ‘Christ the King’, and his humanity is eclipsed by a transcendent divinity beyond experience.”

Ludwig’s harsh attitude regarding the Church’s hierarchy and his misrepresentation of its teachings should come as no surprise to those familiar with his book, Reconstructing Catholicism. Regarding this book, reviewer Mary Schneider wrote: “The reconstructed Catholicism which Professor Ludwig has formulated has little in common with the Catholic faith. It is a veritable Hydra of heresies” (Homiletic & Pastoral Review, July 1996).

What should alarm bishops, pastors and all Catholics who love the Church is that Ludwig, a board member of Call to Action, promotes his hostile, anti-Catholic views on the pages of the Catechist, a magazine which shapes the faith of thousands of American catechists. His article typifies the disdain and disrespect many catechetical leaders have shown for the Church and its teachings during the last thirty years.

2. Attacks on the historicity of the Gospels. Among the many teachings of the Church that have been under attack during recent years is the teaching that the Gospels tell us what Jesus really did and taught. Citing Vatican II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The Church holds firmly that the four Gospels, ‘whose historicity she unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men, really did and taught for our eternal salvation, until the day when he was taken up.’” The Catechism states that in writing the four Gospels the sacred writers “have told us the honest truth about Jesus.”

The Church’s teaching regarding the Gospels’ historicity has been consistently undermined in religious education classes since the 1960s. In their book, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, authors Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli state: “For each one who thinks that the problem of evil or the progress of science has refuted religion, there are ten who think that textual scholarship, the ‘historical critical method’ and ‘higher criticism’ have done so by reducing the New Testament texts to a mangled melange of myth and mysticism. Not the atheistic philosophers or skeptical scientists but the biblical theologians have performed the miracle of changing wine to water, faith to myth.”

Dr. Ludwig’s article in Catechist magazine, referred to earlier, provides an excellent example of how catechetical leaders have joined theologians in reducing the New Testament texts to “a mangled mélange of myth and mysticism.” Ludwig tells catechists that “it is not always easy to determine what materials date from Jesus’ own historical context and those which date from later periods, which materials are historical fact and which are included for the sake of interpretation to bring out the meaning of the facts.” After Ludwig casts doubt on the historicity of the Gospels, which he labels “faith portraits” that contain “not only the memories of the historical Jesus, but those memories added to and modified by growing beliefs and changing circumstances of the movement,” he asks: “So what can historians tell us about Jesus?”

According to Ludwig, his unnamed historians tell us that Jesus “no doubt” was a disciple of John the Baptist. “After John’s arrest, Jesus began to move in a different way, softer and more mystical than the hard asceticism of John.” Ludwig’s historians would have us believe Jesus taught that “One must live here and now as though divine rule were the only rule, shattering the legitimacy of conventional authorities.”

Ludwig’s skepticism about the Gospels’ historicity and his unsubstantiated claims about Jesus are nothing new. In the 1800s and early 1900s such New Testament scholars as Adolf Harnack, Alfred Loisy and Rudolf Bultmann, members of the form-critical school, raised doubts about the historical reliability of the Gospels. Alfred Loisy actually stated that he and his colleagues did not alter the portrait of Jesus for historical reasons, but on the basis of opinions of modern philosophy.

Rather than being the result of objective analysis based on scientific and historical evidence, the claims of many modern biblical scholars are often based on biased theological and philosophical views regarding the supernatural. In their book, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, Kreeft and Tacelli state: “Typical modernist Scripture scholarship is not objective or neutral historical and textual scholarship. It is eisegesis (‘reading into’) rather than exegesis (‘reading out of’); it reads a particular modern worldview—naturalism, denial of the supernatural and miracles—into the texts, and judges the texts on the basis of that worldview. Indeed, modernists commit a graver version of the very error they accuse fundamentalists of, for fundamentalists only read into the text the same worldview it contains—supernaturalism—while modernists impose an alien and modern worldview on it. Fundamentalists do not add miracles to textual data, modernists subtract them. This is fudging the data to conform to the theory—the fundamental fallacy of bad science. It is the modernist who is being unscientific here.”

3. Ineffective methodology and defective textbooks. Since the Second Vatican Council the emphasis in religious education has been on providing students with a variety of experiences such as prayer services, art projects, and community service instead of teaching such basics as the Ten Commandments, the spiritual and corporal works of mercy and the meaning of grace. When this “experiential method” of teaching, along with religion textbooks which de-emphasized and watered down Church teachings, were introduced into Catholic classrooms in the 60s, proponents of the “new catechetics” promised that the new methodology and texts would make the Catholic faith relevant to youth. Instead they have resulted in widespread religious illiteracy and alienation from the Church and its teachings.

Group prayer, art projects and community service all have their place in catechetics, but the primary responsibility of catechists is to follow Christ’s command to “teach them to observe all that I have commanded” (Matt. 28:20). I recall one student’s reaction when I told my 8th Grade class that I would be quizzing them on the Ten Commandments, the Two Great Commandments, and the Beatitudes. “You really expect us to learn these things?” she asked in shocked disbelief. Her reaction indicated that memorization in religion class was a totally new experience for her. We must provide our youth with the experience of learning the teachings of Jesus and his Church if we expect them to develop a healthy, vibrant Catholic faith. As John Paul II has pointed out: “The blossoms, if we may call them that, of faith and piety do not grow in the desert of a memory-less catechesis.”

In his article, “Mad Methodology,” in the July 27, 1997 issue of Our Sunday Visitor, Sean Innerst observed that “catechetical methodology is not only important insofar as it is the vehicle for imparting the content of the faith, but because, if wrongly conceived, it can undermine the whole content of the faith.” He cited this statement from the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism’s report: “When the methodological starting point is predominantly human experience, the texts at times easily leave the impression that human initiative is the prerequisite for divine action. God’s initiative appears subordinate to human experience and human action.”

Innerst stated that it is no accident that the “process of redefining faith and revelation in terms of personal experience coincides with a nearly 30-year process of dissent from Catholic teaching. . . . With the wrong methodology, even the best content will be no weightier than the opinion of the next person who picks up the text.”

4. The Denial of Objective Truth. A major cause of religious illiteracy and disregard for the Church’s teachings is the nonsensical notion common among educators today that there are no wrong answers. An example of how this ridiculous and dangerous concept is being promoted appeared in the March-April 1999 issue of “Catechist News,” a newsletter given to catechists in a parish in the Diocese of Buffalo, New York. Under the heading “Teaching Tips”, catechists are told: “THERE ARE NO WRONG ANSWERS. All answers are important when seeking God is the motive. If an answer is way off base, ask ‘What else could you say about that?’ or ‘Are there any other ideas?’ You’ve then created a brainstorming session.”

The catechist may have created a brainstorming session. But brainstorming sessions in which all ideas are perceived as valid will result in shared ignorance and undermine the faith of many students. Instead of teaching and clarifying what Christ and his Church really teach, catechists who accept the dogmatic proclamation that “THERE ARE NO WRONG ANSWERS,” promote the evils of religious indifferentism and situation ethics. Instead of “telling it like it is,” they promote the erroneous view that truth is relative.

5. Poor Teacher-Training Programs. In his article, “The Plight of papist priest II” (Homiletic & Pastoral Review, December 1992), the author wrote: “We are mandated to have our teachers and catechists accredited by diocesan education office personnel and their hand-picked instructors, none of whom fail to reflect the ‘Americanist’ dissenting line.” He stated that after catechists are subjected to courses, seminars and materials “flowing from the education office,” they come home “dazed—what they have heard sounds ‘like another religion.’”

As a catechist for many years, I have attended several training courses. Most of them offered very little in the way of helpful information and in some instances the suggestions given were counterproductive.

A few years ago I attended a regional session at St. Stephen’s Parish in Middleport, New York. The instructor, an affable, articulate Catholic high school teacher, engaged those in attendance, catechists from several parishes in the Diocese of Buffalo, in a discussion of images of God. Instead of encouraging us to teach our students to look upon God as a loving father and to address him as “Our Father,” as Jesus taught, we were told that many students can’t relate to the Father image. The instructor indicated that he avoids masculine images of God because some women are offended by these images.

Instead of encouraging us to see Christ’s Church in positive terms, we were encouraged to look upon it critically. The instructor praised one of Hans Küng’s books which was critical of the Church’s “sins.”

Instead of pointing out the many pedagogical benefits of using religion textbooks in the classroom, as they are meant to be used by the authors and by the Church, the instructor told us to have our students read them at home. Instead of highlighting the many fine features of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and showing us how it can be used in presenting the Church’s teachings to high school students, we were told not to use it in the classroom.

Instead of presenting the many positive aspects of saying the rosary and providing us with effective ways to promote this beautiful prayer, we were told of the difficulties of saying it with children.

After catechists attend training programs like this, how can we realistically expect them to enthusiastically and effectively transmit the Catholic faith to their students?

In addition to the above defects in modern catechetics, a major contributing factor to disbelief and disregard for the Church’s teachings is the defeatist attitude of many Catholics. A few years ago I attended a meeting of my parish’s Church School Board. As the Chairperson of the Instruction Committee I suggested that we offer our high school students a course in apologetics. That would be expecting too much of our youth, I was told.

During a discussion of what should be required of students preparing to receive the sacrament of Confirmation, I expressed my belief that acceptance of the Church’s teaching regarding abortion should be required. One woman adamantly defended those teens who express pro-choice views with the explanation that “They’re just going through a phase.” Another woman insinuated that requiring teens to accept the Church’s teaching on abortion would “drive them out of the Church.”

Low expectations about what our youth are capable of learning and accepting, along with the belief that we can’t possibly teach the basics of our Catholic faith in the limited time allowed for most CCD classes (one hour classes held 25 times a year), have resulted in ineffective religious education programs which fail to satisfy the intellectual and spiritual needs of youth.

Robert Kennedy often remarked “Some people look at things as they are and say ‘Why?’ I dream of things as they never were and say ‘Why not?’” Like Kennedy, we need to envision things as they never were and say “Why not?”

While identifying the defects in modern catechetics is necessary in order to understand why so many young Catholics reject the Church’s teachings, we also need to envision religious education programs which effectively transmit the teachings of Christ and his Church to our youth. Here are five ways to make the vision of effective religious education programs a reality:

1. Implement the Catechism of the Catholic Church. As long as catechetical leaders are allowed to pay lip service to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, while promoting their negative image of the Church and its teachings in catechetical publications and teacher-training programs, the exodus from the Church and the rejection of its teachings will continue unabated.

After the administration of the sacraments, what pastoral duty could be more important than insuring that our Catholic youth receive a religious education that gives them the truth about Catholicism rather than the erroneous views of dissenting theologians? In choosing religious education administrators and parish directors of religious education, bishops and pastors need to evaluate not only the educational expertise of those being considered but also their faithfulness to the Church’s teachings.

Bishops and pastors also need to carefully evaluate the religion texts used in their dioceses and parishes. During the last thirty years, the complaints of thousands of parents concerned about the defective texts used in their children’s religious education programs have been ignored. Parents who dared to criticize the texts were often labeled “troublemakers” and “extremists” by members of the well-entrenched catechetical bureaucracy. In June 1997, however, the concerns of parents seem to have been justified by the U.S. bishops’ report which showed serious doctrinal deficiencies in many modern texts.

There are excellent textbooks now available that are free from doctrinal deficiencies. These texts should be sought after and used without delay.

For too many years the teachings of dissenters have distorted the Church’s image, causing many to see the Church as merely a man-made institution. Implementing the Catechism of the Catholic Church by appointing orthodox catechetical leaders and choosing orthodox texts will bring into sharp focus the positive image of the Church as the Body of Christ.

2. Initiate apologetics courses for teens. Many young Catholics abandon their Catholic faith because they are not prepared to deal with the anti-Catholic bigotry in the media and the sophisticated arguments they encounter on college campuses. We must provide our youth with the knowledge they need to follow the Bible’s command to always be “ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).

Instead of raising doubts about the historicity of the Gospels, as many catechists have during the last thirty years, we must help our youth see through the fallacious arguments skeptics use to undermine belief in the Gospels. In addition, we must provide them with answers to questions that are frequently raised about the existence of God, miracles, the divinity of Christ, objective truth and the Church’s teaching authority.

In developing high school courses in apologetics, there are several excellent books and resource materials available which would be helpful, including these: Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, Catholicism and Reason by Hayes, Hayes and Drummey and Fr. Alfred McBride’s Teen Catechism.

3. Improve teacher-training programs. Programs which pay lip to the Church’s teachings while promoting the unorthodox views of dissenters under the guise of “updating” catechists’ knowledge of their faith will never result in effective catechesis. Nor will programs which continue to promote the failed methodology of the last thirty years. Instructors who undermine the faith of catechists by promulgating the views of dissenters must be replaced with instructors who will enthusiastically promote the Church’s teachings. And effective teaching methods must replace the experiential method which has produced two generations of Catholics who are religious illiterates.

Instead of discouraging catechists from reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as some catechetical leaders have, every catechist should be given a copy of this reader-friendly book, which John Paul II called “a gift for all,” and encouraged to read it. Catechists will find the Catechism will deepen their knowledge of Catholicism and serve as a wonderful source of inspiration.

Catechists should be encouraged to use religion texts in class instead of letting them sit on shelves as many catechists do. Attractively illustrated texts which faithfully present the Church’s teachings, and feature challenging puzzles and acrostics to reinforce lessons, make learning an enjoyable experience for students. And the catechist’s job of preparing and presenting lessons is made easier through the use of good religion texts. Catechists should also be shown creative ways to make learning an interesting and challenging experience through the use of essay and poster contests, religion bees and quizzes.

To help prepare catechists for the tough questions today’s students ask, they should be offered a course in basic apologetics. Such a course will strengthen the catechists’ faith and give them the knowledge they need to answer their students’ questions intelligently and with conviction.

4. Encourage parental involvement in catechesis. Many parents seem to believe that sending their children to Catholic schools or CCD programs fulfills their parental responsibility regarding their children’s religious education. As the primary educators of their children, however, they should be actively involved in their children’s religious training.

Parents need to be aware of the powerful influence of their words and example which either reinforce or undermine the lessons their children are learning in the classroom. By attending Mass on Sundays, receiving the sacraments frequently, saying family prayers, observing the Ten Commandments and performing acts of charity, parents can teach their children Christian values every day.

Since many parents readily admit that their own religious education was inadequate, they should be encouraged to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism will strengthen their faith and serve as an excellent reference book to assist them in answering their children’s questions about God and the Church.

Parents should also be encouraged to become actively involved in their children’s religious education programs. If they are interested in what is being taught in class, their children will be motivated to take their Catholic faith seriously.

5. Address modern challenges to Catholicism. Because the Church and its teachings are continually being challenged and ridiculed in the media and by dissenters within the Church, the faith of many Catholics, including catechists, has been seriously weakened. Others, having become weary and disheartened by anti-Catholic bias and strife within the Church, are reluctant to proclaim the Church’s teachings on controversial issues. These Catholics need strong and enthusiastic leadership from their pastors and bishops.

Instead of evading issues such as contraception, divorce, papal authority and abortion, these issues need to be addressed. For many Catholic parents and catechists, their only source of ongoing religious education is the fifteen minute homily they hear every Sunday. They need to hear sound doctrine which will feed them spiritually and intellectually and prepare them to hand on the Catholic faith to their children and students.

In 1 Corinthians 14:8 we read: “If the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle?” Today many of our youth, like the generation before them, are hearing the uncertain sound of unorthodox teaching. If we expect them to embrace Catholicism and defend its teachings, we must take the steps necessary to insure that what they hear in their religion classes is the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church which is, “by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth” (Vatican Council II, Declaration on Religious Liberty #14).


Mrs. Geraldine Stafford has served as a catechist in the Diocese of Buffalo, N.Y., for 25 years and is a counselor at Lockport Crisis Pregnancy Center. Her articles and book reviews have been published in several Catholic journals. Her last article in HPR appeared in October 1996.