As a theology teacher at a Catholic high school, I’m deluged by the theories of “learning specialists,” educational psychologists, and catechetical gurus about the way teenagers learn about religion. By and large these theories treat the teenage mind and personality as an enigma, an elusive mystery that the enlightened among us may grasp if we have the patience and insight to “feel into” the lives of teens. But let me tell you, it isn’t that complicated. Teenagers, like the adults who lead them, flourish in a structured environment that calls them to high standards of scholarship and personal behavior.
This is a unique challenge in religious instruction because in many cases neither students nor teachers are willing to pursue scholarship and virtue. Students walk into religion class with the predisposition that passing is a foregone conclusion because religion is just a bunch of fluff. They don’t expect to have to work and so they’re detached, inattentive, and, in many cases, out of control. They’ve been conditioned to think this way, at least partially, by catechists who water down instruction. Furthermore, parents reinforce religious indifference in their teens by placing more emphasis on the so-called academic subjects and displaying a hands-off attitude toward religious instruction.
Religious instruction in Catholic schools is failing — and has been for some time. Unless we make changes in our catechetical methods, our Catholic high schools will go the way of Catholic colleges in America — merely private alternatives to public schools, devoid of any real spiritual significance.
High School Catechesis is Too Often Characterized by Intellectual Inertia
The typical student in religion class today has never been required to think deeply about the more complicated or abstract concepts of Catholicism. Apostolic Succession, Development of Doctrine, Subsidiarity, Infallibility, Inspiration, Inerrancy, Sacramental Theology, Apologetics — these are concepts that never reach the ears of many Catholic school students. Years of avoiding demanding content like this has formed in religion students a sort of learned helplessness that causes them to instantly tune out when these subjects are presented, like a circuit breaker that shuts down at the lowest possible threshold of overload.
Teachers at the high school level fear this response because they think it exposes them as bad teachers. So-called experts in the field, many of whom have spent little or no time in a classroom, have convinced us that a classroom is not functioning correctly if it’s not a vibrant wonderland of discovery full of teens eager for inquiry and “dialogue” with educators. This is an unrealistic expectation that makes teachers feel like they are at fault for the sloth and indifference of their students.
In the religion classes at Catholic schools, the academic breakdown and failing interest of the students is caused by two factors. First, students have been conditioned to think that faith and reason are opposed. Catechists have coined an expression that reveals this: “When it comes to faith, I want to teach my students heart knowledge instead of head knowledge.” Contrary to this trite philosophy, “head knowledge” (a grasp of the tenets of faith), and “heart knowledge” (the application of understanding to concrete practices) are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are mutually beneficial and inextricably related.
The result of this false dichotomy is an attitude in the students that religion is about feelings, not substance. Because their orientation is non-intellectual from the onset, they are ill equipped to handle concepts that stretch their minds or call for mental discipline. The content of faith becomes so subjective to the students that they believe there are no such things as right or wrong answers to questions of faith.
The second factor is not so much an intellectual problem as a problem of the will. Students fail to pursue faith not because it’s hard to understand, but because they simply don’t care about faith. We have to be honest about this: Many if not most students couldn’t care less about God’s revelation or His call in their lives. But students are capable of commitment and sacrifice because they do it all the time in sports, relationships, and academic pursuits. Some students spend every evening taxing their bodies for a victory on the court or on the field. Some male students will spend hours upon hours in the gym to add five pounds to their bench press. Students devote themselves assiduously to their love interests — spending countless hours on the phone or on dates with their boyfriends or girlfriends. Some students spend evening after evening committing formulas and theorems to memory so they can get advanced placement credit in science and math, to get scholarships and build a lucrative career.
Why do they do this? Because they care about these things — they’re meaningful to them because the world around them places value on such things. It places value on success in sports. It places value on career success and moneymaking. Conversely, the reason they don’t show this kind of commitment and interest in faith is that they don’t care about faith.
With the exception of a few encouraging students in each class, students in Catholic schools overwhelmingly reject prayer, contemplation, the reading of Scripture, the Sacraments, and the moral teachings of the Church. They loathe any serious presentation of the nature of God and our obligations to Him. They don’t participate in school Masses, they are absent from religious dialogue, they are hateful to one another, they fail to serve those in need, they skip Sunday Mass on a regular basis, and many haven’t seen the inside of a confessional since elementary school. Insiders in Catholic schools — whether students, parents, or teachers — will attest to the troubling behavior of the bulk of the student body: drunkenness, illegal drugs, premarital sex, violence, pornography, reckless driving, gossip, detraction, and calumny.
Some with Catholic school experience might object that Catholic school students are doing great things and set a laudable example for others in the community. This is true of about five to ten percent of the student body, and I’m deeply grateful for their witness. But this faithful remnant of students is also the most frustrated group of people in the school (apart from many teachers). I know from my discussions with them that the apathy and moral decay of their classmates is a source of disappointment and stress.
Wimpy Academics & Lack of Self-Control Go Hand in Hand
Most high school teachers would attest to the fact that the best designed, best planned, and most creative lessons — no matter how engaging — can be sabotaged in an instant by an unruly class. Instruction is often reduced to babysitting and crowd management. This is not to say that nothing gets done, but what we accomplish in an entire semester could probably be accomplished in two weeks of focused independent study.
I have spoken to my students individually and collectively about why their behavior in religion class is so disorderly. The consensus response: It’s not fun. While they don’t expect other classes to be fun, they do expect religion to be fun because it’s only about fluff and feelings.
Adult catechists know this, but too few of them confront the malformation of students’ consciences. Instead they opt for dumbed-down lessons and gimmickry aimed at entertaining teens. Instead of honing the habits and skills that students will need to find answers to life’s big questions, they accommodate their lessons to the existing habits and interests of youngsters. The problem with this approach is twofold: It never challenges students beyond their current frame of reference, and it can’t compete with the other sources of entertainment in students’ lives. Holiness, which is the formation of the whole person (intellectual, physical, mental, spiritual), is nourished in part by a love of learning: reading, research, thinking, asking questions, studying, memorizing, writing, explaining. These habits are not served by an approach to catechesis that puts hokey guided meditations, group affirmation sessions, and faith collages ahead of study.
Students Get Mixed Messages
Although the Magisterium is clear and definitive in its presentation of the truths of Christ, these truths are often ignored or undercut by Catholic school teachers — and Catholic parents. What is a student supposed to think when his religion teacher promotes the Church’s teaching on chastity but his parents say it’s okay to use birth control or cohabitate before marriage? How is he supposed to take seriously the obligation to participate in Mass on the Lord’s Day when his parents won’t go? How is he supposed to understand the Church’s teaching on the ordination of male priests alone (or accept the divinely instituted teaching authority that is undermined by those who advocate women priests) when his religion teacher openly disputes this teaching in class?
Catechists have a bounden duty to teach as the Church teaches. The Catholic high school classroom is not the place for indoctrination in dissident theology. Even if a teacher has doubts about the teachings of the Church, he is obligated in the name of honesty to present the Church’s teachings. To present the religious instruction of a school to parents and students as “Catholic” and then to subvert Catholic teaching is the very definition of double-dealing.
1. The first step toward any solution is admitting that there is a problem. Burnout or cynicism is not the source of my critique of modern secondary Catholic education. If this were the case, I would have left Catholic education a long time ago. On the contrary, this is my honest appraisal based on nine years of teaching and years of candid discussion with my students. Most of what I’ve pointed out here was gathered from my students’ reflections on Catholic high school life in class discussions.
2. Religious instruction in high school should have an academic orientation. The General Directory for Catechesis teaches, “It is necessary, therefore, that religious instruction in schools appear as a scholastic discipline with the same systematic demands and the same rigor as other disciplines” (no. 73). Students should be challenged with difficult concepts and asked tough questions that require original thought and deep reasoning.
Students should be made accountable for learning, retaining, and applying the content of the faith. They should read primary documents, research matters of faith and morality, write in-depth analytical papers, take notes frequently, and give quality individual presentations. They should be exposed to adult thinking about the faith from their teachers, guest speakers, and other sources such as articles from Catholic periodicals and audio/video presentations from orthodox theologians. Accountability for learning also means frequent testing and honest evaluations of the quality of students’ work. Religion courses should be anything but cupcake classes, considering the volume and complexity of theological concepts that they survey. This means that some students may actually fail religion and have to take it again until they get it right. Parents and administrators have to back this policy if they want religion to be taken seriously in their schools.
Academic evaluation committees should be established in our Catholic schools to assess students who fail to progress academically. Students who, either by teacher referral or poor grades, fail to meet minimum standards should be placed on academic probation. If they fail within a semester’s time to show marked improvement, they should not be retained.
3. Parents of teens in Catholic high schools should be asked to sign a pledge that they will support the mission of the school by upholding Catholic morality in the home in word and in deed. This is especially applicable to the troubling but all too common phenomenon of parents providing drugs and alcohol to their teens. This pledge should be supported by printing articles in parent newsletters that expound on the fundamentals of Catholic faith as taught in the sacred Scriptures and the Catechism. In addition to student orientation, there should be a parent orientation that not only lays out the policies and procedures of the school but also the goals and objectives of the religious studies curriculum and an unequivocal affirmation that the school will faithfully uphold the teachings of the Magisterium. Any school unable to make this commitment is unworthy of the designation “Catholic.”
The school should sponsor parent education nights in which expert speakers offer teachings on relevant moral/theological issues. If the family is the primary source of Catholic formation for youth, the “domestic Church” in the words of Vatican II, then surely the school can co-operate with parents to equip them for this crucial responsibility. The Catholic school is a community that reflects the collective initiative of its various families; what a powerful transformative impact would be felt in Catholic schools if parents and teachers would unite around the creed of the Church. Ideally, parents should choose Catholic education because they love Catholicism and want to impart this love to their children. Is it too idealistic to envision parents choosing Catholic education because they desire holiness for their kids, and schools that strive to form holiness in the students entrusted to them as the primary focus of their curriculum?
4. A code of conduct should be enforced inside and outside the school that provides clear and strict guidelines for personal behavior. Parents and school personnel must be prepared to pursue consequences for violation of the code. Suspension and expulsion are unfortunate but necessary components of effective school-wide discipline.
Like the academic evaluation committee, a committee of faculty and administration representatives should be formed to handle cases of students in extreme or chronic violation of the code. There is no reason teachers should have to tolerate a student who is always in trouble and doesn’t care about consequences. Persistent rule-breakers are an obstruction to education and should be reformed or removed; we owe this to the students who are there to learn. This is especially needed in Catholic schools, which are somewhat more permissive of misbehavior for two reasons: (1) a misguided philosophy that holds that mercy means enabling a student to self-destruct rather than taking firm measures to change him, and (2) a hyper-sensitivity to the financial consequences of losing students.
Since so many of the destructive decisions that teens make are motivated by drug and alcohol use, Catholic high schools should conduct periodic random drug screenings. Catholic schools must offer sanctuary from the onslaught of drugs among our youth. This simple measure would tell students, parents, and teachers that the school’s anti-drug campaign is backed up by concrete action, and we all know that actions speak louder than words. By the way, some Catholic schools test not only students but also teachers, and surprisingly, some of these tests come up positive.
5. Teaching faculty, regardless of subject matter, should be required to pledge loyalty to the Magisterium and receive regular in-services in the principles of Catholic faith and the moral life of the Church to reinforce this commitment. Teachers should be required to conform their instruction to the teachings of the Church at all times, inside and outside the school. If Catholic schools are to retain a Catholic character, they should be staffed mainly by Catholics. No matter how supportive non-Catholic faculty members are of the school’s Catholic mission, they almost inevitably introduce divergent views. Staffing Catholic schools is a challenge that sometimes requires compromise, but commitment to a truly Catholic way of life should be a big factor in hiring. This principle has been employed by a number of Catholic colleges that expect a firm commitment from all of their employees (administration, faculty, and support staff) and they are thriving: Student enrollment is increasing and qualified faculty and staff are lining up to work at such colleges.
I’m probably just an average teacher. I don’t claim to have perfected the art of catechesis. But I have seen what works and what doesn’t. I’ve used all sorts of methods and tinkered with lessons to try to increase student involvement and performance. What I’ve found, after nine years, is that trying to please students — that is, trying to entertain them or structuring fun into lessons — is a losing proposition. We can’t compete with the entertainment they’re used to. What I’ve found is that the most successful outcomes emerge when I discard the gimmicks and I talk to my students about faith like they’re adults. I don’t pull punches with them: If I think their beliefs are erroneous, I’ll tell them; if I think they’re heading for destruction, I’ll confront them directly; if I feel they’ve forgotten how to be Catholic or that they’ve never known, I’ll tell them how to fix it. This gets pretty edgy, even confrontational sometimes, but it’s the right thing to do. If there’s one thing teens can relate to, it’s candor.
I can’t tell you how many times my students have remarked: “We learned more in one semester than we’ve learned in our entire time in Catholic schools,” or “We actually learned something in this class.” I wish this were because I am such a great teacher, but it’s probably not, because, frankly, there’s no trick to it. I just teach what the Church teaches, challenge the students forcefully and directly to live up to these truths, and then quiz them a lot. I hate to say it because it sounds a little cliche, but catechesis needs to get back to the basics and recover its fundamentals. This will be a tough transition for our students because they’re not used to working hard in religion class. They and, if we’re honest enough to admit it, we too, choose the path of least resistance when it comes to learning and living the faith. But together we must be guided by the maxim that anything worth having is worth working for.
Jason T. Adams is a theology teacher at Carroll High School in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of the new book, Called to Give Life: A Sourcebook on the Blessings of Children and the Harm of Contraception, published by One More Soul (phone: 800-307-7685; website: omsoul.com).