It is undeniable that the catechetical crisis of the past several decades continues to exist. One look at the statistics of religious ignorance evident in millions of Catholic youth, as well as the continued criticism by Catholic parents of religious education texts and programs, make it obvious that we are not yet in the clear. The bishops of the United States have often expressed similar concerns, as well as alarm, at so many youth who no longer attend Mass or are “drop-outs” from the faith.
A major factor in the catechetical crisis has been the religious education texts placed in children’s hands by religious educators in Catholic schools or parishes that have simply not “handed on the Catholic faith which comes to us from the Apostles.” An unhappy feature of many modern catechetical texts has been the attempted radical revision of doctrinal content, justified by a bogus appeal to the so-called “spirit of Vatican II”- an interpretation invented by theologians and catechists at odds with Catholic teachings.
Almost immediately after the close of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Pope Paul VI observed:
“You must know that we, and others with us-bishops, priests, teachers, parents-who have the duty to pass on to others the doctrine of the faith, the doctrine of salvation, feel great sorrow seeing how little the people of our times care to listen to our voice. They care so little for religious instruction that at times it seems we are talking to the wind. The whirlwind of modern life attracts and upsets modern men so much, it impresses them so much, fills them with images, thoughts, passions, desires, pleasures and movements, that they do not seem to have the time nor the wherewithal to listen to Christ’s good news. And if they have heard something about it in school or in church, it is such a difficult, unrelated, and apparently useless subject for them that often they come away bored rather than with joy, and with strange ideas rather than with guiding lights for their souls and for their lives.”
In the same address at a general audience (May 31, 1967), the Pope identified those who had added to the difficulties with passing on the Catholic faith in all its integrity and purity:
“Unfortunately, it is easy to find learned people, always anxious to profess their Catholicism, who nevertheless disregard the indispensable teaching function of the Church and naively seek to adapt the doctrine of the faith to the mentality of the modern world. They do this, not only by means of a praiseworthy effort to make people accept and in some way understand those doctrines, but also by silencing, changing, and even denying those very doctrines according to the theories of the tastes of today’s popular opinions. . . . Do not think that you have the faith if you do not adhere to the contents of the faith, to the ‘Creed,’ to the Symbols of Faith-that is, to the outlined synthesis of the truths of the faith.”
In other addresses that followed, Pope Paul VI was undaunted and clarified the essentials of the faith. He did not hesitate in the wake of the notorious Dutch Catechism and the controversies surrounding it. He offered the essentials of the faith and gave the Church his remarkable Credo of the People of God (June 30, 1968).
It cannot be said that there were not warnings aplenty from the Vicars of Christ concerning the tampering with Catholic doctrine and practice that had won its way into diocesan and parish life by defective religious education texts. As Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis has noted concerning Pope John Paul II, “Our present Holy Father has steadfastly addressed the forces which have impoverished greatly the quality of our catechesis and left the catechized in a weakened position before the secularized challenge of our culture” (St. Louis Review, September 24, 2004).
In a later November 10, 2003 report to the Fall General Assembly of U.S. Bishops, Archbishop Alfred Hughes of New Orleans observed that almost two-thirds of the high school texts actually reviewed by the Committee were not in conformity with the Catechism: “What causes us great concern is that many of the materials found to be inadequate are still in wide use throughout the country.” They were so far off the mark that they could not be amended, but needed to be completely rewritten. He urged his fellow bishops to restrict the use of catechetical texts that were not on the Ad Hoc Committee’s “Conformity List.” In a Zenit news story, the archbishop commented that “unfortunately, the widespread use of these books perpetuates a religious illiteracy that is all too prevalent in the Church today.” Parents reading the various reports of the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee cannot fail to realize that many religion texts and materials distort Catholic truth either by omission or commission.
Years of CUF experience with religious education texts has shown that they are defective when . . .
- They subtly indoctrinate students that one religion or church is as good as another and that the Catholic Church is just one church among many equals rather than the “one and only true Church” founded by Jesus Christ, which possesses the attributes of indefectibility and infallibility.
- Catholic doctrines are treated in tentative language giving the impression that a particular teaching of faith or morals is just one legitimate opinion among others, rather than a matter of truth, and that the Church can in the future change teachings of the natural law or revealed doctrines (such as the doctrine on the Church’s inability to ordain women).
- They insinuate that rejection of the moral teachings of the Church on issues such as contraception, abortion, homosexuality, in vitro fertilization, embryonic stem cell research, and euthanasia are of little consequence to one’s membership in the Church and to the Church’s unity.
- The sacraments are presented only as ways to celebrate special moments in life and not as privileged moments of supernatural encounter with God.
- They show a studied reluctance to label sexual sins (masturbation, fornication, adultery, cohabitation, contraception, divorce and remarriage, homosexual acts, etc.) as the serious sins that they are-sins that can exclude one from the Kingdom of God.
- They tamper with the proper names or personal pronouns for the Persons of the Blessed Trinity, terming God “She” or substituting other names for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
- They presume that the existence of God cannot be proved by human reason, thereby promoting a false fideism, i.e., the reduction of faith to a blind leap in the dark.
- The divinity of Christ who is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” is downplayed in favor of treating Jesus as a mere man, a “human person” (the ancient Nestorian heresy), and sometimes even with moral flaws and imperfections.
- The miracles of Our Lord and those recounted in both the Old and New Testaments are treated as “myths” or “dramatic embellishments” by ancient writers, or are explained away as ordinary phenomena, not truly extraordinary manifestations of supernatural power.
- Angels and demons (including Satan) are not treated as real intelligent spiritual beings, and man himself is treated as not having been made by God for a supernatural destiny, i.e., the beatific vision, (a destiny which cannot be achieved by natural powers alone).
- There is a failure to stress that man is a composite of body and soul and that the soul is more important than the body-or when Adam and Eve are not treated as our historic first parents at the origin of the entire human race, but rather as the product of a natural evolutionary process that ignores the direct creation of the soul of every human person by God.
- There is a failure to explain that the original sin of Adam and Eve resulted in the loss of sanctifying grace and the transmission of a fallen, wounded human nature to all their descendents (excepting Our Lord and Our Lady), and necessitating the sacrificial redemption chosen by our Savior to save mankind from sin, the devil, and hell.
- The seriousness of mortal sin and the distinction between mortal and venial sin is not adequately treated, or when sin itself is not presented as primarily an offense against God.
- There is insufficient emphasis on every baptized Catholic needing to grow in the holiness first given in Baptism and strengthened by the divine grace given in the other sacraments.
- The Mass is presented as a meal, but not primarily as an unbloody sacrifice, which perpetuates in time the sacrifice of Calvary.
- It is not clearly taught that the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is made present through transubstantiation and that Christ is to be adored in the Eucharist.
- The theological terms essential for understanding the doctrinal content of the faith are not carefully explained and presented for memorization. Some examples include: soul, “created in the image and likeness of God,” original sin, actual sin, sanctifying grace, temporal debt of punishment, satisfaction, Real Presence, transubstantiation, Incarnation, Immaculate Conception, virgin birth, purgatory, penance, last judgment, Magisterium, etc., (cf. Pope John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, no. 55).
- The biblical accounts in the Old and New Testaments are treated as containing historical errors, thus bringing into question the inerrancy of the written Word of God.
- The authentic social doctrine of the Church is distorted by partisan sociopolitical agendas being imposed on unsuspecting young readers.
- Explicit sexual information is provided that would disturb the emotional, mental, or spiritual equilibrium of children and youth, and offend their modesty and chastity, or violate the right of parents to supervise without interference their children’s education in purity.
Space does not permit noting the many other specific errors found in the modern religious education texts of the last four decades or commenting on the erroneous methodologies (e.g., values clarification, James Fowler’s schema of faith development, Erik Erickson’s ritual development) that interfere with the transmission of doctrinal content that is at the heart of Catholic catechesis. Suffice it to say that parents should also be aware that texts may even be doctrinally correct but nevertheless suffused with the spirit of a bland and profane naturalism.
An anti-supernatural and worldly ethos in texts has too often been reflected in a “life-experience pedagogy,” wherein feelings are more important than truth. This ethos has been manifested by inferior art work (poor illustrations of Christ, the Mother of God, and the saints), the failure to emphasize that the Christian life is one of serious spiritual combat, and the unfortunate promotion of questionable liturgical celebrations that lack reverence and the sense of the sacred. Even the physical format of religious education books should help convey a sense of the supernatural beauty, splendor, and lofty mysticism of the Catholic faith.
Jim Likoudis is president emeritus of Catholics United for the Faith. He writes from Montour Falls, NY. For more information on available texts or other recommended catechetical materials, call CUF’s Catholic hotline at (800) MY-FAITH or visit www.cuf.org.