If Booth Tarkington wrote Seventeen today, he’d have to call it Ten. Yet those in charge of Catholic catechesis, judging from their directories and vetting of texts, urge us to teach the young as if their families still routinely attend Sunday Benediction. Someone should inform the front office that our audience has shape-shifted since Norman Rockwell.
And in 30 years, some must have also noticed their methods have almost no detectable effect on students’ real values or behavior. After 11 years of what kids call Catholic brainwashing, the surveys and questionnaires routinely report that 60 percent to 70 percent cheat on tests, lie to parents and don’t give an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. Premarital sex is now as much a non-issue for many adolescents as birth control is for their parents. Asked to identify the non-negotiable core of Christianity, most say to be moralwhich makes all decent atheists Christian. After all that indoctrination, they’ve yet to discover what Christian even means. They’ve never been told to look attentively at a crucifix.
In 35 years, I’ve tested this teenage indifference in 10 high schools, four colleges and about 50 workshops for catechists, on three continents. The evidence is overwhelming. If I were C.E.O. of this operation, I’d want a meeting with my sales strategists ASAP.
When my senior advanced placement English class, our brightest, reads Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, I ask if, in the remotest way, they can comprehend why the brilliant, attractive, passionate Jesuit hero, stranded on an alien planet, would turn from an ideal marriage to serve God. They really try. I see it in their faces. But they just can’t fathom itlike understanding dehydrated water. When I talk of Isaac Jogues, on whom the hero is based, savaged by the Iroquois, escaping, yet returning only to martyrdom, they’re bewildered. They know they should admire that, but it just doesn’t make sense. And of course, it doesn’t, any more than a crucifix does. Not to relativist, utilitarian, materialist, self-absorbed, defensive minds. That brainwashing definitely did work.
From giving workshops I know that many active catechists understand exactly what they’re up against: not only mesmerizing media, but also higher-ups in the ecclesial structures with a totally different agendaand the power to compel. The strategistswho wrote The Catechism, forge diocesan syllabi and X-ray textswant indoctrination rather than conversion, young people who avoid sin rather than strive for moral integrity, thorough coverage rather than heart-to-heart engagement. They have no tolerance for ambiguity, no sense (or concern) for receptivities, no willingness to settle for high probability in faith and morals lest they hazard reassuring certitude. They want catechesis without conversionor even apologetics. Those who control catechesis (and liturgies) are as different from Gospel writers as accountants from poets.
I wrote a book called Building Your Own Conscience, an ethics text without a whisper of religion, strictly natural law. Just what unconverted Christians need. But the publisher said no diocese would touch it unless it screams Catholic!’ Each chapter needed a segment from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, prayer guidelines, papal quotes and Scripture passages to legitimate it. How, I asked, do I pre-evangelize and at the same time scream Catholic’? Finally, with sidebar Scripture readings and a closing chapter on how far Christianity outdistances morality, the book passed muster. In five years, it sold 60,000 copies. Evidently teachers in the trenches find the approach valuable: plow before you plant. But in one diocese, the committee passing judgment on texts according to the catechism found it dangerous, and it may not be taught there.
Yet the 1990 U.S. bishops’ Guidelines on Doctrine for Catechetical Materials states: Catechetical materials must take into account...the experience and background of those being catechized. This seems to mandate that our first goal be not doctrinal thoroughness but conversion, which those in charge seem to presume has already occurred. Any catechist at the job even a month will testify that presumption is laughably naïve. These are not bad kids. They’re wonderful kids, which keeps us apologists (disguised as catechists) on the job. It’s just that by far the majority could never be convicted of being Christian. After all that effort.
Moreover, Harvard’s Lawrence Kohlberg discovered six step-by-step stages of moral motivation: 1) fear of the cost, 2) hope of reward, 3) small-group loyalty, 4) law-and-order, 5) reasoned principle, 6) personal integritymoral awareness expanding further outward from the self. But, his researchers found, anyone at a lower stage just cannot comprehend the motivation of anyone two stages above (as my seniors could not fathom celibacy). The best anyone can hope for in adolescents is the fourth stage, law-and-order. It’s unreasonable to ask for more.
That means if we lure kids from the confines of their self-absorption to concern for their classmates and teams, and beyond that to being at home in and loyal to their civic/church communities, we’ve done just fine. But to hope that they could grasp the self-sacrificial readiness of the cross is simply futile. If we can make them self-forgetful, caring, confident, honorable and concretely grateful to God and their parents for the undeserved gift of existence (and all that entails), we’ve gone as far as we can. For now.
Conversion Versus Indoctrination
For centuries, the church trained seminarians first in humanities, then in natural theology (understanding God and ourselves without recourse to any religion) and only then in theology. Our catechesis upends that, hoping first for rule-keeping, literate Catholics before they even grasp Christian altruism, Christians before they truly care about God, theists before they realize their souls differentiate them from media Id-slaves. Much of what we teach focuses on what divides Catholics from other Christians, rather than on the basic truths all Christians accept.
Our catechisms have scrupulous logical completeness, but nothing whatever to offer human beingsespecially unconverted ones. We might as well be training kids to appear on Mother Angelica’s version of Jeopardy. As Will Rogers said: If preachers concentrated more on our Savior’s message and less on his method of arrival and departure, we’d all be a lot better off.
Catechetical materials must take into account...the experience and background of those being catechized. Then if our present ethos has made our audience skeptical, relativist and narcissistic, the only sane place to begin preparing for catechesis is creating a felt need in them for some consistent worldview, something to make sense out of death and the moral ambiguities each human being faces, the need for a dimension to life more meaningful than the workaday world. Like any salesfolk, we have to convince them of a felt need before we offer a solution.
Faith builds on natureor not at all. We must help kids interiorize motives for faith and morality. The Bible says and the church says are not the same as I believe.
The best way to teach children the rudiments of faith is not instruction, but experience. Take nature walks and invite them to feel the numinous presence within the waterfall and star-fretted night sky. Learn from the reverence of Native Americans. Make lists of all the people they love and all the things that give them joyfrilly dresses and baseball. Then tell them about the Benefactor who made all those joys possible. The word eucharist means thanksgiving. But how can they be grateful if they take everything for granted? And surely, do teach very young children ways of centering prayer, before schooling almost inevitably kills imagination. The root of the word religion, after all, is religare, to bind fast; thus, if there is no person-to-Person connection, there is no religion. Voltaire knew a great deal more about God than Joan of Arc did.
Give Jesus stories, not doctrines: Good Samaritan, Prodigal Son, repentant thief, the Judgment, in which our lives’ worth hinges solely on our compassion. Jesus embodied what Christian means: unconditional forgiveness. Accountants, not poets, conjured the moral theology I learned years ago, discerning whether one had to withhold absolution, requiring total recall of species and number, imposing a retributory penancenone of which the Gospels’ Jesus practiced.
Being moral means acting like a human rather than a beast. Socrates strove to be moral long before there was a Jesus; Gandhi was a saint despite his Hinduism. Students equate morality and Christianity simply because their only moral training was under Christian auspices.
I invited the head of admissions at the University of Rochester Medical School to talk to seniors and asked, What’s your first question to applicants with a near-perfect G.P.A.? Without hesitation, he said, What’s the last novel you read? I ask kids why a doctor should read fiction, and they haven’t a clue. (Nor do many adults.) My friend did not want biologists to solve puzzles, but physicians to care for human beings. Fiction allows us to get into another’s skin, endure their struggles without their scars, understand that the Golden Rule is not a matter of religion but of human survival. Those who want moral children can offer no better gift than a passion for reading.
Give them heroines and heroes who honor commitments even when it’s inconvenient, Narnia and hobbits rather than impersonal video slaughter, stories that embody trust, confidence, respect, responsibility, gratitude, perseverence. Make them want to be good humans before inviting them to be Pop Warner theologians.
Whoever believes that the age of reason kicks in at age seven never taught high school sophomores. But around 11th grade, it does begin to emerge. So, offer them motives for faith and morality based on reason alone. Scripture and church are the only motives they’ve heard for enduring Mass and foreswearing all that unbeliever fun. And they don’t buy either motive.
When I ask what faith means, they reply a blind leap in the dark. Sheer idiocy: putting your life’s savings on the lottery. Nor (pace the catechism) is faith merely obedience, trusting church authority to mediate the truth to us, to which we humbly conform. Faith is a calculated risk, neither assent on evidence that compels it (It’s raining), nor a leap on no evidence at all (We’ve just met; let’s get married). In any act of faith (choosing a college, career, spouse), you gather evidence, organize it in an outline, draw tentative conclusions and ask someone wiser to critique it. Then you erode the doubt by living awhile according to it, to see if it works.
Teaching acceptable motives for moral behavior to media-zapped skeptics is another challenge. Appeals to altruism are incomprehensible; appeals to authority are vain. We’ve known that since Socrates. Today, opinions are self-justifying, morality changes from age to age. It is essential, then, to begin with epistemology: what validates opinions? Youngsters balk grimly at the difference between objective facts (which are unarguable) and subjective opinions (which are only as valid as the objective facts and reasoning behind them). But a pebble and caramel tell me, just by the way they’re made, that I can eat one and not the other. Something undeniable within a dog tells me it’s objectively unfitting to set it ablaze as if it had no feelings, like a plum pudding. Something unquestionable within my little sister tells me it’s wrong to use her for third base.
Risking imprisonment in Castel Sant’Angelo, I propose four non-negotiables of Christian faith catechesis - even if kids lack knowledge of filioque, the symbols in the Book of Revelation and the insights of Teilhard. 1) Jesus is the embodiment of God. Somehow, God came from beyond time and space to show us how it’s done. 2) Jesus/God died in order to rise and show us that we are immortal and to share divine aliveness with us. 3) Those who belong to Jesus/God see the values of The Kingdom (them first God and neighbor) as more important than the values of The World (me first). 4) We celebrate that incorporation in a serving community and a weekly meal of thanksgiving.
Deny any of those and you can still be a fine human beingeven a saint, like Camusbut not a Christian. To my fallible mind, everything else is, in varying degrees, negotiable.
Since morality means simply being a decent human, I see no meaning in the term Christian morality. Christianity far outreaches equity. Justice says that after atonement the debt ceases; love forgives the debtor even before he or she apologizesthe adulterous woman, Peter after the resurrection, the prodigal son. Unconditional forgiveness of debts is beyond most accountants’ comprehension. That’s altruism. And it’s probably also beyond most teenagersfor now.
Christianity is a crucifix: a man utterly used up for others. The true Christian looks at it and says: Yes. That’s the most perfectly fulfilled human being who ever lived, caught at the moment of his greatest triumph. I want to be like him. Kids bewildered by celibacy and martyrdom are not ready for that. Our job is to make them less unready.
There are not many palpable rewards to being an apologist disguised as a catechist, but at times a shining few emerge. One year, on the last day of class, Jimmy Smith, the one I could always count on for C’mon, if she wants it as much as you do...? hooked his arm around my neck and said: Pops, we both know you’re right. But I can’t give it up.
The catechetical strategists would have been incensed, or at least glumly frustrated. I walked out of that room six inches off the ground.