Those who teach theology at the high school level have always encountered both believers and skeptics. What is striking about this moment in the life of the church is the large number of believers among the young. Their receptivity to religious enlightenment and their openness to religious experience is remarkable when compared to the teen scene of a few decades ago. The fields are white for the harvest, waiting for adults who can tap into the idealism of these young people and help give voice to their strivings.
When we speak of young believers, we realize, of course, we are dealing with adolescents who by definition are works in progress. This is what makes teen ministry so challenging and exciting: The clay is still being molded, and the shape of things to come is not yet clear. Christian discipleship is a call to share Jesus’ worldview, values, aspirations and commitments. Adolescents are still constructing a worldview. Their values and aspirations are in the process of formation, and their capacity for commitment is just beginning to emerge.
Christianity, like all serious religions, offers answers to the deepest questions human beings put to life. Are we alone in the universe, or is Someone in charge? What is the strongest force in the universelife, or death? Is there some transcendent purpose to human life? How does a good person behave? These are the questions Jesus came to answer. Children raised in religious homes learn the answers before they have asked the questions. Adolescence is a time when they can articulate the questions, understand what seriously religious adults are about and give a name to their own growing hunger for meaning and fulfillment.
Youth ministry programs usually give much less attention to the intellectual dimension of religious formation and stress appeals to the affective. Fair enough. Religion, after all, is a matter more of the heart than of the head. Most parishes gave up, long ago, the futile attempt to teach religion courses to teenagers. They committed their energies and resources to sponsoring youth worship and retreats, with much more encouraging results. But when the Most Rev. Edward K. Braxton, now the auxiliary bishop of St. Louis, was director of Calvert House, the Catholic student center at the University of Chicago, he described (Am., 4/28/84) the plight of Catholic undergraduates at secular universities, where religion is often regarded as not quite intellectually respectable and treated as a medieval leftover from less enlightened times:
The student from a fairly devout and traditional Catholic setting and with a rather clear if somewhat juridical understanding of Catholicism may respond defensively, retreating into a private dogmatic orthodoxy. He or she may seek to avoid any serious discussion of religion. The student who comes to the university rather confused with bits and pieces of Sunday sermons, teen-club pep talks and high school religion-class discussions may react with equal defensiveness. Both of these students, like their Protestant-Evangelical counterparts, may draw the line on what they will discuss or think about...never admitting to the tensions and contradictions between what they learned in church and what they are learning in the classroom.
Bishop Braxton’s conclusion was that campus ministry at the college level needs to be more than a "Mass on Sunday" contact and must assist the students in their understanding of contemporary Catholicism and in their spiritual development. But what about the years preceding the college experience? What forms should the study of religion take during the crucial years of early and mid-adolescence?
Obviously, religious literacy must be a goal of high school theology programs. And the more academically talented the students, the more intellectually respectable should the curriculum be. If, as St. Anselm said, theology is faith seeking understanding, then the challenge to those students’ understanding should be appropriate to their age and development. But more is involved here than comprehension of dogma, important as that may be. The obstacles to growth in faith for all young people, college-bound or not, are not mainly intellectual. They come from a dominant culture that on many levels is hostile to any genuine religious commitment, including Christian discipleship.
This hostility is so pervasive that people both young and old need help even to perceive it. Christianity teaches us to love people and use things. Consumerism, which defines persons in terms of things owned, urges our children to love things and use people. Advertising, society’s most potent educational force, teaches them that their hunger for intimacy, security, success and meaning can be satisfied by conspicuous consumption. But if the deepest human needs can be met by owning and consuming products, what is left for religion to provide?
One of the most important tasks of high school religious education is to help young people stand back and see their world for what it is, and to put names on the forces that would manipulate them. A culture that preempts serious questioning and striving must be demystified, or else religion itself will be reduced to just another consumer item far down on youth’s list of priorities. In her book Making Life Choices (Paulist, 1992), Margaret Betz tells of the congressman who, at the dedication of a new mall, solemnly spoke these words: "We are gathered here today not merely to dedicate a shopping mall, but to rededicate ourselves, mind and body, to the spirit of consumerism, and to seek an ever more deeply indebted relationship to the process of purchasing merchandise."
You can be sure that no one in the audience laughed. The least we can do is help our students see how funny and sad that whole scene was and is. Then they may be disposed to hear a presentation of the Christian message that comes across not like a list of religious dos and don’ts arbitrarily imposed by parents, but as an alternative vision of life. This is the way catechumens in ancient Rome learned about the faithas a way of life which embraced all that was good in their society and rejected what was unworthy of followers of Christ.
All of this amounts to a clearing of the decks, making space for a positive presentation of the Gospel. There are many good ways of doing this, and the effective ones are those that center on the person of Christ, what he tells us about God and how he reveals us to ourselves.
A Christocentric approach, based as it is on New Testament writings, presupposes an ability to read the Bible correctly and assimilate its religious message without the distortions that characterize fundamentalism. Scripture scholarship need not be heavy-handed debunking. Properly presented, it can help put the young person in touch with the authentic word of God. Many students come to Catholic high schools with a very sketchy background not only in Bible study but also in basic Christian doctrine. Even many of those who come from Catholic grammar schools have received religious instruction not from professionals but from teachers who are generous and well-meaning but who have had little or no training in religious education. Those from public schools and parish programs may have had even less instruction. For these, the high school theology faculty has the formidable task of building religious literacy from the ground up and preparing college-bound graduates for the challenges that come with higher education.
The teen religious scene presents peculiar challenges for the theology teacher. These include not only pushing back the borders of ignorance but also occasionally doing repair work on what has been badly taught or poorly grasped. Certain half-baked ideas keep coming up with depressing frequency; many of these are associated with images of God. One of them goes like this: The Old Testament is all about fear, while the New Testament God is a God of love who just wants us to be nice but will forgive us even if we aren’t. As a matter of fact, much of the Old Testament is about love, and Jesus has some pretty scary things to say in Gospel passages that never get picked for the teen-club liturgy.
Good theology classes aimed at high school students can clear up some understandable but dangerous misconceptions about our relationship to God. Youth ministers put a lot of commendable effort into affirming adolescents and shoring up their fragile self-images. They tell them of God’s unconditional love, a powerful message for the young. But for some youngsters the message is garbled and comes out like this: "God loves me so much he doesn’t care what I do." In speaking of the things of God with the young, there is a point where we must go beyond affirmation to challenge. Jesus had more to say than "You’re okay, I’m okay."
A God who challenges as well as affirms, and a Jesus who hates sin as much as he loves sinners, are requisite for anyone who tries to share the insights of moral theology with today’s young people. The latter are intensely interested in moral questions, fascinated by the notions of right and wrong and how people arrive at them. The high school years are a good time to learn skills of conscience formation. These skills were easier for earlier generations to come by, before our society’s fragile moral consensus collapsed under the onslaught of relativism, pragmatism and an individualism that considers any moral criticism an intolerable assault on freedom. With help from caring and knowledgeable adults, they can perceive the outlines of a pervasive moral illiteracy, identify its roots and aspire to something better.
Some basic truths that have eluded not only the mavens of mass culture but even some of the high priests presiding over the groves of academe are easily appropriated by adolescents: that not all choices are guaranteed to be right; that there is a difference between legality and morality; that free will can be misused; that some moral convictions are not reducible to religious dogmas but are shared by humanists of any religious stripe or none.
Young people need to have some basic distinctions explained to themfor example, the difference between objective and subjective morality. They are now old enough to see that the moral values they picked up at home or in church are not arbitrary impositions but are grounded in respect for the rights and dignity of human beings. They can see that things are not right because God commands them, but that God commands things because they are right. They can see that things like sexual irresponsibility are not wrong because forbidden, but forbidden because they violate or damage human beings or put them at unjustifiable risk. In short, adolescents need to know not only what is commanded or forbidden, but why. And they are at an age admirably suited to such investigation. They are capable of understanding, and they have the motivation to make the effort.
This generation will need such skills when they become adults and tackle such new problems in medical ethics and reproductive technology as genetic engineering. Whatever form those problems take, certain principles like reverence for life, respect for persons and concern for community will serve our growing children well as they help shape a world rich in promise and fraught with danger. The Catholic moral tradition, mediated in ways appropriate to their age and development, offers ideals like reverence for God’s dominion, acknowledgment of creaturehood and exercise of responsible stewardship. These ideals will guide our young people as they engage their contemporaries in moral debates of momentous consequence. The high school years are not too soon to start passing on that tradition. Later may be too late.