Voices Online Edition
Vol. XVII: No. 1
What Yield the Deposit of Faith?
Perspectives on Catechetics
by Sheila G. Liaugminas
Sanity, remember, does not mean living in the same world as everyone else; it means living in the real world. But some of the most important elements in the real world can be known only by the revelation of God, which it is theology's business to study. Lacking this knowledge, the mind must live a half-blind life, trying to cope with a reality most of which it does not know is there. This is a wretched state for an immortal spirit, and pretty certain to lead to disaster. "There is a good deal of disaster around at this moment", wrote Frank Sheed in Theology and Sanity.
At the very least, there is as much disaster around today as there was in 1946 when Frank Sheed, the great Catholic apologist, wrote those words in his foreword to the original edition of Theology and Sanity, his compelling study of the Catholic worldview.
Sheed's contention that the lack of knowledge of Divine Revelation is at the root of disaster is an equally timeless worry, one that concerned the Apostles. "For everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.' But how are men to call upon Him whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ" (Rom. 10:13-15).
That passage of Scripture was cited in 1905 by Pope Pius X in his encyclical Acerbo Nimis, On Teaching Christian Doctrine (no. 16), to punctuate the point that the faith instilled in the baptized by the Holy Spirit must be nourished by the teaching Church.
We are forced to agree with those who hold that the chief cause of the present indifference and, as it were, infirmity of soul, and the serious evils that result from it, is to be found above all in ignorance of things divine (no. 1). It is a common complaint, unfortunately too well founded, that there are large numbers of Christians in our own time who are entirely ignorant of those truths necessary for salvation (no. 2). Now, if we cannot expect to reap a harvest when no seed has been planted, how can we hope to have a people with sound morals if Christian doctrine has not been imparted to them in due time? It follows, too, that if faith languishes in our days, if among large numbers it has almost vanished, the reason is that the duty of catechetical teaching is either fulfilled very superficially or altogether neglected (no. 16).
Nearly one hundred years later, we are in that same state. The faith has been languishing for decades now, a couple of generations have so lost their knowledge and understanding of it that vast numbers have either "almost vanished" or fallen away completely, and are now raising children who are basically clueless as to the foundations of the faith or, even worse, indifferent to it altogether. "Children arriving at high school age today are often found to be on a level of religious ignorance comparable with that of the ancient pagans", observes Sister Mary Anastasia, OSF, in her article "Catechizing the New Pagans", (Homiletic and Pastoral Review, August/September 1995).
[Another] factor contributing to the religious apathy of adolescents today is their general lack of literacy and the fears that this engenders. Locked in time and space and bounded by the things they can see and touch, they cannot grasp the idea of eternity 'without beginning or end'. Placing most of their faith in the concepts presented by the television, they fear 'forever'...
This ignorance of general culture and illiteracy of things beyond the scope of their senses, gives tremendous power to the controlling sway of the mass media. Continually bombarded by [the entertainment culture], children and adolescents unconsciously develop attitudes directly contrary to the precepts of the eternal natural law.
Fluff and feel-good stories
It is tough to break through this cultural depravity to reach at least those students who have access to religious instruction, and to shine the light of truth on the darkness surrounding them -- and on their ignorance of both the subject and matter of religion.
Great numbers of young people baptized into the Church just don't have even a basic knowledge of the Catholic faith, either because their own parents fell away and the family doesn't practice it much, or they go through the motions on Sunday and leave it at that.
But even when young Catholics attend religion classes, too often the materials and/or teachers are teaching some version of truth that has passed through a cultural bleaching process and has been imbued with some thinly-veiled heresy currently in season.
Various religion teachers, a couple of them priests, in what are considered "good" Catholic schools, have talked with us about their frustration in trying to teach groups of students who don't know their basic prayers, the Ten Commandments, anything about the Beatitudes, or that there are even seven Sacraments (much less what they are!).
These teachers refer to the catechism materials they have been required to work with as "all fluff and feel-good stories", or "sunsets and rainbows".
Marianne Alpha, C.V., an Arizona Religious Education Coordinator, in an article, "Passing on the Faith: A Religious Education Program That Works", addressing youth catechesis, wrote, "Some of them have come from other RE [religious education] programs with little depth". She notes, "I refer to those programs as consisting of balloons, butterflies and collages".
Who's producing this stuff? Could it be that the writers are just bereft of all knowledge of the great wealth of Catholic truths? Hasn't this gone on far too long now?
The answer at least to the last question, is yes. And there are some good, solid and interesting catechism series in the works right now for the different age groups of students, as well as RCIA materials, that are faithful to the teaching of the Church.
The USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) Committee to Oversee Use of the Catechism (COUC) is working through ways to direct and monitor materials that teach the faith in conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but the Church tends to be a slow moving institution.
In March of 1995, the committee was asked (by the Administrative Committee of the USCCB) to "conduct a study on the feasibility of having the bishops undertake the development of a national catechism or catechetical series", according to an update by the Bishops' Office for the Catechism.
In September of 1998, more than three years later, a preliminary report was produced, which made "recommendations regarding future steps in the feasibility study". Here's how that paragraph ended:
Basically, the members of the Ad Hoc Committee recommended delaying a decision on the question in order to allow more time in which to assess the impact of the conformity review process on the doctrinal content of catechetical texts and series, and also to measure the potential usefulness of an instrument or instruments which designate topics for specific age groups or grade levels.
Convoluted as that sentence is, the key words are is the "conformity review process", which is still finding its form and function. For instance, the Catechism oversight committee lists as one of its stated objectives the supervision of how the Catechism is being handled, "especially in the revision of catechetical materials presently in use and in the development of new catechetical materials. This is accomplished by the review of catechetical materials voluntarily submitted to the Ad Hoc Committee as to their conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church".
Why only those voluntarily submitted? One would think the bishops would be most interested in those materials not offered for their review. It's like making the mandatum, the pledge to uphold the teachings of the Church in Catholic universities, an option for professors. Who is most likely to step forward, and who to refrain?
So it should be no surprise that in their Summer 2001 Catechism Update, the COUC wrote:
We find that the present catechetical situation in this country on the secondary level is far from satisfactory. It is a source of concern and frustration to the Catechism Committee that, to date, the conformity review process has had relatively little effect on the catechetical materials used with a large portion of our high school age students. This is because, so far, few reviews have actually taken place on those materials.
Could this be because review of these materials is optional?
The update continues:
Some additional conformity reviews for high school materials have taken place but the results conveyed in reports from those reviews were ignored and the publishing houses involved made the choice to release materials that the Catechism Committee had found unacceptable for a declaration of conformity. These materials had been judged unacceptable because they reflected many of the ten doctrinal deficiencies we had reported finding in our earlier reviews.
This is rather breathtaking. Especially considering that one page earlier in this update, the bishops stated that they "have worked with many catechetical publishers and have, in essence, established an effective partnership with them in the production of catechetical materials whose doctrinal content conforms to the CCC [Catechism]" (All emphasis added).
One more thing. In its Winter 2001 Update, the committee reported that in conducting some conformity reviews, it had noted some "tendencies which negatively affect catechetical materials". Four tendencies were listed:
1. relativism, especially in terms of morality;
2. an unbalanced Christology which focuses more on Jesus' humanity than on His divinity;
3. a tendency to talk about "ministry" without clearly differentiating between ordained ministry and the ministry of the Baptized;
4. and a tendency to use "politically correct" language which inadvertently compromises doctrine.
There seems to be some kind of disconnect in the evolution of this system to safeguard the deposit of the faith for those who will be the future of the Church. Some bishops do understand the problem and have tried to change it. One difficulty is that there are two conference committees involved in issues of catechesis, one a subcommittee of the Education Committee and the other the COUC. Under the present system, deficiencies that do not directly involve citations of the Catechism do not come under the COUC's oversight.
Passing the Torch
In his address at the close of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI directed various specific messages to particular groups, from the hierarchy on down to the youngest members of the Church. Here is what he said to the youth of nearly forty years ago:
Lastly, it is to you, young men and women of the world, that the Council wishes to address its final message. For it is you who are to receive the torch from the hands of your elders and to live in the world at the period of the most gigantic transformations ever realized in its history. It is you who, receiving the best of the example of the teaching of your parents and your teachers, are to form the society of tomorrow. You will either save yourselves or you will perish with it. (Second Vatican Council - Closing Speeches and Messages)
Note the pope's emphasis on the best example of the teaching of parents and teachers. He continues:
The Church has confidence that you will find such strength and such joy that you will not be tempted, as were some of your elders, to yield to the seductions of egoistic or hedonistic philosophies or to those of despair and annihilation, and that in the face of atheism, a phenomenon of lassitude and old age, you will know how to affirm your faith in life and in what gives meaning to life, that is to say, the certitude of the existence of a just and good God.
That would involve a good deal of good teaching; in other words, sound catechesis. Pope John Paul II has made abundant use of every opportunity to teach about the Second Vatican Council, about catechesis -- and especially to connect the two.
Upon the completion of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992, Pope John Paul II issued the Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum to remind us all that "Guarding the deposit of faith is the mission which the Lord entrusted to His Church, and which she fulfills in every age. The principal task entrusted to the Council by Pope John XXIII was to guard and present better the precious deposit of Christian doctrine in order to make it more accessible to the Christian faithful and to all people of good will. (FD - Introductory remarks)
What is this deposit of the faith?
Here's how Frank Sheed described it:
Christ gave to His Church, in the person of its first officials, the apostles, a mass of truth concerning God and man; concerning the nature of God, His threefold personality, His attributes, His purpose in making man, the means by which His purpose was to be achieved. This teaching, given by Christ to the apostles, was by them passed on to others, who in their turn passed it on. The Church then, by the time the last apostle died, had all the mass of truth the apostles had taught, the whole of it by word of mouth, a part of it in writing. She might have simply gone on, through the nineteen centuries since, repeating what had been taught, reading what had been written. In this case, she would have been a preserver of truth - but scarcely a teacher. In fact, she not only repeated what the apostles had been taught, she thought about it, meditated on it, prayed by it, lived it. And, doing all this, the Church came to see further and further depths of truth in it. And, seeing these, she taught these too... This development in the Church's understanding of what has been committed to her is not like anything else in the world. (A Map of Life)
And thus this truth must be guarded accordingly. That must be done by the ever constant and unchanging teaching authority of the Church.
In the Vatican II document Dei Verbum, much is made of the succession from Christ to the apostles to the bishops in carrying out the responsibility to hand on Divine Revelation. "But in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, 'handing over' to them 'the authority to teach in their place'" (DV no. 7).
Exactly ten years to the day after Pope Paul VI's address at the close of the Council, he called for a bold look at how the bishops were doing in obedience to this commission.
In his December 8, 1975 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, On Evangelization in the Modern World, Pope Paul VI asked some stark questions, starting with the one he called "the fundamental question that the Church is asking herself today". The question?
[A]fter the Council and thanks to the Council at this turning-point of history, does the Church or does she not find herself better equipped to proclaim the Gospel and to put it into people's hearts with conviction, freedom of spirit and effectiveness? (EN no. 4)
That's a trick question. Or rather, a tricky one to answer. Better equipped can mean having an army of holy men and women who are spiritually grounded in Scripture and Tradition and step in line with the Holy Father. Or it can mean technologically equipped with the advancements of the age that make it possible to reach the most remote ends of the globe over the airwaves and through the Internet, through audio and visual material and instruct -- even dazzle -- the faithful in multi-media presentations.
Then there is the second half of that question.
Paul VI clearly described in Evangelii Nuntiandi what is required of those who intend to put the Gospel into people's hearts with conviction, freedom of spirit and effectiveness:
"Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses". The Church will evangelize the world by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus-the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity. (EN no. 41)
"Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice" (Jn 18:37)
We have, in our time, no better witness of sanctity, no better teacher who lives the teaching, than John Paul II. Why is it that the world's youth flock with explosive joy to every World Youth Day in numbers far exceeding all expectations? Why are they fired with what appears to be electrical energy from the moment he comes into their presence, as they sing to him, cry out for his attention and hang on his every word with profound and rapt attention, listening from the depth of their souls?
It has always been about the truth. "It is often said nowadays that the present century thirsts for authenticity". stated Pope Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi, "Especially in regard to young people it is said that they have a horror of the artificial or false and that they are searching above all for truth and honesty" (EN no. 76).
Young people are looking for the same things in 2002 as they were in 1975 when Pope Paul VI wrote these words. They are hungry for truth and are finding it in its completeness in the person and the teachings of Pope John Paul II. He is the modern day Peter to whom the deposit of truth and faith has been entrusted, whole and unbending to the changing millennia. He speaks truth boldly and directly to them, relating the Gospel to their lives, making Jesus accessible to them and challenging them to be disciples in their own daily lives.
After World Youth Day 2000, a group of Chicago youth returned from the pilgrimage and wrote of their experiences. Their essays speak to the power of Pope John Paul as a teacher, because they saw him first as such a witness.
"The words of the Holy Father are soothing balm to the ears of the troubled", observed Michelle Echevarria. "Now the challenge to all of us who went on this pilgrimage is to live out our faith in our daily lives, to rise up to the Holy Father's challenge for us to live lives of sainthood".
Richard Henao recalls, "He addressed issues that many of us young adults have trouble understanding.... It is very easy to preach God's Word when you have over two million young people around you. God calls us young people to spread His Word in our own parishes and schools. No one said that would be an easy task, but with the help of the Holy Spirit, there is no need to be afraid".
Each essay echoes the awareness that they, the youth of the Church, have in this encounter with the Chief Shepherd of the flock, received the deposit of the faith, and they take it seriously. "I was aware of the hope that we, the youth, give the pope", recalls Laura Kieffer. "I saw how much faith he has in us to make positive changes in the world to respond to God's call. I understand that I am a part of what gives him such hope and faith, and I must respond to this by spreading God's word and responding to His call. I feel like I am a part of what makes the pope so joyous, and I need to be worthy of that by doing something about it. I have a much better sense of the importance of being a part of the faith and service that makes the pope believe in us".
"Having eyes do you not see?" (Mk. 8:18)
Of course, the secular world doesn't know what to make of this, and so tries to spin it with a joking, cynical tone, albeit a nervous one. The Wall Street Journal noticed this and remarked about it in an editorial on the coverage of World Youth Day 2000. "An event rife with meaning not just for theologians, but for people everywhere, ended this past weekend in Rome", it began,
Two million or so youths rallied in the Eternal City, coming from places as diverse as Togo, Manila, Paris and St. Louis to heed a call from Pope John Paul II and generating a fervor that left journalists and intellectuals scratching their heads Observers who view the march of history with [cynicism] are often out of touch with reality even as they take pride in their own sophistication. Many in the media seem to be uncomfortable with the idea that there are many people in the world, young people especially, who are genuinely religious and who came to what the press has cavalierly described as a "Pope-fest" to enjoy a fulfilling experience. That many young people today have a yearning for better guideposts for leading useful and rewarding lives is a welcome sign. It is one of many ironies in this whole story that the call for personal responsibility and a change from a cultural drift toward hedonism would come, again, in Rome (Wall Street Journal - International Edition, August 22, 2000).
A keen observation - and nice indictment of the corporate mind living "a half-blind life" that Frank Sheed wrote of in the quote at the beginning of this essay, "trying to cope with a reality most of which it does not know is there".
Sheed's reason for writing Theology and Sanity, as he revealed in the first paragraph, was to examine how what we see and what we choose and experience is based upon what we know.
"I have said that my concern is with the intellect rather than with the will: this not because the intellect matters more in religion than the will, but because it does matter and tends to be neglected, and the neglect is bad", explains Sheed at the start of the book. "[W]e can never attain a maximum love of God with only a minimum knowledge of God".
How best to impart a true and maximum knowledge of God?
"[T]he world is calling for evangelizers to speak to it of a God whom the evangelists themselves should know and be familiar with as if they could see the invisible" wrote Pope Paul VI (EV 76). "Without this mark of holiness, our word will have difficulty in touching the heart of modern man. It risks being vain and sterile".
In Marianne Alpha's article "Passing on the Faith: A Religious Education Program that Works", she states that "[t]he first step in choosing teachers is prayer. Once we realize that this is God's work and not ours -- that He wants his people to know Him and love Him -- we will have the confidence to trust in His help".
This work cannot be advertised as "Catechists needed, no experience necessary -- training supplied in two evening sessions", as Sister Mary Anastasia puts it in her article on catechetics, an all-too-familiar call for help in religious education programs.
This is the sacramental season, a time of great movement of the Holy Spirit. It is the spiritual journey through Lent and the joyful celebration of Easter. It includes the preparation of catechumens for entry into the Church and reception of the sacraments, and the instruction and preparation of youth for first Penance, First Eucharist and Confirmation.
According to the Code of Canon Law, Christian parents have the first responsibility for this:
Because they have given life to their children, parents have a most serious obligation and enjoy the right to educate them; therefore Christian parents are especially to care for the Christian education of their children according to the teaching handed on by the Church (Canon 226 §2).
Furthermore, in the chapter on Catechetical Instruction,
Canon 773. There is a proper and serious duty, especially on the part of pastors of souls, to provide for the catechesis of the Christian people so that the faith of the people becomes living, explicit and productive through formation in doctrine and the experience of Christian living.
Canon 774 §2. Parents above all others are obliged to form their children in the faith and practice of the Christian life by word and example; godparents and those who take the place of parents are bound by an equivalent obligation.
Raise Up an Army
Duty is one thing, when calling upon laity to assist the Church in catechesis, but preparation of the catechists themselves has always been a serious concern, as Sheed notes in Theology and Sanity.
Some of the training given to members of individual Catholic groups seems to be merely pathetic, like sending soldiers into battle with wooden swords and toy pistols. The Council had summoned us all to the war in which there is never a truce, the war between the mind of Christ and the mind of the world. Bernard Shaw would not have seen himself on Christ's side, but his summary of the situation has its own aptness - "The class-war of the future will be a war of intellectual classes and the conquest will be for the souls of the children". For effective soldiering, we must give our own minds to the study of both minds at war, Christ's primarily. To think we can do this by giving it as much of our free time as we can comfortably spare is foolishness. Paul would have delighted in Rudyard Kipling's phrase, "There's no discharge from the war". Unless we see it as of that urgency, we may as well stay on the sidelines while others fight for the souls of the children.
Catechesis, in the full weight of its mandate and fulfillment, has always been a central concern in the ministry of Pope John Paul II, "as a priest and as a bishop", and he addresses this issue at length in his 1979 Apostolic Exhortation, Catechesi Tradendae, On Catechesis in Our Time. In it the Holy Father stresses that there is one Teacher, Jesus Christ.
We must therefore say that in catechesis it is Christ, the Incarnate Word and Son of God, who is taught everything else is taught with reference to Him and it is Christ alone who teaches anyone else teaches to the extent that he is Christ's spokesman, enabling Christ to teach with his lips. [E]very catechist must constantly endeavor to transmit by his teaching and behavior the teaching and life of Jesus. He will not seek to keep directed towards himself and his personal opinions and attitudes the attention and the consent of the mind and heart of the person he is catechizing. Above all, he will not try to inculcate his personal opinions and options as if they expressed Christ's teaching and the lessons of His life. Every catechist should be able to apply to himself the mysterious words of Jesus: "My teaching is not mine, but His who sent me" (CT no. 6).
The materials must be well-grounded and faithful. The pope continues in his exhortation:
Catechesis will always draw its content from the living source of the Word of God transmitted in Tradition and the Scriptures, for "sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church" (CT no. 27).
Then he states that "it is not enough to multiply catechetical works", and spells out several conditions essential for approved texts. First, they "must be linked with the real life of the generation to which they are addressed, showing close acquaintance with its anxieties and questionings, struggles and hopes". Then, "they must try to speak a language comprehensible to the generation in question". Also, "they must make a point of giving the whole message of Christ and His Church, without neglecting or distorting anything". And finally, "they must really aim to give to those who use them a better knowledge of the mysteries of Christ, aimed at true conversion and a life more in conformity with God's will" (CT no. 38).
The Holy Father also insists on "integrity of content", so that the "word of faith" be taught "whole and entire," with no alterations or omissions.
What kind of catechesis would it be that failed to give their full place to man's creation and sin; to God's plan of redemption and its long, loving preparation and realization; to the incarnation of the Son of God; to Mary, the Immaculate One, the Mother of God, ever Virgin, raised body and soul to the glory of heaven, and to her role in the mystery of salvation; to the mystery of lawlessness at work in our lives and the power of God freeing us from it; to the need for penance and asceticism; to the sacramental and liturgical actions; to the reality of the Eucharistic Presence; to participation in divine life here and hereafter, and so on? Thus, no true catechist can lawfully, on his own initiative, make a selection of what he considers important in the deposit of faith as opposed to what he considers unimportant, so as to teach the one and reject the other (CT no. 30, emphasis added).
With the Mind of the Church
In his April 15, 1905, encyclical on teaching Christian doctrine, Acerbo Nimis, Pius X wrote: "We do maintain that the will cannot be upright nor the conduct good when the mind is shrouded in the darkness of crass ignorance (AN no. 5). This erring will, blinded by its own evil desires, has need therefore of a guide to lead it back to the paths of justice whence it has so unfortunately strayed. The intellect itself is this guide. It is a guide, though, that, if it lack its companion light, the knowledge of divine things, will be only an instance of the blind leading the blind so that both will fall into the pit" (AN no. 3).
For this reason, Sheed contends that such companion light, such knowledge of divine things, must come from the Church.
"We believe what the Church teaches because the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, because, therefore, her teaching is the voice of Christ himself", he writes in Map of Life.
Among the mass of the things she teaches and the moral laws she propounds, some are, as it were, easy for the human mind, some difficult. For some we seem to see a score of reasons, for some we see no reason at all, some actually might seem to us against reason. But all alike we accept on the one secure ground - that the Church teaches them. We do not accept the easy ones because we can see why, and the others only by an act of faith. We accept the easy ones - because the Church teaches them; and we accept the difficult ones -because the Church teaches them.
He carries the point further in Theology and Sanity, wherein he defines the importance of the intellect in knowing and understanding what we believe.
For the soul's full functioning, we need a Catholic intellect as well as a Catholic will. We have a Catholic will when we love God and obey God, love the Church and obey the Church. We have a Catholic intellect when we live consciously in the presence of the realities that God through His Church has revealed. A good working test of a Catholic will is that we should do what the Church says. But for a Catholic intellect, we must also see what the Church sees. This means that when we look out upon the Universe we see the same Universe that the Church sees; and the enormous advantage of this is that the Universe the Church sees is the real Universe, because she is the Church of God. Seeing what she sees means seeing what is there. And just as loving what is good is sanctity, or the health of the will, so seeing what is there is sanity, or the health of the intellect.
Thus, Sheed proposes, we live most fully in the real world -- the one known only by the revelation of God.
"The scholars have done a superb work on the actual text of Scripture: the Church needed them", he observes, but more is required:
As to the meaning, commentators without ceasing have produced their ideas; the libraries of the world are filled with them. But unless there is an authority to study them, sift them, compare them with the original revelation, channel them to the millions for whom Christ meant it - then they must add to the religious chaos and bring no light to the secular. For God to have given His revelation and made no provision for its preservation would have been sheerly insane. Christ did not leave His teaching unguarded. He committed it to men He had trained: they were to teach it to all men till the end of time: He would be with them in their teaching.
Christ's teaching must still be guarded, no less today than in Frank Sheed's generation, nearly sixty years ago. And the "millions for whom Christ meant it" -- including the youth of our time -- still need this clear light of truth.
Sheila Gribben Liaugminas, a Chicago journalist, is a member of the editorial board of Voices. She is married and the mother of three sons.
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