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The State of Religious Education
by James Hitchcock
September 18, 2002
The state of religious education is usually discussed in terms of doctrine -- are students, from kindergarten through college, getting adequate knowledge of Catholic teaching?
But years ago Catholic education was considered to be comprehensive, and Catholic schools usually had their own textbooks in literature, history, and other subjects. Whatever might be said about the teaching of doctrine, it is indisputable that a Catholic approach to other subjects has now largely disappeared, and Catholic schools at all levels now use the same textbooks as secular schools.
The abandonment of Catholic textbooks was justified on the grounds that the truth about the larger world is available to everyone equally, on the basis of human reason, and believers should not approach the world any differently than non-believers. There is no basis on which Catholics and non-Catholics should differ about the causes of the First World War, for example. In some subjects, such as mathematics, the very idea of a "Catholic" approach seems absurd.
At present, however, there are three distinct groups of people at work developing textbooks on ostensibly secular subjects for use in Catholic schools. The first volume to appear, so far as I know, is a sixth-grade text called All Ye Lands: World Culture and Geography, published by Ignatius Press, part of a series put out by the Catholic Schools Textbook Project, edited by Rollins Lasseter.
I don't in fact think Catholics will be likely to understand the causes of World War I any differently than non-Catholics, apart from our belief in divine providence, which we cannot really understand. But, as the new book shows, there are many aspects of the study of human history where personal faith does make a difference.
One difference is manifested in the simple recognition of how important a role religion has played throughout human history. We live a secular age, but even now religion is important, and in times past, in its various manifestations, it virtually saturated human societies. Textbooks by secular authors often underestimate the importance of religion. The resurgence of a militant Islam, to take the best current example, has puzzled many commentators because they assumed that militant religion was a dying phenomenon.
A Catholic textbook also manifests the authors' understanding of and sympathy with religion from the inside, in ways that are ultimately impossible for non-believers. Even when religion is given adequate attention in secular books, it can often be said that the author can recite the lyrics but does not know the tune. A believer understands the inner meaning of religious phenomena, and why people find it credible and often sees how religious beliefs have influenced the course of civilization in ways the non-believer may not recognize.
The standard objection to using Catholic textbooks is that they are biased and not "objective". But that claim itself shows a certain bias. Why should it be assumed that believers see history from a prejudiced standpoint, while non-believers do not? There is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
But beyond this, contemporary educators no longer insist that scholars should be detached from their subject. All kinds of history is written in order to make students appreciate their race or their gender, for example. One of the great losses in modern Catholic education is that students are seldom exposed to the glories of the Catholic past -- to the great saints and to Catholic contributions to civilization. We need to be clear-eyed about the past and remember the many ways in which Catholics have sinned, often egregiously. But we also need to inculcate in young people a sense of pride in their religious heritage.
Besides the series in history, books for English and science courses are also planned. Information can be gotten at www.catholictextbookproject.com.
James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock
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