Can the tide of religious illiteracy be reversed?

Can the tide of religious illiteracy be reversed?

As earlier reported in the August AD2000 (pp. 12-13), a highly significant report on US catechetical publications was released earlier this year by Archbishop Daniel Buechlein of Indianapolis, who heads the US Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism. The committee conceded - with a touch of understatement - that there were "doctrinal deficiencies" in many of the religion texts and catechetical materials in use in the United States.

Since the US Bishops Committee was only concerned with those publications which quoted from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and which were submitted "voluntarily", one wonders at the content of others which were not submitted and which did not quote from the Catechism. Even so, the Committee found more than enough to be concerned about.

In fact, the so-called "doctrinal deficiencies" more often than not amount to the ingredients of a new religion along the lines proposed by Fr Michael Morwood in his latest book Tomorrow's Catholic: Understanding God and Jesus in a New Millennium (see page 8).

Doctrinal deficiencies

The US Bishops Committee's admission was hardly earth-shattering news to the many parents, priests and teachers in both the US and Australia who have been saying much the same thing for the past thirty years. In fact, as Msgr Michael J Wrenn noted in a recent commentary on the US Bishops' Committee report in The Catholic World Report (October 1997), the ten "doctrinal deficiencies" which that committee singled out bore more than a passing resemblance to the ten "doctrinal points" which almost 30 years ago a Commission of Cardinals appointed by Pope Paul VI had indicated in its report of February 1968 needed to be corrected or clarified in the Dutch Catechism.

It is now history that the Commission of Cardinals' instruction was disobeyed, with the corrections/ clarifications confined to a supplement at the back of the Dutch Catechism instead of in the body of the work. And despite the intermittent good intentions of individual bishops in both Australia and the United States in the period since then, the catechetical bureaucracy's stranglehold over what is taught in Catholic classrooms and teachers' colleges has remained largely undisturbed.

If the present concern among US Bishops about the calibre of catechetical materials translates into tangible improvements, it is quite possible that this trend may in turn spill over into places such as Australia and complement any attempts there to develop sound texts.

In theory, the availability of such texts for each grade level would not only ease the task for teachers in planning their lessons, but also provide a convenient reference point for parents anxious to help in their children's religious education. It would also provide some evidence that suitable religious content was actually being covered, other than the customary "shared experiences."

The main headache for those contemplating improvements in religion teaching and curricula, however, lies not so much in the challenge to produce religion texts that are doctrinally as well as educationally sound. As the old saying goes, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." This applies to both teachers and parents.

For the past 30 years, trainee teachers passing through Australia's Catholic teachers' colleges have been fed a diet of trendy, vacuous, experiential catechetical content and methods. The legacy of this can be found among today's Catholic parents and teachers who are part of a context in which Mass attendances are barely 20%, and knowledge and practice of the Faith minimal.

The major task facing Church authorities wishing to introduce sound classroom texts lies in persuading most teachers to accept them in the first place and then to make effective use of them. The conventional educational wisdom over the past 30 years has been that memorisation and testing of doctrinal knowledge are ‘out' as is any emphasis on ‘mere content.' The very idea of a classroom religion text goes against the grain for most teachers, academics and bureaucrats.


The fierce opposition from school teachers and principals (and not a few priests) which greeted attempts a few years ago in the Wagga Wagga Diocese to set up a doctrinally sound and thorough religion syllabus for primary schools remains a salutary lesson for those committed to a similar objective elsewhere.

Furthermore, if Br Marcellin Flynn's research is any indicator, the problem lies almost as much with most Catholic parents. According to Br Flynn in his The Culture of Catholic Schools - A Study of Catholic Schools: 1972-1993 (St Paul Publications, 1994): "In four areas of school life - personal development, academic expectations, preparation for employment and social development - the level of parents' expectations of Catholic schools has significantly increased over the period 1982-1990. In the case of religious development, however, their expectations have shown a marked decline. Parents today do not have high religious expectations of the schools."

The number of parents and teachers at this point likely to get behind solid Catholic religion texts for classroom use is likely to be a small proportion of the whole. While putting together such publications will be a major challenge in itself, and a long overdue and welcome move, the real battle - for the hearts and minds of parents, teachers and others involved - will have only just begun. That will require a good deal of ingenuity and courage if the Church is to be even half successful in rolling back the tide of religious illiteracy.

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