From the beginning of the Church until the 1960s, catechesis was doctrinal (in Greek, didache). It was the communication of a body of truths revealed by God and entrusted to his Church as a sacred treasure to be defended and expounded with authority, the key to happiness for the individual and humanity as a whole, in this world and in the next.
In the 1960s, this was in many places abandoned, and a new kind of catechesis called "experiential" took its place. The starting point in this system is no longer the body of revealed truth entrusted to the Church, but the religious practice of the Christian community. The pupil learns the content of the Christian faith by participating in this experience.
It is an application to religious education of the sceptical pragmatism of John Dewey, whose approach was summed up in the phrase, "they learn by doing". In ordinary education, this system is doomed to failure, for the amount of knowledge that can be acquired in this way is only a small fraction of the subject matter which one has to make one's own.
We have to learn by learning, that is, by the assiduous study that will alone enable us to grasp the content of the lecture notes or the textbook dealing with the subject in question, whether it be geology or Roman history, or the teaching of the Church. For this last, Cardinal Newman used to urge prospective converts to make a careful study of the Penny Catechism.
The new experiential catechesis has produced several generations of religious ignoramuses. It is not likely that Thomas Groome's catechesis, "by means of shared Christian praxis", will be any more successful.
FR G.H. DUGGAN SM
Upper Hutt, New Zealand