The challenge for religious educators in a secular culture

The challenge for religious educators in a secular culture

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

In religious education, every teacher is a missionary. It follows that we cannot be good teachers if we are not on fire for the truth we teach.

All of us love Christmas. That is the easy part of the message. There is much less consumer demand for Good Friday. Yet the Cross is the manner by which Christ accomplishes our redemption. And only in being nailed to the Cross with him, can we rise with him on Easter. That part of the Gospel is harder to preach. It is also harder for each of us to accept personally. We Christians all talk a good line about suffering - but very few of us want to experience too much of it. I mention this because, in developed countries like our own, when we talk about Jesus Christ - and our own lives as Christians - we tend to soften the rough edges. We leave out the part about the bloody nails.


But the message makes no sense without the nails. Jesus himself was very blunt about the cost, as well as the rewards, of discipleship: "Take up your cross and follow me." Expect to be reviled. Expect to be persecuted. Expect to be humiliated. The good news is not a message of niceness. It is a revolutionary message of new life in Christ through death to the self - and the world usually does not want to hear it, and will often resist it with violence.

This is "missionary realism." It is the readiness to put a burning heart-and-will for Christ behind our words, no matter what the price. Nothing good or holy is had without a cost, and how much would we be willing to pay? What is our faith really worth - and are we willing to prove that with our lives? If we want to be good teachers, we must be good missionaries. And if we want to be good missionaries, we must be willing to be martyrs. And if the circumstances of our lives do not require a witness in blood, we can still give freely of ourselves in service.

How do these thoughts apply to our vocation as Catholic educators, here and now? Well, we do not have to visit Africa or Asia to do the work of missionaries. Our mission territory is right in our own backyard. We find it in the families who send their children to our religious education programs and schools. It is true that we have a tremendous Christian heritage in this country, and obviously many millions of Americans still actively practise their faith. Many also witness their faith through charitable, social, and political action.

But I suspect it is also true that religious sentiment is fading as a force in our behaviour. So often today, religious affiliation is just a veneer that covers up a practical unbelief. And we all know one or two young adults who have just enough formal religion to be vaccinated against real faith. They were educated in the Church, and they think they know everything about her - but they really know nothing at all.

It is important for us as adult Catholic educators to understand the terrain we are cultivating, so that we can cultivate it more fruitfully for the Lord. And in that regard, I want to briefly mention five main ideas or themes where we need to focus our special efforts as teachers.

Noise is one of our drugs. It is how we avoid reflecting on important things too deeply. Most of you know C. S. Lewis, and many of you will remember his book, The Screwtape Letters. In that book, noise is the music of hell; it is what hell is filled with, and it is what the devil Screwtape wants to fill all creation with. I think if C.S. Lewis were alive today, he would say we have outdone Screwtape by our own free will. And the result is that we cannot hear God when he tries to speak to us.

That brings me to my second point. Our culture not only drowns out the voice of God; we push him completely out of sight. We live in a social environment where every kind of outlandish cartoon character has air time, where the idea of miracles is eclipsed by flying and morphing super-heroes, but where God is almost completely absent from the context of children's TV. It is such an obvious statement, but we need to re-introduce children to the person of God; God not as a force or an abstract idea or a science-fiction energy field, but as a Father with a plan for our happiness who is intimately involved with our lives, and interested in their eternal outcome.


We can love a Father. We cannot know, much less love, a force. The personhood of God, especially in his Trinitarian reality, implies relationship - not only within the Trinity, but with humanity and all creation. And every relationship implies mutual rights, responsibilities and purpose, which is exactly what is missing from the lives of so many young people. Encountering the person of God is exactly like encountering the man or woman who will be your spouse - it changes everything. It gives you a purpose. It orders everything else about your life. It is why the novelist Francois Mauriac wrote that "Anyone who has truly known God can never be cured of Him."

My third concern is the nature of truth. A sense of absolute right and wrong is absent not only from many of today's children - but much more alarmingly, from many of their parents. As we drift away from our traditional religious moorings, we become more and more relativist in our judgment, and less and less able to understand truth as something permanent and objective - that unique thing outside ourselves which is the foundation of human character.

Look at the political environment in Washington these days. It would be laughable, if it were not so fatal to public trust in our leaders and institutions. In America in 1998, what is "true" is whatever a spin doctor can establish as plausible and defensible. We are becoming a people of alibis instead of principles. And in doing it, we are even less able to understand the deeper, divine truth, which takes on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.


My fourth point is the idea of freedom. Jesus said, "You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." The truth - God's truth incarnate in Jesus Christ - is what makes us free ... not 36 different brands of detergent, or a variety of alternative lifestyles. "Choice" is not necessarily freedom, and the idolatry of choice is just another form of slavery; another form of the noise Screwtape talked about. Once we lose our grip on truth, we inevitably lose our freedom because we no longer have a way of morally ordering our choices. Our choices become our distractions and our chains. And that is not what God wants.

In Galatians 5:1, Paul reminds us that, "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." But what does that freedom look like? Paul tells us that we "... are called to freedom brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another" (Gal 5:13).

Freedom is not licence. Freedom is not selfishness. Freedom is not choices without purpose. Real freedom is "... to walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us...". And it is a walk that leads to the cross. We need to take that walk ourselves, and model it to the students we teach.

And this leads to my final thought on this point: Whatever her faults, the Church is the only truly free community in creation. Not "free" in the mixed-up language of our political culture, but really free; free in the deeper sense we find in Scripture. She is the family in which we encounter Christ, who is the way the truth and the life; the same Christ who said "no one comes to the Father except through me."

She is the vessel through which God pours hope and holiness into the world. She is the silence where we can hear God calling our name. She is the path we take to answer Christ's call, "Come follow me," and also his command, "Go, make disciples of all nations." When our teaching is obedient to her teaching, it is obedient to his will. Our job as Catholic educators is to draw the souls we teach into the Church, into her freedom - into his will. If we can begin to do that, God will change the world.

Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life." He also said, "You will know the truth and the truth will make you free." But he also said, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace on the earth, I have not come to bring peace but a sword" (Mt 10:34). Those are hard words for the prince of peace, but they make sense in the face of the three great opponents of the Gospel in every age - the world, the flesh, and the devil. We tend to frame the struggle between virtue and sin in slightly different words today, but the reality is exactly the same. The truth will set us free, but it will not make us comfortable - and it will certainly make the enemies of Christ bitter, not only toward him, but toward us.

When I was confirmed, the bishop gave me a light slap on the cheek to remind me of the persecution that might come because of my faith. I became a soldier of Christ in a spiritual war that has gone on throughout history on every continent, in every culture and in every individual heart I suppose expressions like "spiritual warfare" fell out of favour in the 1960s because they had a flavour of militarism or preconciliar theology. But I think it is time to reclaim the truth at the heart of those words. Spiritual warfare is real.

We are soldiers of Christ, and we are engaged in a war for the soul of the world with spiritual enemies who hate the human person and all of God's creation. The cost of that war is the blood of martyrs, and the history of this century is written in it. That is what I mean by missionary realism. If you teach the truth, you are the friend of God. And if you are the friend of God, you are the enemy of those who revile him.

St Paul says it most powerfully in Ephesians 6: 10-17: "Finally, be strong in the Lord and the strength of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.

Word of God

"Therefore, take the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the Gospel of peace; above all taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God."

Catholic education cannot be done by the disaffected or lukewarm. It is for people who have a fire in their heart for God; who love the Church and her teachings; who want to be a lion for the Lord and not a housecat. It is for missionaries and soldiers of mercy, justice and truth. It is for souls who see their own suffering as a small price to pay, to be part of God's great work of redemption.

The "good news of great joy" is that the hardest victory is already won. Christ has opened the door to new life. Our job is to follow him and lead others to him.

This is the edited text of Archbishop Charles Chaput's address to Catholic educators at the Mile Hi Catechetical Congress in Denver, Colorado.

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