A Dominican Sister who believed in and taught the "new" catechetics for many years examines its flaws and suggests future directions for Catholic religion teaching. She presently teaches in the Ganmain parish, Wagga Wagga Diocese.
I admit to having been a devotee of the old 'new catechetics.' I say "old" because as trends in education go, it has been around a long time - and also because it is beginning to wear thin! It is, I believe, doomed to obsolescence. As far as I am concerned, it is obsolete now.
Some of the fundamental assumptions on which it is based are:
- that religion is an emotional, imaginative experience.
- that it should be an emotional and imaginative experience.
- that God is 'there' for us; not vice versa.
- that God wants above all, for us to feel O.K. about ourselves - all the time.
- that God is Love and "love is never having to say you're sorry."
- that we are free and 'in charge' of our own lives and destinies.
- that our feelings are our own inbuilt measure of good and evil. Objective laws that impinge on our perception of our own freedom are out.
- that 'real life' is here and now, and we should be more concerned with the earthly 'here and now' than with heavenly 'who knows if and when.'
That is not too great an exaggeration. It is how I have taught the Faith for longer than I care to admit.
The reason many teachers present the Faith in such an attenuated and sometimes distorted fashion is either that they are more comfortable with these concepts themselves, or they think the children will be.
The reason it does not work is that, despite the fact that some of these assumptions contain some truth, as they stand, they are false.
I have taught primary school classes where R.E. class was really just an excuse for creative activities - art, drama, paraliturgies, dance. Meaningfulness equalled fun. And fun equalled a "successful R.E. lesson." The children really liked Religion class and I felt I was "getting through to them." But, if pressed, I would have had to admit that they retained very little beyond "good feelings" and that they had no more than a hazy idea of the religious truths involved.
Later, I taught high school classes where I nearly went out of my mind trying to 'sell' R.E. to 15, 16 and 17-year-olds. The necessarily limited supply of resources - games, gimmicks, activities and audio-visuals - that are the stock-in-trade of the 'new catechetics' had mostly been exhausted during the 2000-plus R.E. lessons they had received during the previous years of their schooling. I did not blame the primary teachers. It takes a lot of gimmicks to furnish that many lessons.
The students claimed to be tired of Scripture and were highly indifferent to activities such as drama, dance and collage-making. On one questionnaire I handed out to a Year 11 class in order to find out what they did expect of R.E., quite a few wanted to discuss the more sensational aspects of sexual issues. Many felt that religion had very little to do with life. Most just wanted to spend the time talking with their friends about - whatever! And these were girls who had had a solid diet over 9, 10 or 11 years of the 'new catechetics' which is supposed to make religion so meaningful and alive for children!
They made certain things quite clear to me. They said that they considered R.E. a kind of non-subject. It was the subject in which they were least motivated - partly because they saw it as boring and repetitive; partly because it had no intellectual weight (they demanded that it be non-academic and 'enjoyable', but no matter what one 'turned on' for them they seemed not to enjoy it!) and partly because it was not examinable and held no component of academic accountability.
I did not blame them. They had been fed the ideals of loving, caring and sharing in much the same contexts almost every school day for all those years. Now, 11 years later they were hearing the same messages in scarcely more developed form - "I am unique", "people are gifts", "I'm OK, you're OK." They were even tired of hearing that God loves and forgives us. There is a necessary limit to what one can say or discover of matters religious when religion is centred on human experience.
It is no wonder that what was meant to be relevant and meaningful Christianity during all those years began, with the passage of time and repetition, to look like tired platitudes and cliches to these students in Years 11 and 12. They did not realise it, but they had been sold short and I began to realise that in pursuing the 'new catechetics' I was perpetuating the situation.
There were other signs of failure, too. The Sunday Mass attendance among students seemed to be quite low, despite the heavy concentration in the school of ethnic groups whose families held to traditional religious values and practice and were not over-materialistic. Each week the optional school Mass which was offered before school (and was well advertised), was customarily attended by a handful of the younger girls (in a school of 600) and by an even smaller handful of staff members (out of a staff of about 50). Elaborate and 'relevant' liturgies, which were a feature of the school at other times during the year, were obviously no stimulus to devotion to the Eucharist.
After struggling to come to terms with the problems of how to run a religion lesson in some productive way, I finally came to know of a co-ed high school run by an Order of religious men, where R.E. was taught with a strong academic emphasis (while not neglecting the experiential). Students were taught theology, morality and Scripture and these were tested. The Year 12 students were required to sit and to pass a three-hour examination paper in Religion.
I read an essay on the Eucharist submitted by a senior student which was worthy of a tertiary-level theological treatise. I knew my students, who could write brilliantly on T.S. Eliot or Shakespeare would not even have been able to understand it, let alone write its equal.
There was no evidence that R.E. in this form had turned students off religion. The youth group in the parish in which this school is situated was one of the largest, most long-lived and most active in the diocese. There were always young people milling around the monastery for various reasons. An altar servers guild furnished teenage altar servers for daily Mass and Sunday night Benediction. It seemed to be a happy, vital school.
It was my encounter with the students and priest-teachers of this school that brought me to my senses. For too long I had been persuaded that I must not serve the Faith full-strength or I would put children off. I had been told that I should, on the contrary, feed it to them gradually and 'sensitively', disguised in warm 'fun' activities like a bitter pill in honey. I should avoid hammering certain truths - even avoid some altogether if they gave the students negative feelings about God or about the Church.
I was brought up and educated in the Faith during the period of the dry catechetical pedagogy of the 'old Green Catechism'. I did not always have the benefit of gifted teachers and under that system I was bored. I learned very little as a result. Mercifully I wasn't whacked for not learning, but neither did I have any particular incentives to learn. Like many children and teachers I was prone to intellectual laziness. I was, in fact, a typical product of the more defective aspects of the old pedagogy.
And that is the crux of the matter. The style of teaching the Faith via the 'Green Catechism' was then defective. The truths of the Faith as contained in that catechism were not. And they are not defective today; nor have they changed, despite the fact that some of them have fallen from popular favour.
When I came to my senses after fifteen years of teaching the 'new' catechetical methods, I realised that most of the methods, in themselves, were fine but that the content was not. For me, as for many teachers I knew, the methods - the experiences we were devising - had become more or less ends in themselves.
This was the reverse of the previous problem. In former times catechesis was largely a matter of intellectual content, and attitudes and values came incidentally to the student - if they came at all.
Now we have processes designed to form attitudes and values, and knowledge-content is very much a secondary consideration - if it is there at all.
Once I realised that I was giving my Year 12 class possibly their last taste of formal religion before they faced a world hostile to the Faith, and later, the responsibility of bringing up a new generation of children (their own) in that Faith, I decided to change my direction in R.E. class.
We had theology lessons. After their protests died down - against being given all this 'heavy stuff' while their peers were doing more informal things or watching movies - they actually began to get involved and to see the point of it. The most basic truths about the existence and nature of God; about the Creation and Fall; about the Incarnation and Redemption; about the Church, were mostly quite new to these girls. For the sake of peace I had to alternate doctrinal lessons with those which were more 'experiential' - prayer sessions and discussions of 'real-life' issues. But even these gained depth and authenticity when carried out against a background of solid and sure Faith knowledge.
I'm only sorry I started so late. All the worlds of vital information to be unlocked by studying the teachings of the Catholic Church; all the deep spiritual experiences to be drawn from its Tradition; these were being crammed, in remedial fashion, into the last few months of the school life of these students. Twelve years of R.E. lessons would never have exhausted these riches.
By now I am convinced that if the old 'Green Catechism' pedagogy was less than perfect; indeed, in some contexts a failure, so, indeed, is the now old 'new catechetics.' The obvious thing to do is to eliminate the worst elements of both, take the best of both and hope to succeed.
I do not have the right to deny the children Christ by denying them knowledge of the truths of the Faith. But I do have the right to choose the methods by which I shall impart that knowledge. Sound and complete knowledge and true values, imparted by means of creative and skilful teaching methods, add up to a fairer deal for the children whose minds and souls are entrusted to me.
It was my own frustration in the Classroom that led me to discover this; not the Holy Father in Catechesi Tradendae.