Why Johnny Can’t Pray– Why Catholic Religious Education is Doomed to Fail.

Over at Egregious Twaddle, my fellow Patheosi, Joanne McPortland, has a provocative post about What’s Really Wrong with Catholic Religious Education?  You should go read it.  Chances are, it will do two things.  First, I suspect,  it will piss you off.  Then, I suspect, you’ll find yourself agreeing with it.  At least, that’s what happened to me.

Her argument is essentially that the academic model of the religious education of children is a completely wrongheaded approach that should be scrapped forthwith.  But really, you should go read what she says for yourself.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Back now?  OK.  Let’s chat.

My first reaction to Joanne’s piece was, “That’s not right!  You can’t baptize babies and then not teach children to appreciate the gift they’ve been given!  Of COURSE we need religious education for kids.”  But see, that’s not what she’s saying (and I did confirm this with her directly).  Her point isn’t that kids shouldn’t be catechized.  It’s more that the Church shouldn’t be doing it.  The religious education (and formation) of children is the job of their well-formed parents.  It is the process by which children are discipled in the faith by their faithful mom and dad.  What’s that you say?  Parents aren’t well-formed?  Exactly.

And that’s the problem.  The Catholic Church is trying to make up for parents’ lousy faith-formation by teaching children the faith in the parent’s stead.  But there are several problems with this.

1.  Church-Based Religious Ed.  Fills Head with Facts, Not Hearts with Love.

The first problem with Church-based catechesis is that the Church, or more specifically, a parish school–or worse, CCD program (or whatever they call it now)–simply can’t create the kind of loving atmosphere that disciples a child’s heart and leads him or her to love Christ and his Church.  All it can do is (a) fill the kids head with faith-facts or (b) recognize that facts aren’t enough, so go in the other direction and produce a lot of tree-hugging, “you are special” twaddle that lacks authenticity or credibility much less content.

If it is true that education is not so much the filling of a bucket as it is the lighting of a fire, so much moreso is religious education.  Research actually convincingly demonstrates that religious education and formation of anyone–especially children–can only  be effectively done in the context of a loving, discipleship relationship.  It’s interesting that Joanne would have picked this past weekend to write her post, because this past weekend, the NYTimes did an article about a new book, Families and Faith:  How Religion is Passed Down Across Generation by USC Social Work Professor, Dr. Vern Bengtson.  The entire article is worth a read, but here is the piece that is most relevant to our reflection.

As to why some children follow their parents, spiritually speaking, Professor Bengtson’s research confirmed some common-sense assumptions. For example, it helps if parents model religiosity: if you talk about church but never go, children sense hypocrisy. And intermarriage doesn’t help. If you’re Jewish (or Mormon, Catholic, etc.), and want your child to share your religion, it helps to marry someone of the same faith.

But Professor Bengtson’s major conclusion is that family bonds matter. Displays of parental piety, like “teaching the right beliefs and practices” and “keeping strictly to the law,” can be for naught if the children don’t feel close to the parents. “Without emotional bonding,” these other factors are “not sufficient for transmission,” he writes.  (Incidentally, the article goes on to say that an emotional bond with a religiously involved FATHER is the. single. most. important. factor. in transmission of religious faith to the next generation–but that’s another blog post entirely).

The bottom line is that any institution, including church institutions, can’t bond with anyone and if bonding is essential for faith transmission to children–which it is–then Church-based catechesis is doomed to fail because if can’t provide the most important element of faith transmission; that is, the emotional bond that serves as the heart of the faith that beats behind the facts of the faith.

2. Church-Based Religious Ed. Can’t Stick.

In addition to the fact that an institution can’t provide bonding, even if the Church offers the best catechesis possible in the most supportive environment imaginable, it is still doomed to fail because catechizing children and then sending them home to poorly formed parents is the exact definition of sowing seeds in rocky soil–and Jesus had something to say about that.   It is extraordinarily difficult for a child to learn to cherish and develop what his own parents don’t appreciate, validate or practice themselves.  If you want a disturbing illustration of how true this really is, check out The Crescat’s powerful post.  Terrifying!

3.  Church-Based Ed. of Children is (potentially) Against Church Teaching (sort of).

In Gravissimum Educationem, Pope Paul VI says,

Since parents have given children their life, they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators.(11) This role in education is so important that only with difficulty can it be supplied where it is lacking.

Catch that?  Parents are primary and principal educators of their children in the faith.  That’s not to say that the Church doesn’t have an important role to play in religious education.  It absolutely does!  But it does an injustice–and in fact, defies its own teaching–if it in practice (if not in intention) ends up communicating to parents, “You don’t have to educate and form your kids in the faith!  That’s what religious ed. is for!”  That message–albeit unintentional– is not only wrong-headed, it is contrary to the Church’s explicit teaching about the nature of religious education.  Again, no one is suggesting the Church means to do this in its current approach to the religious education of children but in counseling there is a saying that, “the meaning of the message is the response you get.”   That is, it doesn’t matter what the intention is, if parents respond to the Church’s effort as if it is saying that parents don’t have to educate and form their kids in the faith because the Church will, then that’s as good as the Church actually saying it.  Obviously that is a serious problem.

4.  Knowing isn’t the Same As KNOWING

The fourth problem with the Church-based approach to the religious education of children is that this approach fails to consider the Christian context of knowing.  For the Christian, “knowing” doesn’t mean head knowledge.  It means “having a transformative encounter with.” Institutional religious education is not giving children an encounter with God that truly prepares them for receiving Jesus in the Eucharist or any of the sacraments. The current approach to catechesis is to teach kids fun facts (or, really, not-so-fun facts) about the faith and then “reward” their time in class with a pretty dress and a Jesus-cookie.  We have to do better. All we’re doing now is inoculating most kids against a real encounter with Jesus. The Church can’t catechize kids. Only parents can because faith is relational and kids have a relationship with the parents, not the church. Kids “catch” their relationship with the church from their parents.

So What Do We Do?

How do you fix the problem?  I believe that the short answer is that we need to do as Joanne at Egregious Twaddle suggests.  We need to stop focusing 99.9% of our effort on educating children–not because they don’t deserve a religious education, but because this approach to religious education doesn’t work.  In fact, in most cases it is an anti-education.  It is a faith inoculation.  Instead we need to make intentional disciples out of parents so that they can form their own children.  How do we do that? I’m sure there are lots of ways, and I don’t have a definitive answer to this question.  But the first step is to scale back on our effort to keep doing what doesn’t work (church-based religious ed of children) so that we can put our energy, thought, and effort into adult education and formation–almost any form of which would work infinitely better than what we’re doing.

For more information on raising faithful kids, check out the chapter titled SOUL FOOD in Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.

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