More Than Just Teaching: A Response to Barbara Nicolosi

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One of the dangers of taking a break from the blog is the potential for missing something really juicy to write about. Unfortunately this reality befell me when, shortly after my self-imposed blogging hiatus, Barbara Nicolosi posted a long-form piece on Patheos about the state of parish-based catechesis in the Catholic Church. With apologies for being a month late, here are some thoughts about that essay.

In broad strokes, Ms. Nicolosi laments the number of misinformed and seemingly uncatechized Catholics in our pews. She outlines a proposed solution in three steps:

  1. A commitment to “content and rigor”
  2. Paying Catholic school teachers to staff parish-based catechetical programs
  3. Recruiting theology students as tutors

I won’t disagree with Ms. Nicolosi’s view of the situation. She’s pretty spot on about the fact that most Catholics these days couldn’t name the 10 Commandments, let alone the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit or the precepts of the Church. But I would propose that she is seeking to treat the symptoms and not the illness. Where she sees a deficiency in catechetical knowledge I see a lack of discipleship.

Fundamentally I think Ms. Nicolosi overemphasizes the doctrinal dimension of catechesis to the exclusion of all else. This clashes with the fullness of the Church’s understanding of catechesis. As paragraph 75 of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults reminds us, a complete catechesis consists of not only the doctrines of the Church but also an apprenticeship in prayer, participation in the liturgical life of the Church, and doing the works of mercy. No one of these is singled out as more important than the rest; the assumption seems to be that they are equal pillars of a curriculum designed to lead one to an intimate encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. That’s not to say that sound doctrine and knowledge of the Church’s teachings aren’t important. A commitment to the Church’s full understanding of catechesis doesn’t preclude content and rigor. Indeed, I believe it assumes it. But seeking to replicate the modern school model in parish catechesis is not a recipe for discipleship. As Joe Paprocki states so well in his recent book Beyond the Catechist’s Toolbox, catechesis should be more like Mass than class.

Beyond this dilution of catechesis to mere information transferal, Ms. Nicolosi dismisses the role of parents in raising young men and women as disciples of Jesus Christ. This not only flies in the face of the Church’s consistent teaching that parents are the first and primary teachers of their children, but I would also argue that a failure to integrate catechesis into family life and focusing on maintaining a once-a-week, 30-weeks-a-year model of catechesis will only perpetuate a failed system that cannot create, grow, or sustain discipleship. Helping parents to catechize their children — especially parents who were themselves the recipients of poor catechesis — may be challenging. But taking the harder path will, I believe, lead to stronger and more dedicated disciples in the long run.

Focusing on discipleship and helping Catholics to deepen their relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ will address the issues Ms. Nicolosi rightly voices. As Matthew Kelly describes in his book The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic, believers who take their journey of discipleship seriously will naturally want to learn more about the Church, the saints, the Eucharist, and other aspects of our Catholic faith. They will not need to be goaded or prodded. Instead they will see life-long faith formation as a natural extension of their desire for closer union with Christ. As catechists it is our duty and privilege to guide people into that relationship and help the fire of faith grow in their lives.

The rest, as they say, will take care of itself.

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