Analyzing Post-Conciliar Catechesis: A Blindspot?

A few weeks ago I read a defense of catechesis in the 1970s by Cathleen Kaveny on Commonweal’s blog. Ms. Kaveny was confirmed in 1978 (coincidentally, the year I was born) and gives a heartfelt apologia against those (including Fr. Robert Barron) who criticize post-conciliar religious education:

For many years, I was sympathetic to that analysis. But I am increasingly uneasy with the wholesale dismissal of the catechetical programs of my youth. First, the stock caricature of the period is unfair. The programs had far more content then they are given credit for. Second, the criticism only reinforces polarization within the church. Scapegoating 1970s religious-education programs fosters the illusion that the church’s problems can be fixed by going backward, by inoculating children with something like the simple question-and-answer method and content of the Baltimore Catechism. But the root problem facing the church, then and now, is not catechesis.

Her analysis continues with an appeal that I am sympathetic to:

My generation was not lost because of religious miseducation. It was lost because of the changes in the culture. No CCD program, no matter how rich and nuanced, could overcome the challenges created by the simultaneous breakdown and reconfiguration of the institutional Catholic world and the American social world.

This is a piece that is often missing when examining religious education in the years following the Second Vatican Council. The Church was completely unprepared for the radical and rapid shifts in society — an irony given Vatican II’s roots in an aggiornamento that envisioned dialogue with the surrounding culture. Those who would criticize the catechists of the period would do well to keep that historical and cultural situation in mind.

Yet for all her pleas Ms. Kaveny’s analysis rings incomplete due to a glaring omission: nowhere does she address evangelization. Indeed, the word is conspicuously absent from her post. She, like many of her generation, seems to take for granted that the young people in parish formation programs and Catholic schools were familiar with the person of Jesus Christ — not just in stories or catechetical texts, but through a deep and abiding relationship with him.

But, as Sherry Weddell reminds us in Forming Intentional Disciples, this is not something we can take for granted. Part of those sweeping cultural changes alluded to by Ms. Kaveny is a wholesale forgetting of the story of Christianity: the reality of sin, the need for God’s saving help, and the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ.

If Christians are to ensure that there is a next generation of believers, they will need to find ways to tell the stories of the faith, as well as their own individual stories of conversion. That is, they will need to focus on the work of evangelization in witness and proclamation, for without evangelization catechesis cannot be fruitful, regardless of the cultural context in which we find ourselves.

Image from The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism (1969)