Can Catechists Be Too Reliant on the Catechism? (Bosco RoundUp Part 3)


My experience attending the St. John Bosco Conference at the Franciscan University of Steubenville did leave me with one lingering question prompted both by the content and methodology employed in some of the presentations. Namely, I went home wondering if there isn’t a danger in becoming overly reliant on the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a source of the Church’s teachings.

To give an example: I attended a session on liturgy and catechesis given by a well-respected catechist. He outlined the Church’s understanding of liturgy, beginning with the maxim lex orandi, lex credendi. But in his presentation and handouts, every reference was to what the Catechism had to say about liturgy. He did not reference the Roman MissalSacrosanctum concilium, the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, or any of the Church’s many documents on the nature and practice of the liturgy. The implication — intentional or not — was that everything we need to know about liturgy can be found in the Catechism. There was little “liturgy” to be found in the presentation.

Contrast this approach with that taken by Bishop Richard Malone at the start of his Saturday keynote. His topic, God the Father, was not explicitly tied to the liturgy. Indeed, one might have expected him to use as his starting point the Catechism‘s teaching on the first person of the Trinity. Instead Bishop Malone turned to the Roman Missal and the prefaces to the Eucharistic Prayers to show what they teach us, through our common prayer, about the Father. He didn’t talk about lex orandi, lex credendi — he practiced it by showing how our prayer leads to and informs our doctrine.

Reflecting on these contrasting approaches led me to wonder if focusing too intently on the Catechism leads to didacticism — a tendency towards excessive teaching (narrowly defined) that fails to reflect the fullness of catechesis (c.f. Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults no. 75). In its most extreme form this didacticism elevates the Catechism to a status it neither claims nor was designed for. As Bl. Pope John Paul II states in his apostolic constitution promulgating the Catechism,

The Catechism of the Catholic Church… is a statement of the Church’s faith and of catholic doctrine, attested to or illuminated by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradtition, and the Church’s Magisterium. I declare it to be a sure norm for teaching the faith and this a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion.

In other words the Catechism is not the last word on the content and expression of the Catholic faith. It is a statement and a norm, not the sole source. That is one reason John Paul II stresses the continued importance and prominence of local catechisms such as the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults and the YouCat. These local catechisms enculturate the content of the Catechism by giving it new expression in local language and form.

This isn’t to say (it should go without saying) that the Catechism isn’t helpful or shouldn’t be used in catechesis. Indeed, a universal catechism should have a place of prominence in the handing on of the faith. But there does seem to be an overly didactic tendency in some catechists that a fixation on the Catechism feeds into. This tendency manifests in claims that the Catechism is the only authentic source of Catholic teaching, rather than a summary of it, and an insistence that the language used in the Catechism is the only authentic expression of the Catholic faith (an insistence that neglects both Church history and the rich tradition of the Eastern churches).

That this question was prompted by the conference is ironic since on at least two occasions I heard different speakers warn against didacticism in catechesis. Indeed, I don’t want to give the impression that the conference or any presenter specifically endorsed sole reliance on the Catechism. But the fact that the only document quoted by a good number of presenters was the Catechism does give me pause and makes me think that we are not giving our catechists the full range of tools they need to pass on the faith.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts in the comments. Do you sense this same creeping didacticism? How can we help catechists embrace a wide range of sources of Catholic teaching?

Book Review: Beyond the Catechist’s Toolbox

A few weeks ago Joe Paprocki asked if I would be interested in reviewing his new book, Beyond the Catechist’s Toolbox: Catechesis That Not Only Informs but Also Transforms. Of course I said yes; I’ve been a fan of Joe’s work ever since I became involved in catechesis.

beyond-coverBeyond the Catechist’s Toolbox builds on and expands Joe’s book The Catechist’s Toolbox. In fact, this new book is a intended to help catechists “take it to the next level” by offering a model for religious education that moves beyond the typical “classroom model.” This model will be familiar to anyone who follows Joe’s blog since he makes regular allusions to his method there. Nevertheless, having this model laid out systematically and in one place is a blessing.

This new model focuses on making religious education more like religious practice; Joe’s refrain throughout the book is “more like Mass than class.” To that end Joe outlines a 70-minute, 5-step process for engaging youth in catechesis not only through the use of books (although Joe points out the importance of good catechetical materials) but through prayer, activities, and reflection.

For instance, after the opening prayer, Joe recommends starting the session with an activity that helps students identify with the topic or subject of the evening. He uses St. Ignatius of Loyola’s practice of “entering through their door but leaving through your own” to make an immediate impact while guiding participants to where you want them to go.

I love this model for the way it connects the content of the faith with the practice of the faith. Too often our catechesis exists in a vacuum where what we learn doesn’t make an impact on how we pray and worship. Joe rightfully recognizes the disservice this does to youth and seeks to reintegrate these aspects of faith formation.

Beyond the Catechist’s Toolbox is an excellent resource and, at just 90 pages, a great gift for catechists and Catholic school teachers. I heartily recommend its use in parishes and schools as another way of taking catechesis beyond the school model and back to its evangelizing roots.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from its publisher, Loyola Press.

Like Putting Skylarks in Cages

In spite of almost universal school custom, it must be said that God did not intend children of primary school age to sit assembled in desks and endure long formal lessons; if he did he would have made them differently. Least of all did he intend this to happen in teaching religion, and the whole idea of it is rather blasphemous, like putting skylarks in cages.

–  Rev. F.H. Drinkwater,  Doctrine for the Juniors  (1933)