Vicious Circle

In the Realm of Catechetics

Quite frequently I find myself in a conversation in which the era of catechetical failure is discussed. In this regard, it has become very easy to identify and admit that there has been a failure in Catholic Catechesis that has left entire generations of Catholics catechetically illiterate. This is not to say that they learned nothing at all about the Faith but that they were not given the solid foundation upon which the Catholic Faith is built. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that these generations were given teachings they were lead to believe were Catholic when indeed what they received was nothing more than scholarly opinion.

Among the demonstrations of how widespread this illiteracy has become is the recent discussions regarding the HHS Mandate. In this context, I am not referring to the religious freedom aspect, which is important in itself and must be addressed, but to the grave moral evil of contraception. Based on the surveys being release, many Catholics do not know Church Teaching in this regard. Or better yet, they are vaguely aware the Church teaches it is immoral but have rejected it without much thought. In either case, the general Catholic populous does not acknowledge the gravity of the matter and believe that subjective factors determine the sinfulness of contraceptive use rather than its intrinsically evil object.

This error originates in an era in which we can identify the perfect storm. The period in which the failure grew rapidly was one in which errant approaches to Moral Theology were being developed and disseminated. In pervious generations, these theories would have been debated primarily in scholarly circles and eventually corrected before being disseminated to the larger population. Instead, by following a process of ascertaining approval through popularity, these theories were presented in classrooms as authoritative and thus convinced several generations that they were valid and even authoritative.

Alone, this classroom model would most likely not have been sufficient to spread the error so far and wide. Concurrent to these theories were secular schools that promoted a highly subjective and relativistic approaches to morality. The errant Catholic theories were incorporating some aspects of the secular theories, which made it easier for the error to spread. Combine this with theologians who were publicly dissenting from Church Teaching and who were portraying themselves as victims persecuted by the Catholic hierarchy and one can see why it was easy to mainstream the error. Because social engineers were in effect affirming what was being taught even in some Catholic circles, many innocent Catholics came to accept the error as the norm.

Fast forwarding to today, we now have catechetically illiterate Catholics fully convinced that the error is correct and that it is possible to reject Church Teaching and remain a good Catholic. And it is such as these who are teaching in our schools and religious education programs. In this regard, it has become difficult to correct the error because so many are defensive of what they learned. And, of course, many would be partial to a theory that allows one to indulge passions rather than restrain them. The bottom line is that until the circle is broken, the error will propagate itself.

Further complicating the matter is that numbers mean everything today. Nobody wants to see the numbers go down. Yet challenging the error may well result in the numbers going down. The problem in America is that people like to vote with their feet and dollars. If they don't like what is being taught, they join another denomination or just stop coming to church. Or they "send a message" by withholding donations. This methodology is the core of the democratic process.

In all cases, it has become a delicate balance because the Church exists for the salvation of souls but such demands that the Church remain faithful to God and the Truth. Teaching the Truth is difficult and requires a level of patience. Such teaching must be clear and strong without being offensive even though it is reasonable to expect that some will be offended. But it also means that the numbers may have to drop for a period as key individuals begin building the foundation of Catechetical Literacy once again. This process must begin in the schools but the schools need to employ teachers who themselves are faithful to the Truth and the Church. Only then will the vicious circle be broken.