In 2008, a half century after Vatican II, Catholic University’s eminent professor of Religious Studies, Father Berard Marthaler, O.F.M. Conventual, published The Nature, Tasks and Scope of the Catechetical Ministry. Marthaler’s book is a brief analysis of every post-Vatican II document issued about religious education. If you include the Catechism of the Catholic Church [universal], and such regional documents as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “To Teach as Jesus Did,” , the grand total of documents in Marthaler’s study is an astounding 34! Getting a handle on the challenge of faith formation of young and old alike has been a very slippery eel indeed.
This figure includes only documents and teachings issued since 1971, after Vatican II. Attempts to put together teaching philosophies and practices for what we call today faith formation and catechetics go back centuries. Most popes since the Reformation believed that the poor state of Catholic education of children and adults was a major cause of the confusion over Church doctrine and Protestant questioning. [This was probably true, but the example of the papacy itself and poor education of the local clergy during the Renaissance had no little effect on events, either.] In 1539, at the height of the Reformation, Ignatius of Loyola sought permission to found an order after the model of the Franciscans, but the pope instructed him to focus his ministry on religious instruction, which is how we know the Jesuits today. Around 1560 a society of dedicated Catholics—priests and laypersons—organized, with the approval of the Church, for the purpose of teaching the essentials of faith to the young. It would eventually become the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, or as my generation remembers it, CCD.
The CCD movement, endorsed by many popes until Vatican II, was a highly flexible and versatile vehicle of instruction in existing schools, parishes, free standing classes [particularly on Sundays or after regular school], and even home instruction. It was quite strong in the United States, until the Plenary Council of Baltimore  mandated that every Catholic parish in the United States must have a Catholic school. CCD then became something of the backstop program of Catholic catechetics, targeting Catholic children in public schools and those in rural settings.
Religious education after 1884 was distinct from the Catholic school systems and in many ways overshadowed by the structure and professionalism of the schools. Popes in the early twentieth century called for every parish to contain a CCD program, but the U.S. situation of emphasis upon Catholic schools created something of an inherent imbalance, a major and a minor league team playing in the same ballpark. By the time of Vatican II [1962-1965] religious faith formation and catechesis of young American Catholics was running on multiple tracks: Catholic elementary and secondary schools, CCD programs for minors, Catholic colleges, Catholic campus ministry in state and denominational colleges, and the military [i.e., families living in base communities.] Catechetics for adults in general was not yet thought of as a specialty, though movements such as the Christian Family Movement were gaining notice in the 1950’s and many returning American servicemen after WW II were able to attend Catholic college with the aid of the “GI Bill.” My first priestly assignment [1974-78], the Franciscan Siena College , was so overwhelmed with veterans in the late 1940’s that Quonset huts were pressed into service for night school classes.
If you have read snippets of Vatican II documents—such as on the Café’s Saturday Liturgy stream—you know that the Council Fathers painted their vision of the future in very broad strokes, leaving the details to committee work. The matter of catechetical reform was discussed in many, if not most, of the Council’s documents, and the biggest shift in the ministry of religious education was the adoption of what we term today “evangelization.” The Council could just as easily have said “memorize more stuff,” but the idea that faith formation rests in hearing the Gospel and seeking an authentic rebirth in Jesus Christ, never entirely lost over the centuries, was a truly revolutionary moment for the Church and the ministry of catechesis.
The devil, as always, is in the details. As with other Vatican II reforms, many academics and ministers in the trenches rushed into battle without appropriate weaponry or battle plans. The liturgy is the worst example of this, but our focus here is the Catholic educational/formational enterprise, where several unproven assumptions and social factors altered the American Catholic educational experience. The Council ended in 1965, but the first catechetical instruction to the universal Catholic Church, the General Catechetical Directory, did not appear until 1971, a point in time where a lot of water had already passed under the bridge in floods of enthusiasm.
It is useful to remember that many Catholics in the United States were quite aware of the Council and what changes it may bring. There were hopes that some onerous church practices might be softened, such as fasting [there were about 60 days of obligatory fast in 1962] and moral teachings on birth control. On the whole, the expectations of Catholics were not avoidance of work and sacrifice but positive responses to generally agreed upon problems: the need for evening Masses, worship in the vernacular [local language], more involvement with the Bible, lay participation in governance and ministry, better protocols for the divorced to rejoin the Eucharistic banquet, and communion under both species, to cite some that I vividly remember, having grown up through that time frame. In middle school I remember serving the first permitted Masses of the evenings of Holy Days of Obligation, so several liturgical reforms were permitted by Rome even before the Council under the approval of Pope John XXIII. Pius XII had transferred the Triduum rites to the evenings in the early 1950’s before the Council as well.
Consequently, there were wholesale changes and experimentation in process when the official Vatican II guidelines were formulated in the late 1960’s and beyond, up to and including the revised Code of Canon Law in 1983. I can recall that some of these documents were not enthusiastically promulgated, as a good number of Church ministers interpreted them as Roman restraints upon experimental practice already gaining traction. In the case of the General Catechetical Directory, for example, there is a peculiar addendum from the Congregation on the Clergy stating that children must make first confession before receiving first communion, clearly addressed to American practices of catechizing at that time.
In reviewing the GCD today, however, this document is indeed forward looking in its revisioning of catechetics and faith formation. Marthaler outlines the six issues of concern addressed by the editors in the development of post-Council catechetics.
 The Reality of the Problem of Religious Education/Formation: The World, the Church. The document acknowledges that the world of the twentieth century is unique in many respects, citing many factors including science, technology, mass media, and general indifference to things religious, which must be addressed and understood by the Church.
 The Ministry of the Word. This segment calls for a restoration of Biblical evangelization. “Jesus Christ embodies the fullness of all revelation;” faith formation gives voice to the words and meaning of Jesus. Through the Sacred Scripture, humans, moved by grace, respond to revelation in faith. This segment acknowledges the existence of Catholic schools and religious education programs, but in a major departure from the past, the GCD explains that “this [Biblical] renewal has to do with a continuing education in the faith, not only for children, but also for adults.” [note 9] The implication here is that the “gas ‘em up and go” approach to catechetics, ending with Confirmation for minors, is inadequate for adult faith in the post-Council era.
 The Christian Message. This is a technical section dealing with the content of what is taught and proclaimed in the formal settings of church life. At the time of composition, theologians were actively debating a number of major issues of Church Tradition, particularly in the area of morality. Eventually the follow-up to this section of the GCD would be the Catechism of the Catholic Church, issued in 1993.
 Elements of Methodology. Part 4, a very brief segment, discusses the “how” of teaching the faith. I detected an internal debate among the editors; some felt more secure with “inductive” methods and dependence upon tried and true formulas involving memorization of prayers, creeds, and doctrinal formulations in a common language of faith understanding. Others called for a more deductive and subjective use of the divine imagination. A critical assumption of this text is the professionalism and experience of the teacher as well as the good intention.
 Catechesis According to Age Level. The GCD puts forward an initial “stages of human development” consideration for catechists working with different age segments of the population. By the time of Vatican II, some of the major theories of human development were well established, from Freud, Adler, Maslow, Piaget and Erikson, among others. Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development was required reading in my graduate morality courses in the early 1970’s. The GCD reflections on the challenge of each life stage are quite good and reflect interdisciplinary scholarship.
 Pastoral Activity. This final section gets to the specifics of what is expected of each bishop in terms of establishing and monitoring the structures of catechetical instruction. It is more than a little disturbing to look at the standards proposed by the GCD and the actual product on the ground in so many sites in the United States. For one thing, catechists are referred to here as “fulltime catechetical personnel;” they are “graduates of schools of training.” Their training must be continuous throughout their ministry. The GCD is a universal document, but read from the American shores, what seems implied is college educated catechists as the norm.
Today, 2020, the instructions of section six sound preposterous and undoable in this nation. One would think that the United States Catholic Church, of all the nations of the globe, would lead the way in this pursuit of catechetical educational excellence. Unfortunately, the U.S. bishops issued their own working document, as instructed by the GCD, called “To Teach as Jesus Did” in 1972. This American blueprint is a story unto itself, the subject of our next post. I note with humor and pathos that only one person in the world has ever reviewed “To Teach as Jesus Did” in the entire Amazon review service. That would be me, in 2014. See for yourself.
Note: In the United States the term CCD has been used till very recently as a generic title for all catechetical programs not offered in a Catholic school. The USCCB has absorbed the CCD corporate identity for what appears to be publishing and catechetical resource sharing.
On My Mind