Catholic Schools Week versus Catechetical Sunday 4: The Decisions Made and Not Made in 1972
“To Teach as Jesus Did”  was the first formal statement by the collective body of the United States Catholic bishops on the Council Vatican II about religious education and faith formation. The document is still available on Kindle [$4] and paperback [as high as $64, for a 56-page treatise.] In all the years that Amazon has sold books online, I remain the only soul who ever published a review of the document on its Amazon page, in 2015, which suggests to me that this American nugget of Catholic history has been generally forgotten.
Vatican II ended in 1965, and every national conference of bishops was expected to adapt the mood and spirit of the Council into its catechetical and faith formation programs. In the case of the United States, our bishops would have had in hand guidelines from a Vatican document, the General Catechetical Directory, released in 1971, unless one considers Paul VI’s Credo  below a catechetical document. By the early 1970’s the American Church was well on the way toward a progressive-traditional rift. If you have been following the Saturday Café blog stream on the Council’s liturgical decree Sacrosanctum Concilium, you have sampled the moderate tone of the conciliar statements. Sacrosanctum Concilium is neither radically traditionalist nor open-ended futurist. Sacrosanctum Concilium does not advocate altar girls or abandonment of the church organ, for example, or take a position on even communion in the hand. By the same token, SC does not advocate preserving the Tridentine or pre-Conciliar form of the Mass, either, calling instead for rubrics that would symbolize the togetherness of the Church around the Eucharistic banquet.
Once the Council ended and the world’s bishops went home, the Roman Curia assumed the direction of reform, a word which made Pope Paul VII and his cabinet uncomfortable. It is worth noting here that on June 30, 1968, Pope Paul VI issued his Credo of the People of God. I was in college at the time, and I assumed that Pope Paul was getting skittish about the progressive drift of theology and religious education and wished to centralize both academic theology and catechetics. Reviewing it again today, I notice it is considerably longer than the Nicene Creed used at Mass, and that it goes to great lengths to elaborate doctrines not contained in the earlier Creeds now used at Mass, particularly the Nicene Creed of 325 A.D. In Paul’s formulation there is elaboration on the Mass as a sacrifice, at a time when religion teachers were teaching the Mass as a Eucharistic meal. There was emphasis upon Marian Doctrine, Original Sin, Transubstantiation, again matters of belief not emphasized in the ancient creeds, and in particular the supreme authority of the Pope to teach in faith and morals. But Credo was published on June 29, 1968, just before the Pope’s controversial birth control teaching, Humanae Vitae, which was declared at the end of July. Few Church issues in my lifetime created more public discussion, anger, and grief of conscience. Pope Paul may have been attempting to strengthen his position of apostolic authority in the Credo before issuing his epic teaching and demonstrating his vision of true catechetical style.
This is the world into which the U.S. bishop-authors of “To Teach as Jesus Did” tried to follow a path where bishops could come to agreement on principles and practices of catechetics. American Bishops in 1972 were somewhat less divided than they are today. As TTAJD is the product of endless staff work, it is difficult to know the full range of intentions of the bishop contributors. When I reviewed the document six years ago, I criticized it for a shortage of hard data and an overabundance of faulty utopian long-range planning. But in recent years, honesty requires more sympathy on my part for the bishops who were in a sense trying to square a catechetical circle. They were forced to make judgments on the most basic question of catechetics, i.e., where do we put our eggs: whether faith formation is most effective in a Catholic school setting or in the CCD setting, or even some third and fourth models in the very early stages of development.
It is true that TTAJD would have profited from more ground research, i.e., what did people—priests and laity—think about Catholic schools and religious education programs circa 1970+. Some important data was free for the taking: Catholic schools were well into the attendance decline that began in 1966; more religious sisters were leaving the classroom [and religious life itself], with the subsequent increase of lay teachers in the schools who required salaries commensurate with the needs of supporting a family; tuitions of Catholic schools—which had been free in my years, 1954-62—were rising.
In reviewing the available literature of the time, and even my own experience, there was also a sense among college educated progressive Catholics that Catholic schools themselves were not worth the money, that the funding or subsidies paid by parishes for their schools was better placed in ministries to the poor; or, in later years as parish offertory collections declined and larger numbers of Catholics left the church, school subsidies were seen as a backbreaking burden where they were still offered, and many Catholic schools would close in the years ahead—including a number already during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the 1970’s many dioceses were able to backstop the rising costs of parish schools from reserves of the diocese itself. That would be rare today. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, about 20 of the 185 U.S. dioceses had filed for bankruptcy dating back to 2004, due primarily to the multiple child abuse claims. A working estimate of the cost of the abuse crisis in the U.S. places Church losses at $3-$5 billion.
The state of Catholic schools in 1972 was a big matter for the writers of “To Teach as Jesus Did,” because in many ways the health of religious education programs depended upon the health and resources of Catholic schools. The bishops teach that “Catholic schools afford the fullest and best opportunity to realize the threefold purpose of Christian education among children and young people. Schools naturally enjoy educational advantages which other programs either cannot afford or can offer only with great difficulty.” [para. 101] Earlier in the document the bishops write that “despite their achievements and bright hopes, such [religious education] programs face serious problems which should concern the entire Catholic community.” [para. 91] In short, the episcopacy did not see the freestanding faith formation programs of the day as capable of carrying the torch for evangelizing the young.
The bishops did not have the resource of standardized ACRE testing of religious learning, which was begun later in 1979, which might have given them solid information on the comparable religious learning taking place in schools and religious education programs. Today the ACRE standardized testing is administered in the fifth, eighth, and eleventh grades across the board. The school results are often made public as a recruiting tool for prospective client parents. It is not clear how widespread standardized testing is utilized today in after school or other structures, and given that most religious education programs have at best about 26 teaching contact hours per year, the disparity of results compared with an accredited school with daily religious instruction is probably skewed, apples and oranges.
The number of minors depending upon religious education or CCD outside of a Catholic school has been a major concern of the American hierarchy since the 1800’s. Even with the bishops’ mandate of 1884 that every Catholic church have a school, in the best of times only 50% of parishes might be complying, usually for the obvious reasons of funding and availability of women religious. The U.S. bishops of 1972 were hesitant to trumpet their concern in TTAJD, but they did not whisper it, either. The document cites that 5.5 million Catholic youth depended upon CCD at the time of writing, and it puts forth the hope that CCD and its school counterpart exert equal energy in the three-legged stool model of instruction, involvement in liturgy, and community service.
Hoping to make lemonade from lemons, the bishops write that “a limitation, which is also a potential source of strength, is [CCD’s] voluntary character which, while making it more difficult to secure participation, also offers significant opportunities for the building of Christian community.” [para. 88] There is a suggestion that since religious ed programs were [and are] purely voluntary, in terms of both students and teachers, the esprit decor of faith sharing might be more intense. This concept has some merit. It was my pleasure to work with fellow Franciscans in my major seminary years [1969-1974] giving weekend rural retreats to high school aged students from the DC/VA/MD region. Our clientele ranged from the toney Georgetown Catholic high schools to suburban CCD or CYO parish clusters in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. It was a stimulating ministry, though we often felt that the CYO participants seemed somewhat more “juiced” about their three-day experience. During those years I discovered that often the parish’s religious education director was a religious sister or a former religious, making them professionally qualified as a rule for parish catechesis. With the passage of a half-century, though, this level of professionalism can no longer be maintained.
The bishops go on to say that CCD/CYO programs were not reaching a large percentage of Catholic youth. Research in the present day has revealed that the median age of disaffiliation from the Church is 13, but this was not appreciated at the time. TTAJD offers remedies [para 92ff], noting the elongated civil war between school and CCD over resources and attention and addressing the parishes to “work harmoniously.” There is a call for incorporating religious education with Catholic school students in organizations and activities, presumably more that just the initiation sacraments like First Communion. Clearly the bishops were concerned about the professional training or lack of it for catechists, an issue that is probably more acute than ever in today’s Church. Honesty compels me to say that many Catholic school teachers in our schools are barely cognizant of Catholic culture, either. I worked as a catechist/schoolteacher theological instructor in my diocese here for close to 40 years…until my diocese went to outside streaming programs and eliminated face-to-face education of its catechists and teachers about four years ago. [I switched over to Catholic Charities as a psychotherapist in their clinics, but I do miss the teaching.]
TTAJD does reference the idea of greater adult education, particularly for parents. It is often forgotten today, but from the end of World War II through the years of Vatican II and beyond, many Catholic adults were reading voraciously and attending lectures and workshops on renewal of Bible studies, liturgy, and particularly morality. Many returning veterans from World War II, thanks to the “GI Bill,” were able to attend Catholic colleges to earn professional degrees and absorb adult level religious instruction from the required theology courses at Catholic colleges in their home vicinities. This intensity of instruction has declined into today’s fundamental and emotional religious instructional content, often on-line. The problem with dependence upon excessive evangelical methodology was best described by my seminary rector years ago: “Piety comes and goes; stupidity remains forever.”
I hope that this post has at least introduced you to the pivotal document of 1972, “To Teach as Jesus Did,” the gateway to several generations of faith formation. We are the inheritors of decisions made and unmade. We can see what has worked and what has not over five decades. If a similar document were written today, how would it differ? I will address that in our next post on this stream.
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