I have been working on a project for the last few months studying the various catechetical training programs in use or in planning around the United States. Six such programs are presently linked on the title page at the right. In reviewing them closely, I see three different trends.
First, smaller dioceses such as Fairbanks, Alaska, are looking heavily to larger outside dioceses with programs in place, such as Phoenix Diocese’s KINO program founded in 1978 or are networked with universities (Fairbanks with the University of Seattle, for example). It is not clear on some sites what face-to-face communications and educational interchanges are going on between diocesan staff/instructors/program coordinators and the rank and file parish ministers. On-line learning appears to be favored. Parenthetically, my guess would be that several major programs and curricula would come to dominate most of Catholic catechetical teachers’ formation by the year 2020, particularly if US bishops establish national standards of catechists’ certification, which I understand is now being seriously discussed.
The second trend is the desire of some dioceses to develop major programming, possibly with an eye toward the financial advantages of selling access to other smaller dioceses. I neglected to check tuitions in my research, but very few institutions are giving anything away. Birmingham’s Catechetical Institute is an exception; it has an impressive website I would bring to your attention. As I wrote earlier this week, Birmingham’s program is free, funded by the Catholic Extension Society. This is a good example of imaginative adaptation by CES, which has funded the costs of rural Catholic Churches for many years. You might know that CES generates some of its funds through its national Catholic calendar, and it is certainly a worthy candidate of our financial support. CES has working relationships with 94, or almost 50%, of U.S. dioceses. Conceivably it may be a vital link in the structural chain of first-rate formation to ministers in rural America.
Birmingham’s program is an on-line series of lectures by priests and other professors recruited for this project. Testing is done on-line with results compiled directly to the diocese; a particular strength of the program is that diocesan officials can monitor (and presumably keep account) of each catechist’s progress. Scores are relayed from downtown to local administrators, and a strong factor of quality assurance is built into the program. An interesting contrast to Birmingham is New York City, whose archdiocesan catechetical training is face-to-face in multiple regional sites and is not showcased on line as a transferrable or marketable program elsewhere.
A third trend is contrasting curricula. There are a good number of dioceses who are building their course outlines almost verbatim from the textual outline of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Nowhere is this exemplified better than Birmingham. Bishop Baker’s letter of promulgation makes this clear; his goal, if I read him correctly, is to have all of his catechists “exposed” to the Catechism in a thorough way. He sets May 2016 as the target date of completion. From a teacher’s standpoint, this does sound a bit like the typical parish Confirmation conundrum: give ‘em a good dose of learning, anoint ‘em, and wish ‘em luck. Despite its adult orientation and 688 pages of intense content, some of the orientation literature sounds disturbingly close to the old Baltimore Catechism. Dioceses who are looking to “certify” with the Catechism as a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal miss the point that catechist formation, like all adult faith formation, is a lifelong venture. To certify individuals as “finished” is the very thing we fight in the “Confirmation wars.”
Another curriculum issue is the disparity between the Catechism’s terminology and organization, and that traditionally employed in schools of theology and general catechetics of the past many years. I looked up the catalog of the Florida state seminary, (St. Vincent, Boynton Beach) and looked at its arrangement of topics of on pp. 24-26. This is how parish priests are trained to organize theology and religious studies; it is very similar (but probably much improved) from my curriculum of 1972. In any event, the implementation of two different models in the arrangement of what is essentially the same material is an unnecessary complication between diocese to diocese. Nowhere in the Catechism does it demand slavish imitation of style and terminology. Again, New York City’s organization of courses would typically reflect how most priests and college educated laity think of the theological discipline.
I will be attending the NCEA Convention here in Orlando on Easter week, and I hope to meet with church personnel and catechists to discover—whatever the model, whatever the medium—how the troops on the ground are faring. Feel free to post your impressions and experiences here.