A ways back I discussed a movement afoot in certain dioceses of the United States to change the status of Catholic school teachers to that of official “minister” status of the Church. This is a subject of particular interest if you are currently a Catholic school teacher, or, if you are an employee of the Catholic Church in any formative or ministerial situation. I note here that I personally am very much in favor of written term contracts for all Catholic formative employees, not just Catholic schoolteachers. Contracts are a basic legal protection for all parties, employer and employee, in the full spirit of Catholic Social Teaching as articulated so well by Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (1891)
I am not an expert in Labor Relations Law, and were I a Catholic school teacher I would probably go to a better source for the precise implications of all of this, but essentially in certain dioceses in the United States a number of bishops have tightened the contracts and manuals of those with faculty/staff status. The goal is to explicate more clearly the obligation of Catholic school teachers to teach and live publicly the faith and morals of the Catholic Church. This stricter reading of a generally held expectation has been interpreted in a number of interesting ways already. I noted a few weeks ago the situation in Miami where the archbishop forbade any mention of issues in opposition to Catholic Church teaching to be posted on Facebook or other social media. I should add here that in 2012 the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the Lutheran Church’s designation of “called” teachers in their schools, the “called” designation exempting the employee from normal administrative process
The National Catholic Register, the EWTN news service, endorses the actions of Archbishop Cordileone in San Francisco and about six other bishops across the U.S. who are undertaking this direction, and I have taken the liberty of quoting its editorial position at some length to highlight its logic and explore difficulties in implementation. The direct context is teachers unions’ criticisms that a change to “ministerial status” would give bishops and dioceses an unfair upper hand in collective bargaining:
The unions are right about the law, and it [is] one important reason why the “ministry” designation is essential. Our Catholic bishops have the rightful authority to defend Catholic teaching and protect the Catholic mission of Catholic schools, which includes ensuring that curriculum, employment policies, health benefits and other concerns remain consistent with Catholic teaching and that teachers are good role models for students. No union should be able to compromise that authority.
There is an old saying about fighting the wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place. Obviously I think this is a worthy war, the Catholicity of our teaching institutions. Since I began attending NCEA Conventions in 2000 the agendas of workshops have numbered in the dozens each year on the very subject of Catholic identity. This year’s convention is no exception. So the matter of a school’s Catholicity is not a new crisis; wise commentators as far back as the 1970’s were wondering about the impact of the departure of Catholic religious sisters, brothers, and priests from the Catholic classrooms upon the identity of schools and the religious instruction provided. I have personally attended several seminars of doctoral theses on the subject. In 2014 I reviewed When the Sisters Said Farewell (2013). Catholic parents pay top tuition dollar; simple justice would dictate that the Catholic doctrinal and moral history be richly presented to their offspring (though I admit, it is not always this motivation that brings Catholic parents to our doors.)
So this is a protracted concern over many years. Why the sudden interest in a change in teachers’ status? Again, while I think there are multiple answers that we can discuss in days ahead, the urgency can probably be summarized in one phrase, “culture wars.” The last several years have featured a number of judicial, legislative, and executive rulings that in some way, shape, or form, have confronted Catholic moral teaching, but specifically, those issues that have historically troubled the relationship between U.S. Catholics and the Church as a whole. Among these I would note cohabitation, artificial birth control and same-sex marriage, the latter in particular because of the large number of states courts that now permit such unions. In a sense the line-in-the-sand has been drawn here, and this is where the pitched battle will be, precisely in institutions under the control of bishops.
I suspect that all of you may know or has heard of someone who has lost a job in a Catholic institution because of a public alleged violation of Church teaching (as opposed to a criminal situation of solicitation, DUI, etc.) These are never easy situations; a same-sex couple marrying in a different jurisdiction, a teacher using a grandparent’s address to cover cohabitation, or the discovery that a faculty member is not validly married in the Church. Philosophically, the thread that connects all such moral conflicts cited here is ultimately sexual in nature, which in turn raises the question: is this selective enforcement of Catholic moral teaching on sexual matters a form of discrimination that, at the very least, gives short shrift to the wider richness of Catholic moral teaching?
In a sense, what we have here is a noble battle with questionable tactics. The Inquisition itself was discontinued in part because at the end of the day it became too hard to tell who was really a Catholic. The present day elephant in the faculty lounge, for example, is Humanae Vitae, the 1968 teaching banning artificial birth control. There are a great many Catholic teachers and formation personnel, not to mention parents of students, who are parenting two or three children families. Do we enforce what appears to be a widespread disregard of this papal teaching, and if so, why disregard this one, which clearly affects the most people? As history has taught us, to the cost of billions of dollars, where there are loopholes, there are lawyers. Now there’s one for the Roberts Court.
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.
It is clear to me that within the next decade the formation—initial and continuing—of catechists and parish ministers will look considerably different than it does today and will hold Catholic faith formation to a higher standard of professional excellence, technological accessibility, and administrative compliance. Yesterday I posted on the home page links to three American dioceses: Birmingham, Mobile, and Anchorage (yes, I started my survey alphabetically; I’ll get to your diocese soon enough.) I sorted through each website looking for the catechetical formation programs in particular, but also to get a taste of the general formative programming currently in place around the country. One immediate problem is a lack of uniform terminology; be prepared to follow a lot of links and to make some educated guesses. One diocese’s religious ed is another’s faith formation is another’s catechetical program, etc. etc.
I looked at three yesterday, and Birmingham’s was quite interesting. I put some links here and invite you to scope them out for several reasons. First, it has the robust and public support of its bishop, Robert J. Baker. His brief video (lower right of page) and his letter of promulgation are clear, direct, and to the point. He “requires” participation by all parties involved. I wondered if his video was played in all his churches and even on local media, where possible, since in my own diocese requirements along these lines tend to get lost among recalcitrant pastors and local education coordinators. I think parishioners would like to see a restored professionalism in their faith programs.
The curriculum itself is built around the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as I suspect many will be. There are some pedagogical problems with that but I will hold that for now. I looked to see who produced the series of courses for catechetical training. I could not find a third party identified at the site except for what the Bishop referred to as the Diocese of Birmingham Catechetical Institute. The Bishop reports in his letter that the program is funded by a grant from the Catholic Extension Society, and it may be totally scripted and produced within that diocese. The courses are all on-line; the expectation is that all catechists have access to computers and internet. The courses are free to all participants, and anyone (including readers here) can evidently take a course, not just Birmingham catechists.
The FAQ page observes that the courses are not “talking head” ventures. I took one course this morning, “the Doctrine of the Last Things,” (death, heaven, hell, judgment, or eschatology) and it did seem to be just that, a professor reading from his notes. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that; Shakespeare wrote that “knowledge maketh a bloody entrance.” There is a significant emphasis upon content, and specifically, knowledge of the Catechism. Participants are assumed to have familiarity with a fair number of theological terms and concepts. (My course delved heavily into advanced Pauline theology.) I looked at the grading questions for the course I took; they are significantly challenging, though a participant can download a copy before the course begins. The answers are submitted on-line, and the results go from the chancery to the principal or DRE, and then to the student. I can see a black market in answer peddling, but I suspect the good folks in Alabama would never resort to that.
The Birmingham program was promulgated September 22, 2014. Bishop Baker indicated his expectation that all would be certified by May, 2016 (see letter). There is no mention of requirements for post-certification course offerings and no printed resources or bibliographies that I could find. Bishop Baker hints at a national norm for catechetical certification; I have heard this elsewhere, too.
The Birmingham program has an impressive website presence. However, a few points deserve attention. When the Catechism was first released in the early 1990’s, there was a general understanding that it was not a teaching text per se, but a guideline for publishers and programmers. A quarter century later, I get an impression that in fact we are heading in the direction of teaching the text per se. The Catechism, to my knowledge, was never vetted as a pedagogical tool in terms of its organization and emphases. In fact, Birmingham added three courses specifically on “catechetical methodology” evidently of its own initiative and practical need.
This folds into my second concern. Perhaps unwittingly Bishop Baker (and many other of his episcopal brethren) gives an impression that by 2016 he wants to be able to say that all of his catechists have been “impressed” with the Catechism and therefore are suitable candidates for their ministry. This reminds me a bit of a parish Confirmation program—the sacrament that historically marks the end of religious formation. It also calls to mind all the “safe children” and fingerprinting/screening programs of some years back. I would feel much better if the Birmingham program toned down its heavy emphasis upon the Catechism and looked at the catechist’s life-long pursuit of theological excellence.
It is not inconceivable that over the next several years the 200 dioceses of the United States will shake down to several master programs like Birmingham’s. I doubt that every diocese will reinvent the wheel. I saw some evidence of this in the other diocesan sites I examined, which farmed out programming to other dioceses or companies. It is a matter for professional and volunteer catechists to watch closely, lest the national template of professional certification be served up as a fait accompli.