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.