The air conditioning in my loft was repaired late yesterday afternoon, just in the nick of time. A significant thunderstorm was bearing down on the serviceman and myself as I paid the bill, and we stood in my open garage to finish the transaction. I’m sure that running through his mind was the thought that he might be killed trying to resuscitate an aging AC unit for a guy who forgets to change his filters; I was thinking to myself that my last afternoon on earth had been spent laboring in sweat reviewing a diocesan policy draft that upon completion will be read by a dozen people, many of them employees at Staples.
The document in question is a revamping of our catechist training program, a copy of which I have been given to review. My text has CONFIDENTIAL DRAFT printed in red on each page; I feel like I am getting first review of Donald Trump’s taxes. My hubris is restrained by the fact that I was involved in the two previous reincarnations of our catechetical program, as well as in the drafting of the original deacon training program for this diocese. The policy document I am proudest of—the one that did change a few lives, I think—involved maternity benefits. A group of us pastors and principals put a new (possibly the first) diocesan package together around 1990. I checked a few years ago and recent administrators had decimated the package several times over. It is true as well that church administrators turn over so frequently that grand policy statements have a short shelf life in general, as a new pharaoh “who remembered not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8; how true, how true) will always want to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic the first day on the job.
It is hard to find an area of pastoral life that is more awash in “official documents” than catechetics and religious education. I came across a summary of them in The Nature, Tasks and Scope of the Catechetical Ministry: A Digest of Recent Church Documents (2008) by Father Berard Marthaler (1928-2014), one of the giants of the American catechetical field. In the contents introduction, Father Marthaler lists individual chapters on thirty-one (!) separate church texts on the catechetical ministry. I have sampled some over the years, and the Catechist Café website devotes Thursdays to the 1993 Catechism of the Church. But so as to avoid being one of those forgetful pharaohs myself, in 2014 I dutifully read the grand-daddy of American catechetical statements from the conference of bishops, To Teach As Jesus Did. (1972)
I returned to the book’s Amazon site today to look at my review of the text two years ago. It is not hard to find because it is the only review, sad to say. The short version of the review is simply that the bishops were either poor analysts of conditions in the field or found it too hard to acknowledge the challenge facing them at the time—the trend toward Catholic school closings and the departure of the backbone of the catechetical process, religious sisters. In 1972 there was no “doomsday provision,” probably because the bishops feared that “the simple faithful” would be disturbed or Rome distressed. Marthaler’s book reminded me that in the 1972 document the American bishops had put considerable stock in the idea of school vouchers to maintain the Catholic school system, an idea that has never really taken effective traction in this country in the 44 years since.
Looking back to the 1970’s, my guess in 20-20 hindsight is that dioceses in this country, to be sure, might have done well to combine the mission of their seminaries into the professional education of clergy and church lay ministers—populations both in short supply in the 2000’s. In that vein, a blueprint for recruiting young lay professionals toward educational church ministries at major Catholic colleges and universities would have strengthened the bench, so to speak, for openings in parishes and chanceries. What has happened instead is a dynamic of decrease. The journey of one parish near my home is instructive. Twenty-five years ago the director of religious education was a religious sister who earned her masters at a major Catholic university in the Midwest. Her successor held a masters from an on-line Catholic school in the south. The next several hires held no religious education degrees at any level, and the most recent was an in-house promotion of a volunteer. This is not a tale from the rust belt, but a parish in the metro region of booming Orlando.
I would love to say that this is an anomaly, but it is not. I would at least like to say that chanceries have not succumbed to this trend, but I cannot. My wife and I experienced this latter point first-hand last night when we attended a program sponsored by our diocese on the subject of human trafficking. There was a very good turnout on a very stormy night at my parish, and we expected a presentation from law enforcement and possibly elected officials on how to engage in activism to thwart the problem. Sadly, the format consisted of five well-intentioned volunteers who read verbatim from power points and offered information and advice that any of you reading this on the internet are well aware of. It was one of the few times we have left a presentation prematurely—although judging from the cars ahead of us, we were not alone. (I have to confess to some additional gauche behavior here—I took several cookies off the table on the way out to eat in the car.)
And so I will return to my CONFIDENTIAL document with one overriding piece of advice—face the fact the bench is not just shallow, it is nearly non-existent. Until we face the problems on the ground, no document is going to save us—and God knows we’ve been down that road at least 31 times before, and with people supposedly a lot more expert than I am.