In 1884 the American Bishops—concerned about anti-Catholic bias in the public schools--established the principle of a Catholic school in every parish at the remarkable Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, ensuring that the education of youth would be conducted by professional teachers/catechists and preserving the standards established in 1560 by the original CCD. The same plenary council mandated a national Catholic university, eventually my alma mater the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., as well as a national catechism, the aptly named Baltimore Catechism.
The American Catholic school system was without equal around the work for nearly a century. However, even at its zenith after World War II there were many Catholic youths who could not attend, for a wide range of reasons. Sheer geography and physical distance were a factor, particularly in rural parts of the nation where parishes were small and widely separated. But there were pastoral factors, too. Some families were estranged from the church for marital or other reasons and elected to use the public school system. While tuitions were low or, in my case, nonexistent, support of the Sunday offertory was expected. In the 1950’s my Catholic school closed at noon on Mondays so that the religious sisters and brothers could use the facility to teach Catholics from the local public schools in an arrangement called “released time.” The “CCD kids” were depicted in a bad odor by my Catholic school teachers; we were warned that if we had any valuables in our desk, we should take them home or they would be stolen by the public-school Catholics.
Despite the poor attitudes, the fact remained that a large percentage of Catholic youths were catechized by professional teachers—most of them religious women--steeped in the nuances of Catholic life and worship. But in the early 1960’s a “perfect storm of troubles” began to bubble up for the schools and the released time religious instruction programs that depended upon them. In his treatment of these times in The Nature, Tasks and Scope of the Catechetical Ministry  Father Berard Marthaler comments that “despite the euphoria of Vatican II, by the mid-1960’s many Catholics had grown pessimistic about the future of Catholic education in the United States.” [p. 45] To unpack this assessment would require a book unto itself, but statistics bear out that the mass exodus of women religious from Catholic school teaching for ministries to the poor or to exit religious life itself began in the 1960’s and has led to a near total absence of religious from Catholic schools and parishes in 2021.
As a rule, religious community sisters were paid much less than lay counterparts, and their departure led to greater school budgets and increased tuitions. Pastors and bishops grew fatigued of maintaining ever increasing costs, and tuitions became a greater factor in the decision to place youngsters in Catholic schools. Whether the American Church could have sustained its schools with greater focus and commitment in the years immediately after Vatican II will be debated by historians for years to come. What we do have in hand is a remarkable document from the U.S. bishops in 1972, “To Teach as Jesus Did.” [See my Amazon review of the document here.] TTAJD is a remarkable work, almost utopian, in several respects. It sets adult education at the top of the formational pyramid while reemphasizing the value of established Catholic schools. It extends the catechetical umbrella to Catholic colleges and universities, naming departments of theology as intrinsic to both the world of academia and the general intellectual life of the Church.
TTAJD, in its teaching on Catholic schools, emphasizes the unifying element of faith and religious experience in all the academic disciplines. This is a return to the university model of the Medieval era, the age of Thomas Aquinas, where all the arts and sciences point to the wisdom of God within the language and principles of each discipline. Consider the principles of scientific method, the replication of theories to establish their credibility. But it is also true that in TTAJD the bishops make a Faustian bargain, delicately extricating themselves from the Council of Baltimore’s 1884 school mandate with the assertion that, while Catholic schools were the preferred formation of choice, other possibilities might suffice. “Although the document recognizes ‘inherent limitations’ in part-time programs offered for young people who do not attend Catholic schools, including parental indifference and scheduling problems, it acknowledges that they have ‘considerable strengths that should be built upon.’ The fact that [free standing religious education programs] depend largely on volunteers, for example, contributes to the building of a Christian community, provides creative planners to develop innovative approaches, and expands opportunities for Christian leadership and service.” [Marthaler, p. 46]
TTAJD acknowledged that at the time of its composition “many within and without the Church wondered whether Catholic schools had a future” and bishops reaffirmed that “Catholic schools afford the fullest and best opportunity to realize the threefold purpose of Christian education among children and young people.” [p. 46] But this endorsement did not bring forth a national restructuring of the existing school systems in terms of attracting new generations of students, long range fiscal planning, or most of all, a renewed commitment to the academic excellence of religious instruction. The remaining schools, for the most part, faced a perilous road ahead simply to survive. Statistically, Catholic schools have closed in disconcerting numbers since 1972 and even more so as dioceses declared bankruptcy after the clerical abuse crises in 2002. In February 2021, ABC News reported that two hundred Catholic schools in the U.S. closed their doors during the Covid epidemic, noting that there are now 5,981 Catholic schools in the United States, compared with more than 11,000 in 1970. For a fuller treatment of the Catholic school situation, this 2009 piece from the New York Times, “For Catholic Schools, Crisis and Catharsis,” summarizes the years since “To Teach as Jesus Did.”
So how does this play out for catechists? While trends rarely have “critical mass” moments, one can argue that since 1972 the Catholic Church in the United States has passed the baton of religious education to volunteer catechists—and not simply for the young, but for adult students of the faith as well. Put simply, the odds are overwhelming that any Catholic in the United States who receives religious instruction of any sort is receiving it from a volunteer.
I have served as an instructor for my diocese’s catechetical certification program for nearly forty years. I have great respect and affection for these ministers of religious education, and one can only imagine where we would be without them. I wish that our Church would be more candid with them about the history of faith formation in this country and help them appreciate the load they carry and the challenges they face. The catechists I know worry about their performance, about “getting it right.” Most do not know that they are carrying a burden for which their predecessors were trained in considerable depth and enjoyed a support system much greater than those available to catechists today.
Perhaps the simplest way to address the challenges to catechists is to list them.
Fifty years ago, a religious sister teaching CCD typically carried, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree, some years in the school classroom, a teaching certification by the state, and a lifestyle immersed in the past and present of the Church, with years of institutional formation in postulancy, novitiate, and formation to vows. A parish volunteer rarely enters the catechetical ministry with this background.
Catechist training and certification programs, given the limited time available, can only scratch the minimum of the sacred sciences. When I retired from teaching in 2016, my diocese offered ten hours in the Hebrew Scripture and ten hours in the New Testament, two disciplines that form the basis of the study of theology and church life. There was little or no opportunity to introduce reference texts, responsible web sites, or useful periodical. By contrast, as professional teachers, religious sisters of earlier years had access to regular updating and professional workshops as well as an array of mainstream peer-reviewed journals and updates provided by reputable Catholic presses.
Religious education classes are offered in something of an educational vacuum, with time for only the most rudimentary catechetical data. Catholic schools, by contrast, offered then and now an integration of religious belief with the other arts and sciences, as well as contemporary issues with structured time for discussion and research.
Religious education classes suffer from a minimum of “face-time,” in comparison with daily Catholic school instruction. Aside from the limitations of a roughly 26-hour school year, teachers tell me that attendance is erratic, and continuity is difficult to sustain. [In TTAJD, the bishops cited the “voluntary nature” of religious education as one of its strengths; in practice, only the students take advantage of voluntary attendance.]
Catechists today do not have the institutional clout that religious teaching sisters enjoyed. This is particularly true for salaried catechetical administrators and parish overseers of catechetics. There is no contractual protection nor is there realistic due process when an administrative catechist runs afoul of a micromanaging or dictatorial pastor. Parish employees in general rarely possess realistic job descriptions or meaningful work evaluations; on the contrary, it is commonplace for additional ah hoc responsibilities to be routed to the religious education director.
There are several unique factors of twenty-first century American church life where catechists must brave new territory. One of these is the polarization of “left and right,” or progressive and conservative elements of Catholic parish life. Such divisions have been with us since Vatican II, but in recent years such divisions have become ensnared in the U.S. culture wars, which needs no explanation here. Consequently, the presentation of Scripture, Morality, Liturgy, and the other theological disciplines require a studied impartiality that was not the case when I began ministerial work in 1970.
Coupled with this challenge is the reality of social media. Church ministers, including catechists, become easy prey to unjustified on-line criticism when teaching the “hard saying of Jesus.” But pedagogically speaking, the internet is awash in amateur and outdated church material. Catechetical instruction must now include insights into orthodox and peer-reviewed material from Catholic news services, educational enterprises, and publishing houses. Or, put another way, development of the skill of undertaking sound research.
There is another hard truth for today’s catechists—Catholicism is ill. Attendance at weekly Eucharist is now recorded at 20-25%. When I entered ministry a half-century ago, about 50% of Catholics attended regularly. Recent research indicates that about 30% of Catholics understand the full nature of the Eucharist as the real Body and Blood of Christ. A few years ago, I attended a conference where a nationally famous religion journalist observed that since Vatican II each generation of Catholics is exponentially less educated in the faith than the previous one. While the decline in the number of ordained priests has been known for years [it was discussed at Vatican II, in fact], the moral clerical failures that have come to light in the last quarter century may be more damaging in terms of trust and, not to be forgotten, financial resources for the ministry.
For about twenty-five years I was a member of the Franciscan Order, and my training corresponded to the first decade after Vatican II. All religious orders were expected to reform after the Council, and I remember distinctly how the superiors of my order used to proclaim, “Start with the young, and they will lead us!” Today I look back and recognize that this was a self-serving strategy—kicking the can down the road so that the rank and file would not be unduly discomfited.
I think that any efforts down the road to revitalize the Church may be tempted to adopt this strategy, “if only we teach the kids better.” No, a true renewal of the Church—which of necessity includes a deeper understanding of the Scripture in adult life—must begin with adults. In his new pastoral letter on catechists issued May 11, Pope Francis speaks of the catechist as a community leader—or as I used to tell my student catechists, “You are the best educated Catholic in any roomful of parishioners.” This assumes a mastery of the Scripture and the Catholic tradition that we have not yet prepared you for.
One of the biggest complaints about liturgy is the generally poor preaching. A major reason for bad sermons is that priests are not reading. Again, recent research has found that young people begin their discernment to stay or leave the Church around the age of ten. Poor preaching is leaving its mark even on the young. If you are not reading and studying as an indispensable part of the catechetical ministry, your teaching will be as big a turnoff. But, if you commit yourself to the life of scholarship that teaching involves, you will become a true apostle in the New Evangelization, the embrace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.