Who Was That Jesus Dude? It’s Time for a Religious Literacy Test

A new assistant at an old suburban parish in Baltimore talked to the eighth graders who were to be confirmed within the week. He asked them who or what the Holy Spirit was; of the 18 children in the class, two had some vague idea that the Holy Spirit was somehow God and had even heard of the word Trinity. The priest told his findings to another assistant at the parish, who couldn’t believe the story. That assistant went to another class and found that ten percent of the class that was to be confirmed had a vague idea of the Trinity and the divine nature of the Holy Spirit; the two priests went to the principal of the school, who couldn’t believe them, until she went to another class of confirmands and…. These eighth graders had been carefully instructed using the Peace! Love! Joy! series for nine years and had only the slightest idea of what Christianity was about (catechism by Hallmark?). Only about ten percent of eighth grade Catholic children are confirmed in Baltimore. Only ten percent of this group, which is the most highly instructed group, has a knowledge of the Trinity. Probably less than five percent of the future Catholic laity of Baltimore knows even in a foggy way what the doctrine of the Trinity is all about, much less that it is the central doctrine of Christianity.

A friend went to a parents’ assembly at a Franciscan high school. The principal told the parents of the senior class what the students were going to be learning during their final year: the Ten Commandments, the sacraments, and the articles of faith. The school had discovered that after 11 years of Catholic education the students were still little better than heathens. My friend admired the principal for admitting that there was a problem—until, that is, he looked at the course title for the seniors’ religion course: Comparative Religions. He then made an appointment with the principal, thanked him for his honesty before the parents, but inquired why the seniors were being taught comparative religion, since they did not even know the basic elements of their own religion. The principal saw the point, and the course was changed to Catholicism.

In the eighth grade religion class in a parochial school, AIDS and Magic Johnson were discussed, and the students then wrote to the local Catholic newspaper: “You should teach safe sex rather than abstinence.” “He [Johnson] should go on teaching kids about AIDS and safe sex.” “As a teen, I know that there are many times where we feel that in order to love someone you must have sex.” “I think they should distribute condoms to students in the schools because it is embarrassing to buy them in the stores.” “Young kids aren’t going to stop having sex.” “I think people should use condoms.” The pastor of the parish is the former director of all religious formation for the diocese. In a space of a few months in his homilies, he revealed that he didn’t know who Maximilian Kolbe was, but since there was a school in the inner city named after Kolbe, he assumed he must have had a ministry to African Americans; he pronounced Eusebius’ name as E-soo-bius, thereby indicating he had never had any patristics; and he said that he did not know what this mysterious “cult of the martyrs” was that the Ordo referred to on the feast of Pope St. Damascus (whose name he also mispronounced). When the blind lead the blind, both fall into the ditch.

Most of the criticisms of the state of religious education have come from conservative parents, whose complaints have been uniformly dismissed by the professionals who are sure they know better. But Bishop James Malone of Youngstown, past president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and generally considered a member of the liberal wing of the church in the United States, realizes that all is not well. In a recent article in Chicago Studies he wrote, “a significant part of the Catholic population has only a rudimentary understanding of the Catholic faith. And some would suggest that this poverty of understanding continues to be perpetrated in the religion classes of our schools and in our religious education programs.”

The old Baltimore Catechism taught the elements of the faith. A Lutheran theologian who had taught for decades in a religious studies department in a state university remarked that his Catholic students were coming to college with far less knowledge of basic Christian doctrine and of biblical stories than they had 20 years ago. Those of us over 40 can remember the constant catechism drill in Catholic schools, which was reinforced by the devotions of the parish. We all knew transubstantiation, and had some idea of the distinctions among dulia, hyperdulia, and latria. One never knew when such knowledge would, like the Swiss Army knife, come in handy.

What has caused the decline in religious knowledge? American education as a whole has become process-oriented rather than content-oriented. That is, students are taught the process of reading rather than learning specific facts. The problems with this approach are discussed in E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy. Merely sounding out letters on a page does not give one the ability to read. One must learn the common allusions, the cultural shorthand, which convey meaning.

Someone may say of an international situation, “This is not Vietnam, this is Munich.” Specialized knowledge of Southeast Asian history and German history is not necessary to understand this sentence, but the reader must have some idea of what these allusions mean. Because of the lack of emphasis on content, students no longer learn the cultural allusions that make reading possible, not to say pleasurable. French students in their national examinations are asked to comment on the causes of the secession of America’s Southern states. How many American students would even know what secession was?

In religious education, an educational theory that replaced the concentric approach by an incremental one has also contributed to the decline in literacy. The concentric theory relied on the axiom Repetitio mater studiorum, repetition is the mother of learning. Each year, all fundamental doctrines were presented, with progressively greater depth of presentation as the child matured. Therefore, the child each year heard of the Trinity, the Redemption, the sacraments. After eight repetitions some of it began to sink in. The new theory is that the doctrine should not be introduced until the child is “ready for it.” That is, the Trinity might not be introduced until the fifth grade. If the child goes to Catholic school for only the first four years, he will never hear of the Trinity. Moreover, the tendency is to treat of the doctrine heavily in that year, and neglect it in later years. The lack of repetition lessens the probability that the child will remember the doctrine.

The Baltimore Catechism came in for special ire. The question and answer format of this catechism was invented, or at least popularized, by Luther, who sought for a way to overcome the abysmal lack of knowledge of elementary Christian doctrine among papists turned evangelicals. The dialogue form of the catechism has an ancient heritage in the Platonic dialogue and conveys the important idea that our life is in some way a test or trial. The opponents of the Baltimore Catechism disliked the implication that there were “right” answers to questions, and that these answers should be memorized. However, the concept of doctrinal revelation means that there are right answers; their formulation may vary, but it is important to know the right answers, and a uniform formulation helps the doctrines to stay in the memory.

Scholars who were concerned that Catholics were not biblically oriented also wanted religious education changed to incorporate more story-telling approaches. Yet the evidence is that the older Baltimore Catechism system conveyed more scriptural knowledge than the current system does. Catholics did not know the Bible enough, but the low view of biblical inerrancy and inspiration prevalent among Catholics today will not encourage Catholics to study the Bible. After all, if almost all the Bible must be discounted because it is patriarchal, speciesist, judgmental, anti-environmental, and non-ecumenical, what is the point of reading it? The only group of laity that reads the Bible with consistency and fervor is the charismatics. Their approach is closer to the fundamentalist than to the modernist, and they reject the syncretism and ultra-rationalism of the dominant theological school of thought in the United States.

Trendy Catholic clergy are still marked by the triumphalism and ex opere operato mentality of the 1950s. That is, they assume that Catholicism will last in a given community, even though no one is being instructed in it. They also assume that the sacraments will bear fruit even if the recipients haven’t the faintest idea of what is going on. Because God created us rational creatures, He wants our reason to be engaged in the process of our redemption. We are on a journey, and He has given us a map and guideposts.

In C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, Aslan gives Jill the four signs she needs in her quest. “Jill thought she should say something. So she said ‘Thank you very much. I see.’ ‘Child.’ said Aslan, in a gentler voice than he had yet used, ‘perhaps you do not see quite as well as you think. But the first step is to remember.’ ” He makes her repeat the signs until she has memorized them. He then tells her, “And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs.”

The catechetical and biblical formulations are like that. Albert Speer recounts that in a discussion among Hitler’s friends, no one remembered the Ten Commandments. Perhaps if “Thou shalt not kill” had been resounding in their minds, history might have taken another course. And if “Thou shalt not kill” were engraved in every Catholic’s mind, abortion would not be as prevalent among Catholics as among everyone else. When we reach a crisis and must under pressure make a key decision based on the very meaning of our lives, we don’t have time to engage in theological reflection. We need to remember the sign. The purpose of our life is “to know, to love, and to serve God in this life and to be happy with Him forever in the next.”

Doctrinal knowledge is therefore important, although of course not sufficient. A lack of doctrinal knowledge has created the obvious lack of commitment to Catholicism among Catholics in the United States. They support their Church financially only half as much as Protestants; they accept guidance on sexual matters from the world more than Protestants do. For many, Catholicism is mostly a decoration, a badge of ethnic heritage.

The number of converts has fallen precipitously in the past generation. Why should Catholics make any effort to convert people to a religion which they themselves don’t understand? When confronted by zealous fundamentalists, who have far more knowledge of the Bible than Catholics have, why is it surprising that Catholics cannot answer their arguments to the effect that Catholicism is somehow anti-Biblical? If these Catholics have religious tendencies, they will tend to fall, as Raymond Brown recently commented, into the dominant religious ethos of the United States, which is still Protestant—or into secularism.

We must return to a religious education that effectively conveys the content of Catholic doctrine. The failure of those in charge of Catholic education to realize this is curious. One can adopt a conspiracy theory and decide that the failure to convey doctrine was a foreseen and indeed desired effect of the new catechetical methods. There is some truth in this. The hatred of the educational reformers for the smug self-assurance of 1950s Catholicism led them to be willing to ditch all doctrine in the hope of reforming Catholicism. The reformed Catholicism that is being sought varies: some want a more biblical and ecumenical Catholicism; others want a syncretistic New Age Catholicism with Wicca and earth-worship; others want a Marxist Catholicism. What they are all getting is no Catholicism at all, but a vague cultural religiosity.

Still, no bureaucrat ever admits he has made a mistake. This is a fundamental law of all bureaucracies. The ecclesiastical bureaucracy does not differ from its secular counterpart. Whatever the evidence, it will never admit it has made a mistake. Eventually the voluntary financial support for this bureaucracy will disappear, and the bureaucrats will have to find other jobs, or government vouchers.

A bishop theoretically has authority in his diocese over religious education, but bishops get to be bishops by being organization men. They polish up the handle so carefully that they shine in the eyes of Rome. What is the chance that men like Bishop Austin Vaughn, who do not have the grey souls of bureaucrats, will ever get to be ordinaries of a diocese? Mostly, even the recent papal appointments to the episcopacy go along with their middle management; they don’t have the stomach or backbone for a fight.

Parents have the right and duty to educate their children and should not ignore this pressing responsibility. The Catholic school and Sunday School will not convey Catholicism. Parents must teach their children themselves. It is very easy to use a content-based series such as the Ignatius Press Faith and Life series. It is easy to teach when it is clear what is supposed to be taught. Parents can also join with other parents in forming lay catechetical institutes. These can match up tutors and children, and help parents who need some personal help in teaching their children.

One approach that all sides can perhaps agree on is a standardized test, like the California Achievement Tests, to test knowledge of religious doctrine and practices, and to a certain extent the degree of commitment to those practices. Too many arguments revolve around conflicting anecdotes. Too many are resolved by the pastor or principal or director of religious education saying he or she is satisfied, and the parent is judging from isolated examples.

Perhaps things are not as bad as I and many other parents think. A test would provide an objective standard. Catholic doctrine is a subject that can be tested as easily as reading and mathematics. Commitment can be measured to some extent by the same types of tests that are used by prospective employers to test for honesty. The religion achievement test should be given by a respected independent agency like the Educational Testing Service. It could be used to determine the effectiveness of different approaches to teaching religion, to place students at the appropriate level in religious education programs, to see if confirmands really have enough knowledge to make a commitment, to see if adult converts have an adult intellectual grasp of the teachings of the Catholic Church, and to test whether ordinands have a sufficient knowledge of Catholicism to preach it. The Episcopal church has tests that ordinands must pass; they do not guarantee faith, but they ensure against blind ignorance.

The Universal Catechism will be released shortly by the Vatican, after long and patient work by Cardinal Ratzinger. It is not intended to be put in the hands of children, but to provide a benchmark for all catechetical programs. The Vatican wants all religious programs to convey the doctrines in the catechism, and in some important areas the very formulations of those doctrines. Tests could easily be constructed using the standard of the Universal Catechism. The American version of the tests could then be translated and adapted for other countries. Perhaps the National Conference of Catholic Bishops could make this one of their projects, and since the laity have the children, perhaps an organization like the Knights of Columbus could help with funding. Such a test would resolve the questions Bishop Malone has raised, and allow the Church to make intelligent, informed decisions about what to do next.


  • Leon J. Podles

    Dr. Leon Podles is the author of two books including Sacrilege, an in-depth look at sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. His writing has also appeared in numerous publications

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