Catechesis

Let us suppose that it is important for young people to arrive at college with a good grasp of mathematics. How should this be achieved? If you were to propose that we should teach children mathematics by putting trigonometry into the first grade syllabus and calculus into the second, you would be thought quite mad! We all understand, all-but intuitively, that before we can teach children “real math,” we must teach them basic arithmetic. We must give them a solid grounding in the basic, fundamental, foundational principles that underlie math before we can teach them more sophisticated maths. Cf. 1 Cor. 3:2.

In a discussion elsewhere, I was intrigued to see the old-fashioned approach to catechesis faulted as “simplistic”: The preconciliar Church, I was told “was based on a simplistic catechism.” How interesting that in some quarters, Popes Francis I and John XXIII are lauded for their “simplicity,” and “simple” liturgy is demanded, and yet simple catechisms and simple faith are objects of scorn, held up to contempt! It seems to me that those “simplistic” catechisms cannot be so readily-dismissed, because they were, after all, successful in teaching people the faith. Perhaps they did not encourage people to question further, perhaps they could have done more, but they taught well and they taught enough.

A year or two ago, our pastor was giving a homily and he rhetorically asked a question from the Baltimore Catechism, and a murmur went around the room. The older people in the room, those who had been raised on the Baltimore Catechism, instantly—immediately, reflexively—gave the answer. It might have been decades since they gave the question a moment’s thought, and yet, cold, they instantly answered the question in a clear, crystalline, simple, straightforward statement of the truth. I don’t now remember the question, but I would bet an awful lot that if I were to pose the question to a group of average twentysomething Catholics, half would have no answer at all, and the other half would be forced to start composing a mushy ad hoc half-answer. Even those who could answer the question would try to frame their own answer, most likely at some length, rather than simply giving the straightforward answer that their grandparents can even now give.

I recently experienced this myself. A colleague asked about Purgatory, and because I haven’t studied eschatology in any depth, I had to really struggle to give an answer. I had to think about what we believe, and why, and how to sum it up, and how much background is necessary, and so on. How much better a witness might I have been had I had on the tip of my tongue the answer, an answer drummed into me since childhood: “Those are punished for a time in purgatory who die in the state of grace but are guilty of venial sin, or have not fully satisfied for the temporal punishment due to their sins. God requires temporal punishment for sin to satisfy His justice, to teach us the great evil of sin, and to warn us not to sin again. We pay the debt of our temporal punishment either in this life or in purgatory. ‘The fire will assay the quality of everyone’s work; if his work abides which he has built thereon, he will receive reward; if his work burns he will lose his reward, but himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” Baltimore Catechism, nos. 184, 423-24 (quoting 1 Cor. 3:13-15). There is the faith of the Catholic Church quoad purgatory, reduced to three terse sentences and an apropos quote from scripture. There is a clear, crystalline, simple, straightforward statement of the truth.

Whatever faults the old-fashioned method might have had, that which has replaced it is clearly a dismal failure, because many Catholics raised since the council do not now know the essential truths of the faith, and/or cannot articulate them concisely. They may well have been introduced to higher-order concerns—trig! Calculus! But their  formation is built upon sand unless they have first been imprinted with the basic, fundamental, foundational truths of the faith that they will find simply and directly expressed in a catechism such as those ordered by the Councils of Trent or Baltimore or the one written by Pius X, or even a modern one such as YouCat. To replace something that does the minimum with something that does not even do the minimum is foolish and risks disaster. Imagine that an architecture school decided that it was dropping all the classes pertaining to building a sound structure and would instead focus on “architecture as art”—“history of architecture,” “detailing cornices,” and so on! The building collapses; people are killed. The teaching of basic doctrine collapses, souls are lost.

What has been lost! How parlous our situation! How urgently we need to return to what worked! We are flying on the fumes of the generations raised before the disaster, and we must resuscitate Catholic religious education (at risk of putting too fine a point on it) before those generations die.