Over the years, the term catechesis has come to refer specifically to “an education in the faith of children, young people, and adults which includes especially the teaching of Christian doctrine imparted, generally speaking, in an organic and systematic way, with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life.” (CCC, # 5) Yet, whether one subscribes to one understanding or the other, the purpose of catechesis remains the same: to pass on or echo the teachings of Christ and to assist those who would follow Christ in living out these teachings. In other words, catechesis seeks to impart orthodoxy (right belief) so that followers of Christ might engage in orthopraxis (right action).
How effective has the Church been in executing this mission? A Sept. 28, 2010, survey on U.S. religious knowledge conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life suggests that the Church has not been doing very well. The survey consisted of a nationwide poll of 3,412 Americans conducted from May 19 through June 6 of this year. While the headline that dominated the survey’s release focused on the fact that atheists/agnostics were among the highest-scoring groups, the survey unwittingly affirmed the existence of a troubling catechetical reality in the Catholic Church.
The Pew survey asked 32 general religious questions. Americans, as a whole, answered 16 correctly. Catholics, as a whole, averaged only 14.7. Perhaps even more surprising was the performance of Catholics on questions that concerned the Bible and Christianity specifically. Mormons, Protestants and atheists/agnostics all scored better than Catholics, as a whole.
While the confusion over the real presence of Jesus Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist is particularly disturbing, other disconnects are brought out by these various polls. For instance, 60 percent of American Catholics in general indicate a desire to learn more about their religion. One could surmise that American Catholics might demonstrate a comparable commitment to their religion since it is an important factor in fulfilling this desire to grow one’s knowledge. Yet the CARA survey on sacraments reported only about 23 percent of adult Catholics fulfill their obligation to attend Mass every week.
Another example of confusion among Catholics concerns the statistics about the relativity of morals. A disturbing 63 percent of American Catholics in general and nearly half of practicing Catholics (46 percent) believe morals are relative. This stands in stark contrast to the teaching of the Catholic Church. The Church holds there are absolute and unchanging moral truths. For example, there are some acts that, by their very nature, are incapable of being ordered to God and, therefore, are incapable of being ordered to the good of the person. These “intrinsic evils” are always and everywhere immoral and include such acts as abortion, euthanasia and in vitro fertilization.
When asked about this, Sal Della Bella, director of faith formation for the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., suggested that these so-called disconnects are not that surprising. He describes today’s culture as one where personal autonomy is in ascendency. “People are making decisions based on their personal feelings and beliefs and not simply on what the Church teaches. In other words, while people may articulate a desire to know what the Church teaches on a particular subject, it does not follow that they will necessarily agree with or act in accordance with it.”
At the core of the issue seems to be a distrust of everything. In this information age, people seem acutely aware of the misinformation or the “bias” behind every piece of knowledge. Della Bella speculates that this translates into a distrust of organizations in general, whether corporate, political or religious.
If this is true, the real challenge of catechesis according to Della Bella is addressing the question, “How do you build trust in such an environment?” The primary purpose of catechesis is to build a relationship with Jesus Christ. “Trust is at the foundation of this, as it is with any, relationship and it takes time to build,” Della Bella states. Catechesis, therefore, must be patient and must “begin not necessarily with the presenting of facts and information, but with an encounter of Love.” Della Bella added, “Catechesis must focus on helping people to appreciate the Church’s teaching by considering and presenting the ‘why’ and not just the ‘what’ of the Catholic faith.”
The Pontifical Council on Culture, in its concluding document of the 2004 plenary assembly, echoed this sentiment by pointing to the need to bring the saving message of the Gospel into dialogue with people in moments of joy and hope, grief and anxiety. The council identified these as the “anchor points for handing on the faith.” And how does the council propose that faithful Christians enter into these moments in order to most effectively catechize? It directs us to the “better way” of which St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13: the witness of charity.
“The great saints of our time, especially those who have offered their lives for the poor, united with the host of saints of the Church, make up the most eloquent argument to evoke in the hearts of men and women the questions about God and to offer an adequate response: it is Christ the Beautiful…” In other words, a personal, living witness to the truth of the Gospel, in communion with the entire faith community, as people face tremendous suffering and experience overwhelming joy becomes the key to winning their trust. This trust can then give rise to the reasons for hoping and living that make up the very foundation of our earthly pilgrimage.
The Pew study identified the following as factors that seem to increase the level of religious knowledge:
1. Level of education – the single best indicator
2. Reading Scripture
3. Talking about religion with friends and family
4. High levels of religious commitment
5. Regular attendance at religious education classes or youth group participation as child
6. Private school – however, those attending private religious school score no better than private nonreligious school
7. Reading of books on religion other than Scripture (48 percent seldom read other books or visit websites about own religion)
Protestant as whole 6.5
Catholics as whole 5.4
The survey also found that a full 45 percent of Catholics do not know the Church teaches that the bread and wine are more than mere symbols, but actually become the body and blood of Christ. It is a finding that was substantiated by an earlier poll on sacramental belief and practice among U.S. Catholics commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) in 2008. In that study, 43 percent of Catholics polled stated that the bread and wine are only symbols of Jesus. These results are all the more stunning since the Catholic Church teaches the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is both the source and summit of the faith.
By Douglas Culp