They Don’t Know Anything!


One quiet evening, I decided to call my brother to ask how his new teaching position as a religion teacher was going. His first position took him to an all-boy’s Catholic high school in Southern California. After an initial pause he emphatically stated; “They don’t know anything!” I asked him to clarify his statement. He told me that very few of his students had a grasp of Church teaching. However, a larger segment did not understand “the Story” i.e. Salvation History. As my brother began to ask for my assistance on how to effectively teach the faith to freshmen a sudden pause came over him and then, a volcanic eruption of emotion came spewing out of his mouth. Teaching teenagers can do this regardless of the subject matter taught. My brother quickly came to the realization that the majority of his students lacked significant doctrinal formation.

Understanding Doctrinal Methodology

Teaching Catholic doctrine to teenagers may appear like trying to find water in the Mojave Desert. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. This backdrop brings me back to my brothers’ original point, “They don’t know anything!” If a student is struggling to capture the essence of Church teaching at the freshmen level, what happened during their primary years of religious education formation? Was there any attempt toward some form of catechetical instruction? At the sake of sounding somewhat cynical to these questions, many will probably say no. Was there a faithful curriculum that was followed? Was the content and methodology sound? Do Catholic schools teach the faith effectively? The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides a framework for doctrinal instruction. “Catechesis is an education in the faith of children, young people . . . 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).

The Art of Catechesis

Pope John Paul II reminded us in his Apostolic Exhortation, Catechesi Tradendae that the definitive aim of all catechetical instruction rests in forming an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ (CT 5). The term catechesis means to re-echo. In essence, Catholic schools are directed to form the heart and mind of the child to Christ. Many people will generally argue Catholic schools have failed in this regard over the past 40 years. While this position may have its limits, examples of a discontinuity of the faith are evident. For example, an emphasis on social justice themes at times provided a student with the only means of doctrinal formation and instruction. Thus, exclusion of key doctrinal teachings e.g. sin, contraception, the Resurrection, the true presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist and so on rarely appeared in classroom instruction or religious education textbooks. Catechetical texts from the 1980’s, for example, reflected a theme of love without necessarily directing this love towards God. The word, “happy” was more evident than the term “sacrifice.” These themes reflected an experiential approach to catechetical formation that rested on emotion, obscure symbols in a non-sacramental form, liturgical experimentation involving dancing, secular music, misinterpretation of the Gospel within the liturgy and so on. Re-echoing God’s Word through sacred scripture evolved into a paraphrasing of the Gospel. This approach mined the authentic Word of God and its’ true hermeneutic.

Interesting Trends

Over the years I have seen the implementation of experiential based catechetical instruction where the emphasis is horizontal rather than vertical. In other words, instruction was based on the realization of man apart from God and not of God. Emphasis in most catechetical schools of thought rested on the love of God without identifying the truth or origin of that love. The most devastating development of this failure is the lack of doctrinal formation centered on Jesus Christ.

In 1997, a USCCB report was issued by Archbishop Daniel Buechlein OSB of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis who headed the USCCB Ad-Hoc Committee to oversee the use of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in catechetical texts. His committee found several troubling symptoms at the time of the report of woeful catechetical instructional materials. The list systematically revealed an obscurity in teaching on the Blessed Trinity, Jesus Christ as the centrality of Salvation history and so on. Since the publication of this report, extensive work has been done in the implementation of the Catechism and the conformity of texts. The committee has issued an approved conformity lists of texts that reference the Catechism. However, the committee does not systematically gauge sound pedagogy or methodology i.e. measurement of effective doctrinal instruction of the texts that are presented to the committee.

The Catholic School Dilemma

My brothers’ experience as mentioned in the beginning is not to far off from many Catholic school institutions in the United States. The question(s) of fidelity and sound doctrinal formation has been the subject of debate for many in Catholic education. With the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the development of the Ad-Hoc Committee to over-see the use of the Catechism in Catechetical texts, doctrinal content has improved somewhat. However, there is still much work to be done in catechesis with respect to methodology, precise doctrinal instruction and the catechetical training of teachers in the faith. A wealth of resources has come to the forefront in the field of catechesis i.e. The General Director for Catechesis , National Adult Catechism , and most important, the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

And this leads to my underlying point. Do Catholic schools teach the faith? I should qualify this question by emphasizing “fidelity” in teaching the faith. Over the last decade I have encountered families tell me one of the main reasons they decide to send their children to a Catholic school is the faith. At the same time, families have told me the reason why they leave a Catholic school is because of the lack of faith and sound Church teaching throughout.

The erosion of sound catechesis had taken a heightened position in the last 30 years. The Baltimore Catechism became taboo. The mass exodus of religious and priests from our Catholic schools, the shedding of an authentic faith for an experiential exercise in something other than the blessed Trinity became all too commonplace. Gone was the understanding and memorization of scripture. The revelation of Christ as the Son of God was a mere historical note for all to read but not to be understood. As many parents saw this erosion, the question was naturally asked; is it worth sending my child to Catholic school?

Have Catholic school retained a faithful Catholic identity? In many respects, Catholic identity has been blurred in our schools. It has become a token only when needed for a special occasion i.e. monthly mass, Advent penance service, May Crowning, etc. Please, do not get me wrong. The examples I just provided are sound expositions of the faith aimed at fostering a conversion of the heart to Christ. The problem is that these events are too few, far, and between to adequately maintain a consistent Catholic formation process in our schools. The Catholic faith is more than just a subject to be taught and learned. It must be lived and witnessed by all. Because of the high percentages of laity in Catholic school across the country, emphasis on catechetical formation is a must. I firmly believe that the two-headed monster that has blurred our Catholic schools of a rich vibrant faith is the lack of catechetical formation of our teaching staffs and the breakdown of the family unit.

The Aim of Teaching Religion

Frank Sheed, in my opinion, one the great catechists, theologians, and apologists of the 20th century properly emphasizes correct catechetical instruction in his book; “Are We Really Teaching Religion.” He states, “the aim of teaching religion in Catholic schools, that we are agreed on something like this: that the indispensable minimum is that Catholics coming out of our schools should emerge with a tremendous devotion to Christ, Our Lord, with an awareness of Him, a considerable knowledge of His life and Personality, and a desire to increase that knowledge; if they have got that, they are all right; even if they have got nothing else, they are still all right, they will come to very little harm” (pp. 2-3). His proclamation seems pretty straight forward and obvious. However, this is where assuming correct instruction of the faith is taking place, should be looked upon more carefully.

The Catechism teaches us that the “desire for God is written in the human heart” (CCC 27). Meaning, we are created to love God. Our desire is formed at the moment of conception. This desire will either deepen us towards God or turn us away by our own choice, influences, and actions. Sound religious education leads the student to establish a desire, a thirst for God’s love. A Catholic school is called to foster this desire in the hearts and minds of their students. It sounds simple and it should be. Fidelity fosters freedom to engage the heart and mind of a student into the saving realities of Jesus Christ. Taking the virtue of simplicity to a deeper understanding, St. Frances De Sales commented on the virtue of simplicity this way; “Simplicity is nothing but an act of charity pure and simple, which has but one sole end-that of gaining the love of God. Our soul is then truly simple, when we have no aim at all but this, in all we do. The office of simplicity is to make us go straight to God, without regard to human respect or our own interests. It leads us to tell things candidly and just as they exist in our hearts. It leads us to act simply, without admixture of hypocrisy and artifice-and, finally keeps us at a distance from every kind of deceit and double-dealing.”

Renewal and Hope

Why should families have hope in the renewal of catechesis in Catholic schools in light of what has already been discussed? I believe a conversion of heart is taking place by many in Catholic education circles. The necessity of sound doctrinal content is essential for the very identity of a Catholic School. The continued exposition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as evident through the approval of catechetical texts is a step in the right direction. Second, the use of the Catechism in the formation of teachers also fosters hope in the renewal. In the Diocese I work in, we have made great strides in the implementation of the Catechism through our religious education curriculum for elementary grades, formation of Catholic school teachers in sound doctrinal methodology, and approved religious education texts faithful to the mission of the Church.

In conclusion, I can honestly say we are on the road to simplicity with Christ. We are striving to teach our children and direct them to the love that never ends (CCC 25) . I see a horizon where parents, faculties, and staffs in our Catholic schools are realizing more than ever, the importance of an authentic love that is true and genuine for the salvation of these little souls.

2011 Marlon De La Torre)


About Author

Department Director of Catechesis for the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth and author of Screwtape Teaches the Faith (2011) Saint Benedict Press.

  • I’m a 7th-grade RE teacher’s aide at my parish. This is the first year I’ve done this, having taught adults in the RCIA process for some years before. Working with adults who come from Protestant traditions, I am accustomed to being able to take a certain level of formation for granted. Not so with kids.

    I am astonished and rather scandalized at what my six kids, all boys, don’t know. One boy knows everything there is to know about the iPad; another is a whiz at skateboarding; the others know everything about football, wrestling, and every sport under the sun. None of them know much about their Savior, though. One kid, when told we were going to attend Mass that evening for the Immaculate Conception, asked “What’s Mass?” The kids have no sense of prayer or of how to go to Confession. Even I, growing up in the fractured 70’s and 80’s, knew that much by the age of 13.

    There is hope, though. One evening I was asked to teach the class because the regular teacher didn’t have time to prepare (as an aide, I usually just assist and observe). The lesson was to be on symbols, so I took the boys into the church and talked about the meaning of the statues, the stained glass, the Stations, and the candles. In front of Our Lady of Guadalupe I told the story of Mary’s appearance to Juan Diego.

    We ended in the Adoration chapel in front of the monstrance, and I said, this is no symbol, here we have the real thing. I essentially taught them like they were little adults, and they responded beautifully, were clearly interested, and asked many questions. I got positive feedback from at least two parents on how their children enjoyed the class.

    So my conclusion was, if kids are given age-appropriate solid food, they will take it to heart. I blame poor curriculum that tries to dumb-down the Faith in order to make it age-appropriate. The curriculum we ordinarily use is frankly adults writing what they think kids want to hear, and it’s patronizing. I think that instead we need to teach the Christ-man within the child, and if we do that, he will respond.

    • I forgot to mention one of the high points of the evening. Standing in front of the main altar, I talked about God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice his son. The kids were floored, clearly identifying with young Isaac as if they were him. That story and the story of Juan Diego got me thinking of the power of stories in transmitting the Faith. It’s no coincidence that the Bible is chock full of first-rate storytelling that appeals to all ages. Do catechists need to become better storytellers?

      • Marlon De La Torre


        Children are naturally inclined to seek truth. They are hungry for someone to tell the truth of how they are to live contrary to popular secular opinion.

        The Church in her beauty has so much to offer. The initiation of any child in the faith begins with an authhenitc witness of the Gospel from the Catechist. Children in general are fascinated by someone with a firm conviction of faith and morals.

        One of the calamties catechesis has suffered over the last forty years is the notion that children cannot comprehend the message of Christ nor have a personal relationship with him. CCC 51-54; 25 state the opposite of where man’s desires rest.

        May Christ continue to place you in situations to bring your students closer to Christ.

  • noelfitz

    Sound views are expressed here. Thanks!