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Beware of Thomas Groome or Anything Associated with Him

by Stacey Johnson

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  • Description:
    In this essay Stacey Johnson, a homeschooling mother of four, examines one of the most dangerous — and often overlooked — threats to the faith of our children: parish CCD programs. She takes a closer look at the methodology behind Thomas H. Groome's five-step program for religious education which he calls "shared Christian praxis."
  • Larger Work:
    New Oxford Review
  • Pages: 31 – 36
  • Publisher & Date:
    New Oxford Review, Inc., Berkeley, CA, December 2004

In these decades of crisis in the Catholic Church in America, we must be on guard to threats to our children's faith. However, those threats are not always easily recognized, and the average Catholic frequently overlooks what is possibly the most dangerous one: your parish CCD program.

Many recognize that there has been a crisis of catechesis for the past thirty years or so. According to the oft-cited Gallup Poll, the majority of American Catholics either cannot identify Catholic teaching on the Eucharist or do not believe it. Catholics cohabit, contracept, sterilize, abort, divorce, and support same-sex "marriages" at about the same rate as the population at large, indicating a large-scale rejection or ignorance of the Church's moral teachings. And as many commentators have aptly pointed out, the Catechism of the Catholic Church received a cool reception among the catechetical elite of the U.S.

Numerous publishers of Catholic religious education materials, however, now claim to be developing programs in response to the Catechism. These materials usually have a statement in the front indicating that the program has been found by a committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to be in conformity with the Catechism. Concerned parents looking over the programs will often be hard-pressed to find blatant doctrinal errors, though there is often a lopsided emphasis on social justice and environmental concerns, and the truths of the Faith aren't always presented in the most convincing fashion.

So far, this doesn't sound so bad. Not the strongest presentation of the Faith perhaps, but nothing to get excited about, right? Wrong. One of the most significant problems with many of the CCD programs is the way in which the teachings are presented. They actually appear to be designed to reduce the chances that our children will accept the teachings of the Church.

Arguably the single most influential person in Catholic religious education circles in the U.S. today is Thomas H. Groome. He is a laicized priest and professor of theology and religious education at Boston College, and a prominent theorist and writer in the field of religious education. His writings have appeared in the USCCB's catechetical journal, The Living Light, and he is a frequent speaker and honoree at religious education conferences. The National Catholic Educational Association offers workshops for catechetical leaders developed from a text of which Groome is one of two editors. Groome is a consultant for William H. Sadlier Inc., a major publisher of catechetical materials used in every diocese in the U.S. He is the primary author of two of Sadlier's K-8 programs for Catholic children: Coming to Faith and God With Us. His books include Educating for Life: A Spiritual Vision for Every Teacher and Parent, and Sharing Faith: A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry. The latter provides a detailed explanation of his methodology for religious education, which he calls "shared Christian praxis."

According to Groome, shared Christian praxis has five steps, called movements, which comprise the method. None of the movements can be eliminated; each is considered essential to the educational approach. The movements are as follows: (1) Naming / Expressing "Present Praxis": Participants communicate either their own or society's current behavior or beliefs. (2) Critical Reflection on Present Action: Participants are called to look critically at what motivates their present behaviors and beliefs, including any prejudices or societal influences. (3) Making Accessible Christian Story / Vision. (4) Dialectical Hermeneutic to Appropriate Christian Story / Vision to Participants' Stories and Visions: Participants compare their critically understood present praxis from Movement Two with the "Christian Story" that was presented in Movement Three, and develop a new understanding of "their truth." (5) Decision / Response for Lived Christian Faith: Participants have an opportunity to decide how they intend to live their faith as a result of the decisions that they made about it in Movement Four. Each of these movements requires a fuller explanation in order for us to see their true import.

Movement One is the simplest of the five. It requires only that the participants in the session have an opportunity to communicate (or at least reflect upon) their own or a larger society's (for example, the Church's) current practice of belief as it relates to the topic at hand. The main issue would be that it is their own expression of it, rather than someone else's, that they communicate.

Movement Two then has the participants critically reflect upon why they act or think as they do. The students are to examine anything that might affect their current practice or belief, whether it is prejudices, ideologies, societal influences, consequences, or past experiences. As Groome writes in Sharing Faith, "As a constitutive activity of shared Christian praxis, critical reflection encourages 'disbelief' as well as belief, 'disbelief' especially toward the controlling myths . . . that maintain structures of domination — sexism, racism . . . and so on." Participants are encouraged to see how their history affects their current behavior and beliefs as well as their interpretation of them and to see how they should change. One example Groome gives of how to apply Movement Two is the assignment of a paper to male undergraduate students who are resistant to "feminist consciousness."

In Movement Three, things really get interesting. Here is where the "Christian Story" is presented. According to Groome, the "Christian Story" is "the whole faith life and practical wisdom of the Christian community." It is important to note, however, that according to shared Christian praxis, the "Christian Story" must be "made accessible" in a particular way. The educator is responsible for discerning both what part of the "Christian Story" to make accessible and how to do it. The "Story" is to be adapted and interpreted to the participants, using hermeneutics (methods of interpretation) or retrieval, suspicion, and creative commitment. Groome explains that religious educators should have a "healthy suspicion" of their faith tradition and that it is the educator's responsibility to uncover the true meaning of the original texts, a meaning that probably has been lost due to "distortions" in the "accepted interpretations" of Christian tradition. Movement Three is totally incompatible with an understanding of any sort of traditional moral or theological absolutes. And Groome himself agrees. To provide any sort of absolute truth is the furthest thing from his mind. From Groome's perspective, to absolutize either an expression or interpretation of a faith tradition is to deaden it. Rather, as he makes clear in Educating for Life, it is necessary to constantly reinterpret both Scripture and Tradition "in light of what we bring to it from the present."

For Groome, one of the building blocks for wisdom is feminist theology, so when the educator is determining how to present the "Christian Story," he would do well to consider such things as the insights of "the great Scripture scholar, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza," who is a radical feminist theologian who believes that Jesus (whom she refers to as "the woman-identified man" in her book In Memory of Her) intended to liberate women from "patriarchal structures" but, as Groome summarizes for us in Sharing Faith, this "central characteristic of the Jesus movement was 'written out' of the New Testament and must now be reconstructed."

One way this translates into religious education is that the emphasis is always on the "equality and mutuality" of men and women, rather than their complementarity. Add to this the repeated assertion that discrimination in all its forms must be fought against wherever it is found. Consequently, when the Sacrament of Holy Orders is presented without any explanation as to why only men may be ordained, it is practically a given that most students will dissent. In fact, it would be surprising if any did not.

Movement Four is even worse. Its purpose is to have the participants place their own "stories" in dialectic with the "Christian Story" presented in Movement Three. This means that besides examining their current beliefs and practices in light of the "Christian Story," the students are to

bring present praxis to interpret Christian Story / Vision . . . there are aspects of it they affirm and cherish and aspects of present understanding and living of Christian faith that are called into question and refused if necessary (the Story has had distortions), and . . . participants can construct a more appropriate understanding of the Story. (Ibid.)

Groome says that some people prefer to accept that something is true based upon the authority of the Church, but they are "arrested" at a lower stage in their faith journey. The point is that if children are exposed to shared Christian praxis long enough, they will believe that any aspect of the Faith is up for grabs.

The only thing apparently absolutely necessary for salvation is a commitment to modern social-justice issues, though that does not seem to include opposition to abortion. In fact, although both the books mentioned in this article have lengthy sections devoted to social-justice issues, abortion is rarely mentioned. What Groome sees as important is a commitment to "The Reign of God," which, although he occasionally acknowledges as having an eschatological component, is largely to be realized in time by making everyone feel accepted and by making sure that every aspect of everyone's lives is valued (unless, of course, one of those aspects is one of the "deadly social sins" of absolutism, sexism, specieism, etc.).

Not surprisingly, Groome himself does not believe in a hierarchical Church or an ordained priesthood, and dissents from Church teaching on issues related to human sexuality, the papacy, and biblical inerrancy. He demands "inclusive" language and believes that all language we have regarding God is a human construct, rather than being divinely revealed. Groome draws heavily from the "scholarship" of numerous feminist theologians, as well as well-known dissenter Richard McBrien, and neo-Modernist Scripture scholar Raymond Brown. Quoting Kenan Osborne in a footnote to a discussion of the priesthood in Sharing Faith, Groome notes, "In spite of the long tradition of this view [that the Apostles were commissioned at the Last Supper to preside at the Eucharist], contemporary scholars find no basis for this interpretation. In other words, Jesus did not ordain the apostles (disciples) at this final supper to be 'priests.'" Rather, Groome believes that the ability to celebrate the Eucharist comes from the power of the Holy Spirit working through the assembly. He also has, understandably, a rather faulty understanding of the Mass and the Eucharist.

Finally, in Movement Five, the students make some commitment to action based upon the determinations made in the previous movements. An example that Groome gives from personal experience is informative. He was asked to speak with a group of women on "Women in the Church." When he began the session it was apparent that the women accepted the Church's teaching on male-only ordination, something that Groome believes is an injustice against women. As he puts it, "It seems that the exclusion of women from ordained ministry is the result of a patriarchal mind-set and culture and is not of Christian faith. The injustice of excluding women from the priesthood debilitates the church's sacramentality in the world; it is a countersign to God's reign" (Sharing Faith). By the end of their time together, the women had all "come to see" that the Church was a patriarchal, oppressive social structure. As part of their Movement Five activity, the women resolved to each write to a young woman in order to encourage her to fight for "full inclusion" in the Church.

This is the methodology that also underpins the Coming to Faith series from William H. Sadlier Inc. As a methodology for religious instruction, however, it clearly undermines the Faith. In this series, shared Christian praxis is used not only to "educate" the children, but to "educate" the catechists as well. For example, catechists are asked to come up with their own definition of conscience, to develop and work to implement their personal vision of a "hospitable Church," to determine what they think helps their parish to grow (choices including "spirited" liturgies, an attractive building, involvement in peace and justice issues, and a congenial pastor, but not including a commitment to orthodoxy or devotion to the Eucharist), to assess the "kind of relationship" they have with the sun, moon, wind, and rain, or their "relationship" with grass, trees, house plants, and soil. Additionally, the uniqueness of Christ's Presence in the Eucharist is downplayed. For example, the second-grade teacher's manual, Coming to Jesus, says, "Jesus, already present in the community and in the word of God, now becomes present in another dimension." God is not referred to as "Father" unless absolutely necessary. In fact, one of the objectives of the lesson on the "Our Father" for first-graders is "to help the children believe that God cares for us as a loving parent" (italics added).

There is a trend in the Coming to Faith series toward syncretism with Native American spirituality, including the use of non-Christian Native American prayers. In one instance in the sixth-grade teacher's manual, the catechist is instructed to have the children form a circle around a globe with each child saying a line of the prayer, the teacher having pointed out that "through the Eucharist, we are one with all the people in this earth." The prayer goes like this:

Every part of this earth is sacred . . .
Every clearing and humming insect is holy . . .
All belong to the same family.
Teach your children that the earth is our mother . . .
The wind gave our children the spirit of life.
This we know, the earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth . . .
(Coming to God's Word, William H. Sadlier Inc.)

Actually, our Catholic Faith teaches that the Church and Mary are to be regarded as our Mother, not the earth; that God gave us the "spirit of life," not the wind; and that people and insects do not belong to the same family!

The kindergarten teacher's manual, Coming to God's World, informs the catechist that, "By its emphasis on kinship with the elements and the environment, Native-American spirituality can complement our own faith tradition." Consequently, one of the "Justice and Peace" resources that follow every lesson encourages the catechist to suggest that the children "[pamper] or cater to Mother Earth." Perhaps this also explains why sixth-graders are instructed in their activity book to center their prayer on a rock.

The catechists and children are also exposed to the teachings of some whose works have been condemned by the Church, including Teilhard de Chardin and Anthony de Mello. Moreover, liturgical abuses are canonized in a number of ways. One example: In the first-grade teacher's manual, a litany for use in class is proposed that invokes the intercession of non-canonized and even non-Catholic personages, including Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez.

Groome's approach to Scripture is clearly seen in the sixth-grade book of Sadlier's Coming to Faith series, Coming to God's Word. This grade level focuses on Scripture and presents it in such a fashion that the average child would have no understanding of what the Church actually teaches about the Bible upon completion of the course. Not even the Gospels are given as examples of history, so the student is likely to be left with the impression that perhaps nothing in the Bible actually happened.

Groome proposes that his methodology allows people to come to their own decisions about "their truth." He believes that it is important to just make the "Story" accessible, but that defending it or asserting its truth is to deny the work of the Holy Spirit in the person to whom it is presented. Ironically, the way in which the "Story" is presented, as well as the entire methodology of shared Christian praxis, is designed to manipulate a person into seeing it in a particular way. Rather than being presented as Truth, Christianity is presented as one frequently distorted option among many roads leading to God. The only absolutes are that orthodoxy is wrong (due to being sexist, absolutist, patriarchal, etc.) and that social justice, in the style of liberation and feminist theology and "creation spirituality," is what saves you.

So, what's a person to do upon finding this methodology present in his parish CCD program? Obviously, it's important to do what you can to have it replaced by a solid, faithful program such as the Faith and Life or Image of God series from Ignatius Press. But that's easier said than done. In order to present an effective case, you'll need to do a little homework and a lot of praying. I would highly recommend reading Eamonn Keane's A Generation Betrayed from Hatherleigh Press for a more thorough presentation of this topic than possible in a magazine article. You might also want to read Donna Steichen's Ungodly Rage, available from Ignatius Press, for an orthodox presentation of feminist theology, since it is one of the underpinnings of Groome's theology. Share what you have learned with other concerned parents in your parish. Then talk to your priest. He may not be aware of the problems with the program, since they are often very subtle. You might even convince him to read Keane's book. If that doesn't work, you can appeal to your bishop. Unfortunately, Groome seems to be well-respected in catechetical and episcopal circles, and these books have been rubberstamped by a committee at the USCCB. It may come down to withdrawing your children from the parish program and teaching them yourself, using one of the above-mentioned resources, while you continue to fight for the rights of the rest of the children to receive a truly Catholic education. It is also important to remember that parents have the primary right and responsibility to educate their children (Catechism, #1653, 2221-2225). It is time for us to insist that our rights in these matters be respected and that our children be educated in the Truth of our Faith.


Stacey Johnson a homeschooling mother of four, writes from Hinesville, Georgia.

© New Oxford Review, Inc.

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