Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

A Church They Didn't Expect

by Donna Steichen

Descriptive Title

Religious Education Congress Veteran Observer Detects Change


"Like the concept of fat-free mayonnaise, the notion of doctrine-free religious education raises an immediate question: of what can it possibly consist? As realized in the annual Los Angeles archdiocesan Religious Education Congress, the answer seems to be: a spectacle of song, dance, and dissent, with enormous, gaudy, "liturgies" surrounded by 300 smaller events where attendees hear that the "institutional" Church has been so exploitive, unjust, hypocritical, hierarchical, and "heterosexist" that they need neither believe what she teaches nor obey her laws." This article by Donna Steichen is sheds light on what is passing for religious education in mainstream circles.

Publisher & Date

Los Angeles Lay Catholic Mission, June 2006

Like the concept of fat-free mayonnaise, the notion of doctrine-free religious education raises an immediate question: of what can it possibly consist? As realized in the annual Los Angeles archdiocesan Religious Education Congress, the answer seems to be: a spectacle of song, dance, and dissent, with enormous, gaudy, "liturgies" surrounded by 300 smaller events where attendees hear that the "institutional" Church has been so exploitive, unjust, hypocritical, hierarchical, and "heterosexist" that they need neither believe what she teaches nor obey her laws.

Modestly launched in the 1950s to educate catechists to teach the Faith more effectively, the congress had already begun a downward spiral by 1987, when the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) office was renamed the "Office of Religious Education."Believers assumed the change merely recognized that Catholic living demands more than rote memorization of doctrine. Instead, it turned out to mean that local catechetical leaders had joined a national movement toward a doctrine-free, "experiential catechesis" apparently intended to turn Catholic teachers into ecclesial revolutionaries.

As archdiocesan director of religious education, Religious Sister of Charity Edith Prendergast is one of an elite circle of religious education "experts," heirs of those who dominated the field of catechetics in the years after the Second Vatican Council. Prominent names in that first generation include Gabriel Moran (an ex-Brother); his late wife, Maria Harris (an ex-Sister of St Joseph whose ideas were especially popular with Unitarians); Father Gerard Sloyan of Catholic University; (ex-priest) Thomas Groome of Boston College; the late Father James Dunning, founder of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate; the late Bishop Raymond Lucker of New Ulm, Minnesota, a member of Call to Action; and the late Monika Hellwig (ex-Medical Mission sister), a Georgetown theologian who called Jesus' divinity into question, popularized neo-modernism, and fought to keep Rome from restoring order in America's Catholic academies.

Unlike earlier religious reformers, who typically called for more intense prayer, stricter asceticism, higher personal morality, and greater purity of doctrine, the "new catechetics" seemed to call believers to greater laxity. Doctrines the faithful previously accepted as true and changeless were swiftly replaced by a "new theology," the major premise of which seemed to be that the "old church," now dead, had been wrong about virtually everything, while the 'new church,' purportedly born of the council, knew beyond doubt that truth cannot be known beyond doubt.

In accord with these notions, catechesis can no longer mean handing on received doctrine, because Catholicism can no longer claim to possess revealed "truth" from God. It must become a "church from below," where the catechized discover truth for themselves by reflecting on their experience. The new role of the catechist is to help them to reflect on it -- while urging them to be kind, accept each other unconditionally, as God does, and resist any temptation to judge another's actions against an objective standard.

It could all have been lifted straight from Lamentabili Sane, Pope Pius X's 1907 syllabus on the errors of modernism. Soon, doctrine virtually disappeared from Los Angeles Religious Education Congress presentations and, increasingly, from catechetical programs across the archdiocese.

As second-generation members of the same company, Edith Prendergast and her peers are giving their mentors' precepts concrete and coordinated expression. They rotate endlessly through each other's conferences, from the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress to the National Conference of Catechetical Leadership to the National Catholic Education Conference to the National Conference on Pastoral Leadership's East Coast Conference to the North American Forum on the Catechumenate to the Call to Action conference. Sister Edith's catechist certification program has been adopted by most other California dioceses. Her ideas on prayer and spirituality are incorporated in a national catechist formation program, Echoes of Faith, published in 1998 by Resources for Christian Living in collaboration with the National Conference of Catechetical Leadership. But Prendergast's most public role is management of the annual Religious Education Congress.

Apparently as window dressing, Religious Education Congress organizers often invite one or two solidly acceptable speakers each year: Father Benedict Groeschel, founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal; philosopher Janet Smith, defender of Humanae Vitae; author Peter Kreeft of Boston College; and Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer, the president of Gonzaga University, have all addressed congress audiences. In 2006, both Father Spitzer and chastity speaker Pam Stenzel spoke. But with such exceptions, major speakers are consistently drawn from the pool where Call to Action finds its headliners.

Call to Action, the chief U.S. vehicle of organized dissent, advocates contraception, priesthood for non-celibates, women, and homosexuals, a democratically determined moral code, and election of bishops, and has organizational links to Catholics For A Free Choice.

A large proportion of speakers have addressed both the congress and Call to Action gatherings. Among more than a dozen Call to Action speakers appearing at the 2006 Religious Education Congress in Los Angeles were: Capuchin Father Michael Crosby, who spoke on injustice in the Church; Father Donald Cozzens, of Cleveland's John Carroll University, who has famously written that the priesthood is becoming a gay profession; Edwina Gateley, an eccentric feminist whose performances resemble English music hall comedy more than religious presentations; Bill Huebsch, current head of Twenty Third Publications, who talked about parish adult education;

But to some degree, the atmosphere of the Religious Education Congress seems to be changing. Twenty years ago, when the "spirit of Vatican II" was in flood stage, critics were condemned as Pharisees too psychologically rigid to embrace enlightened change. Ten years ago, they were denounced as speed bumps on the road to progress. Despite the presence of so many dissenting speakers, there seemed to be a different current in the air this year. Neo-modernist triumphalism seemed muted. Critics were recognized as human and referred to with something approaching respect. There were glimpses of realism, and an elegiac note of defeat that touched some traditional observers, who have experienced enough defeat to know how it feels. One example: Father Donald Cozzens, former rector of Cleveland's Saint Mary's Seminary and author of The Changing Face of the Priesthood, lamented at the end of his address on adult discipleship, "as someone has said -- Carlo Carretto? -- 'I long to die and be free of the Church, to be with Christ.'"

Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, former editor of America magazine, who says he was fired on orders from Pope Benedict, answered courteously when a self-identified "young orthodox Catholic" asked from a floor microphone if he didn't think Rome ought to discipline more theologians than she does. Reese replied that these are hard times for theologians, who need to offer their speculations for academic peer review. Having been fully instructed in the Faith in earlier years of education, Reese said, college students need no protection from their errors.

To the contrary, Notre Dame's Scott Appleby, Loyola Marymount's Father Thomas Rausch, even cantankerous Michael Crosby conceded in their addresses that only a handful of today's Catholic college students have ever been formally introduced to even the basic doctrines of the faith. (None, however, blamed that ignorance on doctrine-free catechesis in the style of the congress.)

Father Michael Crosby's first address, "A Kairos Moment," served up much the same rhetoric he has spouted for decades: the Church is being destroyed by her own injustice. Of the nation's 50 million Catholics, he said, 20 million are inactive. Some 30 to 40 percent of the members of mammoth Saddleback church in Phoenix are former Catholics. Willow Creek megachurch in suburban Chicago reports 50 percent. "That's a crisis," Crosby said. "Why are so many thinking Catholics unable to any longer agree with some of the dynamics that are going on institutionally? Because of clericalism, sexism, and heterosexism in the Roman Catholic Church. We have unequal power relationships between lay and clerical castes, between women and men, between homosexual and heterosexual people. We have structured, institutionalized sexual apartheid, which is sinful!"

Yet Crosby admitted in his second address ("Catholics: Grow Up In Faith") that what primarily attracts Catholics who go to Protestant megachurches is not big choirs, movie screens, or social programs, but convinced, passionate preaching about Jesus Christ.

R. Scott Appleby, Notre Dame history professor, explained in an address titled, "Church or Sect? Catholicism at a Crossroads," why Cardinal Ratzinger and others came to see modern culture as so decadent that it is polluting the Church herself. He drew a clarifying picture of the "hermeneutic of suspicion" that suffused all society with skepticism about the possibility of knowing truth. Within the Church, it led to "a political model" of theology from the bottom up, a Church from below. No restorationist, Appleby hopes Pope Benedict's reign will "not entirely confirm what those on the moderate/progressive/liberal side -- readers of NCR [National Catholic Reporter] -- fear from this papacy." But his illustration of the religious condition of Catholic students was telling.

If he told a class of 30 students to offer up their suffering for the Poor Souls in Purgatory, Appleby said, ten would ask, "what's Purgatory?" or "what's a soul?" Ten would flip out scapulars and ask, "and have you been down to the abortion clinic to say the rosary?" The rest would say, "oh, you're from the South, that's why you hold such a tradition." The Faith has ceased to be a given and become a choice.

Most promising as evidence of change at the congress was an address by Jesuit Father Thomas Rausch, professor of Catholic theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, on "Young Adult Catholics: Is Their Catholic Identity In Jeopardy?" Rausch, who earned his doctorate in religious studies at Duke University, signed the 1994 Charles Colson-Richard John Neuhaus statement, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." But he is no Potemkin speaker invited in to disguise the heterodox nature of the congress. He assumed his audience to be readers of National Catholic Reporter, called Monika Hellwig "a wonderful woman," described Cardinal Mahony's pastoral letter on ministry, "As I Have Done For You," as a "wonderful document," and expressed support for the issues raised by "reform" Catholics. In a 1998 America article, he criticized the Mission and its sister publications, along with Catholic World Report, Father Joseph Fessio, Helen Hitchcock, Karl Keating, and Catholics United for the Faith, among others, as inimical to the unity of the Church. No traditionalist, he.

His address was based on surveys of Catholic attitudes, with an emphasis on young Catholics. Only 12 percent of them go to Catholic colleges or ever take a college-level theology course, he noted; as a result, an entire generation is growing up without formal instruction in Catholic doctrine.

His own classroom experience reinforced survey results showing the majority of young Catholics to have "a diminished institutional identity" and "a thin institutional commitment," Rausch said. They are unfamiliar with the "ecclesial" dimensions of Catholicism, calling themselves "spiritual but not religious." Many are living far outside the parameters of Catholic moral teaching.

What about the orthodox minority? As many commentators have observed, a new attitude is emerging among them. Rausch said they are more passionate about their faith, more ecclesial than their parents, not uncritical about the Church but not angry like many restorationist Catholics over fifty. Some observers call them "John Paul II Catholics," "contemporary traditionalists," or "evangelical Catholics." Included among them are the brightest students. They love doctrine, love the pope, are uniformly pro-life and committed to other forms of social justice as well. They neither support the Call to Action "reform" agenda nor advocate priesthood for women. Many spend their vacations on mission projects. Some are young seminarians.

Rausch attributes their hunger for knowledge about the Faith to their sense that they were denied the opportunity to learn what Catholicism actually teaches. Graduate theology students from this group have different concerns than the theologians of his generation, said Rausch; they are attracted to theology as service to the Church, not just as an academic pursuit.

Rausch objected that Colleen Carroll's book, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Loyola Press, 2002) "assumes a too narrow definition of orthodoxy," but he regards it as sound otherwise, and cited it as a valid source of information.

Some of his colleagues, he said, dismiss the orthodox young as "restorationists," Rausch said; but he likes their knowledge of and love for the faith. He doesn't hold up the new group as ideal, because he wonders if they are "too uncritical" in accepting Rome's answers as final and in rejecting the "genuine issues" raised by "reform Catholics" about "contraception, homosexuality, authority and power in the Church, inclusive language, and women priests." Nevertheless, he predicts that these young Catholics will have "increasing importance" in the Church of the future.

And so they will. The architects of new catechetics wanted a Church from below, a Church attuned to the Zeitgeist. A Church from below is taking shape today, but it is not the one they expected. This one is authentically Catholic, a Church St. Athanasius and John Henry Cardinal Newman would recognize. It is growing from the grassroots, among Catholics produced or sustained by the new movements in which John Paul II put his hope -- Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, Focolare, the Charismatic movement -- in orthodox Catholic Colleges, new or reformed, like Thomas Aquinas, Christendom, Benedictine, Franciscan, and Ave Maria, in the home schooling movement, and in individual families where an intense Catholic culture is lived and preserved.

Society is always surprised when Christ breaks through, as He promised, and restores life to His moribund Church. In retrospect, however, it is obvious that the last catechized Catholics would be His agents. The stones that the builder rejected will become the cornerstones, if only because there may be no one else left when the restoration is begun.

© Los Angeles Lay Catholic Mission

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