Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Catholic World News News Feature

Can Reform Come? December 27, 2001

By Donna Steichen

Catechesis is generally conceded to be a dismal failure today. Survey after survey demonstrates the shocking doctrinal, ecclesial and moral illiteracy of American Catholics of every age and ethnicity. Two-thirds do not believe Jesus Christ is truly present in the Eucharist; most do not even know they are supposed to believe this fundamental tenet of Catholic faith.

Young Catholics languish in ignorance because no one ever taught them the content of the faith. Many of those who are old enough to have been catechized in pre-conciliar times are now uncertain whether the Church still holds as true the tenets they learned in their youth, because they have heard those beliefs mentioned so seldome--if ever--during the past 30 years. Hispanic Americans, unsatisfied by what they are taught in Catholic parishes, are streaming out to hear Jesus preached in evangelical churches. As measured by public behaviors and attitudes, Catholic sexual morality is no better than that of any other group, and worse than some.

Can this wasteland be restored? If reform is possible, the first step must be to understand our present predicament.

The catechetical collapse of the past 35 years has not been an isolated phenomenon. One of the most prominent partisans in the campaign that produced the "new catechetics," Father Berard Marthaler, cheerfully concedes that it "has had a symbiotic relationship with biblical scholarship, the liturgical movement, and the 'new theology.'"

The "new catechetics" movement, already established in Europe and taking root in the United States, seemed before the Second Vatican Council to be a generally benign attempt to teach the faith in a more vital way. What--or who--turned it into a catechetical revolution? Why did the Catholic religious and academics who embraced it first stop teaching Catholic doctrine, and then (with courageous exceptions) begin to ridicule the very notion of teaching it, and even to denigrate those who objected? Candidates for the title of chief culprit are abundant.

Most of those involved in this movement seem to have been acquainted each other, often through encounters at academic centers, especially the Catholic University of America (CUA). Their influence seems to have been more a function of their positions and their efficient collaboration than of the intellectual force of their ideas, which tend to sound naive today.


So sweeping is the devastation of Catholic culture that it comes as a surprise to realize how quickly it all happened. Most of the major figures in the catechetical revolution are still alive, many still teaching, writing, and hurrying from conference hall to conference hall to present keynote addresses.

It may be impossible to name one person as most responsible for the current state of religious instruction in the United States. But no one has a stronger claim than Father Gerard Sloyan who, in 17 years in CUA's Religious Education department--ten as chairman--reorganized the entire curriculum, and thus changed the religious attitudes of a key cohort of religion teachers. It was he who first hired dissenter Charles Curran, in 1964. His 1967 book, Speaking of Catholic Education--by its praise for Dutch Catechism, its clear distaste for the term "transubstantiation," its displacement of personal sin by a "fundamental option" for or against God, and its call to defer First Confession until after First Communion--proves that the toxic ideas of the revolution were fully formed by the mid-1960s.

Children, Father Sloyan declared, cannot learn doctrine; they can only experience religious emotions. Let them participate in the liturgy, treat them with respect and kindness, and their religious emotions will develop. He implied that rote memorization of theological propositions was the sum and substance of traditional catechesis, when in fact it was only one valuable element in a living culture that was also built on sacramental practice, liturgical and devotional prayer, stories of saints, Bible stories, and frequent reference to the social obligations imposed by membership in Christ's Mystical Body.

In 1967, Sloyan left CUA to teach at Temple University, remaining there for 25 years. Later he returned as a "distinguished lecturer," but the move seems not to have sweetened his temper. "Is Agape Any Match for Fear and Loathing in the Religious Psyche?" Sloyan's contribution to The Echo Within, a 1997 collection of essays published to honor Berard Marthaler on his academic retirement, is a fuming denunciation of orthodox Catholics. Characterizing them as ignorant, rigid, repressed, ideologically infected, infantile, censorious, malicious, and uncharitable, he says he offers these diagnoses, "in the friendliest possible spirit."

Given the views of his mentor, it seems small wonder that Sloyan's protégé, former Christian Brother Gabriel Moran, strayed from orthodoxy. Many observers, admirers and critics alike, propose Moran as the most influential man in the catechetical revolution. Michael Warren, editor of Source Book for Modern Catechetics, says, "Few persons in the United States have made a contribution to the catechetical scene as complex and difficult to assess as Gabriel Moran."

Moran's work influenced many in the catechetical movement to reject divine revelation--the Church's deposit of faith--in favor of "on-going revelation"--in effect, the interpretation of one's own experiences as private revelation. This meant not simply that catechists should enliven the students' understanding of the Gospel by connecting it to their life experiences, but that the students could find revelation only in their own experience. A student "would have to reject any document from the past pretending to divine revelation," Moran wrote. As Msgr. Michael Wrenn has observed, that category includes the Gospel.

Moran was not alone in his opinion. Piet Schoonenberg, SJ, a Dutch theologian linked to the Dutch Catechism, was making the same point In the same era. In 1970, Schoonenberg wrote:

From a mere approach to the message, experience has become the theme itself of catechesis. Catechesis has become the interpretation of experience. It has to clarify experience, that is, it has to articulate and enlighten the experience of those for whom the message is intended.

The most phenomenal thing about this thesis was its reception. To an astonishing extent, Catholic educators and publishers proved willing to jettison Christian belief and substitute a radically individualistic "noble savage" romanticism straight out of Jean Jacques Rousseau. According to a 1997 essay in The Echo Within, Moran was then unaware of its antecedents, but he has not changed his mind over the ensuing 30 years. "In adopting 'revelation' as central, Christianity prepared for its own undoing," he writes.

"Christian writers cannot get anywhere by assuming the existence of or investigating an object named 'Christian revelation,'" Moran argues, declaring the theory of revelation to be "a modern invention and a disastrous one." God continues to speak today, he says, but speaking does not mean revelation, a term that implies "assertions of truth." Speaking, he explains, could mean compassion, care, love, or forgiveness. As to truth, he says "much contemporary thought" holds that "the first thing to ask of a statement is not whether it is true but whether it is interesting." At most, "God's speaking" can only provide human understanding with "a glimpse of the truth."

Finally, Moran tells us that Christians must stop equating "'Jesus Christ' with 'God and man,'" because that "has the effect of creating the great middleman, who is then neither divine nor human. 'Jesus Christ' becomes the name of a storehouse of truths, the revelation of God."

After leaving the Christian Brothers, Moran became a professor of (non-denominational) religious education at New York University. His wife, Maria Harris, a former Sister of St Joseph of Brentwood, also represents herself as a religious educator, and has taught women's studies at several institutions. Most notably, she combined those genres in a post-Christian guide to feminist self worship, Dance of the Spirit: The Seven Steps of Women's Spirituality.

Another significant figure in the catechetical web is Father Berard Marthaler, OFM Conv, a longtime Professor of Religion and Religious Education at CUA, and the founding editor of The Living Light, a journal published by the Department of Education of the US Catholic Conference. He too is an outspoken opponent of "book-centered catechesis," having dismissed its use in instruction as "the handing on of shopworn formulas, tired customs, and trite devotions."

Like Gabriel Moran, Marthaler was one of the 87 original dissenters who joined with Charles Curran in 1968 to organize a hasty protest against Humanae Vitae. And he was one of 20 CUA professors whom Washington's Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle, without Vatican reinforcement and in the face of a hostile media storm, subsequently tried but failed to suspend from CUA's faculty. Many historians believe the rebellion that has shaken American Catholicism won its most significant victory in that battle. Marthaler, like most others threatened with suspension, continued his academic career without penalty.

Sister Mary Collins, OSB, chairman of CUA's Department of Religion and Religious Education in the recent past, was associated with the founding of the bizarre, post-Christian feminist spirituality center known as WATER (Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual). A determined advocate of feminist liturgical language, she boasts of her efforts, as advisor to the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), to force such constructions on the reluctant faithful for their own good. On the feminist speaking circuit, she has explained that Jesus didn't ordain women only because he did not ordain anyone. He did include women among his apostles, she insists, but his inclusive intention was later undone by patriarchs influenced by Greek and Roman culture.

In 1995 Collins assured a Los Angeles Archdiocesan Liturgy Conference that Pope John Paul II really favors ordination of women, and only issues negative Vatican statements as his part in the Church's slow dance of change. As evidence, she cited his instruction to the Vatican delegation at the UN Beijing Conference, "to make a commitment of the Church Universal to the promotion of women in society." Such promotion, she indicated, must include ordination to the priesthood. "The train has pulled out of the station and the Pope is on board," she concluded. "I would suggest, if you're not, that you start running to catch up."

Many more figures could be named, from CUA's Sister Catherine Dooley, OP; through Monika Hellwig, Georgetown's longtime advocate of liberation theology who is now director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities; and former priest Thomas Groome of Boston College, a tireless writer and speaker on catechetics; to Bishop Raymond Lucker, who returned to Minnesota so changed by a stint at USCC's education office that he joined Call to Action. With their colleagues, they have transformed religious education, and thus the way Catholicism is lived in America.


How did the theories of an academic circle come to rule the world of religious education? An obvious route was through their students. Many of these students were religious who left parochial classrooms after Vatican II to prepare for new careers as directors of diocesan catechetical programs. In their new positions, they then looked to an alliance of interlocking professional and ideological groups to reinforce the attitudes they had acquired in graduate school. Dissident Hans Küng mused happily in a 1987 address to one such group, the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church (ARCC), that there is "a network of another kind of church...being formed from below....benignly tolerated and indirectly supported by many anonymous people at the switching points of the ecclesiastical apparatus."

This network brings together organizations with official-sounding names--some of them Church affiliated, others independent. For three decades, a repertory company of like-minded speakers has trooped from Church-sponsored conferences to ad hoc conferences--from the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) to the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership (NCCL) to the East Coast Conference on Religious Education (ECC) to the North American Forum for the Catechumenate to the Great Lakes Pastoral Ministry Gathering to the Call to Action Conference (CTA) to the Los Angeles Archdiocesan Religious Education Conference--consistently skewing or misrepresenting Catholic teaching all along the way. Audiences who take them for authentic Catholic scholars assume that what the speakers say is authentic Catholic opinion, especially as their repeated appearances create an impression that no other scholars have anything credible to say.

Take for example the National Center for Pastoral Leadership. Despite what its name implies, NCPL is not an arm of bishops' conference but a private, nonprofit arm of Time Consultants, Inc, a for-profit business that has been organizing conferences since 1972, when company president Tim Ragan, a former deacon, was a director of religious education (DRE) at St. John's parish in Severna Park, Maryland. In a 1989 interview with Annapolis business reporter Dan Guido, Ragan explained that he founded his company to foster the spirit of Vatican II by promoting dissent in the Church. "Ragan does it," Guido wrote, by choosing conference speakers "who have been rebuked by the Church or forced out of their Church-related positions for their criticism of the policies of Pope John Paul II, as well as more mainstream Catholics who share the same outlook." Over 25 years, Ragan organized more than 90 conferences, many of them annual events like the North American Conference on Worship, the East Coast Conference, and the Future of the American Church Conference. Others events, like Women in the Church and the National Interfaith Healthcare Leadership, were shorter lived. Speakers at Ragan's events have included headline dissenters like Hans Küng, Charles Curran, Rosemary Reuther, and Ruth Fitzpatrick; dissident nuns like Sisters Sandra Schneider, Joan Chittister, Mary Luke Tobin, Barbara Fiand, Miriam Therese Winters, and Jose Hobday; resigned priests Bernard Cooke, Anthony Padovano, and Thomas Groome; progressive members of the hierarchy like Archbishop Rembert Weakland (Milwaukee), Bishops Raymond Lucker (New Ulm, Minnesota) and Kenneth Untener (Saginaw, Michigan), and Auxiliary Bishops P Francis Murphy of Baltimore and Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit; and controversial clerics like theologian Richard McBrien, enneagram promoter Richard Rohr, and hundreds more.


Ragan re-invented his company, NCPL, in 1992, apparently for public-relations reasons. Listed on its letterhead as advisory board members were: - Eileen Anderson of Tabor Publishing, source of the controversial Living Waters catechetical series; - Joanne Andiorio, RSM, president of the National Interfaith Healthcare Leadership Conference; -Father Walter Burghardt, SJ, a senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center; - John Buscemi, a former priest now described as a liturgist and church designer with the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University in Chicago; - Father Virgil Elizondo, president of the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio; - Father Thomas Harvey, past president of Catholic Charities USA; - Diana Hayes, assistant professor of theology at Georgetown University; - Bishop Raymond Lucker of the diocese of New Ulm; - Sister Maria Riley, OP, coordinator of the Women's Project at the Jesuit think-tank, the Center of Concern; - Sister Lucy Vasquez, OP, chancellor of the Orlando diocese; and - Sister Edith Prendergast, RSC, director of religious education for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Archdiocese That list might look innocuous to anyone who unaware of what each member offers to the corporation's image.

Not even a new identity could sustain Ragan's once thriving conference empire, however. By 1995, only the East Coast Conference remained, and the corporation was surviving on grant funds. NCPL held an invitation-only "consultation" with 200 supporters, to set a new corporate course. The result was a second non-profit entity, the slow-growing "Ministry Renewal Network." Its first annual conference, in 1996, featured ex-Jesuit Bernard Cooke as keynote speaker. In 1997, the star speakers were Jessica Lipnack, of The Networking Institute, a New Age firm, and Loretta Jancoski, dean of Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry, an evangelist for "Creation Spirituality."

Today, the East Coast Conference continues, despite open disapproval from Cardinal James Hickey. In 1994, the cardinal issued a formal warning to "pastors, principals, DREs, campus ministers, liturgists and youth ministers" in his archdiocese "to neither support nor fund participation at the East Coast Conference." Nevertheless, the February 1998 East Coast Conference drew some 2200 catechists to Washington, DC, mostly from 18 dioceses that grant attendees up to 20 hours of credit toward diocesan catechist certification. But the group's board of advisors list has shrunk to only five names in addition to Ragan's.

While Sister Edith Prendergast is no longer listed on the NCPL board, the roll of speakers at her annual Religious Education Congress in Los Angeles is still dominated by the disciples of the "new catechesis." Drawing up to 20,000 adult attendees, the event is the largest annual gathering of Catholics in North America. For the instruction of Southern California's catechists, Prendergast's office draws speakers from the same pool as NCPL and Call to Action, and most other groups in the network of dissent that Hans Küng described. So tilted is the ideological balance among Congress speakers that, year after year, orthodox Catholics picket outside the convention center, and write letters of complaint to the chancery. "We pay them absolutely no attention," Cardinal Roger Mahony told reporters who asked about the protesters marching outside the convention this year. "I really feel sorry for them." He later explained that these "simple people" did not understand the thoughts of the trained scholars on the conference platform.


The classic goal of catechesis was to inform the understanding of the Catholic faithful by teaching them the principles that would enable them to love God, make moral judgments independently, and ultimately to go to heaven when they died. Like any human endeavor, it was never perfectly done, nor effective in every case, but during World War II, Msgr. Ronald Knox observed that the young American Catholic servicemen stationed in England were the best instructed laymen he had ever met.

In the post-conciliar confusion, however, when it seemed to many that principles were in flux and change the only constant, the independent judgment that comes from a well-formed intellect grew rare--and not only rare but undesirable, in the eyes of those who thought traditional catechesis had been too much directed to the intellect and too little to the heart. So thoroughly was the role of reason dismissed that today, a teacher who proposes intellectual investigation of the faith may, like the University of Dayton's Father James Heft, at the 1998 Los Angeles Religious Education congress, feel it necessary to assure listeners that while the Church seems to have "no intellectual tradition," in fact this unusual exercise is not without historic precedent.

In the emotional climate that developed, indifferent Catholics felt vindicated. Conscientious Catholics, denied instruction in the coherent principles underlying the faith, were forced to rely more than ever on religious authorities. At diocesan and parish levels, a corps of bureaucratic "experts" armed with new Masters' degrees in Religious Education moved into Catholic life like an occupying army eager to command. Thus, in what was supposed to be an age of lay empowerment, the DRE and her colleagues form a new clericalism more rigid than the old, with a rule and a compulsory "process" for every eventuality. Earlier religious reforms had typically called for more intense prayer, stricter asceticism, higher standards of personal morality, and greater purity of doctrine. The "new catechetics" mandated as the legitimate expression of "the Spirit of Vatican II" seemed to call believers to greater laxity, instead. Doctrines the faithful had previously accepted as true and changeless were swiftly replaced by a "new theology" whose major premise 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 with certainty that truth cannot be known with certainty.

Much talk was heard about "the signs of the times," but the new experts seemed to regard them as welcome revelations rather than as challenges. Bewildered Catholic parents were told that the rote memories of the young must no longer to be filled with "dry formulas" of "cognitive information." Building self-esteem replaced the transmission of Catholic doctrine as the goal of pedagogy. In elementary school, textbooks became vapid but colorful. The Blessed Sacrament was described as "special bread" for a special celebratory "community meal." Students were told to see Christ in each other, rather than "in that bread box on the altar." No more would their consciences be "deformed into scrupulosity" by a "rigid personal morality focused on sin."

Catholicism would henceforth entail accepting one another unconditionally, as God does, being kind to each other, and rejecting any temptation to judge another's actions against an objective standard. Instead, young Catholic students were given to understand that God was speaking to them in their experience. The new role of the catechist was to help them to reflect on it. Often "religion class" became an attempt to provide the desired religious experience through such "creative" activities as finger painting, banner making, liturgy-planning (or "para-liturgy" planning) or talking about current secular heroes.

At the high-school level, the new religious education seldom involved textbooks reflecting traditional Catholic doctrine. When doctrinal matters were addressed, they might be explained in terms formally rejected long ago as "anathema." Class time might mean directed small-group discussions of "Lifeboat" ethical dilemmas, of the evils of war or of capital punishment, or perhaps--as thousands of religious jumped ship--self-justifying denunciations of Church teachings on contraception, celibacy, or other embattled points. Over the decades, classes at all levels centered more frequently on "Creation Spirituality"--an exaggerated environmentalist anxiety over the "endangered planet" that sometimes edges into idolatry.

Nor is this crisis past. Even now, widely used catechetical texts embody a religious agenda that not only omits but in important particulars contradicts Catholic teaching.

Ecumenism, they may imply, means that all denominations and all beliefs are equal, and other belief systems offer "wisdom" and tradition that Catholicism lacks. "Diversity" and "theological pluralism" are today's cardinal virtues. Thus author Bill Huebsch, a former parish DRE, told the 1998 East Coast Conference that Vatican II rejected the pre-conciliar beliefs that had led his parents to protest their daughter's marriage to a divorced Protestant.

The view that Jesus did not found a Church is widely held among the exponents of the "new catechetics," although ironically, the practices of primitive Christianity are presented as the only valid model for the contemporary Church. Arbitrary rules of feminist language prohibit not only the use of male pronouns, but also references to God as Father. Catechist magazine, self-described as the nation's largest catechetical journal, exemplifies that craven surrender to feminist pressure. In its current three-year Jubilee series on the Trinity, the magazine has designated 1999 as the year of the "Abba."

There is relentless propaganda, too, for admission of women to Holy Orders in "a renewed priestly ministry"--that is, a priesthood commissioned by a local community rather than ordained by and subject to the hierarchical Church. At the East Coast Conference, Baltimore's auxiliary Bishop P. Francis Murphy assured the audience that women will be ordained in the next century, after people grow so accustomed to "priestless" Communion services that they cease to distinguish them from the Mass.

A "seamless garment" code of public morality is promoted, in which abortion is mentioned only as one item--and never the first--on a list of social problems including war, poverty, racism, "homophobia," and the death penalty.

Today's religious educators are still convinced that teaching "cognitive information" or "doctrinal propositions" cannot achieve the goals identified by a 1994 Lilly Foundation study done in cooperation with the US bishops. That goal is the formation of an adult Catholic with strong self-esteem and a clear "faith identity," who participates in the life of the Church, has a "practical spirituality for today's world," supports charities, and is committed to proclamation of the Gospel. Properly defined, these are desirable traits, but few are specifically Catholic or even necessarily Christian. Among the missing essentials are repentance for sins, and explicit belief in Jesus Christ.