Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Crisis of Religious Illiteracy - and how Hildrebrand can help!

One need not read the recent book by Boston University professor Stephen Prothero “Religious Literacy” to see the problem. Just visit a parish CCD program or Catholic school near you and ask the Confirmation class to name the first commandment. According to a recent survey (see Zenit.org 2007-04-23 “Religious Illiteracy”) only 5% will be able to answer correctly. (1)

In 1997, the US Council of Catholic Bishops established a Protocol for Assessing the Conformity of Catechetical Materials with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It should be noted that this assessment tool was designed not to search for the best in catechetical resources, but to detect those resources that did not meet the lowest requirements. (But even so, the USCCB does not restrict their use.)

The fact that only one catechetical series passed the initial review (Faith and Life published by Ignatius Press) says much about the magnitude of the problem. But lack of proper educational resources is only part of the dilemma.

One could argue that the instructors need more education. But a review of the Religious Education departments of most dioceses will reveal more people with more letters after their names than ever before. Today, there are more resources, more instructors, more funds, more programs, and more advice from more advisors than ever. And yet the result is inarguable; the evidence: absolutely damning. It’s getting worse. As a matter of fact, the decline in religious literacy is almost proportionate to the increase in the resources dedicated to reverse it.

So how can Hildebrand help? Hildebrand, better known as Gregory VII, reigned as Pope from 1073 to 1085. That’s quite a while ago. So why should we look to him?

Gregory VII is famous for what came to be called the “Gregorian Reform” which is probably best known for its support of clerical celibacy as a way of improving the moral level of the clergy. But Gregory also tackled simony, to which many of the woes of the 11th century Church could be traced. Simony, which is the buying and selling of church offices, was part of a larger problem of lay domination within the Church.

In How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, the author, Thomas E. Woods, Jr., Ph.d., recounts that:

“Pope Gregory had little chance of reversing the decadence within the Church if
he lacked the power to name the Church’s bishops - a power than in the eleventh
century was being exercised by the various European monarchs instead. Likewise,
as long as laymen could name parish priests and abbots of monasteries, the
multiplication of spiritually unfit candidates for these offices would only
continue.” (2)


Today we don’t have a problem with monarchs appointing bishops, but we do have a problem with “lay domination”. However, in contrast to the problem of the 11th century, the “lay domination” of today is not, for the most part, a power move by the laity but, at least in the case of religious instruction, the inevitable result of the pastor’s abdication of his teaching chair.

The fact that 99.99% of the materials used in parish religious instruction were found to be defective by the time the USCCB got around to reviewing them is pretty profound evidence that the real problem is not the publishers (who for the most part only print what sells) but the pastors.

The pastor, regardless of who he appoints, is the “father” of his parish family and ultimately its guardian. It is he (not the DRE) who stands guard at the gate of the parish garden with the flaming sword of truth and bars the way against any “unclean thing”.

The pastor can no more delegate his role as primary teacher than he can delegate his sacred orders. It doesn’t matter if a lay person has more letters after his or her name. In the Catholic Church there is no authority to teach in the name of the Church other than that which is given from above through the line of Sacred Orders.

The laity must and will serve the Church. But in the absence of authentic authority as embodied by a visible (and audible) pastor, the well-meaning but leaderless laity will dissipate into personal theologies, politics, and private agendas.

The Catholic Church is built on a particular vertical (and visible) alignment of authority (Pope-Bishops- Priests-Laity). It’s the “spine” you might say. Absent any of the “vertebrae” and we have a broken back and a paralyzed body. A paralyzed body will atrophy. Thus the visible evidence from the above mentioned studies.

I want to emphasize the “visible” part of this because it’s what makes the Catholic Church Catholic. The “invisible church” is the stuff of Protestantism. The true Church of Christ is a VISIBLE Church, a city set on a hill (Mt 5:14) The Church is visible through all its members but particularly through those upon whom the sacred orders have been conferred (which is why our late Pope - and probably our current one - have so laboriously insisted upon the wearing of the appropriate and distinguishing religious or clerical garb).

A quick memory for the sake of example: Our parish pastor visited our class weekly. I can still see him dressed in meticulous clerics and entering the classroom in a particularly regal way. The effect was immediate respect and we all would stand and say in unison: “Good morning Father Smith”(not his real name, and no, we did not address him by his first name). Yes, we had been trained to do so, but he had been trained to act and dress in a way that elicited that type of respect, not just for him, but for all that his collar represented. Though we didn’t know it consciously, his presence and how he presented himself helped us intuit the Church that we were a part of. By the way, Father “Smith” never taught a class. His presence and THE WAY he presented himself did that for him.

There’s a saying: “What you do speaks so loudly that what you say I cannot hear” - another way of saying “Actions speak louder than words”. Today we have no end of words. What we lack are examples, models, action. I don’t mean just charitable works and the like, but folks whose very bearing proclaims the dignity, authority, and truth of the Church. Can anyone doubt that such a message exudes from the present occupant of Peter’s chair despite his small and mild stature? (By the way, I don’t think he owns a polo shirt.)

Just one more side note: We didn’t have any special program for adult catechesis. Father took care of that in his sermons which were full of instruction, history, and the examples of the saints. He also celebrated Mass in an extremely solemn and reverent way so we didn’t need a separate class to teach us about the Real Presence. He didn’t need a choir either. I can still hear his voice filling up the huge sanctuary with the strains of “Holy God We Praise Thy Name".

It’s interesting to note that most of the studies and efforts as per the improvement of religious literacy seem to focus mostly on the instructional materials, the “program” (the words). This emphasis is symptomatic of the actual problem. Religious instruction, historically and catechetically, has never been the domain of the “program”, but the province of pastor and parent: the pastor as teacher to his flock, and parent, especially the father, in the mold of the pastor, as teacher to his.

The fact that so few parents are involved in the religious education of their children, let alone fathers, is perhaps the best evidence of the need for “Father” to be once again be seen as “Teacher”. Perhaps we will begin to see fathers “father” when Father “fathers’. (Please remember that I am only dealing with a priest’s pastoral duty to teach and not his other duties.)

I cannot end this little analysis without addressing the main objection that most pastors will have had by the second paragraph: overwork, too busy, no time, this or that person is more qualified, burn out…whatever you want to call it.

I cannot answer for them, but as the father of ten children, living and working in a place where the nearest relative is 7000 miles away, I can answer that Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit and the Sacraments of His Church, has provided all that is necessary for me (and my spouse) to fulfill our God given primary duties to our children.

The challenge is the constant effort to continually identify WHAT those “primary duties” are, for in doing them I will find the channels of grace “filled to overflowing”. It’s only when I lose sight of those priorities that I become “weary in well-doing”.

I would submit that there can be no greater command than the last one:: “go and TEACH”. In obeying that command, pastor and parent will find all the grace they need to fulfill it.


(1) Though the Zenit article documents a study done in Ireland, the results are indicative of the level of Religious literacy throughout the western Church as evinced by Prothero’s book which the article also mentions.
(2) See How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas E. Woods, Jr., Ph. D., Regnery Publishing, Inc. 2005, pg. 189

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