Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Is poor catechesis the laity's fault?

Hello again!

First, a bit of blog housekeeping news: blogging will continue to be sporadic for a bit as I rush to finish up another writing project or two.  Also, I am in the process of moving this blog.  I've complained before about Blogger, but recent issues have decided it for me.  I hate change and have put up with Blogger as long as I could, but one day soon you'll get a link to a different location, and we'll see how that goes.

Now for the post.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker has an interesting take on the catechetical problems plaguing the Catholic Church today: it's the laity's fault:
I’m the first to agree that there has been some very poor catechesis in the church, however, I’m not sure the problem is completely the fault of the religious publishers, trendy nuns, poorly educated Directors of Religious Education, left wing theologians and unconcerned pastors.

There is also a problem amongst the laity themselves. The best way I can describe this problem is an attitude of “I’m a cradle Catholic. Don’t you try to catechize me!” How many adult Catholics have taken the trouble to have any form of religious education after being confirmed? It would be interesting to know. Catholics still make up the largest religious grouping in the United States. Why are Catholic publishers not selling millions of books like the Evangelical publishers do? Because Catholics don’t read about their faith. How many adult Catholics have taken the trouble to go on a retreat, a conference, a seminar to learn more about their faith and grow in their knowledge and love of God? Not many.

Ignorance of the faith? Absolutely. Poor catechesis? Absolutely. Who’s fault is it? Just as much the laity who don’t have the level of commitment or interest necessary to do anything more than turn up for Mass on Sunday (when they don’t have anything better to do).

Now, I like Fr. Longenecker, and I enjoy reading his blog.  This theory he's come up with has its points, too; an adult whose grammar is terrible can't continually blame his third-grade teacher for not making, say, the role of the semi-colon clear and understandable.  At some point, if we become aware of a deficiency in our education and it is still possible to repair that deficiency, we do have to put some effort into that repair ourselves.

That said, though, I'd like to take a closer look at what Father is talking about here.

Catholics may make up the largest religious grouping in the United States (though that's tricky; actually, Protestants outnumber Catholics--51% to 24%--but because those Protestants include people from multiple denominations Catholics are often counted as the single biggest denomination of Christians in America).  But only around 25% of those who identify themselves as Catholics actually show up for Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation unless excused for a serious reason, so of those 75 million American Catholics, just under 19 million actually take the faith seriously enough to show up every Sunday.  (Interestingly, though research continues to show that 25% figure or an even smaller one for weekly Mass attendance among Catholics, somewhere around 40% of Catholics say on surveys that they go to Mass every week.  I think most of us would notice if regular Mass attendance were nearly double what it actually is; what I suspect is that roughly 15% of the people who say they go to Mass every week are seriously mistaken or have really bad memories or misunderstood the question--and there's a less charitable possibility, but I won't mention it).  Still, if 19 million people come to Mass every Sunday, why don't Catholic publishers sell 19 million copies of each new book; why aren't 19 million Catholics attending the retreats scheduled each year; and why aren't 19 million Catholics annually clamoring for new adult education classes and signing up for any that are offered?

Well, obviously, those 19 million Catholics in the real world (that is, not just the world of research and surveys) are going to include children and elderly people and single people and married people and nuns and religious brothers and priests, and all of those people are going to have different needs when it comes to catechesis.  I think most Catholics who have grown up since Vatican II agree that there's a crying need to improve children's catechesis (and it could start by ending the notion that Confirmation is, or ought to be, "bait" to keep teens in religious ed until they graduate from high school), but I don't know that there's been any consensus about how best to offer continuing education and catechesis for adults.

And that's why I'm not sure it's fair to blame the laity for poor catechesis.  I had a conversation on another blog recently with someone who was blaming the laity (the "Novus Ordo laity") for failing to take confession seriously, or to show up for it regularly, etc.  When I pointed out that it is not in the laity's power to schedule confessions for the real world as opposed to the world of priestly imaginations in which every single person in the parish is going to be free on Saturdays for thirty minutes to an hour before the Vigil Mass, and in which those 30 to 60 minutes will be sufficient time to hear the confessions of one-fourth of the registered adult members (given that monthly confession is the standard usually held up as the goal for lay people) the gentleman got a bit perturbed.  But I wasn't trying to be snide; I was pointing out that it's not fair to blame the laity for their apparent lack of interest in confession if their pastors are so uninterested that in a parish with thousands of registered families (like the one my conversation partner was talking about) they schedule an hour or less per week for Confessions. 

The same thing is true, I'm afraid, of catechesis, especially adult catechesis.  I've been in parishes where the pastor permitted lay people to set up some program like the Why Catholic? program or a Bible study program or even a program to walk through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but aside from mentioning the program once as it was beginning the pastor then never referred to it, and the well-meaning lay people setting the program up announced cheerfully that the lessons or sessions or study would take place at 10 a.m. every Tuesday morning, and that was that.  Whether the people who are actually in need of continued catechetical education will be available on workday mornings doesn't seem to occur to anybody, and it's that sort of thing that I tend to find rather frustrating.

When parishes offer adult catechesis in the evening hours or on weekends, they do get the kind of turnout I think Father Longenecker would like to see--just as I've noticed that when priests offer extra hours of confession apart from the usual Saturdays they get plenty of people to turn up.  And if a pastor mentions some new or interesting Catholic book he's just finished reading and recommends it to his flock, lots of them will go out and look for it and even buy it.

It's true that pastors can't arrange classes and retreats to suit everybody's schedule, and that not everybody will buy a book just because Father said he really enjoyed it.  But when pastors lead the way in catechesis, good things can happen.


bearing said...

If 40 percent of those who identify as Catholics say they go to Mass every week,

and 25 percent of those who identify as Catholics actually do go to Mass every week,

then (40-25)/40 = 37.5% of "the people who say they go to Mass every week" are telling a tale that does not match the available external measurements. Not 15% but 37.5%.

(It is 15% of those who identify as Catholic, but 37.5% of those who say they go to Mass every week.)

Red Cardigan said...

Thanks, bearing! I'm bad at math. :)