What’s Your Score On The S.A.T. (Salvation Aptitude Test)?

NOEL J. AUGUSTYN

I modestly offer the following as a draft of the sort of exam that I think an eighth-grade Catholic student should have to pass before graduating from Catholic grammar school. I don’t think that knowledge equals faith (or hope or charity). But I know that the religious literacy I had accumulated, fairly painlessly, by age 13 has enriched my faith during subsequent years and has given me a secure base of knowledge on which to build. The following exam tries to teach as well as to test, and has a number of “think” or “short essay” questions.

The following exam tries to teach as well as to test, and has a number of "think" or "short essay" questions. If it seems easy to you, gentle reader, you might want to try it out on your local Catholic eighth-grader (or high-schooler) before you dismiss it as laughably elementary.

Ten years ago a college professor named E.D. Hirsch gained national notoriety for a radical thesis about education. In a book entitled Cultural Literacy he wrote that a basic purpose of education is to replace ignorance with knowledge. He argued that such fashionable educational concepts as "problem solving," "critical thinking," and "creativity" are empty if students possess no core of shared knowledge.

The passage of a decade — despite the birth of the so-called Information Age and the supposed building of the Information Superhighway — has only added support to his thesis. At every level of schooling, students are uninformed or ill-informed. There is illiteracy and innumeracy; there are science-stiffs and cultureclods. There is also — as parents of children in parochial schools are uneasily aware — a parallel Catholic phenomenon that as yet has no name. Should we call it "indogmacy"? In plain English, it is religious ignorance. American Catholic schoolchildren today know very little about their religion.

Last December I was chatting with an honor-roll eighth-grade student, my son's classmate at the parish school. Noting that the boy was scheduled to serve Mass on the day after Christmas, I commented that, like Good King Wenceslas, he would be out and about on the Feast of Stephen.

"Who's King Wenceslas?" he asked.

"E.D. Hirsch, give me strength," thought I. But then I reflected: It's a mild case of Caroling Illiteracy, nothing serious. The lad may not be much of a singer, and, after all, Prague and its Wenceslas Square are rarely in the news these days, and, besides, the Bohemian prince and martyr's feast day each September 28 is an optional memorial.

Then the boy said, "Who's Stephen?"

"You know," I replied. "The first martyr."

He thought that over. "What's a martyr?"

"Well," I said, "a martyr is one who gives up his life for his faith — one who imitates Christ completely. You know!"

No light dawned. I thought it might help to mention Saul, who later became Paul. You know, the one who wrote the Epistles? He was holding the cloaks of those who were stoning Stephen. You know? All this seemed to be news to him.

"Eight years of Catholic education," I murmured to myself. To him I said, "So, what are you studying in religion class these days?"

"We don't really study the saints," he informed me.

I guess they don't. I've heard a professor at the Catholic University of America joke about the need for a course in remedial Catholicism for freshmen who even after 12 years of Catholic school are religiously illiterate. The students reportedly exclaim, "What? We've got to learn all seven sacraments?" Funny. But maybe the joke is onus. Catholics educated before Vatican II are not, perhaps, better Christians than those educated afterward. The fact remains that we knew "by heart" (a term meaning far more than rote memorization) the Seven Sacraments, the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Corporal Works of Mercy, the Precepts of the Church, the Theological Virtues, and much more, including the meaning of "martyr," the story of Saul/Paul, the lives of many saints, and dozens of Bible stories. The gift of faith, of course, is ultimately a mystery, but education is ours to control. Students do tend to learn what they're taught.

Whence comes the decline in religious literacy in Catholic schools? "Religion" now seems to be but one more subject in a crowded curriculum, rather than a pervasive truth guiding all studies. But why? One apparent reason is the virtual disappearance of teachers who are religious by vocation. Today's lay teachers are not as scripturally literate as were the Sisters and Brothers of yesteryear. There is not the same ready richness of biblical reference: the sort that would allow a teacher to remind students of the number of days it rained on Noah, or the number of days Jesus fasted in the desert, to reinforce the answer to the math problem "5 times 8"; the sort that would prompt a teacher to hint that a dodecahedron is a figure with exactly as many sides as Israel had tribes and Jesus had Apostles.

Another explanation is the absence of Catholic textbooks in the various subject areas. In the past a number of stories in Catholic school "readers" were based on the Bible or the saints or other areas of Catholic heritage, whereas today there are no such readers, and hence no such stories. History books used in Catholic schools once had a Catholic focus. Today, don't expect your Catholic schoolchildren to have learned about Pope St. Leo the Great or Father Marquette. The texts now used in Catholic schools are identical to those used in public schools, and they have a decidedly secular slant. Indeed, a sixth-grade social studies textbook used in a local Catholic school stiffly offers an arm's-length definition of "monotheism" as that variety of religion which believes in just one "god." Finally, the decline in religious literacy is related to the religion books themselves, which at least have drawn some critical attention for offering more mush than meat.

So the problem of religious illiteracy is apparent, and causes are easy to find. But what is the solution? There is no resurgence in religious vocations for orders dedicated to teaching in parish schools. No Catholic publishing houses seem to show any interest in producing Catholic elementary school textbooks for "secular" subjects. And any hopes that the Catechism of the Catholic Church would lead to the publication of religious texts apt for schoolchildren are, so far, mostly just hopes.

A possible solution may be to adopt an idea that has recently found favor with educators that of "standards." In standards-based education, you define precisely what students should know at each level, and you test them on those precise matters. "Teaching to the test" remains, of course, controversial, but so do most other ideas in education, and an attempt at standards in religious literacy could well overcome in Catholic school classrooms the absence of vowed religious teachers and the dearth of religiously literate textbooks.

What should the standards be? What should be on the tests? I modestly offer the following as a draft of the sort of exam that I think my eighth-grade friend from last Christmas should have to pass before graduating from Catholic grammar school. Who am I to set the standards? I'm just an ordinary Catholic whose formal training in Catholicism ended in eighth grade over 35 years ago. I don't think that knowledge equals faith (or hope or charity). But I know that the religious literacy I had accumulated, fairly painlessly, by age 13 has enriched my faith during subsequent years and has given me a secure base of knowledge on which to build. The following exam tries to teach as well as to test, and has a number of "think" or "short essay" questions. If it seems easy to you, gentle reader, you might want to try it out on your local Catholic eighth-grader (or high-schooler) before you dismiss it as laughably elementary.

  1. One of the prayers at Mass refers to this man as "our father in faith." Both Jews and Arabs regard him as their ancestor. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all consider him to be their spiritual father. Name this patriarch.

  2. This patriarch and his wife, Sarah, had a son in their old age. God tested the father by asking him to sacrifice this son but stopped him from doing so at the last minute. Name the son.

  3. Years later, this son and his wife, Rebekah, had a son who was to be the father of what became the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Who was he? (Hint: "Israel" was the name later given to him by God. He had a brother named Esau.)

  4. We all know that Moses led the Hebrews (Israelites) out of Egypt in what is called the Exodus. How did the Hebrews come to live in Egypt hundreds of years earlier?

  5. When we think of Moses we think, too, of Aaron and Joshua. Identify either Aaron or Joshua.

  6. Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. List the Ten Commandments.

  7. Pick one of the Ten Commandments and tell why you believe it is especially important.

  8. Apart from the Ten Commandments, there are the Two Great Commandments. State them.

  9. What is the connection between the Two Great Commandments and the Ten Commandments?

  10. State the "Golden Rule."

  11. Saul was the first king of Israel. Who was the second? (Hint: He is considered the most important of the Jewish kings, and as a boy he was a shepherd.)

  12. The second king of Israel had a son named Solomon. Write something you know about Solomon.

  13. After the first reading at Mass we recite or sing prayers and hymns, some of which are very old, so old they are said to have been written by Solomon's father. What do we call these prayers and hymns?

  14. There are three books in the Old Testament named after women. Name one of them.

  15. Who is Job?

  16. In speaking of the Old Testament, we hear the phrase "the Law and the Prophets." Name one of the Old Testament prophets.

  17. Write something brief about one of the following: "the Babylonian Captivity" or "the Maccabees."

  18. The first four books of the New Testament are the Gospels; their authors are called the Evangelists. Name the four Evangelists.

  19. What is meant by the term "the Annunciation"?

  20. What is meant by the term "the Visitation"?

  21. We all know what we celebrate on the feast of the Nativity (which is also called Christmas), but what do we celebrate on the feast of the Epiphany (which is also called the 12th day of Christmas)?

  22. Three places of importance in the childhood of Jesus are Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Nazareth. Pick one and tell why it was important in the early life of Jesus.

  23. Who is John the Baptist?

  24. Lent has forty days, just as a particular episode in the life of Jesus had forty days, before He began His public ministry. What was this episode?

  25. We know that Jesus often taught in parables. Name your favorite parable and tell why it is your favorite.

  26. Fill in the blank: One of the most famous of Jesus' teachings is called the Sermon on the ________.

  27. Jesus is often called "the Divine Physician" because He cured people of various illnesses. Write something about your favorite miracle or sign where Jesus cured a sick person or sick people.

  28. Jesus taught us to pray what we often call the "Our Father." There is a more formal name for this prayer. What is it?

  29. What is "the Transfiguration"?

  30. There are two kings named Herod in the Gospels. Pick one of them and tell something about him.

  31. Bethany is the name of a village near Jerusalem. (There is another Bethany "across the Jordan," where John the Baptist was baptizing.) Martha and Mary, who were friends of Jesus, lived in Bethany with their brother. Name their brother and tell why he is important.

  32. What is "Palm Sunday" all about?

  33. Why is "the Passion," from the Gospels, read at Mass on Palm Sunday?

  34. Whenever we recite the Creed at Mass, or say the Apostles' Creed, we mention Pontius Pilate. Who was he?

  35. Name the person who was forced to help Jesus carry His cross. (Hint: He is remembered in one of the Stations of the Cross.)

  36. Pick one of these two terms and tell something about it: "the Upper Room" or "the Garden of Gethsemane."

  37. Golgotha is the Hebrew name for the hill near Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. This place is also known by another name. What is that name?

  38. According to the Gospels, Jesus spoke seven times in His three hours on the cross. Choose one of these seven sayings (also called "the Seven Last Words") and quote it, or paraphrase it (that means, put it in your own words).

  39. Tell how one of these men is connected to the Crucifixion: Nicodemus; Joseph of Arimathea.

  40. Jesus' first appearance after His Resurrection was to a woman. Name her.

  41. There is a phrase in common usage — even today — that contains the name of one of the Apostles. Fill in the blank: "Doubting ________." What did this Apostle doubt?

  42. Who is called "the Prince of the Apostles"?

  43. The last appearance of Jesus to His Apostles after His Resurrection is commemorated annually by a Holy Day of Obligation 40 days after Easter (or on the seventh Sunday of Easter). It is called "the Solemnity of the __________.

  44. Fifty days after the Passover, Jews celebrate God's giving the Ten Commandments to Moses; fifty days after Easter, Christians celebrate God's giving the Holy Spirit to the Apostles and Mary. What is the name of this Christian feast?

  45. Before he became a great missionary, St. Paul was a great persecutor of the early Church. He guarded the cloaks of the men who stoned to death the man we call the first martyr. Name this first martyr.

  46. St. Paul wrote many letters (the Greek word for letters is Epistles) to early Christians and their communities in the Mediterranean world. In a letter to those at Corinth, a city in Greece, he described what we call "the Three Theological Virtues." The third of these, which is "charity" or "love," Paul called "the greatest." What are the other two?

  47. St. Paul and St. Peter were martyred during the reign of the emperor Nero about thirty years after the Crucifixion. They were martyred in the capital city of the empire over which Nero ruled. Name this city.

  48. For much of the first three centuries of her history, the Church suffered persecution. Many Christians were martyred and often Christians couldn't worship in public. Then, in the early part of the fourth century, an emperor ended the persecutions. Name him. (Hint: He named the eastern capital of the empire after himself, it was formerly called Byzantium and is called Istanbul today.)

  49. Name the Seven Sacraments.

  50. Which sacrament does every Christian receive?

  51. Name the Corporal Works of Mercy (there are seven).

  52. Pick one of the Six Precepts of the Church and tell why you think it is especially important.

  53. "Pride" is often' called the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins. Pick another one of the seven and tell why you think it is especially "deadly."

  54. A prayer that has been popular since the Middle Ages is called "the Rosary." It now traditionally consists of 15 "decades" where we think about certain "mysteries" in the lives of Our Lord and Our Lady. These mysteries are in three groups of five: the Joyful; the Sorrowful; and the Glorious. Take one of these groups and name the five mysteries in that group. (If you can't think of a mystery's title, then describe what event is remembered in that mystery.)

  55. Over her history of nearly 2,000 years, the Church has been divided many times. Some of these divisions have never been completely healed. For example, the year 1054 is when "the Great Schism" between East and West occurred. The year 1517 is often cited as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Say something about either one of these two historical events that have seriously affected Christian unity.

  56. Name your patron saint and write something about him or her.

  57. Name a favorite saint besides your patron saint, and write something about him or her.

  58. Name your favorite Holy Day of Obligation (besides Christmas).

  59. In what continent is the Holy Land? A. Europe, B. Asia, C. Africa, D. Australia.

  60. Ecumenical Councils are meetings when bishops from all over the world come together. Some Councils have been held in places like Nicaea and Ephesus, in what is now Turkey, or in places like Trent, Italy. The most recent Council was held from 1962 to 1965. What name or title is given to this Council?

  61. Since Old Testament times, God's people have practiced "fasting." In Lent, for example, adult Catholics "fast" on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. (And during Lent all Catholics abstain from eating meat on Fridays.) We also "fast" for at least an hour before receiving the Eucharist. What do we mean by "fast" and why do you think we do it?

  62. What is the Christian virtue of chastity, and why is it important?

  63. The Church has four signs or "marks." The Church is (fill in the blanks): One, _________, Catholic, and ________.

  64. Why did God make you?

Older readers will note that the last question of this exam is the first question of the old Baltimore Catechism. It's a good question with which to end, for it remains the basic question (and as coaches are fond of saying, success is built on mastery of "the fundamentals"). Not long ago, most Catholic eighth-graders could have aced this exam. Shouldn't eighth-graders today know at least as much? This test was composed without much trouble, largely from the mental residue of my grade-school education, which acquainted me with patriarchs and prophets, judges and kings, emperors and bishops, missionaries and abbots, pagans and polytheists, saints and sinners. As a youngster I was given a glimpse of past and present, history and eternity, the natural and supernatural worlds. My parochial school's insistence on religious literacy made me not parochial but Catholic (in the upper-case and lower-case meanings of that fine Greek word).

"A little learning is a dangerous thing," wrote Alexander Pope. "Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring. There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, but drinking largely sobers us again." For that ancient spring sacred to the Muses, the patronesses of pagan learning, let us substitute the "living water" of Christian faith, the eternally flowing fountain of the truth that will make us free. (Question 65: To whom did Jesus promise living water?) The poet's warning, put prosaically, is that it's dangerous to think that we know a lot when we only know a little. It's a fair warning. But even we Catholics who know only a little about our faith and its history can see that many of our children today know next to nothing. We must give our children a chance to refresh themselves at the perennial spring of sacred knowledge. Perhaps you can't make a child drink, but you can at least lead him to the water.

Answer Sheet

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Augustyn, Noel J. "What's Your Score On The S.A.T. (Salvation Aptitude Test)?" New Oxford Review LVIII, no. 7 (July-August 2000): 12-14.

Reprinted with permission of the New Oxford Review (1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706). To subscribe to the New Oxford Review, call (510) 526-3492.

THE AUTHOR

Noel J. Augustyn is a lawyer living in Maryland He has taught English in high school and college, and has taught the law of evidence in law school.

Copyright © 2000 New Oxford Review


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