A Time to Appraise Religious Texts: Catechesis and Education


Michael O’Brien has a reputation for boldly and cogently cutting through Catholic controversy with a clear and common sense application of orthodox principles. This article, written in 1993, analyzed a number of very weak catechetical programs being used in the U.K. at that time. The principles O’Brien articulates are so well developed we thought this article would be helpful beyond the particular controversy then raging. The program “Weaving the Web” has since been dropped for a much more solid program which is at this time also being developed for use at the primary level.

In my work as the editor of a Catholic family magazine I have met many families who suffer from the effects of inadequate catechesis, and I would go so far as to say that an overwhelming majority of Catholic families are suffering from this lack.

Like those families, my wife and I have experienced first-hand the pull of the present culture and we are continually forced to resist its often autocratic demands upon the mind, senses and spirit of our six children. We have been hard-pressed to provide a substantial alternative to the plethora of choices and stimuli which their world offers them. Raising children and adolescents in a state of cultural flux has been a continuous challenge: how to muster positive strategies, how to defend the young against ideological invasion without succumbing to paranoia; how to form them into genuine Christian Catholics, by which I mean mature people of profound and informed faith. This is no easy task considering the speed with which a more or less Christian society has become a pagan one.

If my generation struggled with a despiritualized culture, our children must now struggle with a dehumanized one, one which John Paul II has called "a culture of death." I was raised in a society that was still functioning on Christian assumptions about the very nature of reality. It was a flawed world but one in which we knew that the destruction of a child in the womb is an abominable crime, that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered, that cheating on your income tax is immoral, and sexual relations before marriage are a grave sin, etc. Our families coasted on a social matrix which at every turn reinforced moral absolutes. My generation was the last to be raised on the old Baltimore Catechism, that sturdy yeoman of catechesis which accomplished its task of instructing us in the actual content of the Catholic Faith. It taught us the moral and theological absolutes, though, admittedly, I cannot recall many moments when it imparted the thrill of that Faith which I now know to be the greatest adventure of all.

During the sixties the Baltimore Catechism and similar manuals were replaced by experimental catechisms based on new theories of educational psychology, and not infrequently on "new" theology. As my children arrived at the age of reason and began to ask the great, the perennial questions, I found it difficult to answer them in ways which helped them to see the connections between truth and their experience. In the ensuing years we have learned that their short lives simply do not provide the tools for a complete discernment of reality. In order to understand their experiences, they must be equipped with absolutes, with some abstractions, with wisdom.


My wife and I have searched for a catechesis which would help us to impart these, retain the doctrinal substance of the old catechisms, and enliven its presentation of truth with the new awareness of the role of beauty. It has not been easy to find such a series. We have had to grope our way through the cloud of confusion which covers the intellectual and spiritual climate of our times, a climate that has in no small way invaded the regional churches. We have found many of the widely used catechisms to be weak in substance, and others, notably the "Faith and Life" series published by Ignatius Press, to be most helpful.

We have learned to think fast on our feet, to tell stories, and use metaphors; we read scripture and great Catholic novels to our children and adolescents; we make time for listening to their questions, talk with them, explain tough theological points to our bright eight-year old theologians; we keep growing in devotional life and love of the Popes and their teachings; we pray and keep our eyes open, and pray some more; and we trust that the inherent power of the Sacraments, the Gospels and the witness of the sacred arts and the Saints will be sufficient formation. We worry and suffer and come round again and again to hope. Yet we have learned that we cannot presume upon supernatural rescue operations if the natural ground has not been sufficiently prepared. Grace builds upon nature, and in order to make a path for grace to do its work, the parent, teacher and pastor must provide a sensitive balance of doctrine and experience, of rite and imagination, of word and image, and above all provide those moments when the child learns to open the doors to the Holy Spirit. For without Him even the most masterful educational projects will produce little fruit.

In the end it still comes down to choice. One either believes or one does not believe. No child can be induced to accept the Faith, because for genuine faith to develop there must always be a free assent of the heart and the mind. In religious education circles the discussion has been waged for several decades now over whether or not an anthropocentric catechesis or a theocentric catechesis offers the best ground for a free assent to faith. The Church's position is clear. In the l977 Synod and in documents such as Catechesi Tradendae the universal Church states with a certain urgency that all catechesis must be Christocentric.

In his l988 address to a group of American bishops during their ad limina visit, John Paul II said:

The definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch, but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ. This important effort toward Christocentric catechesis....has also become the guiding principle in the preparation of a universal catechism for serving the common needs of the Church. This document is meant to be a point of reference for all the catechetical efforts at the national and diocesan levels, and also for catechisms of a general and special nature which the bishops may subsequently draft with the purpose of imparting proper knowledge of the content of the Catholic faith. At the center of this effort is the profound conviction that the mystery of the Incarnate Word sheds light on all life and human experience and that he himself is in a position personally to communicate the truth that he is.

In other words, Jesus is Lord of all creation, Lord of History; He is Man and he is God; He is a personal savior reigning as the head of a hierarchical cosmos. By contrast some post-Vatican II educational projects have rejected a hierarchical vision of creation and replaced it with an immanentized model — a flattened or horizontal universe.


While such a "Catholic" program may continue to say some things right about God, its actual methodology, its omissions, its use of imagery and language, and its undeclared assumptions can actually create in the mind of the child an immanentized worldview. Salvation is then perceived as a collective phenomenon, a linear process, a culmination of human history in a purely historical "eschaton" — a New Jerusalem created by man's hands, not given by a transcendent God after the devastation of the world by sin and error. It is no surprise, then, that immanentized catechesis usually neutralizes the ideas of transcendence, sin and error, where they are not eliminated altogether.

In Canada, for example, a catechism series was inaugurated twenty years ago by the administrative department of our national bishops' conference. The Canadian bishops, who did not presume to think of themselves as educators or psychologists, entrusted the development of the program to "experts." Little consideration was given to the fact that the social sciences are riddled with theories which are continually being dismantled and reconstructed and contain no end of interior contradictions. It had not been foreseen that many of the contributors to the Canadian Catechism were either formed by or had become strongly influenced by the secularization of the social sciences.

During the ensuing years the series has undergone several revisions which have accentuated its weak points and undermined what strengths it once contained. It was begun, of course, as an idealistic attempt to escape the weaknesses of the didactic approach of many pre-Vatican II catechisms. It attempted to remedy what had come to be considered a rigid formulistic style of instruction which supposedly killed the Spirit, creativity, and spontaneity — and faith. Like most re-active projects it went too far, and offered instead a worldview that was trivialized and rooted in the child's personal experiences.

So a Christocentric vision was replaced by an anthropocentric one, an objective form of religious education was replaced by a subjective one. The words "share", "community" and "love" became the shibboleths and keystones of a kind of sociological faith-system with Christian trappings. There can be no doubt that the formulators of the program were well-intentioned and highly-motivated by love of children, and impelled by a desire to make religion accessible to them. However, it is a simple, tragic fact that a generation of young Catholics has been deformed by this pleasant, humanistic catechesis. A recent survey of Roman Catholic high schools in Toronto, for example, revealed that close to 80% of the students were religiously illiterate. They could not answer basic questions about the Faith. After twelve years of religious education they could not say precisely who is Jesus Christ, nor could they define the Holy Trinity the Eucharist, sin, the need for personal redemption and a plethora of other essential points. Because the failures of our own "national" brand of catechesis have been so spectacular, it is disturbing to see other national bishops' conferences beginning to implement programs which duplicate some of the fundamental weaknesses of our own.


In May of l992 a religious education program was published in Great Britain with the authority of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. Titled "Here I Am", it was designed to serve as the religious education curriculum for children in all Catholic elementary schools. It was the companion program to the high-school religious education course which had appeared a few years earlier under the title, "Weaving the Web." Both programs are the product of the "National Project", a collective effort by bishops, educators and diocesan religious educators to develop programs appropriate to the pastoral problems of England and Wales. Until that time, most Catholic schools had been using a program called "Veritas" which was produced by the Irish bishops. Although Veritas was designed for a situation very different from the large industrial cities of England with their great cultural, religious and racial mixtures, and although there was widespread acknowledgment among Catholics that it was inadequate to the English situation, it was generally considered to be a good interim program. It was thought that eventually it would be revised in the light of the forthcoming Universal Catechism. However, some educators and bishops concurred that, because significant numbers of children in Catholic schools were from non-practicing or non-Catholic families, it was necessary to develop an entirely new strategy which would prepare the ground for a more effective catechesis.

The distinction between the terms religious education (known as RE) and catechesis are crucial to understanding the controversy which subsequently erupted. According to the l988 Vatican document, "The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School" there is a "close connection and at the same time a clear distinction between religious instruction and catechesis" (68). Religious instruction is concerned with knowledge about religion, while catechesis contains an evangelical reality, concerned with conversion of heart as well as informing the mind. Nor does catechesis make any false dichotomies between the world of faith and intellect. It's goal is to impart a "salvific reality" to the whole person. Ideally the two should complement one another.

However, when the high-school series, "Weaving the Web" appeared, however, the reaction from many quarters was to ask just how effectively its pedagogical approach prepared the ground for genuine catechesis. There were strong, carefully argued critiques in Catholic journals as varied as The Tablet and Christian Order.One reviewer enumerated 51 major points of doctrine and religious practice which the series simply eliminated from its presentation of the Catholic faith. Others noted the repeated emphasis on similarities between world religions. Critics agreed that it was a good thing to foster understanding and a non-condemnatory approach to people of other faiths, but they objected that the concept of the supernatural had been universalized — students could not help but assume that Hindus and Buddhists have parallel access to the supernatural.

Furthermore, the program ignored the diversity and fundamental contradictions between and within world religions. The basic message was the commonality of religious belief. The Catholic Sacraments, for example, became our version of universal "celebrations of life-stages." Students were left to assume that Sacraments are primarily human acts expressing belief and confirming personal commitment-an approach which ignored the vital distinction that a Sacrament is an event of divine communication to Man, a radical encounter with the transcendent. Furthermore, Christ was variously described as an icon of God, an image of God, and the Son of God, but no-where was it said that he was God Himself. These are but a few of the serious criticisms of "Weaving the Web" which have not yet been adequately answered.


The "dialogue" which the program was intended to stimulate has since degenerated into a state of polarization. Opponents of the program have been identified, isolated and dismissed as hidebound reactionaries. Only a handful of English bishops, notably Archbishop Couve de Murville of Birmingham, oppose it. Although he has not officially banned it, he has made it clear that he does not wish it used as a basis of religious education in diocesan schools. At the same time many good educators, seeing the merits of the program (indeed there are some), and willing to use it with supplementary material, have been viewed unsympathetically by traditional Catholics.

The intensity of emotions is partially a result of the violation of objective criteria, and partly due to the manner in which the originators of the program conducted the consultative process during the period of its development. According to Monsignor Daniel McHugh, director of RE for the Birmingham archdiocese, "It was this process of consultation among teachers and religious advisers which was woefully inadequate." He adds with a note of irony that promoters of the program are the first to say that "dialogue must continue" yet in practice they rule out of court one side of the dialogue.

It is difficult for many English Catholics not to feel that a semblance of democracy has been maintained while a quite different functioning reality has been in force, that an aristocracy of "experts" have misled the bishops to endorse a fundamentally defective program. Few on either side would accuse the other of malice or deceit. Each side believes the other to be the victim of disordered ecclesiology and poor theories of education. Unfortunately, the dispute over "Weaving the Web" has waxed hot for so long that most English Catholics are now thoroughly tired of it.


On March 17 of last year the Holy Father John Paul II addressed the bishops of England and Wales during their ad limina visit. He exhorted them to work for the preservation of a genuine Catholic ecclesiology. He reminded them of the dangers of "a partial reading of the Council" and pointed out that a unilateral presentation of the Church as a purely institutional structure "devoid of her mystery" had led to serious deficiencies, especially among the young.

Only an ecclesial life firmly based on the truths of the faith can help the members of the Church to remain faithful to Christ and to grasp the implications of the Gospel message in relation to every day cultural, political and economic choices. In a very secularized society there is a temptation to preach "values" on which a majority can agree, thus veiling to some degree the true nature of the Gospel as "the power of God for salvation." (Romans 1:16)... Bishops have a responsibility to see that in preaching and catechesis, in religious instruction, and theological studies, as well as in Catholic publications, the mystery of the Church is presented in a complete way, as a mystery of truth and grace, at once human and divine (Lumen Gentium, n.8), having the Holy Spirit as its principle of life. At this point in time a great effort is required to reaffirm the truths of the faith, to arouse the supernatural sense of the faith, by which God's people "clings without fail to the faith once delivered to the saints, penetrates it more deeply by accurate insights and applies it more thoroughly to life. (ibid., n.12)

It was no coincidence that when the Holy Father addressed the bishops of the Liverpool ecclesiastical province on March 26 he confined his remarks almost entirely to catechesis and religious education. For it was the religious educators and the bishops of Liverpool who had produced "Weaving the Web" and "Here I Am" and sponsored its acceptance as a national project.

In his opening remarks he said that our age is marked by a certain confusion about the nature and purpose of education, and that these confusions quite logically follow from "conflicting understandings about the human person and life's meaning and final end." It is doubly significant that this great personalist Pope should see the need to instruct his bishops with the following insights:

In catechesis, making use of the pupils' experience as a point of departure cannot be set in opposition to the handing on of the Church's doctrinal tradition, for as I pointed out in Catechesi tradendae, "no one can arrive at the whole truth on the basis solely of some simple private experience, that is to say, without an adequate explanation of the meaning of Christ...." (n.22). A clear and courageous proclamation of Jesus Christ as the one in whose name alone we are saved (cf. Acts 4:12) is required. This is not to imply that pupils who do not share the Catholic profession of faith cannot have a place in your schools. Their parents send them to these schools knowing the religious ethos to which they will be exposed and confident that the integrity of the children's consciences will be respected. This respect, however, should not alter the fundamental nature of the school's Catholic identity.


One month later, the primary school program, "Here I Am" was published. It was evident that the exhortation of the Holy Father had been either ignored or interpreted out of its original meaning — no small sleight of hand. If his exhortation had been properly understood, publication of the series should have been delayed until revisions were made. It was also quite clear that the program coordinators had been most selective in their use of the Vatican's guidelines, "The Religious Dimension of Education in A Catholic School," the key document issued by the Congregation For Catholic Education. Passages such as the following had been largely ignored:

"The distinction between catechesis and religious education does not change the fact that a school can and must play its part in the work of catechesis. Since its educational goals are rooted in Christian principles, the school as a whole is inserted into the evangelical function of the Church."

Obviously what the Sacred Congregation considered to be religious education the National Project had judged to be catechesis. Jim Gallagher, SDB, the assistant to the National Advisor for Religious Education, explained that, "It is important that we convey to children not only a set of words — doctrinal formulations — but also an understanding of their meaning." ("R.E. The Primary Years", p.67, Collins, l990.)

In the introduction to "Here I Am" considerable pains are taken to explain just how an understanding of the meaning of divine revelation can be imparted without formulations. There is a lengthy, often vague, description of the underlying methodology, theology and educational psychology of the program. Regarding the latter, there is much of merit in its sensitive approach to the stages of a child's growth. However, in the structure of the program there is a dizzying array of forms called "modules" which move in a spiral of intertwining topics and goals that are obviously the fruit of a specific theory of how the human mind works. Indeed there is much about the program that is theoretical and experimental, leaving it open to a wide range of serious criticism. In various information documents related to the National Project the word "consensus" is frequently invoked in its defense. A "consensus among educators" (unnamed) and a "consensus among theologians" (also unnamed) is used as a kind of parallel magisterium in order to justify the enormous trust that has been placed in the theoretical foundations-an indication that its producers know their project is at the very least controversial.

The originators of the program do not dismiss the papal Magisterium. It appears, rather, that the Pope is considered as only one factor in some larger undeclared magisterium. In the introduction to "Here I Am" he is quoted as saying, "There cannot be two parallel lives in our existence; on the one hand, the so-called spiritual life, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called secular life." So far so good. And the authors include other worthy statements about the necessity of prayer for the proper "linking of faith and life." There is an intention to give a balanced presentation of the human and the divine. The very title "Here I Am" means more than a mere declaration of self. These are the words of the boy Samuel, "Here I am. Speak, Lord, your servant is listening." They refer also to the name of God given to Moses, "YHWH" — "I am who I am." — and to the promise of God given through the ages, "Then you shall call and the Lord shall answer, you shall cry for help and He will say, 'Here I am.'" In theory at least, the program appears to strive for a vision that is both anthropocentric and theocentric.


The proof, however, is in the contents. From the very first level (four and five year olds) onwards there is continuous evidence that the authors are concerned with "demythologizing" the faith. The child is informed that Baptism is primarily an "invitation" to enter the community of faith. No mention here of liberation from original sin and death. But strong links are made to Islam and Hinduism. A story about a salt doll who plunges into the sea, and who exclaims in wonder, "Now I know who I am!" just as he dissolves, is intended to symbolize the immersion of the human person in the community. It is actually more expressive of dissolution of the self, and as such it is an effective agent of monism, the pagan view of existence as a vast organic being in which all divisions and distinctions are ultimately illusions.

In the same year the child learns that Jesus was a "special person," and "a Sacrament of God." Buzz-words such as "special" appear throughout, and are employed indiscriminately to refer to Christ, to priests, sisters, Mum and Dad. Nor are there inhibitions about using jargon, coining neologisms and repeatedly turning nouns into verbs. Banality of language is a sure sign of a failure of imagination, and it raises questions about the abilities of the writers of the program. If they are reduced to the argot of sociological religion, we must ask if they have become locked into a mode of thought which, rather than being the broadest possible vision, is in fact a narrowing of human potential.

A lack of understanding of children is also apparent here. Children have an inherent love of the richness and beauty of language. One can successfully speak of the faith in reverent, profound terms which impart a sense of awe for the mysteries they are about to learn. I do not mean by this that catechesis or religious education should ever return to a baroque style or antiquated formulas. But to merely replace fossilized language with modern clichés is not development.

Problems with language and the uniform dullness of visual imagery are not the program's foremost defects. In a section that deals with the Paschal cycle the children are told:

On Ash Wednesday people go to church. It is the beginning of the special time called Lent. They try during this time to "let their goodness shine out." Ashes are a sign that they will do this. The priest makes a cross on each person's head with ashes. He says, "Turn away from bad ways and do good as Jesus did. Make others happy."

If connections are to be made between faith and life, why not begin here with sin and death, repentance and salvation?


Regarding the Resurrection, the children are informed that "Easter Sunday is a happy day. Jesus is alive. God has given Jesus new life." Then, the linkage is made to reincarnation themes in the Hindu cosmology. By the time a child reaches age nine to eleven he is taught that "the experience of the Risen Jesus is real but the disciples do not claim that he showed himself to them in such a visible fashion that he could be photographed or filmed." One wonders what has happened to Thomas placing his fingers into the Lord's wounds and Jesus eating fish after the Resurrection in order to show the disciples that he is indeed flesh and blood.

In other passages at this level, the transcendent is similarly immanentized. Regarding the temptations in the desert, we learn that, "Jesus went away from the Jordan River, his heart filled with God's Spirit. And God led him out to the lonely moorlands...Jesus imagined himself to be sometimes on the moorlands themselves, sometimes on the top of a very high mountain, sometimes standing on the top of the temple gate in Jerusalem." No devil appears, only a "voice" of temptation. The frightening, informative drama of the Gospels is reduced to an internal psychological conflict.

Similarly the wind and flames of Pentecost are also reduced to metaphors — the apostles applying Old Testament pictures and stories to an enhanced sense of the "energy" of God. Moses, after all, only "saw what seemed to be a bush on fire. It shone very brightly even in the sun."

Clearly, a limited school of biblical criticism is at work here. There is a continuous rendering down of the miraculousness of Being itself, and a trivializing of those historic moments when the transcendent broke into the immanent world. Those moments were shattering, unspeakably beautiful, and it is this excitement of salvation history which the educators seem to have missed.

But this begs the question. Could the loss of so potent a teaching opportunity be an oversight? Almost certainly it reveals an arbitrary choice for a tragically stunted exegesis. For example, when the angel which appears in the section dealing with the Annunciation is portrayed as a mere "messenger", another powerful moment is lost. Was the angel merely a psychological illumination, or a myth, or perhaps a literary device expressing a theological truth? Though the text does not say this, the lusterless rendering of the event implicitly tells the child that a significant but not very astonishing thing has happened.


This is the mistake which many a modern educator so often makes. By attempting to make the mysterious understandable, he robs the child's world of mystery, and makes it not quite so interesting to search for the meaning of things. He thinks that by projecting his own latest methodology-enthusiasm upon the heart and mind of the child, the child cannot help but be infected by his excitement. What he does not grasp is that an intellectual enthusiasm may be quite a different thing than a child's rapture over the miraculousness of being — his own being and supernatural beings.

A one-dimensional "messenger" full of theological nuances can be quite a dull character. By contrast, the arrival of an "Angel" (shocking, holy and beautiful) is a dramatic encounter with something outside of the boroughs of London or New York, indeed from beyond the parameters of the known world. It is the transcendent speaking to the human heart. The word which it speaks is vital, but that it speaks is equally important; that it is beautiful and holy is also a message in itself. Every dimension of the event is exciting. All of it is great news!

One of the cornerstones of "Here I Am" is its effort to engage the student's personal experiences and feelings. This is certainly a valid approach, for the mind of the universal Church encourages the integration of faith and life and warns against the sealing up into airtight compartments the fields of intellect and spirituality, doctrine and practice. At first glance, then, "Here I Am" has great potential. But it also has weaknesses, not insurmountable, but very serious if not well addressed. There is always a tendency in human nature (in teacher and in student) to make personal experience into a kind of autonomous magisterium. In other words, there is the danger of absolutizing subjectivity, which can lead the way to the eventual over-riding of the objective teachings of the Church.

It goes without saying that effective education is not just so much stuff packed into a child's memory; it is vital to draw upon the child's experience of reality, to connect truth to experience. But a delicate balance is needed here, and nowhere in the program's guidelines is there evidence that its creators really strive for that balance or consider the dangers which arise when the balance is lacking.

A child's phenomenology (if it can be said this way) only leads to genuine maturity when it is in submission to a hierarchy of wisdom. "Here I Am" bypasses some of the wisdom of the visible hierarchy of the universal Church. It also presupposes an extraordinary maturity of vision on the part of teachers, and it was perhaps this which concerned the Pope when he reminded the English bishops, "it is the teacher's heart and soul which animates any religious text or program. It is the teacher who transforms the syllabus from a dead letter into a living experience of learning the faith....you must have teachers whose hearts and souls are shaped by the Spirit of Christ, teachers who think with the mind of the Church, teachers who look upon and love their pupils as part of the flock of Christ."

At the launching of Here I Am, Bishop Daniel Mullins, chairman of the English bishops' Committee for Catechetics, restated the Church's imperative to proclaim Jesus as God and Man: "we the Catholic people must take hold again of our faith in all its richness and in the fullness of its teaching." In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we now have a reliable basis on which to do so. It is clear that a fundamental reassessment of Here I Am, and perhaps of the entire National Project is urgently necessary. Does it provide an adequate basis for evangelization — or even for pre-evangelization? How does it lend itself to being "coordinated" with the use of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church? Does it encourage the child to listen for the voices of angels? Does it open the child's mind to the Gospel? Does it impart the great adventure? Or must Catholic teachers still look elsewhere for a Religious Education program that respects the consciences yet meets the spiritual hunger of the modern world?


O'Brien, Michael D. "A Time to Appraise Religious Texts: Catechesis, Religious Education, and Evangelization." Catholic World Report (December, 1993).

This article is reprinted with permission from Catholic World Report an international news monthly.


Michael O'Brien is a professional artist and the author of a series of novels including his most recent A Cry of Stone, the best selling Father Elijah, and Eclipse of the Sun. In addition, he is the author of A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind which looks at the proper role of children's literature in the forming of character (see sample chapters from this book on the CERC site). O'Brien's articles on faith and culture have appeared in numerous journals throughout the English-speaking world. Michael O'Brien is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center. Visit his web site at: studiobrien.com.

Copyright © 2001 Catholic World Report

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