Catechism Committee reports on “grave concerns” about high school catechisms defective in presenting Church teachings

Catechisms: Progress and Defects

Catechism Committee reports on National Adult Catechism progress – and “grave concerns” about high school catechisms defective in presenting Church teachings.

The bishops’ Standing Committee on Catechesis gave a progress report, at the November bishops’ meeting, on the development of a National Adult Catechism — and a startling report on the deficiencies the committee found with high school textbooks. The discussion was led by Archbishop Alfred Hughes of New Orleans, after the subject was introduced by Archbishop Daniel Buechlein of Indianapolis, chairman of the Committee on Catechesis:


Thank you, Bishop Gregory.

Brother Bishops, during the course of our first year of work, the new standing Committee on Catechesis has undertaken several projects which we think will be of interest to you for the benefit of the Church in the United States.

The first project we have begun is the development of national doctrinal guidelines for catechetical instruction on the high school level. Shortly, Archbishop Hughes, as chair of the Catechism Committee, will speak about concerns the committee has in regard to some catechetical texts currently in use in many Catholic high schools in the US.

Because of the committee’s experience in reviewing high school texts, the Catechism Committee members are convinced that the situation on the high school level would be helped by the development of national doctrinal guidelines. We foresee these guidelines as being of help both to catechetical publishers in the development of catechetical materials as well as to dioceses and/or parishes as they develop their curriculum guidelines. This past Friday, we looked at an initial draft of these guidelines and have given our staff further direction.

The proposed thematic structure under consideration is as follows:

Part I: Who is Christ? The focus here would be basic Christology, specifically focused on the mystery of the Incarnation.

Part II: What did Christ actually do? The focus under this theme would be on topics such as salvation, redemption and the Paschal Mystery.

Part III: The Mystery of Christ in the World Today. This focus will be on the Church.

Part IV: Sacraments as the Principal Expressions of Christ.

Part V: Life in Christ (Part 1). This will focus primarily on Christian identity and personal morality.

Part VI: Life in Christ (Part 2). This will focus primarily on the communal and social nature of morality.

Part VII: Sacraments at the Service of Communion. This will focus on vocation.

Part VIII is yet to be determined.

In the near future, we hope to send you a draft copy of these doctrinal guidelines for your review and comment.

Education on Human Sexuality Project

A second project undertaken, at the recommendation of the Catechism Committee, addresses education in human sexuality. Our initial discussions lead us to envision a document composed of four parts:

1. Doctrinal Principles;

2. Responsibilities and Rights of Parents;

3. The Pastoral Role of the Church; and

4. Directives of Educators.

These four areas will be preceded by an introduction which will situate the topic within the context of the understanding of the human person as reflected in Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body.

We expect that this document will have a wide audience including publishers developing catechetical materials besides bishops, diocesan offices, pastors, principals, teachers, catechists, parents and guardians who have responsibility for this aspect of catechesis. Because of the complexity and significance of human sexuality education, we anticipate that this document should be presented for approval by the full body prior to its publication.

Formation of Catechists, RCIA guidelines

The Committee on Catechesis has also begun looking at the question of the education and formation of catechists and catechetical leadership. After considering what should be provided in effective formation and certification programs, we expect to present to you a series of recommendations for formational directives for possible use within your diocese.

Finally, the Committee on Catechesis will also consider catechesis in RCIA [Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults – ed.] Specifically, we plan to develop an outline of key doctrinal elements into a document which we can offer as an instrument for use in your dioceses.

While there are a number of other projects the Committee on Catechesis is considering, we mention these four specifically because of their special importance in serving our catechetical responsibilities as bishops. A primary goal of our committee is to assist us bishops in our role as the chief catechists in our dioceses. We trust the projects described will help you.

Special Reports

The Catechism Committee requested this time on the agenda to report to our brother bishops on two important matters. The first is the National Adult Catechism. As many of you many remember, we had originally hoped to present that text to you at this general assembly for your approval. However, we consider this too important an effort to rush it. Many of you have made good recommendations that we want to take very seriously. So, instead, we want to make a brief progress report to you and indicate future steps.

Archbishop Alfred Hughes, of New Orleans, made the following presentation to the bishops:

National Adult Catechism: Progress

At the outset, I would like to thank those bishops who are serving in the editorial oversight board for this significant project: Bishop Donald Wuerl, who serves as chair, Archbishop William Levada, Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, Bishop William Lor, Bishop Richard Malone and Bishop Gabino Zavala. They continue to work on this project in an exemplary manner. Bishop Wuerl had intended to make this portion of the report, but he had to return to Pittsburgh to celebrate the funeral of Father Ronald Lawler, who has worked so closely with Bishop Wuerl in his catechetical ministry.

You may recall that in June of 2000, the Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism proposed that the bishops undertake the development of a National Adult Catechism. This proposal was enthusiastically endorsed, and the Catechism Committee was given oversight of the project. During the summer of 2000, Archbishops Buechlein, who was then the chair of the Catechism Committee, established the editorial oversight board to supervise and guide the development of a draft text.

The first task the editorial oversight board set for itself was the creation of a draft outline as well as the identification of the structure of the text and of an approach to how the text would be developed. In January of 2001, a consultation took place on the proposed structure and outline for the National Adult Catechism. Response was significantly positive. Based on the results of the consultation, the outline was finalized, and the writing of the draft began in June of 2001.

Upon completion of the first draft, tentatively named the “National Adult Catechism” for identification purposes, the text was sent in May of 2002 to all US bishops for a six-month consultation/review. Bishops were asked to comment on the text’s approach and structure as well as its content.

A large number of the responses showed overwhelming support for both the structure and the approach of the text. Respondents to the consultation praised the desire to make the catechism both an invitation to explore the faith and a source of information about the faith.

The structure that received overwhelming support consists of a story reflective of the experience of the faith in our country, an exposition of the faith which essentially follows the outline of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and finally a reflection on elements in our current culture that challenge the faith. Many of the specific comments on the context served to help reshape parts of the text. For example, the doctrinal summaries that now appear in the text came about as a result of suggestions received from the consultation of the first written draft.

Revision of the National Adult Catechism, based on the consultation responses, took place through the winter and spring of 2003. The past summer, a new draft was sent to all US bishops in preparation for the possibility of presenting the text for a vote of approval at this general assembly. However, the large number of individual suggestions submitted by the bishops over the summer proved impossible to process in time enough to be able to prepare a final draft and get it to you for your review in anticipation for the meeting. Therefore, the decision was made to postpone the presentation of the National Adult Catechism until November of next year. This is necessary since the June meeting is not a business meeting.

We have decided to put the extra time to good use. Once the changes suggested in the most recent consultation have been implemented, the draft will be submitted to a thorough review by members of the editorial oversight board, the draft writer, catechetical staff and a theological editor who has been asked to review the text not only to tighten theological language and see to its consistent use throughout but also to identify terms which should be clearly explained or defined in the text. The team will work to review the entire text for consistency and accuracy.

The new timeline calls for completion of all editorial tasks by March of 2004. The draft will then be reviewed again by the bishops who serve on the editorial oversight board and then by the bishops on the Catechism Committee. Once these two groups have signed off on the third, and hopefully, final draft, the text will once again be sent to all of you next spring, allowing sufficient time for review prior to next November’s meeting.

The members of the Catechism Committee are extremely grateful to Bishop Wuerl and to all the bishops who have contributed over the years to to this project, not only those serving on the editorial board, but also all those who have taken the time to read the draft and offer comments and suggestions. We value that because we truly want this National Adult Catechism to be something we can all make our own and encourage people to use.

Are there any questions or comments about the National Adult Catechism?

High School Catechisms: Defects

The second topic on which I want to report to you concerns the state of high school catechetical materials in use in our country. More than two years ago Archbishop Buechlein, at that time the chair of the Catechism Committee, stood here before you to report on the study which the Catechism Committee had done concerning the feasibility of the bishops undertaking the development of our own national catechetical series.

First, please let me make it clear that my purpose is not yet to recommend that we develop a national high school series. We are still reserving judgment on that point.

The June 2001 report, which, to be honest, we hoped would encourage high school publishers to submit more materials, did do exactly that. In the last two and one-half years, the Catechism Committee has conducted more than 25 reviews of individual high school catechetical texts.

Our experience in conducting these reviews has made clear to us two important points. The first is that the high school catechetical publishers continue to work with us to create high school religion texts which are in conformity to the catechism. The second is that the working relationship between the committee and some high school publishers has not yet borne as much fruit as we had hoped.

If you were to have the most recent Catechism Update in front of you, you would quickly recognize that there are few high school texts in the conformity listing. At this point, we have not been able to grant a declaration of conformity to any one complete high school series from any of the major publishers whose texts are most frequently used in this country. Over the past two and one-half years, close to two-thirds of the conformity reviews we have conducted on high school catechetical materials have ended with the judgment that the materials were not only inadequate for conformity, but also could not be amended and therefore needed to be rewritten. What causes us great concern is that many of the materials found to be inadequate are still in wide use throughout the country.

You may ask, What are some examples of deficiencies we have found?

Some Examples of Deficiencies:

Some of the texts found to be inadequate are relativistic in their approach to the Church and to faith. Students, for instance, are easily led to believe that one religion or church is as good as another and that the Catholic Church is just one church among many equals. There is often a blurring between the Catholic Church and other Christian ecclesial communities. Our young people are not learning what it means to say that the sole Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church or the true ecumenical teaching of our Church.

Our young people are not learning what we know and believe is based on objective truth revealed to us by God. In many of the texts we have found that there is an effort to state clearly the doctrine and Church teaching. Unfortunately, this doctrine is sometimes introduced with a formula such as “Catholics believe this or that….” This tentative language gives the impression that the teaching is just one legitimate opinion among others rather than a matter of truth. Unfortunately, we find numerous instances of this problem.

The sacramental theology which our young people are being taught is also often seriously flawed. In some texts they are taught that the sacraments were instituted over an extended period of time, with the implication that they can still be changed. Often the sacraments are presented as a way to celebrate special moments in life and not as a privileged moment of encounter with Christ.

The distinctive role of the priest may be sidelined or even ignored. Our young people are sometimes being taught that it is the community who baptizes or who confects the Eucharist.

They may be told the various ways in which Jesus is present during Liturgy without a clear statement that He is present in the Eucharist in a unique and special way.

They may be taught that the sacramental power to forgive sins and anoint the sick was once shared by all the faithful.

In some texts the teaching about the Church’s prohibition on the question of the ordination of women is ambiguous or even misleading.

In some lessons on the sacrament of marriage, they are being exposed to language which makes reference to “partners” rather than “man and woman” or “husband and wife”.

Troubling Concerns about Moral Teaching

Since the Catechism Committee first identified common deficiencies in presentations on morality, there have been evident strides. Topics such as grace, sin, conscience and the formation of conscience now appear in almost every text dealing with moral issues. However, there are still some troubling concerns.

For instance, there seems to be a reluctance to name premarital or extra-marital intercourse as sin. The students may be encouraged to avoid premarital intercourse in order to escape consequences such as pregnancy or disease, not because such actions are sinful. Similarly, practices of virtue and goodness may be encouraged in order to make the world and one’s life better. The relationship between the moral life in this world and the life to come is not often treated. Moreover, moral teaching, like faith teaching, may be presented using tentative language, implying that morality is a matter of opinion and personal choice.

Other problems which commonly recur include a studied avoidance of revealed proper names or personal pronouns for the Persons in the Blessed Trinity. This leads to an inaccurate understanding of the divine nature of the Persons of the Trinity as well as their unity with each other and their proper relations. Some of the texts, in trying to avoid masculine titles or pronouns for the Persons of the Trinity, speak of the Father only as God and then speak of Jesus without noting His Sonship or divinity, creating an implication that Jesus is somehow different from God or even somehow less than God.

The Christology in texts may be unbalanced with an overemphasis on the humanity of Jesus at the expense of His divinity. Sometimes the treatment of the Holy Spirit is either missing or flawed. We have seen numerous instances in which the third Person of the Trinity is referred to as “the Spirit of God” or “God’s Spirit”, which could suggest that the Holy Spirit is somehow less than God.

The interpretation of Sacred Scripture tends to rely almost exclusively on the historical-critical method and does not generally draw on the rich patristic and spiritual interpretation in the Church. The implication is that the Scriptures are to a large degree merely human texts. The divine role is usually stated, but often then obscured in the way in which Scripture passages are treated. In some instances miracles are explained away as ordinary phenomena, not of supernatural origin. We have even seen some of the miracles of Jesus explained as a result of lucky timing!

The approach to the Church often overemphasizes the role of the community. The ideal Church is sometimes presented in such a way that the student would be led to believe that we should live without reference to the role of the hierarchy in the Church.

In general, the high school texts are strong in their emphasis on the social mission of the Church and the moral responsibility that Catholics have in this area. The social teaching, however, is not always grounded in the divine initiative of the Holy Spirit of related to personal moral teaching or to eschatological realities.

This is merely a sampling of the kinds of problems that have aroused serious concerns for the bishops serving on the Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the use of the Catechism.

I want to emphasize that the committee members are not saying that every high school religion book is problematic, but there are a number of doctrinally deficient texts that are still being widely used supposedly to educate and form our young people in the faith.

The bishop members of the committee, Bishop Donald Wuerl, Bishop Robert Banks, Bishop Daniel DiNardo, Bishop Leonard Blair and Bishop George Lucas as well as Archbishop Buechlein, who serves as a consultant, have asked me to speak in their name in acquainting you with these grave concerns about some high school texts commonly in use today.

We urge you to require, whenever possible, that catechetical texts approved for use within your diocese carry a declaration of conformity to the catechism.

We have also asked the Committee on Catechesis to consider the development of national doctrinal guidelines for catechetical texts on the secondary level. As you heard in Archbishop Buechlein’s earlier report, that committee has accepted that charge and is moving forward with the effort. In the meantime we on the Catechism Committee will continue to work as best we can with high school publishers to develop catechetical materials that teach the faith accurately and completely.

I will be happy to try to respond to any questions or receive any comments.

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