Questioning the Texts

By Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

The US bishops’ review of catechetical materials has yielded some improvements, but fundamental problems remain unsolved.

Aug 2004 (CWR) – Parents, do you know what catechism your children are reading?

That question has concerned many people since the end of the Second Vatican Council. It is a common and accurate complaint that after the Council, catechetical texts were drastically revised to reflect “the spirit of Vatican II”—which often downplayed or even contradicted the actual documents of the Council. Those revisions meant a turn away from rigorous teaching of Catholic doctrine and the introduction of fuzzy ideas about community and self-esteem, assurances to every child that “God made you special,” and even the beginning of classroom sex education.

In 1993, a year after the appearance of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, [not the English edition] the US bishops’ conference (which was then known as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, but is referred to herein by its current name, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, or USCCB) convened a Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism. Msgr. Daniel Kutys, a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who is deputy secretary for catechesis at the USCCB, reports that the new committee quickly assigned itself the task of reviewing catechetical texts, to see how well they were passing on the faith.

After reviewing texts for a year the committee, then chaired by Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, OSB, of Indianapolis, found that catechetical texts were seriously deficient in 10 areas:

• the Trinity and the Trinitarian structure of Catholic beliefs and teachings; • the centrality of Christ in salvation history and his divinity; • the ecclesial context of Catholic beliefs and magisterial teachings; • a distinctively Christian anthropology; • God ‘s initiative in the world with a corresponding overemphasis on human action; • the transforming effects of grace; • presentation of the sacraments; • original sin and sin in general; • the Christian moral life; • eschatology

In other words, catechetical texts were not handing on the Catholic faith as it has been known over the course of 2,000 years. That report was issued in 1997.


Now fast-forward the tape six years to 2003 and hear what Archbishop Alfred Hughes of New Orleans had to say at the November USCCB meeting about high-school catechetical texts:

• “Some of the texts found to be inadequate are relativistic in their approach to the Church and to faith…” • “Our young people are not learning that what we know and believe is based on objective truth revealed to us by God…” • “The sacramental theology which our young people are being taught is also often seriously flawed…” • “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…” • “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…” • “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 approach to the Church often overemphasizes the role of the community…” • “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 related to personal moral teaching or to eschatological realities.”

In other words, high-school catechetical texts still are not handing on the Catholic faith as it has been known over the course of 2,000 years.

The review process used by the bishops’ committee was developed over four years. In it, a bishop and two others from a pool of theological and pastoral experts would review a particular series after it was voluntarily submitted by a publisher. This review would generally take three to six months. During that time, the team would evaluate the series on the basis of a protocol developed by the USCCB committee, primarily based on a comparison of the texts with the doctrinal material summarized in the “In Brief” sections of the Catechism.

After the review, the texts were given one of three grades. They were found to be “in conformity” with the bishops’ standard; or needing changes that could put them into conformity; or inadequate and in need of thorough revision.

Of nearly 130 catechetical series and texts that have been submitted for the bishops’ scrutiny thus far, only about 10 have been given the “found in conformity” rating after the first review, according to Msgr. Kutys. The “vast majority” of others, he added, are placed in the second category, found to be needing some changes. Around 15 percent of the material submitted is found to be completely inadequate.

Publishers who provide catechetical material for grade-school use, reported Archbishop John Myers of Newark, have been “quite cooperative and are anxious to be found in conformity” since many dioceses are strict about what texts are used in their schools and religious-education programs. But “there has been more difficulty in getting publishers of high school series and high school texts on the same wavelength as the committee,” he added.


It is important to note that the entire process of reviewing texts is voluntary, and if publishers choose to submit their work to the bishops, they are protected by a promise of confidentiality. In other words, the publishers of materials currently being used in Catholic schools and religious-education programs are not required to submit those materials for the bishops’ review. But if they do choose to cooperate, they are assured that the bishops will not issues any public criticisms of their products.

Archbishop Myers explained that in setting these conditions, the bishops were being realistic; the reason they “wanted it voluntarily submitted is they didn’t want to review material that didn’t have a chance at being changed.” The review is not intended to suggest an adversarial process, he continued: “The whole philosophy is that the publisher gives it to them and they’re looking for help in making it better if that is necessary.”

The bishops’ committee, then, does not disclose which materials were found to need changes, and which were found completely inadequate. The only notification available to the public is the list, updated quarterly, of those texts that have found to be in conformity with the bishops’ guidelines. (That list is made available on the USCCB web site.) If a text is not found on that list, it might have been found by the bishops’ committee to need only minor revisions; or it might have been deemed hopelessly inadequate; or it might never have been submitted for review.


When material is submitted, a review committee for that particular material is formed, made up of a bishop who volunteers for the review assignment and two theologians who are familiar with catechetical studies. Msgr. Kutys observes that these theologians should be attuned to both the doctrinal and pastoral aspects of religious education. These reviewers’ identities are also kept confidential, for a practical reason. Because of this anonymity, Msgr. Kutys argues, publishing companies are less likely to be tempted to approach friendly bishops, asking them to volunteer as reviewers, before their texts are officially submitted for evaluation. Archbishop Myers sees a different reason for the policy: the anonymity, he says, gives the reviewers the freedom to “speak their mind and say what needs to be said.”

The list of bishops available for review assignments is revised occasionally, as the responsibilities of the prelates change. If an auxiliary bishop is appointed to head a diocese, or a diocesan bishop is transferred to a larger see, he might remove himself from the list of reviewers because of the new competing demands on his time.

When texts are found to be “in conformity,” the bishops’ committee does not trumpet their success. In fact, Msgr. Kutys points out that if a publisher chooses to advertise its “in conformity” status, the bishops require that publisher to make the entire review available to the public.

The Faith and Life catechetical series—originally written by Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) and published by Ignatius Press—is one of the religious-education series that won “in conformity” status on its first review by the bishops’ committee. CUF developed the Faith and Life series in 1984 because the group—an organization now based in Steubenville, Ohio, specializing in Catholic apologetics—believed that there was no adequate religious-education series available on the American market. When the bishops began their review process, CUF was among the first publishers to submit its texts for review.

While the Faith and Life series was one of the few found “in conformity” on the first review, Eric Stoutz, the director of information services for CUF, recalls that the conformity review “was an excellent exercise they had us go through.” He commented: “They didn’t let us off with a completely free pass.” The reviewers suggested that the texts could be improved by paying more attention to social justice issues. “We were strong on credal issues,” he recalled, “but there was a suggestion that we work on the social concerns area.”

The Faith and Life series has undergone a fresh evaluation since Ignatius Press made revisions to the text for a second edition. That new series appears on the current “in conformity” list.

The review process can also lead to significant changes—not only in particular texts but even in the publisher’s overall approach. One informed source points to the recent history of William H. Sadlier, Inc., a family-owned firm that has been publishing religious-education material since the 1930s. When the Sadlier texts were subjected to the review process, they were rejected completely, the source reports. That rejection was devastating to the family, which reportedly considered dropping out of the business entirely. But Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut, a friend of the family, prevailed upon them to try the review process once again. Sadlier offered new texts, won approval, and has regained its position as a major player in the industry.


The review process has greatly improved catechetical texts, in the view of many orthodox Catholic catechists. But a diocesan catechetical director, who requested anonymity, remarked that two cautionary points need to be kept in mind.

First, the bishops’ review is a narrowly focused process, which examines the texts only to determine “if anything is against the Catechism;” the review process does not attempt to assess the methodology of the texts, or to determine whether the educational materials are appropriate to the age groups for which they are marketed. In concrete terms, this means that the review process does not take into account whether the materials adhere to the spirit of the document from the Pontifical Council on the Family called The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality (doc) (doc), which cautions against sex education in the classroom.

This question comes into play when religious-education materials include treatments of chastity that in effect become sex-education materials. Two catechetical series—Growing in Love from Harcourt Religion Publishers and the Benzinger Family Life series—have been heavily criticized for taking this approach; both series teach the mechanics of sexual activity to students in the 5th and 7th grades, in an apparent violation of the standards set by The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality.

However, the bishops’ committee refused to review these materials. Msgr. Kutys explains that the committee chose not to become involved in the evaluation of materials including physiology, biology, sociology, or psychology; the focus was to be kept exclusively on doctrine. To accommodate the bishops’ approach, Harcourt and Benzinger pulled their sex-education material out of their catechetical texts, and put that material into separate books. The books dealing with doctrine could then win the bishops’ approval, while the sex-education materials were sold separately, as part of the publisher’s overall package, but without the bishops’ review.

This issue could become more pressing as the US bishops continue to implement their policy statement that they approved at their June 2002 meeting in Dallas, in response to the sex-abuse scandal: the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. That “Dallas Charter” makes it clear that young children should be taught to recognize when they are being subjected to inappropriate activity, and the Vatican instruction, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, stipulates that classroom sex education in itself can be just such an inappropriate activity. Archbishop Myers has put the USCCB offices on notice “that the right of parents must be respected in this regard,” reminding them that “it is the natural right of parents to train their children in such intimate matters.”

Archbishop Myers continues:

I’m saying that rather than simply insist that children go through programs in our schools or in our religious education programs, there should be a form created where parents can say, “I have taken care of this formation for my child on my own and I find that he or she is properly prepared in this regard.” And that would be part of the audit, rather than force every single child to go through a certain program which the parent might not want.

The second caution voiced by the diocesan catechetical director is that when the bishops’ committee gives material the “in conformity” rating, that does not constitute an endorsement—although publishers frequently hint that is the case. The “in conformity” classification signifies only that the texts do not contain material that is contrary to the Church teachings as set forth in the Catechism. It does not necessarily mean that the text presents the Church’s doctrine effectively. OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW

The review process leaves other questions unanswered as well. For instance, while the reviews may lead to significant improvements in catechetical texts, there is no requirement for bishops or pastors to use these newer texts, since the entire review process has no particular status in canon law.

Diocesan catechetical directors generally downplay the significance of the fact that older, uncorrected texts might still be in use. Peter Ries, the director of catechetics in the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan, points out that publishers typically revise their religious-education series every five years. By now, he reasons, the materials that are currently being marketed on the elementary school level have gone through the review process.

But not all of the old texts are gone, as one Minnesota parent recently discovered. Brian Gibson has two children in a Catholic school in a Minneapolis suburb. He made the decision to withdraw them both from class because his parish is using the Benziger Family Life series. Gibson complained that the materials being used to educate his children were similar to what he might have expected from a Planned Parenthood publication. (Gibson should know. He is the executive director of Pro-Life Action Ministries in St. Paul, a group that pickets in front of the Planned Parenthood abortion clinic in St. Paul every day.) As he investigated the situation, he discovered that the texts actually being used in the classroom were older than the Benzinger texts that are now on the market, sporting the USCCB conformity listing.


The publishers’ ability to market religious texts, and provide up-to-date versions of their latest catechetical series, is another important factor. Unlike Sadlier, or religious-based publishing houses like Ignatius Press or Loyola Press, some of the most popular catechetical textbook imprints are owned by huge corporations.

Benzinger, for example, is owned by McGraw-Hill. Brown-ROA, once a major figure in Catholic religious education, has been purchased by Harcourt and is now Harcourt Religion Publishers. Silver Burdett Ginn is owned by Pearson Education.

McGraw-Hill is a huge company, owning subsidiaries as varied as Business Week and Aviation Week magazines, Standard & Poor’s (including the stock-tracking indices of the S&P 500), a construction firm, four ABC-affiliated television stations, a health-care publishing group, and a firm that deals in energy-information services—all in addition to its large book-publishing operation. Harcourt is owned by a British conglomerate, Reed Elsevier Group, plc, which also owns Lexis-Nexis, the legal and media database company. And Pearson Education owns another large publishing concern, MacMillan.

What attracts many dioceses and parishes to these companies, report catechetical directors, is their capacity for serving their clients’ needs. The larger publishing concerns can supply supplementary materials in video and DVD formats; they can run workshops on using their curricular materials; they can offer other small but attractive “perks” to directors of religious education. Some of these publishers also have existing relationships with Catholic schools because of their involvement in other subjects. Rick Blake, a spokesman for Harcourt, points out that his firm has been supplying textbooks on all topics to Catholic schools for many years.

But what can be repulsive about these publishing conglomerates is their corporate connections with ideas and institutions antithetical to the Catholic faith. McGraw-Hill, for instance, pays benefits to the partners of homosexual employees. McGraw-Hill also publishes college textbooks for women’s studies programs that invariably promote legal abortion.

Harcourt Religion Publishers offers a clear example of this problem. In 1994, Harcourt bought the catechetical textbook publisher Brown-ROA. The purchase took place, says Sister M. Johanna Paruch, FSGM, a catechetics professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, at a time when small companies were being bought by larger ones for the sake of survival. Brown-ROA was already controversial for their New Creation sex-education series, she recalls. But since then, Harcourt has published Growing in Love. Its use has stirred up a heated controversy, particularly in upstate New York, where some parents have requested that Archbishop Jerome Hanus, OSB, of Dubuque, Iowa, remove his imprimatur from the texts.

In 1999, Harcourt also published A Clinician’s Guide to Medical and Surgical Abortion—a book that was hailed by the New England Journal of Medicine as “the first clinical reference on abortion practice to be published in the United States in over fifteen years.” Harcourt subsidiaries have recently published such titles as Contraception: Your Questions Answered; Handbook of Contraception and Family Planning; Contraception and Office Gynecology, and The Lives of Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals—this last title being marketed as a college textbook for use in homosexual-studies programs.


Archbishop Myers conceded that, to the best of his knowledge, the US bishops have not made a point of investigating such connections among religious-education publishers. “I would find it offensive and I think it should be looked at,” he added.

Msgr. Kutys confirmed that the USCCB has never looked into the question of the ownership of religious-education publishers, or their other corporate connections. The question has never been raised, he told CWR.

The publishers of catechetical materials get together regularly with USCCB officials at an annual meeting. In their presentations, Msgr. Kutys says, the publishers invariably present themselves as loyal Catholics, in service to the magisterium of the Church rather than to their own corporate “bottom line.” But Sister Paruch makes the point that interest in corporate profits might actually be a benefit in this case. If a large company is more concerned about selling texts than about promoting a particular ideology, that firm should be willing to produce the sorts of material that the bishops want, she reasons.

However, Msgr. Kutys notes that the religious-education divisions of large publishing conglomerates may not feel the same sort of marketplace pressures as the secular publishing divisions. The religious-education divisions typically provide only a small fraction of the corporations’ revenue, he says, and executives seem to view these divisions as having some special value beyond their minimal money-making capacity.

What could that special value be? Presumably the publishers are anxious to strengthen their relationships with the Catholic schools, in order to enhance their sales in the much larger market of textbooks for secular subjects.

In the eyes of Archbishop Myers, the increasing prominence of secular publishing companies in the Catholic-school market is itself a cause for concern. The archbishop reflects:

One of the things which has occurred across the field of Catholic primary and secondary education, especially in the United States, is that you used to be able to get a series for primary school that included substantial reference to Catholic history. The examples in the math books or sociology would be Catholic. You can’t do that anymore. And the phenomenon which you describe, with the mega-corporations moving in, has really homogenized the textbooks, homogenized the teaching, and I think resulted in a less Catholic identity of our Catholic education. And that’s really too bad.

So many of the major publishers involved in the preparation of catechetical materials may see that business not as a means of promoting the faith, but as a means of promoting the sales of their other texts. And those other texts, in turn, may promote a secular outlook that—along with defective religious-education material—could undermine the faith of Catholic students.

Conservative critics of recent trends in Catholic religious education often speak of two “lost generations” of Catholics who have received defective religious instruction in the years since Vatican II. To making things worse, it seems that the Catholic Church paid to lose them.

Thomas Szyszkiewicz writes from Minnesota and is a regular contributor to the Catholic press.

In Conformity

The US bishops’ conference catechetical review panel found 13 high school texts to be in conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church in its latest listing published on June 1, 2004. The listing only verified conformity with the Catechism, not methodology or other concerns, and is completely voluntary. A complete listing, including grade school curricula, is available on the Internet at (


The Light of Faith, Harcourt Religion Publishers, 2005 Encountering Jesus in the New Testament, Ave Maria Press, 2003 Our Sacramental Life: Living and Worshiping in Christ, Ave Maria Press, 2003 Friends of Jesus/Witnesses of Christ, Legionaries of Christ, 2003 Introduction to Catholicism, Midwest Theological Forum, 2003 Our Moral Life in Christ, Midwest Theological Forum, 2003 The Catholic Faith Handbook for Youth, St. Mary’s Press, 2003 Journey Through the Old Testament, Harcourt Religion Publishers, 2002 Living Justice and Peace, St. Mary’s Press, 2002 Written on Our Hearts (Old Testament), St. Mary’s Press, 2002 Catholic Social Teaching Learning and Living Justice, Ave Maria Press, 2001 Your Lifei n Christ: Foundation of Catholic Morality, Ave Maria Press, 2001 The Church: Our Story, Ave Maria Press, 1999


The Apostolate’s Family Catechism, Apostolate for Family Consecration, 2003 Consecration in Truth, Apostolate for Family Consecration, 2001 Dominican Series, Priory Press, 2000 Understanding the Catechism, RCL-Resources for Christian Living, 1999 Catholicism Series, C.R. Publications, 1996-1997