Where Are We in Catechesis? Situating the National Directory for Catechesis
Most Reverend Leonard P. Blair, Bishop of Toledo
When Our Lord told the Apostles, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19), little could they have imaged the extent in space and time of the mission that was being entrusted to them and their successors. Not only has the Church grown in her understanding of divinely revealed truths; she also continues to grow in her understanding of how those truths should be taught and handed on to others, and like the householder of whom Jesus speaks, she brings out of her treasure both “what is new and what is old” (Mt. 13:52). The impending release of the National Directory for Catechesis signals a promising new moment for the Church in the United States, an invitation to grow in understanding. Its publication is the latest step in a process that dates back to the years following the Second Vatican Council.
Consideration was given to catechesis at the Council, especially in relation to Bishops and their responsibilities as teachers. On October 28, 1965, the Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church, Christus Dominus (CD), was promulgated. It taught that Bishops have a duty to ensure that those entrusted to their pastoral care have a “living, explicit and active faith, enlightened by doctrine.” (CD, no. 14) Bishops were to “present the doctrine of Christ in a manner suited to the needs of the time” using “the various methods available … for proclaiming Christian doctrine.” (CD, no. 13). Among the directives with which Christus Dominus concludes is one calling for the creation of “a directory for the catechetical instruction of the Christian people in which the fundamental principles of this instruction and its organization will be dealt with and the preparation of books relating to it” (CD, no. 44). This directive signaled the beginning of a new age of catechesis in the Church, one that is still unfolding.
The preparation of a worldwide catechetical directory was unprecedented. The project involved not only the writing of a text, but more fundamentally a reflection on the nature and purpose of catechesis in the life and mission of the Church. Prior to 1965, the only catechetical text ever published for the whole world was The Roman Catechism, issued in 1569 after the Council of Trent. It was intended as a doctrinal reference text for Bishops and priests to guide them in the creation and development of catechetical materials.
Soon after the Second Vatican Council, an international commission was established to oversee the development of a universal catechetical directory. The commission’s first step was to conduct a consultation directed to the world’s Bishops. On the basis of this first consultation, the commission developed a proposed outline that was reviewed at a special plenary session of the Congregation for the Clergy, the Roman dicastery responsible for catechetical matters. As a result, a draft text was developed and then released to all the episcopal conferences for further consultation. Based on responses to this consultation and a review by both a special theological commission and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the text of a General Catechetical Directory was developed and published in 1971.
The purpose of the General Catechetical Directory, as indicated in its Foreword, was “to provide the basic principles of pastoral theology” so that the ministry of the word could be more fittingly directed and governed. The Foreword went on to explain how the text addresses errors frequently encountered in catechesis. It stated that these errors can be avoided only if one adopts a correct understanding of the nature and purpose of catechesis and of the truths that are to be taught, taking into account those to whom catechesis is directed and the conditions in which they live. The Foreword also encouraged Bishops everywhere to develop national and/or regional directories in order to apply the principles and directives of the General Catechetical Directory to the concrete situations of their own people.
In the United States, the call to develop a national directory produced an almost immediate response. By April of 1972, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops formed a committee of seven Bishops to oversee the development of a National Catechetical Directory. The following year a full-time project director and assistant director were named, and a twelve member working committee of bishops, priests, religious and laity was formed.
The process of developing the first National Catechetical Directory involved several public consultations. The first took place from late 1973 until March of 1974 and focused on a preliminary outline for the directory. In early 1975, the first draft text was released for consultation. More than 75,000 recommendations were submitted on this first draft. A second draft was developed and it also underwent a national consultation in the first three months of 1977. A final draft was sent to the Bishops in the summer of 1977. The text of a National Catechetical Directory was approved at the General Assembly of the Bishops in November of that year. Almost a year later, in October of 1978, the text received the required approval from the Holy See, and was released in March of 1979 with the title Sharing the Light of Faith: the National Catechetical Directory.
During these years, there were also other activities and assemblies dedicated to catechesis. In 1971, Pope Paul VI hosted an International Catechetical Congress. In 1975 he issued the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi which focused in part on catechesis. That same year he formed the International Council for Catechesis which is still in existence as a consultative body to the Congregation for the Clergy. At the 1977 assembly of the Synod of Bishops, the theme was catechesis. An eventual outcome of this synod was the Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae (On Catechesis in Our Time) which Pope John Paul II issued in 1979 on the first anniversary of his election as Pope. Among the many topics stressed in this document is the need for catechesis to be Christ centered, and to present an organic and systematic instruction in the faith.
Before saying more about documents, I think it would be helpful to reflect a bit on catechetical instruction in general. During the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council and before the 1971 and 1979 directories were published, there had already been a shift in religious education. Prior to the second half of the twentieth century, most religious education efforts focused on a classical educational approach that relied on repetition and the memorization of doctrines. In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, several different catechetical movements arose which had an impact on religious education. For example, there was the so-called kerygmatic approach that originated in Germany with the Jesuit Father Josef Jungmann. Another movement was inspired by the understanding of how children learn, as in Piaget’s stages of child development.
Many religious educators in the United States began to move away from the classical approach, laying greater stress on helping those they were catechizing to experience God in everyday life and to put their faith into practice. An emphasis was placed on Christian formation, not just education or instruction. New approaches helped those being catechized to appreciate the importance of personal conversion and faith in action, especially at the service of others. Insights about human development led religious educators to recognize the validity of age-appropriate methodologies and presentations. These efforts were accompanied by less and less focus on the specific content of Christian doctrine, even as society at large began to look askance at authority, tradition and the very existence of absolute truths. This shift was accompanied by what might be called a theology of human works, which did not always give sufficient attention to the primacy of the Triune God’s self-revelation in Christ, reflected in the truths of faith that are to be believed as part of a communion of faith. Orthopraxis—“right living”—came to be championed in contrast to orthodoxy—“right believing”—as if the two were somehow mutually exclusive.
The late theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar recalled a great characteristic of Catholic faith when he wrote that “truth is symphonic.” This is the opposite of what another great theologian, Henri de Lubac, characterizes as a modern “giddiness of disassociation” which insists on “either/or” at the expense of “both/and.” Orthopraxis—“right living”--and orthodoxy—“right believing”--are in fact two intertwining parts of the one symphony of Christian life.
Allow me to give you a homespun example. When I was prepared for Confirmation in 1960, I was taught by memorization the appropriate doctrines regarding God the Holy Spirit and the Sacrament. It was assumed that my classmates and I would try to live a good and holy life as a result, and would participate in the life of the Church and be witnesses to Christ in our close-knit Catholic world. However, all this was presented in very formal language and remained largely abstract. Today, on the other hand, when I ask Confirmation candidates what this sacrament is, they most often reply with a list of all the good things they are doing to show their commitment to their faith. This is a very positive development that was not part of my sacramental preparation. However, I find that today’s candidates often have a hard time expressing how this Sacrament is God’s work, not theirs, or speaking about some of the doctrines concerning Confirmation and the Holy Spirit that are found in the Catechism. Two eras of religious instruction are reflected here, and they need not be an “either/or,” but a “both /and.” As we shall see a little later on, the most recent catechetical directives envision an all-important balance.
Following the Second Vatican Council and with the release of the General Catechetical Directory in 1971 and the National Catechetical Directory in 1979, there was a reaction against the older methodology by which I had been catechized as a boy. As I mentioned earlier, catechetical efforts became focused primarily on providing experiences that would engage the students, help them to feel positively about God and faith, with less emphasis on knowledge of the doctrine of the faith.
All this was done with the best of intentions. For decades the people responsible for developing catechetical materials were individuals who had been educated with the Baltimore Catechism. They could not remember a time when Catholics did not know at least the basic contents of their faith, and they no doubt presumed that this situation would continue. Unfortunately, it did not. With time it became clear that many of those being catechized were no longer learning the content of the faith in a way that they could or would remember.
There was also another significant development connected with the publication of the 1971 General Catechetical Directory and the 1979 National Catechetical Directory. As I mentioned earlier, both were published as a result of broad consultation. The majority of those consulted were individuals actively engaged in the field of catechetics. Rightly did the Bishops turn to them for their expertise in this area, and they continue to do so. However, an unintended consequence was that little by little the Bishops distanced themselves from direct involvement in the development of catechetical materials and in the setting of agendas and directions for catechetical efforts.
A watershed in these developments was the Synod of Bishops held in Rome in 1985 on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. When the topic of catechesis was raised at the Synod, a proposal was made to issue a new universal catechism as a reference text for the development of catechetical materials worldwide. The Roman Catechism mentioned earlier had been in existence for more than four hundred years and had assisted many, including St. Peter Canisius and St. Robert Bellarmine, in their catechetical efforts. The influence of the Roman Catechism was also evident in the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries in the various editions of the Baltimore Catechism, which was the basic catechetical text in this country from the middle of the nineteenth century until the late 1960’s.
Pope John Paul II accepted the recommendation of the Synod, and in 1986 initiated a process for the development of a text. As with the 1971 General Catechetical Directory, the development of a new catechism involved worldwide consultation. The final product, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), published in French, German, Spanish and Italian in 1992, and in English in 1994, presents, in its own words, “an organic synthesis of the essential and fundamental contents of Catholic doctrine, as regards both faith and morals, in the light of the Second Vatican Council and the whole of the Church's Tradition” (CCC, no. 11). Besides being intended for the Bishops themselves and the larger Church, the Catechism is also a sure guide for the preparation of other national or regional catechisms and catechetical materials.
Following the publication of the Catechism, the Bishops of the United States created an Episcopal Committee to “oversee the use of the Catechism.” This work took on a particular character because of the way that catechetical materials are prepared in our country. In other nations materials are most often prepared directly by the episcopal conference. In the United States the preparation of catechetical materials for children and young people is typically done by independent commercial publishing houses.
Consequently the Committee for the Use of the Catechism contacted the various catechetical publishing houses and offered their assistance to ensure that catechetical materials would be in conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. A voluntary process was established, which has come to be called the conformity review process, whereby catechetical texts are granted a declaration of conformity by the Committee. This declaration simply means that a given text reflects the teaching of the Catechism in a way that is both accurate and complete. This process, which has been employed by all the major publishing houses and many smaller companies as well, has proven helpful to them and to those who use the texts both to teach and to learn.
After their first year’s review work, the Committee made a report to the full body of Bishops in which they identified ten areas of doctrinal deficiency that they were seeing in almost all the religion texts and materials that had been submitted to them. Many of you might remember this report in which the Committee for the Use of the Catechism summarized deficiencies regarding Trinitarian theology, Christology, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, moral theology and eschatology. The identification of the ten deficiencies called attention to the reality of the situation I described earlier, a situation marked by a widespread erosion of specific instruction on Christian doctrine in much of religious education over the previous thirty years.
Today most of the deficiencies that were identified no longer appear to the same degree as they once did in catechetical materials submitted for review. Other issues--some large, some small, but all significant—crop up from time to time. For example, in late 1998 the Committee for the Use of the Catechism advised publishers that in a catechetical text the use of “Hebrew Scriptures” and “Christian Scriptures” for the Old and New Testaments respectively, is not appropriate. Similarly, they pointed out that catechetical materials should always reflect the fact that time has a Christological significance, and therefore when descriptive markers are given for dates, B.C. and A.D. are to be used, not the de-Christianized B.C.E. and C.E. An ongoing concern with regard to Trinitarian theology is the proper use of the divinely revealed names of the Persons of the Trinity.
Most recently, the Committee has had to grapple with the use of language in catechetical texts that appears to compromise a clear proclamation of the truth of Catholic Faith. The Bishops have asked publishers, most commonly on the junior and senior high levels, to avoid language that might be described as “tentative” when presenting doctrine. A tentative mode of presentation is one that implies that a specific doctrine is not necessarily an objective truth, but rather a subjective belief left to the discretion of a believer, who may or may not accept it. A catechetical text, however, by its very nature, is one written “to share the light of faith” from the perspective of one who freely and joyfully gives full adherence to what the Church believes and teaches.
The conformity review process of the Bishops has to be one of the most significant developments in catechesis in our country in the last forty years. Not only do catechetical materials more authentically and comprehensively reflect the teaching of the Church as found in the Catechism, but the Bishops have also come to realize that they need to be more actively involved as teachers of the faith in keeping with the vision of Christus Dominus at the Second Vatican Council. Every indication is that the conformity review process, whereby publishing houses and the Bishops work together, will continue for the foreseeable future.
Five years after the appearance of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Holy See issued another document that brings us a step closer to our current situation. I am referring to the revised General Directory for Catechesis published in 1997. Back in 1971 the General Catechetical Directory had combined in one text the principles of catechetical methodology and the guidelines for catechetical content. Twenty years later the revised General Directory for Catechesis of 1997 focuses only on methodology because the already published Catechism of the Catholic Church is meant to be the touchstone of catechetical content. The two volumes are to be used hand-in-hand.
What are some of the significant developments represented in the 1997 General Directory for Catechesis?
One is its focus on what is called the “divine pedagogy,” that is, the pedagogy of divine revelation, how and what God teaches us. This was not highlighted in the 1971 General Catechetical Directory, which, by way of contrast, reflected more the post-conciliar methodology that I described earlier. A stress on divine pedagogy serves to remind those involved in catechesis that what we believe as Catholics does not originate from personal insights or personal experience, but rather has its origin in God. It is God who has revealed in history what we are to believe as a result of his initiative and salvific work. By his authority what has been revealed and entrusted to the Church is true. Both objective truth and subjective appropriation, education and formation, orthodoxy and orthopraxis--all need to be brought into balance in a symphony of faith.
Another significant aspect of the 1997 General Directory for Catechesis is its presentation of the R.C.I.A. as the paradigm for all catechesis. What this means in essence is that catechesis is a lifelong experience. In the R.C.I.A., after initiation is complete there still comes the period of mystagogy when the newly baptized are immersed more deeply into the truths of the faith. For us and for all the baptized, there is never a point in our lives when catechesis is complete. We always have something more to learn about Christ “in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” and about the Church, his “body and bride,” of whom we are members.
Just as the 1971 General Directory gave rise to the 1979 National Directory, so now the General Directory of 1997 will be followed by a new National Directory for the United States. As with the earlier directories, a wide consultation process was employed. Happily, the Bishops of the United States were notified in December 2004 that our new National Directory for Catechesis has received the approval of the Holy See. The text is now with USCCB Publishing for layout and printing. The projected publication date is May 1 of this year.
Another historic and promising development is the recent approval by the Bishops of the text of a United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. It will go to the Congregation for the Clergy later this week for the necessary review. Once approval is given by the Holy See, the text will be available for use in the United States soon thereafter. Just as the General Directory called for the development of national directories, so too the Catechism of the Catholic Church called for the development of local or national catechisms. There are already many texts and series available for children and young people in our country. Since the publishers of these materials are, by and large, working with the Bishops to assure strong doctrinal content, the Bishops see no need at this time to develop their own catechetical texts or series at these levels. However, they did see a value in developing a catechetical text for use with adults.
In 1995, Francoise Darcy-Berube published a text titled Religious Education at a Crossroads. At that point in time, a year after the release of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we truly were at a crossroads. Today, thanks to the reception of the Catechism and to the 1997 General Directory for Catechesis, we are further along the path of a renewed catechetical effort. It is hoped that our long awaited 2005 National Directory for Catechesis and a United States Catholic Catechism for Adults will take us even further along that path for the sake of a holier, participating, witnessing and evangelizing church in the United States.