Our program of catechesis is broken, and we need to fix it.

According to a Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) research study conducted in 2016, 39% of millennials now identify as ‘nones’, that is, they don’t have any religious affiliation. In the 1990s, only six percent of the American population identified as not religiously affiliated.[1] These are heartbreaking statistics, and we could speculate about the multitude of causes. But one thing is for sure: people don’t know the faith anymore. These 39%, by and large, don’t know what they’re walking away from, and, I would argue, it’s not entirely their fault.

One of the causes of the mass exodus from the Church is a lack of catechesis. Catechesis is religious instruction, and it’s a lifelong process. After 16 years of Catholic education, plus a Ph.D. at a Catholic university, I’m still mining the sacred Deposit of Faith. Because catechesis isn’t over and done with once a child is confirmed or an adult is received into the Church, catechesis isn’t monolithic. So, one solution won’t fix the brokenness. We need to rethink catechesis for people of all ages, abilities, and levels of expertise.

Here I’d just like to focus on catechesis for the youth. A recent study conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) suggests that the average age that children choose to walk away from religion is 13.[2] Perhaps their parents still make them go to Mass, but in their minds and hearts, they count themselves as ‘nones’.

In Bishop Robert Barron’s 2017 Erasmus Lecture, recently published online by First Things, he speculates about one reason kids are dismissing religion in droves: We educators give them a watered-down Catholicism.[3] Bishop Barron recounts a story about the eight-year-old daughter of one of his colleagues: The little girl came into his office eager to tell him all about Star Wars. She proceeded to give a detailed narrative of the many plot twists and thematic complexities, and she launched into stories about both major and minor characters, even recalling their bizarre names, like Obi-Wan Kenobe. Although some would argue that Star Wars is the greatest story ever told, our story—the Christian story—is the greatest, primarily because it is a true story; Jesus is real, the Resurrection really is a historical event, and the grace that He unleashed by His Passion and death is redemptive. Reflecting on the eight-year-old girl, Bishop Barron thinks we’re selling kids short by dumbing down Christianity for them, mediocritizing the greatest story. We remove all of the exciting plot twists (Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac), sanitize the dark parts (sin), and make generalizations instead of using proper names. But is that what the youth really need? Bishop Barron writes:

As she was unfolding her tale, I thought of the many educators whom I have heard over the years assuring me that young people cannot possibly take in the complexities, convoluted plot twists, and strange names found in the Scriptures. I don’t know, but I don’t think Methuselah and Habakkuk are really any more puzzling than Obi-Wan Kenobi and Lando Calrissian.

After the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church in America suffered from anti-intellectualism. Even in seminaries, emphasis was placed on the pastoral, and intellectual rigor—knowing the faith and knowing how to communicate that effectively—was de-emphasized. The result is a ‘nice’ priest, who is a good business manager but largely ignorant of the complexities of the faith. Anti-intellectualism spilled over into Catholic education, as well. For my first-through-eighth grade religious education, I received a heavy dose of “Jesus loves you”, “Be kind to people”, and “Sacraments are good”. These teachings are important and true, but if not set within a complex narrative, it’s easy to walk away from years of Catholic education thinking all you need is a strong humanitarian sense, one that imitates Jesus, the most humane person of all time. Compared to the intellectual formation kids received pre-Vatican II, what we have now is like skim milk topped off with water. Bishop Barron writes,

Some years ago, the late Francis Cardinal George showed me his fourth-grade religion book from the 1940s. My jaw dropped at the complexity, intellectual rigor, and technical vocabulary on offer, especially in comparison to the texts that my generation had read for religious instruction.

Why not recover our complex Christian story, with all of its tricky names and terms and teach it to our children? Kids can grasp concepts like ‘transubstantiation’ and the ‘Incarnation’, and they can understand our story all the way from Adam and Eve’s sin through the Second Coming.

The emaciated Christianity that we offer to the youth has dire consequences: As soon as they’re challenged in their faith, whether by a tragedy they experience, a tough question from science, or a temptation, they can easily walk away. After all, what are they walking away from? They don’t even know. They don’t know the big ‘yes’ that Christianity is and the reason for our faith, hope, and love—partly because they haven’t been taught.

So, what is needed? Whatever we do should draw from our great tradition, but not divulge in romanticism for the days of the Penny Catechism. Catechesis should be responsive to the challenges to faith that children face in light of the present culture. Many of today’s ‘new things’ differ from those that Pope Leo XIII identified in Rerum novarum, and so we must not just look back for wisdom but also look all around us. Among today’s challenges are the problem of evil, apparent tensions between theology and science, and relativism. Armed with an understanding of these challenges and well-reasoned responses, kids would be able to address them head-on, rather than leave the Church the first time they realize that a fundamentalist reading of the Creation story doesn’t quite fit with the fossil records. With years of this kind of intellectual formation and apologetics in their back pockets, kids going off to college would be prepared to face any number of intellectual assaults.

One key component to formation of the youth that I haven’t yet mentioned that is equally important to the intellectual formation is encounter with the Lord. This comes, in part, through parents and teachers bringing children to the sacraments and Eucharistic adoration and teaching them how to pray. I was moved recently by a conversation with a Catholic grade school teacher who said that he brings his class to the chapel to pray for five minutes everyday. He teaches them how to pray by praying with them: “Thank you, Father, for…”

Formation for our youth must include this component of encounter, lest children end up as white sepulchers or Pharisees able to recall and explain the Church’s teachings but having yet to internalize them. Encounter with the Lord and the realization that they’re adopted sons and daughters of the Father goes hand-in-hand with rigorous intellectual formation. Knowing who God is and who they are in relation to God will give youth the zeal for learning and defending the faith.