August 19, 2016


Teaching our Catholic faith

It seems much too early, but our schools are now back in session. It seems a good time to question how our children can learn about their Catholic faith in this highly secular culture. Catholic schools surely must be part of the way, but we recognize that most of our Catholic children are not attending Catholic schools.

From the beginning of Catholicism in America, the bishops have stressed the need for Catholic schools. Archbishop John Carroll, the first American bishop, brought nuns from Europe to staff schools.

The 19th century experienced three plenary councils of U.S. bishops, all held in Baltimore. At the first council, in 1852, among its 25 decrees was one that said, “Bishops are exhorted to have a Catholic school in every parish.” The second council, in 1866, repeated that decree, but added that catechism classes should be instituted in the churches for children who attended the public schools.

The Third Plenary Council, in 1884, required pastors to establish schools. Furthermore, parents were required to send their children to those schools “unless the bishop should judge the reason for sending them elsewhere to be sufficient.”

This was also the council that appointed a commission to prepare a catechism for general use. This became known as The Baltimore Catechism. It was in use in Catholic schools until after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

All this should indicate the importance the U.S. bishops have always given to instructing Catholic children about their faith. It’s unfortunate that financial considerations and other problems have made it impossible for all Catholic children to attend Catholic schools. Today, 58 of the 129 parishes in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis have schools.

We are not claiming a direct cause-and-effect, but the decline in the number of Catholic schools and their enrollment parallels the rise in the number of former Catholics. Roughly half of people raised in Catholic households now identify themselves as former Catholics. That’s about 15 percent of the U.S. population. That didn’t happen when more Catholic children were able to attend Catholic schools.

To our knowledge, no survey has been taken to discover what percentage of former Catholics attended Catholic schools. There should be one because we believe wholeheartedly that graduates of Catholic schools are less likely to become former Catholics. Surely, the more you know about what the Catholic Church teaches, the less likely you will be to drop out of the Church.

For the children who cannot attend Catholic schools, our parishes provide religious education classes. Unfortunately, the hour or so per week that children attend these classes is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of time they’re exposed to our secular culture.

That means that parents today have a greater responsibility to impart Catholicism to their children than parents of earlier generations might have had. Parents are always their children’s first teachers. But how can parents teach their children if they themselves don’t know what the Church teaches?

How many adults are familiar with the Catechism of the Catholic Church or the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults? The Church has provided these instructions, but not enough Catholics take advantage of them. In most cases, it’s a case of religious apathy.

Religious periodicals try to help. There are 123 diocesan newspapers like The Criterion, plus 19 others that are published in magazine format. There are four national newspapers and 50 national magazines. Almost all of them now also have a website and are present in social media to try to reach the generations that no longer read newspapers and magazines.

Despite all of these attempts to educate Catholics, the fact is that most Catholics are not taking advantage of them. What they know about their religion comes from what they hear from the pulpit during Mass and from the secular media. With only about a third of nominal Catholics attending weekend Masses, it’s no wonder that the number of former Catholics continues to grow.

The good news is that there are thousands of dedicated teachers and catechists who are doing their best to make sure that Catholics know more about the truths of their religion. At times, it seems like a losing battle, but these men and women are doing what they can.

—John F. Fink

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