For half a century I have taught and lectured at more places than I can count. Years ago there were certain things I could depend on when I spoke to a group, a basic level of knowledge. If I referred to some historical event or cited Shakespeare or Dante, I knew that most people would more or less comprehend. In those days people seemed to possess a shared body of knowledge regarding Western Civilization and especially regarding religion.
In case you haven’t noticed, those days are gone. This is a sad and disturbing fact. I don’t want to overstate things, but it seems there are gaping holes in the education of many Americans below a certain age. At times I think we have produced a generation that knows nothing of history and is all but oblivious of the great literature, art and music that the West has produced over many centuries. I’m very aware that many of these same young people are wizards with their computers. That is all well and good, but I can’t help but think that these technical marvels have come at a very high price.
This problem is bad enough when it comes to understanding Western culture. It becomes tragic when we examine the lack of knowledge of the faith which afflicts many young people. Here priests and religious have much to repent of. We have failed in the duty of educating the next generation in the beautiful truths of the faith.
Let me give you a couple of examples. The first comes from a friend who is a permanent deacon. A teacher in his parish’s CCD program had to leave during the school year, and this deacon took over her eighth grade class. To ascertain how much the students knew, he gave them a quiz on his first day with them. It contained the following question: How many sacraments are there? More than half of the children could not answer correctly. Another story involves a senior in a rather prestigious Catholic high school. In fact, her entire 12 years of education had been under Catholic auspices. Yet she didn’t know what a monstrance was and, when shown a picture of one, said she had never seen such a thing and had no idea what it was used for.
The sad truth is that a solid education in the Catholic faith has become the exception rather than the rule in our parish schools and CCD programs. Even when they reach the point of graduation from such programs, students often have not grasped that there is actual content to the faith, that it does not simply have to do with nice feelings. This lack of substance makes young people easy prey for any silly religious fad that comes along. It also allows them to drift into a kind of indifferent agnosticism or to be taken in by the powerful and alluring secularism that our culture offers as a substitute for faith.
Whether we like it or not there are legions of ex-Catholics in our country today. I suspect that a good number of them would still be among us if they had ever known what the Church actually teaches. I also suspect that a good number of those Catholics who casually flout Catholic moral teachings would not be so quick to do so if they understood why those teachings exist, if they comprehended their underpinnings.
We have too long allowed the great endowment of Catholic knowledge to dwindle to near nothingness among the laity, and we see the appalling results wherever we look.
For many years we depended on religious communities to teach the faith to the young. They did a wonderful job, but such communities are all but gone. Then we could also expect the families of our students to participate in the religious education of their children. Today’s parents are often as uninformed and unconcerned as their children.
What are we to do? One thing we might try is to look at our religious education programs honestly. We must admit that they don’t work and need to be overhauled completely. We must be willing to discard ideas that have failed our children for decades. We must permit only competent teachers who are committed to the Catholic faith to teach our young; good intentions are not enough.
And priests must never miss an opportunity to speak of the truths of the faith. Much can be taught in a homily. Homilies must have real content and depth and they should make those who listen to them eager to know more.
A lack of understanding of the faith has become one of the real problems of the Church in our time. It can only be rectified through great effort and with great patience. I hope we have the will to see it through, because a Catholic population that is ignorant of the faith will not stay Catholic for long. TP