I’m not old enough to have been catechized with the Baltimore Catechism, but I do have a copy of it and I’ve heard quite a few people comment on their own experiences with it. The Baltimore Catechism is primarily laid out in a Q&A format. It is concise and to the point. When I hear people that grew up using that catechism, they always talk about how they had to memorize all the questions and answers verbatim. I’ve even had people begin to recite the catechism to me decades after they learned it. That’s pretty impressive!
Catechetical programs today are not like that. Today, we see a lot less memorization and much more conceptual, story-based and scriptural-based teaching methods that help get the message across. I have to admit that the programs of today seem a lot less dry, make it easier to keep the attention of the students and do a good job of connecting the teachings of the Church to today’s society.
So then, which one is better? I would say neither, or maybe it’s both. Okay, I think it’s a blend of the two.
I received a comment in class last night when we broke out into an unscheduled Q&A session that “this is what makes religious ed fun.” My response was that Religious Education by unstructured Q&A does nothing more than give one points of Catholic trivia. Unless it is part of a structured program, you can’t understand how it fits into the big picture. That being said, are the current catechetical programs really answering the questions of our students? Are we trying to beat around a teaching instead of hitting it head on, like the Baltimore Catechism did?
We have all seen it. People don’t know their faith today. Scarier yet, the kids in our religious education programs don’t know their faith all that well either and presumably it’s supposed to be fresh in their minds. Why might that be? I would submit because as we teach something, we move on and don’t continue to review it over and over again. Let’s take the Ten Commandments. We teach the Ten Commandments to our second graders as we prepare them for First Reconciliation. That is integral to their curriculum. We review the Ten Commandments in 6th grade as part of our review of the Old Testament. By 6th grade, students have forgotten the Ten Commandments. Sure, it may have had cursory mention in other years, but a mention is just not enough. That’s a pretty basic thing to know, but we don’t support it from year to year so it gets dropped from memory. I won’t even go into basic Catholic prayers! It’s our fault for not holding our youth accountable for this knowledge; our fault and the fault of parents.
I think we, as religious educators need to balance the need to understand our faith with the need to know our faith. Just going through a program that teaches through Q&A does not help you understand how to truly live your faith because it is not flexible enough to cover that ever developing scenarios we are faced with; but it is a great way to learn “the facts”. On the flip side, teaching you the meaning of a particular tenant of faith in detail once without returning to it again in any great detail doesn’t really help make it stick. Should we not have some basic items that every student should be required to show knowledge of every year? Test on the Ten Commandments every year. Test on Acts of Mercy every year. Test on the Act of Contrition every year. Test on the True Presence every year. I can go on.
It is important to progress through topics of faith and help students understand what it should mean to them today, but not so exclusively that we never give it an opportunity to set in through repetition and memorization.
Until next time, keep sharing the faith!