Are Old School Catechetics Making a Comeback?
Since the 60s, whether in the Catholic or Protestant or evangelical worlds, old school catechetics have fallen out of favor. There’s reasons for that, of course.
First, the Q & A catechisms with which many of us are familiar (Westminster Shorter, Baltimore, Luther’s Small Catechism, etc.) were forged in the fires of the crisis of the fracturing of Western Christianity. Various confessional bodies needed to get their truth into their people’s heads fast and hard, from the sixteenth century through the mid-twentieth. With the rise of the ecumenical movement in the wake of WWII, the confessional distinctives Q & A catechisms supported were downplayed.
Second, doctrine was marginalized and non- or supra-linguistic experience brought to the center, and not only in the mainline worlds. In fundamentalist-cum-evangelical circles, memorization of the Bible (in ways most of us can’t even fathom today) was slowly and subtly replaced by an emphasis on good feelings.
Experiment: Think of any youth group experience you’ve had or known of in the past couple decades. Are youth workers having their kids memorize and really study the Bible, or is it more about games and songs? The Word abides — thinking of AWANA here — but I think it’s safe to say that most youth groups are more about fellowship, community, safe spaces, and good experiences than developing serious knowledge of the Bible.
Third, even where doctrine wasn’t intentionally marginalized there was a sense that simply knowing the teaching and going through the motions wasn’t enough, that one’s faith must be one’s own faith. I’m thinking here especially of the Catholic Church in the middle of the century. Whatever Vatican II was, it was certainly a call for all Catholics to embrace the faith with their whole beings.
But I think old school catechetics are helpful, and it’s good to see them making a comeback.
Consider the illustration above about the four ends of the Mass. (If you can’t make it out, it says the Mass is offered for the four ends of adoration, thanksgiving, petition, and atonement.) I imagine it’s the kind of thing my mom (who attended Catholic schools in the 50s and 60s) would have had to memorize at some point. It’s neat, and clean, and simple, and gives you the confessional truth of the matter right out of the gate. It shouldn’t be a place to end, but it is a great place to start.
The current Catechism of the Catholic Church is a phenomenal document, one of the greatest fruits of Vatican II, in my opinion. The text itself is rich beyond belief — like a side pork sundae with homemade ice cream — and then there’s the footnotes. If one gets the Companion to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the texts of all the references in the footnotes are there. It’s an intertextual theological bonanza.
Given the size and breadth of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century, the Catechism was simply needed to provide a point of reference holding us all together.
But it’s challenging to study, even for adults with some theological training. It should be studied by all, but, like the Bible, approaching it directly can be daunting. For this reason, the Church has issued YouCat, a Q & A format catechism for youth (but adults would profit from it as well). But I think there’s another reason as well, with a positive and negative aspect: doctrine is back. Positively, there’s the recognition that rudimentary, Q & A presentations of Christian doctrine are effective because doctrine matters once more. Negatively, there’s the recognition that the abandonment of rudimentary doctrine over two generations in favor of extralinguistic experience has had deleterious consequences. Indeed, Pope Benedict alludes to as much in the foreword to YouCat:
You need to know what you believe. You need to know your faith with that same precision with which an IT specialist knows the inner workings of a computer. You need to understand it like a good musician knows the piece he is playing. Yes, you need to be more deeply rooted in the faith than the generation of your parents so that you can engage the challenges and temptations of this time with strength and determination. You need God’s help if your faith is not going to dry up like a dewdrop in the sun, if you want to resist the blandishments of consumerism, if your love is not to drown in pornography, if you are not going to betray the weak and leave the vulnerable helpless.
One of the best things I ever did was to memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism as a college student. (Don’t think I’m all noble. It was for a scholarship, but still — a great exercise.) As a young person, it gave me a solid doctrinal framework for conceiving of the totality of Christian faith; it helped me put the pieces together in a certain way. Returning to old school catechetics doesn’t mean repristinating the bad old days of ruler-wielding, knuckle-cracking nuns, nor does it mean abandoning the call to personal commitment to our faith. But it does mean recognizing that our faith and practice have a structure, a grammar, which we can conceptualize and articulate. Man remains a thinking being, and even our greatest loves and passions involve language. The return to doctrine in the form of Q & A catechetics, then, can only help us give a reason for the hope that is in us.