Amid the Coronavirus crisis and social unrest, few Catholics noticed the release of the Directory for Catechesis by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. It follows the lead of the 1971 General Catechetical Directory and the 1997 General Directory for Catechesis.
The goals of the new guide were heralded in glowing – albeit incomprehensible – language. ”This catechesis finds its strength in the encounter that allows one to experience the presence of God in the life of each one of us. A God who is near, who loves us and who follows the events of our history because the Incarnation of the Son engages him directly. Catechesis ought to involve everyone, the catechist and the catechised, [sic] in experiencing this presence and in feeling involved in the work of mercy.”
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No one objects to bringing people nearer to God. There is considerable doubt that the Directory can accomplish that end.
The New Evangelization
The term “New Evangelization” has been around since about 1981. The exact definition is uncertain. It is talismanic – taking on whatever meaning that the speaker asserts it to have.
The USCCB published What is the New Evangelization to explain. “The focus of the New Evangelization calls all Catholics to be evangelized and then go forth to evangelize.” Contrary to its writers’ obvious intentions, this simple statement contains the seeds of doubt rather than Faith.
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The first doubt comes when asserting that this goal is new. It is as old as Christianity. Saint Matthew’s Gospel ends with the Divine mandate from Our Lord, “Going, therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them…”
The second doubt arises from the failure of the New Evangelization. Even the USCCB document referred to above refers to a study titled Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice Among U.S. Catholics, completed in 2008. This study found that “only 23% of U.S. Catholics regularly attend Mass once a week, while 77% self-identify as proud to be Catholic.”
Repurposing or Removing?
Nevertheless, the USCCB continues, “In a special way, the New Evangelization is focused on ‘re-proposing’ the Gospel to those who have experienced a crisis of faith.” This phrasing also casts doubt.
According to Merriam-Webster, to repurpose something is to “give a new purpose or use to” some object. An example would be an old and beautiful home in a neighborhood that is no longer residential. So, it is “repurposed” as an office, a restaurant, or something else. The beautiful shell remains, but the original function is gone. It is no longer a home; it has become something fundamentally different.
That catechetical “repurposing” emphasizes “kerygmatic catechesis.” This idea was a component of Pope Francis’s 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.
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“In catechesis too, we have rediscovered the fundamental role of the first announcement or kerygma, which needs to be the center of all evangelizing activity and all efforts at Church renewal.… On the lips of the catechist, the first proclamation must ring out over and over: ‘Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you’” (Paragraph 164).
When the Directory for Catechesis was released (June 25, 2020), the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, expanded on this idea. “The kerygma is an announcement of the Father’s mercy directed at the sinner who is no longer considered as an excluded person, but as a privileged guest at the banquet of salvation.”
As Archbishop Fisichella explains, this “kerygmatic catechesis” does not “impose” a body of facts. It emphasizes “the option of faith,” which, presumably, occurs “before considering the contents to which adhere to through one’s assent.” This “is an act of freedom because one discovers that one is loved.”
Theories that Defy Reality
Archbishop Fisichella asserts that the “school model” of previous efforts placed a “chokehold” on earlier approaches. In the new method, “The catechist replaces the teacher, the school classroom becomes the catechetical room, the school calendar is identical to the catechetical one, etc.” He elaborates, “For too long, catechesis has focused on making the contents of the faith known” through instruction. This omits, “the most crucial moment which is the act of deciding for faith and the giving of one’s assent.”
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The Archbishop’s approach embraces the same errors that have dogged the American education system for the last century. It echoes the educational philosophy of John Dewey, the “father of progressive education.” In its simplest terms, this philosophy puts experience ahead of facts in a kind of “learning by doing” process.
Such a process may work well in disciplines like mathematics, laboratory sciences, or manual arts like woodworking and auto repair. It does not work in the realm of religion. One cannot believe what one does not know. A half-formed faith is no faith at all, resembling the seeds in the parable that fell on thin and rocky ground and perished for lack of roots.
The “experts” that produced the Directory for Catechesis and its predecessors repeat another error of the educational “reformers.” They are constantly recycling these ideas as each new program fails and must be replaced by another. Usually, they end up rearranging the language and hoping that it will work better the next time.
The Church must abandon these errors. The truths of the Faith must be learned and studied. It is not enough to “experience” them without understanding their meaning. Three generations have been squandered because the Church does not train its children in the truths of the Faith. Breaking out the Baltimore Catechisms will not automatically restore Catholic culture, but it would be a big step in the right direction.