Declining Catechesis -- Martin E. Marty

October 16, 2000

How does secularization occur? What speeds up the process? Instead of pointing to some massive secular humanist conspiracy as the major cause, many social thinkers urge us to watch the subtle improvisations made by individuals and publics.

*Sightings* therefore looks in quiet corners to observe trends pointing to the ups and downs of faith commitment, religiousness, and spirituality in cultures like ours. In one of those corners can be found the quaint-sounding practice of "released time" for "Catechism Class."

School prayer amendments would do nothing to change the downturns in these. One would think that prayer-hungry, morality-seeking parental America would be motivated to educate its children religiously, and that many children would want to know a bit about what they believe, or are said to believe.

Since the school prayer decisions of 1962 and 1963, however, parents and children have not been taking advantage of the spiritual training available in Sabbath and Sunday schools, parochial centers, and many other places. All participation figures have been down, down, down in these years.

In a recent issue of *America* (9/16/00), William J. O'Malley, S.J., a veteran high school teacher of Catholic offspring at Fordham Prep in the Bronx, reports on the gross religious illiteracy among his catechetical students. Father O'Malley has positive alternatives to offer, as he urges in his caption to "Plow Before You Plant." His subtitle says that "Our first goal should not be doctrinal thoroughness but conversion" -- conversion of Catholics to Catholicism, for example. Before there can be "public religion" or "private religion," there has to be "religion," or faith, or spirituality, or curiosity about any of the above. The kids have no background.

At least Father O'Malley has classes and students. A story in the Metro section of the *New York Times* (10/11/00) reports on a trend observable almost anywhere. Marcia Biederman writes that "Sixty years of letting out public school students for religious classes" by now produces few results. "Released time" education drew one hundred thousand New York children to such instruction after the Supreme Court called it constitutional. Few show up now. While some Muslim and evangelical families take advantage of the option with some zeal, other participation figures have dropped precipitously. "Zero" seems ahead.

Why? Did God die? Did parents stop identifying as Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran, or whatever? No: we read of "scheduling nightmares," piled-up homework, and we know of the distractions of soccer, after-school activities, and the like. God or Whatever or Whoever comes in second, or last. "Secularization" advances.

 
Publication author: 
Martin E. Marty