At the root of the catechetic crisis: laissez-faire, let go

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

Français, italiano

The renewal of the teaching of the catechism will be, no one doubts it, the first site of an ecclesial reconstruction. But, we must first look straight at reality: the proliferation of heterodox or inconsistent catechesis is due to the fact that the authorities have never taken the means to fight, and also, a subject we will bring to you soon, they seemed to have doubt themselves of the message that was to be passed on.

The sacrificed generations of the post Council

The disappearance of Christian culture, everyone would agree today, has for a direct cause the catechetic crisis at the end of the sixties. Before the Council, pretty much all children went to catechism, they attended the class several times a week (it included mandatory Sunday mass attendance), up to the age of 12 years old. But starting in 1965, at the same time that Sunday attendance showed considerable decrease, a wind of freedom decimated the number of catechized children.

Then, when the “children of the late sixties”, also “children of the Council,” educated in the new catechetic pedagogy, became themselves parents, the number of baptized children dropped drastically, and the number of catechized children became ridiculously low. As to the catholic household who lived the event of Vatican II with enthusiasm, they saw an entire generation of their children peacefully abandon all religious references.

The awareness of the collapse took place at the end of the last century. In 1994, the Dagens Report, approved by the French assembly of bishops, observed that “for many children of our country the initiation to the founding values of our existence takes place outside or away from “catholic tradition” [1] .” For Portugal, Cardinal José Policarpo da Cruz mentioned similar issues: parents who have ceased in great number to attend church, schools taking precedence and being ever more demanding of the children [2]. The Italian bishops observed that “in its more massive and traditional form, the ecclesial catechesis shows obvious signs of a grave crisis.” [3] Mgr Georg Eder, Archbishop of Salzburg testified: “most of those who attend Sunday mass regularly know almost nothing anymore about the nature of the mass. […] In the Catholic universities, for decades, professors have altered the eucharistic dogma and other dogmas as well. In religious instruction classes, the truths concerning the eucharist have been and are still transmitted in a manner seriously lacking.”[4]

How many Catholics know today what “Particular judgment” is – this for science – and admit the possibility of damnation – this for faith? “The clergy ceased, rather abruptly, to speak of all these sensitive subjects, says Guillaume Cuchet, as if it had stopped believing it itself, when at the same time, in the talks of the day, a new vision of God triumphed, one more or less of a Rousseauist type: the “god Love” (and not anymore “of love”) of the 1960’s and 1970’s.” [5]

Furthermore, the necessary coherence for the transmission between the different educational instances (family, school, environment, media) has disappeared. And then, an other factor worsens the religious inculturation: the weakening of the teaching of history, and particularly the withdrawal of any references to Catholicism in the syllabus.

The catechesis of emptiness

This collapse is in part due to the understanding of the Vatican II Council by the priests and faithful as a consecration of the freedom of conscience of each Catholic. Hence the development of an “a la carte religion”, where everyone in a way modulates its own creed. As such, Norms that are considered a bother are no longer mentioned, the clergy itself having undone the rules it had worked so hard to have respected since the Council of Trent. All this in part due to the new material for pastoral, such as the emblematic Dutch Catechism (1966), which had offered a new content.

In France, the catechetical material particularly implicated were those that came to replace the old manuals, the catechetic “journeys” (the most famous among those is the one called Pierres vivantes [6], published in 1981) which followed the general movement of pedagogical reforms. The same causes producing the same effects, the result was similar to the one of the new teaching of history and literary courses: erroneous idea, definitely, but most of all a cultural void. But, in this case, it was about the content of the Creed.

Was the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which came after almost thirty years of vacatio in the official teaching of catechism, able to fill the settled void? In fact, the 1992 CCC – with its second edition in 1997 containing some rectifications which we will address soon in an other article – inserted still a spirit of novation. It included to the presentation of traditional truth the most arguable Vatican II propositions, which it made to look as “traditional” as possible. For example, the number 856 of the new universal Catechism tries to make of the dialogue with non-Christian religion an element of the evangelization (“The missionary task implies a respectful dialogue…”). But at the same time, the doctrinal novelty of Nostra ætate, the text of the Council which advocates a sincere “respect” not for the believers of other religions but for the religions as such, is affirmed and even accentuated. Isn’t the CCC the most edited image possible, but the image nonetheless of this magisterium which carries a certain innovative impressionism?

Father Claude Barthe

[1] “La proposition de la foi dans la société actuelle” (The proposition of the faith in present society), La Documentation catholique, 4 December 1994, p.1044.

[2] La Documentation catholique, 2 December 2001, pp. 1038-1041.

[3] «Communicare il Vangelo in un mondo che cambia», Il Regno-documenti, 13-2001.

[4] Pastoral letter of 12 November 2000, « Früherer Salzburger Erzbischof Georg Eder verstorben » Der Standard, 19 September 2015.

[5] Guillaume Cuchet, Comment notre monde a cessé d’être chrétien. Anatomie d’un effondrement (How our world ceased to be Christian. Anatomy of a collapse), Seuil, 2018.

[6] Pierres vivantes. Recueil catholique de documents privilégiés de la foi (Éditeur Catéchèse 80, 1981). Pierres vivantes intended to be a collection of documents with which other “journeys” were to be used, all in conformity with a Text of reference voted by the French bishops, during their 1979 assembly. The collection Pierres vivantes will be modified in 1985 and again in 1994.

See also: “Reconstructing catechesis” by Fr. Jean-Marie Perrot