Saturday, July 4, 2015

Hindsight is Always 20/20: The Tyranny of Low Expectations

Over the past week since the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, there have been many opinions posted by Catholic bloggers, some of the more-challenging ones are about why our own people are not convinced of the Church's teaching on marriage.  (Just look at the number of Catholics who have changed their Facebook profile pictures this week to include a rainbow in support of the Supreme Court ruling.)

I have been particularly in agreement with two writers who focus directly on the general failure of catechesis and evangelization in the U.S. - and on what must, from now forward, change. These echo my own column in Ministry and Liturgy magazine's January, 2015 issue, where I opined on the state of catechesis in the US today (available by subscription.) It also echoes much of what Sherry Weddell has said in her best-selling book, Forming Intentional Disciples. Far from being mere hand-wringing, this is necessary self-reflection on what needs to change and why.

Jonathan Sullivan, director of the catechetical office of the Diocese of Springfield, IL, wrote this scathing nugget of truth:
If I'm going to be angry with anyone it is with a Church that for too long allowed the ambient culture to shoulder the burden of forming its members. We were all too happy to outsource the work of building up culture and people when the culture agreed with us. Now that the culture has turned against us we are reaping the rewards of that transaction. 
What we have discovered it that, for too long, the Church allowed its evangelization muscles to go unexercised, seemingly content that, even if the culture wasn’t forming disciples of Jesus Christ, it at least passed on a cultural Christianity that kept butts in our pews.  [bold is original]
Anger is an entirely appropriate response. The Church has only itself to blame. We are experiencing the fruits (or lack thereof) of what I like to call "the tyranny of low expectations" in catechesis.

In a similar vein, Patheos blogger Jennifer Fitz writes of  the necessity of discipling people one at a time to form mature Catholics - and how parishes have, instead, become virtual assembly lines:
What we have instead is cafeteria-model Catholicism.  The soul-food service line consists of weekly Mass and a series of classes for designated life moments, intended to prepare us for the sacraments.  If you’ll just start where it says “enter” and followed the roped-off course, you’ll end up with something like the Catholic faith on your tray by the time you get to check-out.
...The assembly-line mentality is so deeply engrained [sic] in Catholic thinking that whenever an evangelization or discipleship problem is discussed among parish professionals, it’s guaranteed that at least one person will propose a better assembly line.  Parents presenting their children for baptism don’t know the faith?  Make them go to more classes! Longer classes! Start them sooner!  Have them fill out attendance forms!
I'm not going to pull punches here. The "blame," if any, belongs to the bishops - and the clergy in general. When a new liturgical rite is promulgated, dioceses form their clergy with workshops. They did it for the revised Rite of Christian Funerals, and for the revised Roman Missal.

In contrast, when a catechetical document is released, there is no universal expectation that the clergy even read it, much less study it or take it to heart. The General Directory for Catechesis, the National Directory for Catechesis, both of which devote much space to new understandings of evangelization and the centrality of Jesus Christ in catechesis, had virtually no study days, and few clergy resources. The USCCB document on the primacy of adult faith formation, "Our Hearts Were Burning," was ignored by most clergy and parishes, who continue to pour resources into children's programming instead of refocusing on adults who would then be better equipped to form young people.

Compounding the situation, as enrollment numbers and Mass attendance (and consequently parish collections) have declined, many parishes are responding by hiring part-time, non-degreed parish leaders to run catechetical programs  - not just in my own diocese, but, from what I hear from other diocesan leaders, across the country. The practice is more and more to hire internally, to elevate an experienced catechist or even worse, to assign a parish secretary, to the task of organizing and running children's catechesis. When they meet with our office at the beginning of their first year and we talk about the needs to refocus catechesis and sacrament preparation, evangelize parents and form catechists to be disciples and witnesses, we often hear "But, Father never said anything about all of that!"

At a time when we most need qualified, well-supported leaders to redesign parish catechesis to include the entire community, to evangelize whole families and to build teams to spread a culture of discipleship to permeate all of parish life, many parishes are instead settling for the minimum. If the status quo continues and the pastor receives few complaints, the situation is deemed acceptable. Meanwhile, well-meaning and sincere, but under-qualified leaders are over-worked, underpaid and often have little support. In short, parishes often give the least amount of attention to the area that is sorely in need of the most.

Back in January, I wrote (in Ministry and Liturgy) of this situation:
This is deep Paschal Mystery for the Church. Change will only come through God’s power to bring new life from the worst of situations. But first, we need trust, courage and to let go.  
What needs to go? Clinging to old catechetical methods. Using books and blackboards to teach children who learn everything else using technology. Catechesis on doctrine with little relation to liturgy, community, or to real life. Sending kids home to families who neither pray nor attend Mass. Failure to foster conversion and to help people rely on the sacramental life of the Church for their well-being. Failure to invite people of all ages to personal encounter with Christ.
Our own people discount our teaching because they do not know and love the Lord. They have no relationship with the Father that would motivate them to obey God's laws out of love. We only have ourselves to blame for spending decades teaching about the institution's teachings, at the cost of bringing people to discipleship in Jesus Christ. Nowhere to go from here, really, except up. 

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