How We Make God Boring
One of the many virtues of the Catholic writer Barbara Nicolosi is her ringing clarity and directness. Here she is laying into the catechesis on offer in most US Catholic parishes. Excerpt:
I got into teaching RCIA because I had two converts who were in graduate programs in engineering and I couldn’t find a parish program that wasn’t insultingly banal. I didn’t want us to lose them because what they found in the Church was so much dumber than what they found at UCLA. I sat in on RCIA classes at three different local parishes before I despaired of finding a good program and decided to teach them myself.
You think I’m kidding about how dumb these parish programs are? I have seen sessions that SNL would reject as being too ridiculous. Oh, the humanity!
Not long ago, my husband and I attended a mandatory two-hour session at a local parish, for parents with new babies and their corresponding godparents-to-be. There were about fifty of us in the hall and the main miracle of the evening was that none of us left the Church for another religion during the course of the evening. It was dreadful! Instead of helping us understand and value the glorious baptismal ritual, the three “team leaders” wasted our time asking us to decorate little white cloth dresses with colors and pictures that made us think of God. They told stupid stories about when their babies were born and embarrassing moments they had seen at baptisms. There was a long, awful period in which every pregnant couple got to explain the name they had for their baby. Almost none had chosen a patron saint’s name. And why would they? No one on the “team” suggested it as a good idea!
The evening was a well-intentioned, dumbed down, idiotic mess that was a waste for everyone who had crawled out of their offices and homes and missed dinner. I hated how the much-needed opportunity to prepare these parents and god-parents was squandered. We don’t have time for this!
I get that the Baltimore Catechism by itself isn’t enough. But it doesn’t follow that it isn’t very good. Because it is — especially for children who need to be sponging up and storing as many concepts as we can give them as resources for their future lives. What is infuriating in so many of these terribly banal parish programs is that they may say little truths, but their whole subtext is a giant lie. The lie is that the Catholic Faith, that Christianity, is a boring, irrelevant unreasoned cacophony of old dogmas and rituals. No! Our Faith is smart! There’s more to it than any of us can ever fully learn morally, spiritually, intellectually, and liturgically. There’s a ton that we need to memorize so as to ruminate over—psalms and lists and parables and turns of phrase and principles.
The reason our parish programs are boring to kids is not because they are too difficult, but because they are too dumb! We need to ask a lot more of our candidates, catechumens, and students. And they will respond to this demand because the truth they find will be worth it.
I would bet that this isn’t a problem limited to Catholics, but what Barbara says here rings true to my own experience. Back in 1991, when I sought to become a Catholic, I went to the parish at the university, where I figured — oh, naive convert boy! — that the instruction would be more intellectually rigorous. It turned out to be all guided visualizations and total pablum, as if we adults preparing to come into the Church were all children (except per Nicolosi, even children deserve more than what we got). Unlike most of my fellow catechumens, I knew enough about Catholicism then to know what we weren’t getting. I especially knew that the Catholic faith was a marvelous thing, a rich, complex, vital thing, an invitation to romance and drama and mystery! It was a scandal, really, that everyone in that class was going to be received into the Catholic Church without having much idea what the Catholic Church taught or expected of them, or of a sense of what it meant to be a Catholic. I left the class, in part because before I took a step that big, I wanted to know more about the faith to which I was going to commit, and because week after week, sitting through Sister Stretchpants’ and Father Frootloop’s Candy-Coated Catechesis was so insulting that it increasingly made me angry. I didn’t expect a seminar on Aquinas, mind you, but this made Sesame Street seem like the Council of Trent.
OK, I’m exaggerating. But not by much. The point is, if the drama and mystery of the Christian faith is offered to young people in such an insipid, vapid, and dishonest form, we should not be surprised in the least if they reject it.
Let me add a point that I often make when talking about secular education: parents cannot offload every aspect of their child’s education to teachers, and expect a good result. It seems to me that if you are not giving your child basic Christianity in the household, and reinforcing what they’re learning in Sunday school, you are putting more weight on formal catechesis than it can bear.