Handing on the Faith:
A prophetic agenda for catechesis
by Cornelius Conwell


(1) The environment of faith education
Lively debate about the content and methods of catechesis is nothing new. As far back as the turn of the century some of the experts in catechetics sought to persuade their colleagues that in a largely non-Christian environment, successful faith education is impossible without first analysing the social and cultural influences which affect those who receive it.
The vital "leaven in the lump"
Some Catholics are alarmed by this language. They worry that the analysis and assessment of contemporary values has often turned into an undiscriminating acceptance, usually in the name of "dialogue" or post-conciliar "openness to the world". And certainly there is a real danger of this. Gatherings of Christian youth workers, for example, sometimes put so much emphasis on being clued-up on the arcane mysteries of secular youth culture that they appear to forget the vital "leaven in the lump" that the Church has to offer.
But even the beautiful and hope-filled Vatican II Constitution Gaudium Et Spes made clear that Catholics should examine modern ideas and values not to adopt them, but so as to understand the wider culture into which our distinctive Christian viewpoint is being introduced. Very often, we have to define our viewpoint in opposition to the beliefs and assumptions of the larger society.
Secularization
What are the ideas and values of present-day secular culture? Walter Kasper, the German theologian, has described the process of secularization as one in which "we encounter less and less often the traces of God and more and more often the marks of man". With many other Catholic thinkers, he locates the roots of secularization - or "de-sacralisation" - in the Enlightenment of the 18th century.
The whole thrust of the Enlightenment, with its one-sided stress on human freedom and the power of Reason, was man-centred and materialistic. The medieval view, in which God permeated every aspect of reality, was rejected, and man himself became the main reference point, the centre of the world. What's more, this was now a world which he could shape according to his own plan, by way of science and technology, so realising his true freedom.
The New Economics
Of course in many ways this exalted view of human reason and the attempt to establish "real" human values, freed from the shackles of religion, led in the opposite direction, towards greater inhumanity. The blinkered faith in material progress, coupled with the new free market economics, led to the exploitation, misery and the death of millions, in the Industrial Revolution.
Today also, the global market has not brought the great freedom which the early capitalist economists predicted. Instead, it has required that the inhabitants of the third world be kept in conditions of slavery and economic dependence, while producing a kind of "Brazilianization" effect in the developed world - a widening divergence between the comfortable majority and a deprived so-called underclass condemned to ghetto estates, food deserts, ill-health and shortened life expectancy.
The achievements of science and technology are also ambiguous. They have certainly enabled man to plan and control his external surroundings to a degree that was impossible in the past. But in a totally man-made environment it is easy to lose sight of God, difficult to feel that he genuinely exists.
What's more, the very speed of technological change - often driven by commercial pressures - breeds a sense of rootlessness and impermanence, a feeling that there are no abiding spiritual or moral values. And because the speed of change demands constant updating and adaptation, technology ends up more as a master than as a servant to man. With increasing globalisation, use, efficiency, productivity - the standards of the machine - are becoming the measure of human worth everywhere.
The Barren Landscape of Consumerism
Another feature of contemporary society which threatens genuine human values is its all-pervasive consumerism. According to Pope John Paul II, the excessive availability of every kind of material good "easily makes people the slaves of 'possession' and of immediate gratification, with no other horizon than the multiplication of things owned or continual replacement of things owned with others that are better." (Solicitudo Rei Socialis). In the nineteen-fifties and -sixties there were many such warnings against the negative spiritual consequences of consumerism. But now it has simply become part of the landscape, and has ceased to attract moral protest and criticism, especially among the young.
So the context in which the Church tries to announce the gospel and teach the Christian faith is one where God has been pushed out of the picture, and where the vision of human life held out in the Bible and in the Christian Tradition has been rejected. For the majority of men and women, any yearnings for the eternal and the infinite do not find an outlet in a coherent set of religious beliefs or in a disciplined pursuit of moral virtue, but in acquisition and competitive struggle. Or else, for the nonconformist fringe, it takes the form of escape - into drugs, violence, suicide, quack religious cults and, increasingly, magic and Satanism.
Before catechists can communicate anything valuable about the Christian message, and articulate the meaning of faith to young people, they have to understand the cultural and economic forces which have shaped so much of their mental outlook. This is not intended as a negative judgement on young people, who may or may not be curious about the gospel. The point is that these influences form the background of faith for most of us, and that a critical questioning of these influences is the necessary starting-point for faith education.
Many aspects of the life of modern society simply demonstrate the unredeemed state of mankind. It is the Church's task to bring out the unconscious longing for salvation that all men and women have, a salvation that we cannot evolve out of our own resources, but must receive as a gift from God.
(2) The critical principle of the Kingdom
The centre of Jesus' own teaching was the Kingdom of God, or the Reign of God. This Kingdom, he said, is "not of this world", and he told his followers that they had to be "in the world, but not of it". Christians do not look for permanent value in the visible, tangible world of everyday experience. Instead, we are bound to direct all our energies and desires towards the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus announced God's Kingdom in a society where religious ideas and language were commonplace, yet below the surface men and women were looking for salvation in the wrong places - in money and possessions, in domination of others, in prestige and status, in sexual indulgence. Christ regarded the "faithless and perverse generation" of his own time as being further from God than the notoriously decadent communities of Jewish history!
Today, as in the days of the first Christian communities, we cannot be committed to the Kingdom while at the same time holding these other values and pursuing these other goals. Being committed to the Kingdom means taking a critical, oppositional stance to "the world". This has consequences for the way we go about handing on the faith, because our society is dominated by the age-old pagan idols of money and sex and power, and a faith education which fails to bring out the "critical principle" of the Kingdom omits the aspect of Jesus' message which, in our present circumstances, needs to be emphasised the most.
Conditioning of the young
We are always being asked why the Church doesn't do more for young people, but I would ask another question: are young people themselves receptive to the message the Church has to offer? I don't suppose that young Catholics today are any less intelligent than they used to be, but their intelligence does not, by and large, express itself in the serious and fundamental criticism of our society's idols which commitment to God's Kingdom entails.
I would say from my limited pastoral involvement with young people that their mentality is in fact highly conformist and unreflective. When they complain, for example, that mass or religion as a whole is "boring", they are judging Christian belief and worship by the standards of the consumer culture, which has trained them to expect novelty and stimulation with minimal demands on their power of concentration. Whatever else their religious instruction has enabled them to do, it does not seem to have equipped them to turn the critical principle of God's Kingdom on the conditioning which has shaped their expectations. They are impatient of a religion which asks them to renounce so many interests and appetites which the consumer world teaches them to view as necessities.
The Kingdom and Youth "Culture"
No doubt the youth "culture" which is a feature of materially affluent societies has something to do with this. The youth culture does not encourage critical thinking or independent-mindedness, but offers inclusion and acceptance in return for conformist attitudes and opinions. Yet we know from looking around at the situation of young people elsewhere in the world, or at other times in history, that the contemporary youth culture in our society does not arise from any natural interests and concerns that young people themselves have. The truth is rather that the youth culture is the outcome of over forty years of sustained marketing on the part of particular industries (clothes, music, entertainment, etc.) aimed at exploiting young people's spending-power and at training eager consumers for the future.
We live at a time when the entire population of the world is being subjected to the market's own intense catechetical efforts. The goal of advertising and marketing is not simply to sell products. Their goal is to structure our thinking, our perception of the world and our behaviour, to produce the character traits and reflexes which are needed to sustain an economy of mass production and merchandising. In short, their goal is to produce addictive personalities, restlessly acquisitive, quickly bored, unable to create their own stimulation and so requiring an endless succession of commodities provided by the sellers. These dispositions of character are not consistent with our true vocation - to find our happiness in our relationship with God.
Yet it is my impression that, on the whole, young Catholics want the Christian message to be something added on to a more or less untransformed consumer lifestyle, not to be an alternative to it, a commitment that involves renouncing the perceptions, values and goals of consumerism. How else explain the criticism that the Church is tiresome and out-of-touch, with "nothing to say" to young people? The Church has plenty to say, but what it has to say undermines rather than reinforces the assumptions and expectations held by the majority of young people today.
A more prophetic agenda for faith education
The biblical prophets were men who exposed the religious community's lack of faithfulness to it's covenant with God. They warned against contamination by pagan beliefs and rituals and protested against a merely believed-in faith that didn't translate into practice.
In all these senses the Church's efforts to hand on the Catholic faith to the young needs to be strongly prophetic. The content of Religious Education and Youth Ministry programmes needs to clarify the oppositional stance associated with commitment to God's Kingdom and encourage the critical reflection required of Christians in the modern world.
Young people will never learn how to belong to a Kingdom which is not of this world if catechesis does not progress beyond games and amusing pastimes such as throwing rubber balls at each other, lying on the floor humming pop-songs, practising breathing exercises, or contemplating the deep meaning of heaps of broken clay. Nor will they learn to value the Christian faith if catechesis always contains an implicit apology for not being as exciting and up-to-date as the music and fashion industries.
Some years ago Sister Bernadette McMahon carried out a survey among young people in Ireland. Her analysis of the situation among teenagers showed that "very few would be classed as unbelievers in the strict sense of denying the existence of God....The danger area as she viewed it was in their ability to give an account of their faith. She described the majority of teenagers, in spite of years of schooling, as having only a limited conceptual knowledge of their beliefs, and hence as courting shallowness and immaturity in the long term....the tendency in this younger generation is not only for practice to decline but for the image of God to become decidedly vague and fuzzy".
Compared with knowing and following Christ, said St Paul, everything else is "so much rubbish"(Phil 3:8). But young Catholics today will not come to the same conclusion without what Karl Rahner, the German theologian, called "the demands of patient, laborious and at times, tedious reflection". To presume that young people are incapable of this reflection, or cannot examine their assumptions about life, is an insult to their intelligence. But to try to cast everything in the mould of light entertainment is to wave the white flag before even starting. In the midst of the spiritual impoverishment of our society today the challenge of providing a prophetic faith education for the young has never been more timely or more necessary.