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The Consequences of 50 Years of Poor Catechesis: 1

July 7, AD2016 29 Comments

apple and booksSomething odd happens once the majority of young Catholics in the U.S. become teenagers – they seem to lose interest in their Catholic Faith.

According to statistics compiled by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), in 2015 there were almost 3.989 million children in parish religious education and Catholic elementary schools in the U.S. (2.631million in CCD [Continuing Catholic Development] programs, and 1.358 million in parochial schools). Assuming these numbers were roughly the same in 2014 that would mean that there should be around 3.989 million young Catholics in both secondary parish religious education programs and in Catholic high schools in 2015.   But according to CARA’s data, there were only 1.219 million young Catholics in secondary parish religious education programs and Catholic high schools in 2015. Some 2.77 million young Catholics were all done learning about their faith.  They  became “Catholic Ed dropouts.”

Perhaps Poor Catechesis = Poor Attendance at Mass

This wouldn’t be a reason to fret if attendance at Mass on Sundays was standing room only. But as CARA also reports, the number of adult Catholics regularly going to mass each week has steadily declined for the past 50 years.  So this high percentage of Catholic Ed dropouts may be part of a much larger problem.  It may just be that poor Catechesis over the last 50 years is the reason why only 24% of adult Catholics go to mass on a weekly basis today.

The chances are good that these teenaged Catholic Ed dropouts are not going to Mass either, and once they become adults they will probably become part of the 76% of adults who go to mass ‘only occasionally,’ if at all. As the Catechists in my parish say, ‘once these kids are confirmed we don’t see the majority of them in church again until they want to get married.’

A Trend – But Not A New One

And this is not a new trend at all. As the slightly modified CARA chart below shows, this high rate of Catholic Ed dropouts has been occurring for just as long as mass attendance has been falling – since at least 1965.

Religious Education 1965 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015
Primary school-age children in parish religious education 3.448m 4.175m 3.880m 3.417m 3.106m 3.144m 3.287m 3.592m 3.438m 2.952m 2.631m
Students in Catholic elementary schools 4.431m 3.359m 2.557m 2.227m 2.005m 1.983m 1.815m 1.800m 1.559m 1.508m 1.358m
Total 7.879m 7.534m 6.437m 5.644m 5.111m 5.127m 5.102m 5.392m 4.997m 4.446m 3.989m
Secondary school-age teens in parish religious education 1.357m 1.280m 1.009m 959,935 831,331 736,188 749,377 760,644 787,033 656,722 635,170
Students in Catholic secondary schools 689,264 1.008m 884,181 838,136 774,216 606,000 638,440 653,723 653,226 611,723 583,885
Total 1.946m 2.288m 1.893m 1.798m 1.605m 1.342m 1.387 1.414m 1.440m 1.268m 1.219m
Catholic Ed “Dropouts” 5.933m 5.246m 4.544m 3.846m 3.506m 3.785m 3.715 3.978m 3.557m 3.178m 2.770m
Dropouts as a % 75% 69% 70% 68% 68% 74% 73% 74% 71% 71% 69%

The raw numbers alone are disconcerting, but as percentages the numbers are jaw dropping. The 2.77 million Catholic Ed dropouts translates into a whopping 69% of young Catholics who apparently felt they had learned all they needed to know about their faith by eighth grade in 2015 – a percentage that has held relatively steady since 1970.  Yet what they learned in eight years of CCD classes or in a Catholic grade school was aimed only at providing children aged 6 to 13 years of age with just very basic instruction in the Catholic Faith.

This 69% is a hefty percentage. It’s possible that some of these Catholic Ed dropouts continued to learn about their Faith and the Church on their own.  On the other hand, is that really likely considering these young people are becoming Catholic Ed dropouts just as they are becoming teenagers?  It is far more likely that their thoughts are turning to or have turned to more worldly things.  Additionally, if their parents are not setting a good example for them by practicing their faith and going to mass every week, which is probably the case, there is no reason to think that the majority of these teenagers will go to mass either.  And it does appear that this is all attributable to cause and effect since the rate of catholic Ed dropouts has held steady for over 50 years just as the rate of weekly mass attendance has continued to fall.

These statistics may also explain why 60 % of Catholics believe, like Nancy Pelosi, that same-sex marriage is perfectly compatible with Catholic Doctrine, or that pre-marital sex, cohabitation, contraception, divorce, or abortion are not such bad things. Because they do not have sufficient knowledge of the logic and “why’s’’ of their Faith, they are easily swayed by secular emotional arguments.

The Connection Between Learning and Living

Interestingly enough the 24% of adult Catholics who do attend mass each week percentage is almost the inverse of the 70% of Catholics who have ‘dropped out’ from learning about their faith.  So there may well be a direct connection between continuing to learn about your Faith, mass attendance, and living a Catholic life.

Catholics who attend a parochial grade school, a Catholic high school, and a Catholic University, probably know a bit more about the Catholic Church and their Faith than those Catholics whose only instruction in the Faith came from eight years of CCD classes or eight years in a parochial grade school. And even though the parochial school and Catholic high school attendees are in the minority, they appear to make up the majority of certified Catechists today.

This is not to imply that eight years of parochial school or CCD instruction has no value or that Catechists are not good teachers. Catholic children aged 6 to 13 years of age need be educated in the fundamentals of their faith, but Catechists, parochial schools, and CCD classes can only do so much.

My wife, a Certified Catechist (also a parochial grade school and Catholic high school graduate) has been teaching CCD for over 16 years, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is an excellent Catechist. Over the years I’ve had many hours of conversation with her about the classes she has taught, how the CCD program in our parish is structured, and what is being taught at the different grade levels.  There is also a wealth of material available on Catholic Religious Education to anyone who wants to do some research.  The picture is not a pretty one.

Catechesis today is just not cutting it. A number of essays have been written on the topic supporting this contention.  Here are just five written over the past 20 years that are well worth reading: “Why American Catechists Don’t Teach the Catechism” from the EWTN Library, “Why Johnny Doesn’t Believe II” at Catholic Culture; “Crises in Catholic Doctrine – The Grave State of Religious Education in America,” at the Boston Catholic Journal“Why Johnny Can’t Pray – Why Catholic Religious Education is Doomed to Fail,” at Patheos; and “Is Catechesis Possible in a Narcissistic Age?” at Crisis magazine. Many of the comments after the articles are worth reading as well as they offer up some of sillier ideas that have passed as Catechesis over the years.

CCD programs can differ greatly from parish to parish and from diocese to diocese. Every Diocese and parish in the country have the latitude to put together its own program of Catechesis, and there are a variety of good resources Religious Education Directors can draw on for assistance.  So there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to Religious Education, which is a good thing. But there are also no hard and fast guidelines that must be followed either.  This is not such a good thing.

Typically children attending public school who are enrolled in CCD programs have to wait until they are in eighth, ninth, or tenth grade to be Confirmed.   Children attending a parochial grade school, however, are often Confirmed when they are in fifth or sixth grade.  In some parishes, children even receive the three Sacraments of initiation (Baptism, The Eucharist, and Confirmation) all at the same time.  Additionally, some parishes offer CCD for only 8 years (grade school only), while in others the CCD program is for 12 years (grade school and high school).

The lack of guidelines resulted in a great deal of experimentation in the 70s, 80s, and beyond when it came to Religious Ed and CCD programs. And this experimentation is apparently even continuing today as a number of Catholic parishes have implemented a religious education program called ALPHA that was developed by the Evangelical Church of England.  In the case of ALPHA, Catholic Doctrine needs to become an ‘add-on’ to what is essentially a Protestant / Reformed Theology approach to teaching about Christianity.

Eight is Not Enough

One problem common to most CCD programs is that since CCD instruction takes place after school, in the evenings or on weekends, it ends up competing with leisure time activities such as playtime, sports, dance, cheerleading, hobbies, social media, TV, movies, and so on. So it is not very high on most kids’ lists of favorite things to do.

A second problem is that kids will take the lead from their parents. If their parents are not practicing Catholics attending mass and setting good examples for them, it’s a sure bet that most of the children in CCD programs will turn into lapsed Catholics as well.

A third problem is that there is either no or insufficient instruction in the area of Apologetics and how Catholicism differs from Protestantism. Considering that we live in a largely Protestant country, instruction in Apologetics is sorely needed.  Why we believe what we believe, the importance of Faith and Reason, and why Catholic Doctrine is superior to Reformed Theological beliefs are all discussion topics most Catholics simply cannot weigh in on because they have no knowledge in any of these areas.

A fourth problem is that eight years of Faith Formation in CCD or in a parochial grade school is simply not enough instruction in the Faith to enable most young Catholics or even many adult Catholics to effectively counter the anti-Catholic and anti-Christian messaging that is so prevalent today.

There may be some parish teen groups that are well attended that provide good Faith formation instruction for teenagers, but if the typical parish teen group is anything like the one in my parish the participation rate is nothing to cheer about. This is not meant to cast dispersions on all the thousands of dedicated youth group coordinators.   It is only being realistic.  The numbers just do not indicate that there is a great deal of interest in participating in Catholic youth groups.   This suggests that 12 years of Faith Formation should be a standard.

If the 69% Catholic Ed dropout rate was still accompanied by a weekly mass attendance rate of 55% or more, it would be reasonable to conclude that adult Catholics are successfully dealing with the consumer culture and sexual freedom messaging the media pounds us with 24/7. But with a Catholic adult weekly mass attendance rate of 24% and the scary high percentage of ‘cafeteria’ Catholics, it seems that most Catholics are not successfully dealing with the ’I’m Ok, you’re Ok, if it feels good, do it’ secular ideology that is being pushed today.  And if mature adults are not successfully dealing with it, it’s a sure bet children aren’t either.

Children who attend a Catholic grade school are at least in a more Catholic environment throughout the day than children who are attending public schools and attending CCD programs once a week in the evening or on the weekend. But all children today are contending with secular (dare I say heathen?) messages from a wide variety of sources on a daily basis. Children attending public schools are also being force-fed a curriculum that teaches them how to have protected sex and tells them homosexuality and having two mommy’s or two daddies are all perfectly fine.  On top of that, there is no such thing as moral truth, there are only scientific facts and everything else is opinion and all opinions are perfectly valid.

Common sense dictates that as these children become teenagers and adults many of them will become confused, become cafeteria Catholics or lapsed Catholics, or even experience a complete loss of faith – all because they have not learned the “why’s” of their Faith and have not been adequately prepared to defend their Faith or its teachings.

  “Part II Tomorrow: Tackling the Problem”

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Gene M. Van Son is retired after spending 35 years in the automobile business working for two of the Big 3 Automakers as a writer and editor, and then as a project manager in the areas of satellite communications and wireless technology. Originally from the Chicago area he has now resided in the Detroit area for more than half his life. He is a cradle Catholic who attended a Catholic grade school, high school and university. He has been married for 42 years to the love of his life, who is a certified Catechist, and they have three sons. He is now putting his BA in Journalism to use researching and writing about topics and issues that interest him. In addition to writing for Catholic Stand he has also had articles and essays published at and at .

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