Friday, January 31, 2003

Plus ca change

From The Church and I by Frank Sheed:

In our excitement over the Intellectual Renewal of the twenties, I was one of those who realized that with all its brilliance it hardly touched the great body of Catholics. I realized it because it had been my function in the Catholic Evidence Guild to meet the incoming members and find out how much the knew about the Faith which they wanted to teach to others, by which they were trying to live, and for which they hoped they would have the courage to die. The finding out was a gloomy experience.

They came at all ages, some fresh from school, some twenty or thirty or forty years after. With the rarest exceptions they were barely literate doctrinally. Catholic schools had a good record in public examinations, but most of them were defective in the one area which was their special reason for existence. I got the impression that doctrine was left to teachers who would not have been allowed to teach any other subject of which they were so ignorant. A regular defense of the catechism used to be that though the children might not understand the formulas, they would come back to them in later life. In discussion with those who I=entered the Guild long after their school days, I had some marvelous examples of what came back to them! I have told how in my first Guild class my own ignorance was mercilessly exposed: but I thought in my innocence that this was because I had not been to a Catholic school!

….As the years went by, the gloom began to lighten, but how slowly! Right up to the explosion of the sixties, and helping to produce it, one still found in too many schools the same repetition of catechism formulas, with no effort made to get inside them and show what effect they might have on life as we have to live it. I remember comparing learning the catechism with eating walnuts without cracking the shells. This swallowing of doctrines unenjoyed was the normal practice at all levels, right up to the teachers. I once had to give a three-day course in doctrine to al the nuns of a particular province of a particular order in a particular country. I explained that heckling – calling on the group to deal with the questions unbelievers ask – was part of my teaching method. I was told that I must heckle only the senior nuns, that sort of treatment might be bad for the faith of the younger. The result was a shambles. After half an hour I had to stop the questioning. The old ladies had spent dedicated lives teaching doctrines on which their minds had never stirred. And it was not only that one group. I could make a horror comic of things taught in our schools.

That the doctrines did not manage to get through alive did not in those days seem to anyone but us a matter of great concern. Theology was for theologians. No, one got nowhere by complaining of the ill-teaching of doctrine. I tried it for forty years or so, but nowhere was where I got, even with bishops. I remember one in particular. I had poured out my heart to him about the shameful teaching of doctrine in his schools. He listened with all politeness. When I had finished, he said, “Yes, indeed.” I felt I could read his mind: theology had never done him any good: it was just an obsession of mine, very creditable in a layman. It was only when some of us began to see and to say that Christ himself, taught as an item in the syllabus, was growing ever less real to teachers and pupils alike that we did at last cause discomfort But not enough, not soon enough, not yet.

It was not as if sermons at Mass were likely to supply for the failure of schools to make either the truths or Our Lord real. We of the street corner had the advantage of knowing when our audiences were bored – the walked away and left us talking to no one. The preacher in Church has to function without this priceless advantage. I don’t see how anyone learns to hold an audience without it.

I have heard good sermons. But from too many I cam away wondering that a teaching Church should give so little thought to teaching its teachers to teach.

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