In the comment section of my last post, Mary asked me these questions:
In a world where you were totally in charge of religious education (and what a glorious world that would be), would you teach Catholic and non-Catholic students differently in your school? Is there a core of religious education that everyone should have, and if so, where would you draw those lines?
I’ve been mulling over this for the past few days, as I have been lesson planning for my current classes. I teach juniors a yearlong course called Morality (which is so fun to teach) and seniors a semester course called Social Justice (which is also fun, but the students find it personally and academically challenging). But this week, I also gave a presentation to freshmen religion classes on the school’s service learning program and why we do service, so I spent way more time than I usually do with our first year students; all of these facts together have certainly influenced my ideas in this post.
The first thing to say is that I would under no circumstances teach Catholic and non-Catholic students differently from one another. What is challenging about teaching both demographics isn’t lack of familiarity (Catholic students are often just as ignorant about the intricacies of doctrine as non-Catholic students are) or even diversity (I enjoy hearing about what diverse faith traditions my students uphold; often the discussions we have where a non-Catholic speaks up gives a great opportunity to dig into the point deeper, a clear case for the fruitfulness of ecumenical/interfaith dialogue!). What is challenging is that I simply have to pretend that I teach all Catholics. In my last post, I pointed to this problem, as my department is a religion department and such a department seeks to make “better Catholics.” It seems to me that the best way to avoid this issue is to opt for the “theology” model of teaching, rather than the “catechetical” model. It would not solve the issue entirely, but catechesis attempts to demonstrate truth, rather than search for it, and it is that “I already have the truth, you just need to accept it” presumption that makes it difficult to teach non-Catholics.
The second thing to say is yes, there is a core of religious education all students should have; ideally, a well formed high school curriculum should prepare a student to speak intelligently on the Catholic faith tradition. The questions that remain then are: what is the essential material necessary for a clear understanding of the Catholic faith? And more importantly: how can that information be presented in age-appropriate fashion?
My basic idea is as follows:
First year–Liturgy: Sacraments and Saints
Sophomore year—Bible: Old Testament and Jesus
Junior year—Morality: Fundamental theological topics and Moral Decision Making
Senior year–World Religions and Catholic Systematic Theology
I’ll start with Junior year. Junior year is absolutely the perfect time to teach Morality; the topics discussed are incredibly necessary for today’s teenagers. Students are just about 15 or 16 years old and beginning to face serious moral decisions; as a result, they enjoy the class a lot and delve into the issues deeply. Additionally, I found last year that the first few months of Morality are the perfect time for a short overview (about one quarter’s length) of fundamental theological topics as they relate to Morality: Jesus as a moral teacher, the Church as a moral guide, sin, anthropology and conscience, etc.
Sophomore year, as a precursor to Morality, is an excellent time to teach Bible. One year is obviously not enough time to teach the Bible (I’m sorry, Mary), but I think it’s a time when they are growing a little more serious and are capable of understanding things like biblical criticism and myth in a more sophisticated way. I also think ending the sophomore year on Jesus is a good set up to Morality.
Senior year is really interesting; students are willing and able to handle more depth. I think it’s incredibly important to teach World Religions during the senior year, as the students head off to college and beyond. But I think senior year is also the perfect time to teach a genuine theology class, preferably a class that does theological method and a run through of Catholic Systematics. I say this because a lot schools opt to teach a yearlong Catholic doctrine course to freshmen. It is understood as a primer that sets all students, Catholic or non-Catholic, on a level playing field of Catholic literacy. However, I think this idea is not entirely age appropriate; freshmen are not ready for intricacies of Catholic doctrine. I think a class that seeks to educate on Catholicism would yield far richer fruit when taught to seniors.
So, then, what are freshmen ready for? Given especially that all students won’t be Catholic, how can a freshmen year course in a Catholic religious education department capture their attention? To answer this question, I had to reflect personally and ask: what spoke to me in high school, and made me think that being Catholic was something I ought to consider? The answer is definitely not “doctrine” or even “theology.” The answer is definitely liturgy. Most people are not interested in faith because they checked a Bible out of the library and read it cover to cover; most people are interested in faith because of an experience, a community, or a ritual that spoke to them on a deeper level. Saints and sacraments are two of the most compelling and interesting aspects of Catholicism and they are ideas that can be taught with great ease to a variety of grade levels. If the goal of a freshmen year religion course is to get students to engage with their faith in a deeper way and to start a conversation about what makes Catholicism interesting or special, liturgy seems like the perfect entry into that discussion.
As I conclude this post, I am painfully aware that I have been teaching for less than 2 years, and I teach only two of the 4 classes offered by my department. I don’t presume to think that the curriculum I’ve outlined here is superior for any reason, but they are my ideas for what I would like to see taught (and to teach) in high schools.