The Catholic Letter

Catholic Help With Marriages And Families

On Teaching The Faith To Children

I've often heard complaints about the pre-Vatican II approach to catechizing children.  Special emphasis is put on the idea that the children are (or were) memorizing things they have no understanding of.  What's more, the children don't see the practical use for the knowledge, and it would be better to allow them to learn the stuff as they grow older and have more experience.

Of course, no real argument is needed to rebuke this.  Just look what has happened ever since we wandered away from the Baltimore Catechism (something I wish I had been forced to study as a child).  People got caught up in the notion of allowing children to ‘think things out instead of memorizing facts' and we now have two generations of people who don't have the slightest understanding of their faith.  I would say we (we being the generations who weren't properly catechized in school) got shafted!

Several weeks ago, I got a small glimpse at the real importance of catechization.  It came to me while I was looking up at the stars.

The story really goes back several months, when I had suddenly developed a strange fascination for astronomy.  I found myself pouring over charts and data, memorizing it during the day and comparing it to the sky during the night.  The problem is, I live in the city.  So only about a quarter of the stars I was studying were even visible to me.  And finding deep sky objects (even on a very clear night) was frustrating, if not impossible.

But I kept with it.  I studied everything that was available to me, and forced myself to sit for hours on the back porch, memorizing the names and places of each constellation.  Light pollution and smog might put a damper on my viewing, but it couldn't keep me from knowing what to look for.  It wasn't easy, trying to absorb this knowledge without a real-life reference, but I was stubborn on the point.

Then one day my father-in-law invited me to bring my telescope out to his place in the country.  I went eagerly, hoping I'd have a better chance of seeing things without the urban interference.

When it was dark, I stepped outside and looked up.  I think my heart may have stopped for a few seconds.  I could see every single star with such clarity.  It was one of the most beautiful things I'd seen in a long time.

But aside from the beauty, there was order.  I didn't just see a bright star on the western horizon, I saw Venus.  I didn't just see a string of stars along south-east, I saw Sagittarius.  And I knew that the ice-cream-cone shape above me was Bootes... and that I would be able to find a triple star within that constellation.  I could easily track my way across the sky as if it were a giant map, and I had already memorized all the coordinates.

Now someone who hadn't studied the sky would have, undoubtedly, seen the same beauty I had seen.  They would have looked at a double star in Leo, and might have commented on how breathtaking it was to see the two different stars cast off different colors.  But they wouldn't have known that they were actually looking at a star and a planet, and that the planet (Mars) didn't often pass so close to Leo's brightest star (Regulus).  Anyone can see beauty... but it takes learning to understand the beauty.  And the learning often has to come BEFORE the understanding.

In the same way, most people have a basic understanding of the fact that some sort of god exists... but it takes learning to understand who God is and what God wants.  And the learning should happen long before it is put into practice.

A young married man might feel apprehensive about going to a topless bar to eat lunch with his co-workers.  He might have a general sense that it isn't the right thing to do.  But without the knowledge to articulate exactly what's wrong with it, he might very well (like many men do) give in to the arguments of his coworkers:

  • They're just breasts-it's part of the human body.
  • You can look, as long as you don't touch.
  • What's the big deal-it's not like you're cheating on your wife.
  • They've got great food-you're there for the culinary appeal.

If the young man has a study, he'll know (and be able to explain) that lust of the mind is as bad as physical interaction.  He'll know that the bond between a married couple is sacred, and that allowing a third party to enter (even if the third party is only mentally intruding) is a sin against the marriage.  And he'll know that impure thoughts and images are a poison to the chaste mind.

He'll have an appreciation for God yes... but he'll also have an understanding.