Religious Education in the Future

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter Daly

December 3, 2009


            How will we teach the faith to future generations?

            We Catholics have a real concern about this.   

            In the last ten years the Catholic Church in the U.S. has closed nearly 1,000 elementary schools. We had 6,745 diocesan or parish elementary schools in 1999. Ten years later, we had 5,772, a decline of 973 grade schools.

            The pace of school closures is accelerating. More than 70% of those school closures came in the last five years. The next decade looks equally bleak. In the Archdiocese of Washington we have closed 12 elementary schools in the last three years and more closures are coming. We currently have 14 schools on a “watch list.”

            The number of high schools run by dioceses has also declined in the last ten years from 794 to 751, a loss of 43 schools.

            Over all the total number of youth in Catholic elementary and high schools of any kind has declined by about 450,000 students.

            We were the General Motors of education. Like GM, we had a great business model for 1959. But it doesn’t work in 2009.

            Nobody has all the answers but like most pastors, I have a few ideas.

            First, I think we need to place our emphasis on religious education. Jesus told us to go make disciples of all nations, teaching what he taught us. He did not say we should teach Algebra or English grammar. Our primary job is to teach the faith.

            I would drastically increase our resources for religious education. We have about 4 million children in parish religious education programs, twice as many as we have in Catholic schools.

            Second, we need a new model for CCD. The old model of one hour per week for 34 weeks is inadequate. Children miss classes, facilities are often poor, and teachers are often not trained or supported.

If we spent more on religious education and had better facilities, materials and equipment, we might see better results. It is much cheaper than running a school.

            Maybe we could even charge a reasonable tuition for religious education. After all what do parents pay for dance classes and soccer coaches.   

            Thirdly, there is a lot of learning of the faith that can go on outside the classroom.

            Parents can teach prayers and devotions at home. Youth ministers and coordinators of youth activities can slip religious education into every youth group meeting.

            Learning could be done in more intensive summer programs in which students would come all day for a week. You can get more educational hours in a one week summer program than a whole year of weekly one hour classes.

            Retreats can be learning experiences. A weekend retreat focused on prayer, marriage, or ethics could be life changing.

            Above all we need to see that religious education is not just for children. It is life long learning. Every sizeable parish should have some adult religious education. This would help the young parents who are trying to answer their children’s questions and older adults who are want more than childhood explanations for life’s mysteries.

            We have to make more use of technology. Catholic learning is moving on line. We should use CDs in our cars and I-pods on our treadmills. We shouldn’t miss this revolution in learning.   

            There are low tech solutions too. I like the pamphlets produced by publishers like Our Sunday Visitor. They are topical teaching in small doses.   

            The Catholic Church is a treasury of wisdom. It has a rich tradition of teaching. The medium changes from age to age but the message does not. Despite the school closures, we should not lose heart. Jesus told us he would be with us until the end. That’s good company. Now go teach all nations.