Thursday, October 10, 2019

Faith and Life Series vs. Baltimore Catechism

Many years ago I was the Director of Religious Education at my parish. As such, I was responsible for managing the parish's religious education classes. This was undoubtedly my least favorite part of the job—I had always believed religious instruction ought to be done primarily in the context of a lived religious experience in the home, not turned into another academic "class" for kids to sit through for 55 minutes a week taught by a parish employee. I knew whatever effect I would have on these kids for 55 minutes a week would be nil compared to whatever they were being taught and modeled by their parents. Modern parish religious education is often a thankless, fruitless task where many parents who aren't really modeling the faith at home dump the kids off for an hour each week to assuage their conscience about their children's religious formation in hopes that their offspring will "get religion" without having to get too involved themselves. I know this doesn't characterize all families who participate in religious ed by any means but I think it is common enough that anyone who has been a DRE will agree with me.

And the classes always had too few people (the biggest class would have maybe 7 kids and most had 3), and it felt like the pastor and I were always having to nag and guilt parishioners into signing their children up. Our parish had a lot of homeschool families and much of the religious education was done at home and there wasn't a lot of demand for religious ed classes. I was always being pressured to strong-arm families into signing up, and a few homeschool families did so out of some sense of duty to "help the program" rather than because their kids really needed it. As the DRE, I of course was expected to set an example by enrolling my own children as well.

Despite perpetual problems with enrollment numbers, I endeavored to make sure the students were at least given the most solidly orthodox program I could muster—both in terms of the catechists I recruited and the materials we used. At the time, my go-to for catechetical materials was the Ignatius Press Faith and Life series. Ignatius had a reputation for orthodoxy and the Faith and Life books were way meatier than a lot of the fluffy "share your experiences" sort of catechetical materials that were floating around out there. I would always tout the doctrinal fidelity of the Faith and Life when trying to recruit families to the program.

Over the years, however, I noticed that the response to the Faith and Life series on the part of young people was always lackluster. Not that I necessarily expected kids to be excited about a catechetical text, of course. What I mean is not only did they seem very ambivalent about the text, but they seemed to have a hard time comprehending it and retaining information. As if the children struggled to get what Faith and Life was ultimately trying to tell them. Even among students who came from faithful families. This was especially true with the middle grades, like grades 4-7. I noticed it with my own children, as well. Despite doing the reading, attending the CCD classes weekly, completing the quizzes, and participating in an otherwise normal faith life at home and at Mass, they seemed to barely retain anything from the Faith and Life books.

Eventually I got out of parish work and no longer had to deal with Faith and Life. I did what I should had done long before, which was adopt the Baltimore Catechism. I was worried that the Baltimore Catechism's question and answer format would be a little too dry, but I was pleasantly surprised how quickly my children took to it. They were eager for religion class, showed initiative in mastering the material, understood the content clearly, and were proud to show how they had memorized the questions. Not only this, but they also clearly grasped the substance of what was being communicated to them, both because of the systematic way the teachings are presented, as well as the super helpful illustrations, which my kids thoroughly enjoy.

In short, I came to realize that the pedagogy of the Baltimore Catechism was far superior to that of the Faith and Life series. 

The Faith and Life series uses a pedagogical method that can best be described as the "Salvation History" approach. The books attempt to tell the story of creation and redemption following the basic outline of the Bible: creation, the patriarchs, call of Israel, kings, prophets, life of Christ, redemption, the Church, etc. Individual books may vary slightly but overall they follow this pattern. Opportunities are taken within this story arc to present the truths of the faith as needed. For example, the giving of the Ten Commandments gives an opportunity for a discussion of the moral law, the sacrifice of Abraham illustrates Eucharistic typology and the sacrifice of Christ, etc. 

This approach presents a formidable obstacle to really learning the faith for the same reason that a person can't really get a comprehensive grasp Christian faith from scratch simply by reading the Bible cover to cover: the Salvation History approach is not systematic. The Bible is not written as a systematic theology text, and pedagogical approaches based on following the story arc of the Bible will consequently suffer from being unsystematic as well. You get a similar problem with faith formation programs that adopt the liturgical cycle as their backbone—the liturgical cycle is not systematic.

I can foresee some dense comments from people snarkily saying, "Ha! Reading the Bible isn't good enough to learn the Christian faith? What hubris." Look, I'm not saying that reading the Bible isn't good or necessary for learning the faith, only that it is not structured in a systematic way. That is to say, the Bible was not meant to be used as a text for classroom instruction. Nor was the liturgical cycle. Imagine being expected to learn math from reading a history book about the development of mathematics over the centuries. This would certainly give you valuable insights into math and you might even pick up some equations, but it would be a far cry from a systematic approach to learning mathematics.

The Baltimore Catechism, on the other hand, is about as systematic as one can possibly get. It certainly draws on salvation history—every chapter begins with passages from Scripture—but it is ordered in a logical sequence that respects the hierarchy of truth, the ordered structure by which we understand certain truths of the faith to logically flow from others. This is such an essential part of teaching that it's hard to overemphasize.

The Faith and Life books also follow what I have recognized as the very modern tendency to over-explain everything. Long winded. It is no longer sufficient to say what the Church's teaching is; one must make sure the reasons for everything are thoroughly explained. This makes it difficult for a young person to follow the exact train of thought the text wants them to grasp. I realized this is why so many kids I saw go through Faith and Life had a hard time understanding what a particular chapter was trying to teach. Sure there were vocabulary words to memorize, but as far as what the point of each chapter and the essential take-aways, these were more convoluted because the material tries to hard to explain everything and is too wordy.

The Baltimore Catechism doesn't waste time with cumbersome explanations. It's aim is to teach what the faith is, and it does this with an admirable directness and simplicity. Why did God create man? To show forth His goodness so we could be happy with Him in heaven. How do we attain heaven? By knowing, loving, and serving God. Done. A more modern text would have answered the question about God's creation of man with a very drawn out monologue. In fact, it wouldn't have answered the question at all because it wouldn't have been presented in a question and answer format. There is a very sound pedagogical reason why traditional catechetics is question and answer—and why the very word for catechesis is related to the word for questioning. It is so much more conducive to memorization than simply offering drawn out explanations.

Now again I can hear people derisively saying, "What? Don't you want your kids to understand the faith? There's more to religion than rote memorization." Of course I want them to understand, but I don't want to try to impose a level of understanding on them beyond what they are cognitively able to grasp at age 6 or 10 (before an ability for complex abstract thinking has fully developed), nor do I want to confuse the goal of catechesis, which is to instruct one in the chief truths of the faith; in other words, to inform one of what the teaching of the Church is. The why belongs more properly to the realm of apologetics, which is the explanation of why Christians believe what they believe. Catechetics pertains to what, apologetics to why. Of course I want children to understand why we believe what we believe. But I also know that it is an endemic error of modern faith formation materials to confuse catechetics with apologetics, with the result that neither discipline is properly served and students walk away with a few disjointed factoids and no real comprehension of what they were supposed to have learned. Apologetics has its place, but it is not in a catechetical class, at least not primarily.

The point of all this is that pedagogy matters. A lot. And the pedagogy of the Baltimore Catechism is supreme. I recommend using the Baltimore Catechism for elementary or middle school level catechetics and then introduce the student to apologetical studies in high school, letting the latter build on the former. All ensconced within the context of a home life where Catholicism is lived vibrantly.

None of this is to say that Faith and Life is a bad or harmful product. It's just a "Why re-invent the wheel?" sort of issue. It's orthodox, and the art is beautiful, but it's kind of a muddle and I don't think it's structure best serves the audience it is intended at. Stick with the Baltimore Catechism, at least for younger grades.

I also predict a concerned rep from Ignatius Press will contact me.


Unknown said...

I just found this blog. Your explanation seems correct. Being a parent who has used for my children, I have to be honest about why I prefer one over the other. Faith and Life is neatly broken into the eight grade levels and has beautiful art, also it seems more updated cosmetically and in language. The Baltimore Catechism seems so stuck in the fifties. I guess that is pretty shallow of me, but I wonder if someone should just republish it. I agree with you overall in terms of "imparting" the faith, but then I remember my training in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. In CGS the formation is fostered with prayer, liturgy, and scripture, but the environment enables the child to meditate and be aware of Jesus's love for him or her. The adult can get in the way of a relationship (God and child) that already exists, so he or she is there just to facilitate it. I wonder if you are aware of the approach and what your thoughts are there. I did level one with 3-6-year-olds for seven years and people would stop as they walked by our room and peer in with open mouths at the quietness and peaceful, industrious children.

Boniface said...

I've heard mixed things about CGS. From what I have heard, it almost seems like CGS is catechesis mixed with helping a child to develop a spiritual life.

Anonymous said...

Been there, done that, and totally agree with you.

Anonymous said...

As newly registered parishioner I have just volunteered as CCD catechist in a predominantly Polish parish in Connecticut telling the very busy DRE that I would be using the Baltimore Catechism and receiving encouragement to do so. I concur fully with your analysis of the superiority of the BC over other CCD publications such as "Christ Our Life" handed out by the very busy DRE. There is no question that each pupli's family must actively practice the Catholic Faith for CCD instruction to be fruitful. I expect this to the case in this fervently Catholic parish. So, I am grateful to you for posting this very fine article and strengthened in my resolve to use the peerless Baltimore Catechism.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what mixed things you've heard about CGS. I've heard nothing but positive things. I have one child finishing level 1 this year and I'm so excited to have her do level 2 next year. It doesn't replace catechesis at home but it is a very beautiful Montessori style of learning.

Justin_1917 said...

Very timely and helpful post. We are about to start homeschooling and are finalizing the curriculum. As of right now, we will be using the Baltimore Catechism. Do you (or anyone you know) have any experience or opinions on the Highway to Heaven series or the Our Holy Faith series? If so, what would be the recommendation vs. the Baltimore Catechism? Thank you

Boniface said...

I don't know anything about the other series. Sorry for my ignorance.

Lanternariuspress said...

My DRE has insisted on using Dynamic Catholic series for First Communion class. I have supplemented with the Baltimore Catechism. The other is mostly animated videos. The children do not follow them well.

Boniface said...

^^Lay down the law

Unknown said...

I grew up on the Baltimore Catechism in the 50's, and still remember what I memorized. I think the memorization fits in with the grammatical phase of classical learning - just like memorizing times tables does for math, and phonics does for reading. However, when I homeschooled my own kids, I decided to use both Faith and Life, and the Baltimore Catechism. I felt that the catechism provided the "drill", the memorization, but the Faith and Life provided some explanation and application. I would suggest that it might not be an "either/or", but possibly a "both/and".
The end game is, I think, what the catechism says - to know, love, and serve God in this life, and to be eternally happy with him in the next.

Matthew said...

I'd recommend which which is in a format similar to Faith and Life but which uses the Baltimore Catechism heavily.

Judy said...

I so agree! At 72 I still can recite...aybe not verbatim but lose..answers to questions learned from the Baltimore AND those answers have come back to me at various times in my life when certain subjects are being discussed or as an affirmation of my beliefs.

Another great thing is that the Baltimore has three books, each one taking the Faith to a higher level, meeting the kid's needs as they grow. PLUS it is very reasonable and can be passed on to the next child :)

c matt said...

"Ha! Reading the Bible isn't good enough to learn the Christian faith? What hubris."

A certain Ethiopian might disagree.

Jim said...

c matt

The certain Ethiopian had a deacon help him.

Jim said...

Also, Boniface, on a much lighter note, there's a TV series titled The Chosen on the life of Christ. COuld you review it?

Son of Ya'Kov said...

Why does it have to be either/or? Give people both a doctrinal & theological education AND tell them about Salvation History.

So they can read both. Solved it.

Boniface said...

Of course they need to learn about salvation history. But F and L doesn't even do very good with that.