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Big Picture
Small Steps

By Ryan LeBlanc

 

Can Catholic religious education be critical?

03/23/2016

“Can I burn this quiz instead of handing it in?”

I have heard many kinds of reactions to schoolwork from students, but this was a new one.

My student was halfway through a quiz in which key words from the Apostles’ Creed needed to be filled in the blanks — basic stuff, really. Many students would not have objected to burning it instead of writing it, and when I returned it to them graded, I would be unsurprised to find it later in the recycling or cremation bins.

But this student wanted to burn completed, ungraded work, before I had a chance to lay eyes on it. Why?

“It feels like I’m writing a contract for something I don’t want to accept.”

I had to take a moment before answering the question, because the insight was profound. Eventually I responded, quite reasonably I thought, that once I saw the evidence of recalling the Creed, whatever happened to the actual paper was fine by me — respecting fire regulations, of course.

But there was much more to say, namely, that the profession of faith on the lips of a Christian is exactly a contract, an agreement to live in a certain mode. Would that every one of my students, every one of my brothers and sisters in faith — no, would that I, myself, remembered the binding commitment I make when I express these beliefs! I also wanted to assure my student that demonstrating knowledge of a religious text is not the same thing as investing one’s faith in it. That is, while faith requires at least some kind of understanding, understanding itself does not require the adherence of faith. I can understand disproved scientific theory, the Communist Manifesto, and the Harry Potter series without believing in their veracity.

This student of mine, this brilliant young person, was doing what I hold to be central to religious education: when faced with the explicit expression of a worldview, the students should each ask themselves, “Do I believe this?” In this example, the definitive “No!” certainly can cause some cognitive dissonance. 

Some might ask, if you do not accept it, why do you attend a Catholic school? That is, when the school is founded in a religious understanding of the world, the rejection of that religious understanding would seem to disqualify that person from participation in that learning community.

Some might ask, if this student does not accept it, why require a quiz on it? That is, in a society committed to religious freedom, it appears inappropriate to “force” a student to learn something they disagree with.

Both of these questions, although they come from a valid discomfort with conflict, evade the true meaning of religious education — and pluralistic secularism. Notice also that neither of these questions arise when a student passively completes an admittedly rudimentary task. The rest of the class filled in the blanks, handed it in, and (maybe) considered the grade awarded — no conflict. When religious education in the Catholic tradition does what it ought, there is room for conflict and a preferential option for clear, critical decision-making. The Christ of Scripture cannot be more plain — every person believes or does not believe in the Son of God. On the other hand, I’ve observed that secularism has not made religious questions go away (even if the religious vocabulary to ask those questions has been suppressed), nor the importance of discussing the many different religious answers different people hold.

All of this is to say that a critical understanding of faith is the purpose of religious education, whether or not it is presented from a particular religious perspective. By “critical” I do not mean the negative obsessions of cynics, finding problems with everything presented to them. Critical in this sense means making reasoned judgments according to some kind of criteria. Many critical questions can be applied in religious education, such as: Is this social teaching of the church good for the people of the world? Does this article of faith conflict with reason? Does this celebration of a sacrament include and empower those who experience it? What impact has the church had on humanity?

But, in the missionary nature of the church which our schools are part of, in Christ’s mandate to make disciples, there is only one critical question that lies at the heart of all education, all questions, all life: Will I follow him? 

It is a question that is difficult to approach in a classroom, where the authority of the teacher can either lift up or interfere with the freedom of the student’s heart. We must say there is no “forcing” of true faith; hearts are not converted through coercion or domination, only wounded. But I believe that a religious educator, no different from any Christian who has deep respect and love for students and a clear understanding of church teaching, can open up the freedom to consider religious matters critically. If the Gospel is as attractive and affirming as I believe it to be, the student who hears the Spirit’s call to discipleship can respond, not just to questions on a quiz, but to the call to a new way of living.

So where does the necessity for critical freedom leave the classroom religious educator or parish catechist? Find out in my next column.

LeBlanc is the author of Clarifying the Confusion of Purposes: Religious Educational Objectives and the New Taxonomy of Learning. He can be found at BigPictureSmallSteps.com