What Place for Parents in Religious Education?

Joanne McPortland, no stranger to religious education, writes here about “What’s Wrong with Religious Education? Everything.” I don’t agree with all her assertions, but she circles in on a point I’ve been meaning to address: Where are the parents?

I love teaching the Catholic faith, and I’ll teach anyone, anytime, anywhere.  I’ve spent a lot of hours of my life teaching kids, and I don’t for a moment think we ought to drop children’s faith formation.  But if I found myself facing one of those lunch-family and Bibletable no-win scenarios — “Would you rather be eaten by a tiger or crushed by an elephant?” — only it was, “Would you rather the parish teach only children or only adults?” I know what my answer would be: Adults.

Why?  Very simply: Parents are responsible for teaching their children.  Everything.  And the faith is not so difficult for parents to teach.  I would go so far as to hazard that there are very, very few parents who are truly unable to teach their children the Catholic faith.

So why does no one come to adult faith formation?  Well, for one thing, there’s the logistical problem.  To get parents in the room, you have to offer:

  • The course the parent actually needs
  • Taught by a competent teacher
  • At a time the parent can attend
  • In a place the parent can attend
  • With all the necessary childcare and eldercare the parent needs in order to attend.

This is why those 10 minutes in the Sunday homily are so important — it is, physically speaking, one of the most sure-hit combinations for reaching practicing Catholic adults.  (And likewise, why that four-hymn sandwich should be chosen carefully — precious minutes of catechesis there, if you pick well.)

But allow me to propose a more serious underlying cause than simple logistics, or habit, or poor priorities: We treat parents like babies.

You’re Responsible for This, Let Me Do It For You

Imagine you are a parent who says to your child, “It’s your job to clean your room, pack your lunch, and get your homework done.” And then, because you are a good parent, you make thorough preparations to help the child accomplish those goals.

What might that look like?  You might organize the child’s routine so that there was adequate time for completing each task.  You might gently steer your child away from distractions.  You might take time to help your child organize his room so it’s easy to clean.  You might teach the child how to make a PB&J sandwich neatly.  You might help the child make a list of his homework assignments, and periodically check in to see if he had any questions.

But you would not invite the child in for a semi-annual meeting in which you announced the child had these responsibilities, and therefore every Wednesday night from 7:00-8:30 you’d be cleaning his room, packing his lunch, and doing his homework, just in case he didn’t get around to it.  Imagine the conversation:

You have a responsibility for keeping your room clean, dear.  Unfortunately, I don’t think you’ll actually do it, and even if you tried you’d probably not do it very well.  So from now on, I want you to check with me once a week, and make sure I’m doing it for you.

And if you don’t keep your room clean the other six days of the week, that makes you very naughty, and I’ll tell everyone how naughty you are, and how I have to do everything for you.  But since I love you, and it’s very important that you learn to clean your own room, I’ll continue to do it for you every week.  Indefinitely.

This is the state of modern religious education. This is why Joanne McPortland’s modest proposal is so shocking: The thought of leaving parents to instruct their own children is unthinkable.

But we catechists know very well, since we’ve learned our catechism, that parents have the primary responsibility for educating their children in the faith.

Helping the Hapless

Where does that leave us?  We certainly have an obligation to help the widow and the orphan, and that means stepping in and filling the gap when parents are truly unable to educate their children in the faith.  Likewise, I’ve seen first hand the benefits of asking other adults to assist me in educating my children.  I don’t hesitate to send my daughter to an expert violinist for violin lessons, and I absolutely love being able to let her learn the faith from other adults in our community as well.

In the case of catechesis, it’s not because I can’t do it myself.  I do it myself every day of the week.  I do it because it is beneficial for my children to spend time learning from others who share our faith.  There is a very important role for catechists in the lives of the children of our parishes.

But that extra help from others should be just that: Extra help.  A little bonus.  A bolstering of what’s being taught at home.

The only way that our parish religious education programs can serve that purpose is if the children are, in fact, learning the faith at home.

That means we need to equip parents to truly be the primary educators of their children.

Don’t Mock Me, Teach Me

If I had dollar for every time I heard a catechist say, “The parents just don’t care!” I could buy a whole lotta YOUCATs.  But the thing is, it usually ends there.  We sit at our catechist luncheons telling stories about pathetic parents . . . and expect the parents to soak up all that love and respect we’re showing them (not!), and want to come seek us out for help?

Imagine you’re a nervous parent.  You’ve just shown up at church with your second-grader.  You haven’t been to confession in twenty years.  You usually forget to go to Mass. When you do go to Mass, you’re a little lost, and you really couldn’t say exactly what’s happening there.  You aren’t really sure what’s in the Bible, but you’re pretty sure it’s very good but very hard to understand.  But you want your child to receive the sacraments, so you turn out for the parent meeting.  And get a lecture.

Parents don’t need to be reminded how little they know. They need their questions answered.  They need someone to take them seriously.  To patiently, and yes, sometimes firmly, teach them how to be that responsible parent who knows the faith and passes it on.  Parents need you not to give up on them the seventh, or the seventy-seventh, time they goof it up.  Don’t wipe your hands of parents and announce, “I’ll do it all for you then!”  Keep going.  Keep teaching.  The grown-ups are just as hungry for Jesus as the children are.