“Be careful with the pages, Daddy.”
I looked at her and smiled. She looked back and raised her eyebrows to remind me that she was serious.
It was time to prepare Annabel for the next day’s eighth-grade religion quiz. As I flitted from one page to the next in her immaculately penciled spiral-bound notebook, I finally landed on the proper starting place: St. Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways (also known as the arguments for God’s existence). As Annabel shifted in her seat, I began to ask her questions about motion and causation, contingency and degree. I started to probe a little off script (as it had been quite some time since I had read Aquinas). Though she wanted to stick to the quiz material (after all, we all wanted to watch The Office), Annabel engaged me with spirited explanation that transcended the bullet points on the page. As her eyes lit up, you could literally see her mind at work thinking logically, critically, about the most important things in the world. This was eighth-grade religion class at her Catholic middle school.
Stunning. That’s the best word to describe the religious education my daughter is receiving at her school. Profound concepts such as biblical typology, the nature of personhood, theodicy and the fall of man, the theology behind penance, and of course the mind-blowing protoevangelium (which she insists I always mispronounce with an emphasis on the gel instead of the li) have all graced her days and filled her spiral-bound notebooks. And they have given us great material to talk about. Lest I impress upon you that her education would make her a good intellectual Catholic but not a good practicing Catholic, let me disabuse you of such a notion. The Mass, the sacraments, and the prayerful cultivation of the interior life are as vibrantly present in her education as are the explorations of theology and philosophy.
Quizzing Annabel in religion and recognizing not only her comprehension of the material but her enthusiasm for it reminded me of two important insights. First, one of my favorite anecdotes from Bishop Barron involves his loving insistence that kids understand more than we think they understand. Bishop Barron recalled,
A few years ago, the daughter of one of my Word on Fire colleagues came to our office. Her mother said, “Tell Fr. Barron how much you know about Star Wars.” With that, an eight-year-old girl launched into a detailed account of the Star Wars narrative, involving subplots, extremely minor characters, thematic trajectories, and so on. As she was unfolding her tale, I thought of the many educators whom I have heard over the years assuring me that young people cannot possibly take in the complexities, convoluted plot twists, and strange names found in the Scriptures. I don’t know, but I don’t think Methuselah and Habakkuk are really any more puzzling than Obi-Wan Kenobi and Lando Calrissian. . . . This great, rollicking, complex, rich story that we have, full of weird names, yeah, but no weirder than Obi-Wan Kenobi, right? The kids have no trouble with that. Don’t tell me they can’t understand the Bible. And therefore don’t tell me that they can’t appreciate Jesus as the culmination of that great story.
Our kids need the faith. Especially in this world. They need to understand their ineradicable dignity, sense their personal calling, prepare for the sufferings of life, and open themselves to the graces that are to come. Anyone anxious about children and young adults learning the dogma of faith should ask themselves this one serious question: “If not the dogma of Christ, then whose dogma will it be?” Assuredly, though many people ardently disagree, everyone has a dogma and a creed. But as G.K. Chesterton reminds, “In truth, there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don’t know it.”
The second insight that returned to me while studying religion with Annabel is just how extraordinary our faith truly is. Chesterton, in his essay Why I Am a Catholic, observed that
Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes. The Catholic Church has for one of her chief duties that of preventing people from making those old mistakes; from making them over and over again forever, as people always do if they are left to themselves. The truth about the Catholic attitude towards heresy, or as some would say, towards liberty, can best be expressed perhaps by the metaphor of a map. The Catholic Church carries a sort of map of the mind which looks like the map of a maze, but which is in fact a guide to the maze. It has been compiled from knowledge which, even considered as human knowledge, is quite without any human parallel.
There is no other case of one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years. Its experience naturally covers nearly all experiences; and especially nearly all errors. The result is a map in which all the blind alleys and bad roads are clearly marked, all the ways that have been shown to be worthless by the best of all evidence: the evidence of those who have gone down them.
The Catholic faith—the story of Christ and his Church—is no fairy tale. It is no irrelevant fantasy relegated to Sunday morning before the main event brunch. It is no crutch for the weak-minded. It is so brilliant, that it is almost frightening. It is so confounding, that it is almost dizzying. It is so paradoxical, that it is almost shocking. And it is so immersed in and suffused with inexplicable love for you and me in our abject brokenness, that it can make the most stoic person weep. No creative man or woman could ever conjure up this profound story. We are simply not up to the task. The Catholic faith is of God because it is from God.
As I close the notebook and hand it back to Annabel, she smiles and thanks me. And then she inspects the pages for any folds or unintended tears.
There is so much I have learned in studying religion with Annabel.
I can’t wait ’til next week.