Bishop Barron repeatedly asks catechists and theology teachers not to dumb down the teaching of the faith in the classroom. In such talks, he typically shares an anecdote of when he went to his brother’s house and saw the class textbooks his niece was going to use as a high school senior at one of the best Catholic high schools in Chicago. All but the theology textbooks were at an intellectually high level. At the top of the book stack was Hamlet. Not Hamlet for Dummies, but Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Underneath that was Virgil’s Aeneid—in Latin! And underneath that was a fat physics book full of complex equations and scientific theories. And underneath that was a big paperback book with a bunch of colorful pictures.
That was her religion book.
Rightfully upset, Bishop Barron went out and bought his niece the first volume of Aquinas’ Summa contra Gentiles, Dante’s Divine Comedy, G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and Bonaventure’s Journey Into the Mind of God. He considered it an injustice that she was being introduced to the intellectual greatness of every tradition but that of the faith. It was a profound clue as to why so many young Catholics find the faith to be a bit intellectually inept. During a lecture given in 2010 at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, Bishop Barron challenged attendees to show the story of salvation as intellectually compelling by refusing to dumb down the faith. I happened to be there, joining in the applause, eager to bring good theology back to the classroom; I embarked on a mission to take up that challenge.
But this is much easier said than done. Before I explain why, I want to emphasize the limits to my analysis, which is based on the obstacles I discovered while presenting the richness of the tradition and trying to make theology intellectually engaging to high school students.
There is a deep assumption that religion class ought to be dumbed down for a variety of reasons:
The Easy “A”
First, a majority of parents want the dumbed-down theology class because college admissions is the primary concern for most of them, often taking precedence over ensuring that their children receive a substantial education in their own religion. A dependable “A” on that report card will make college admission and potential scholarships more likely. It is possible that no teacher or school wants to stand out as having a challenging theology class when all the other schools offer an easy way. College admissions offices may assume that a “B” in theology could be seen as a hint that the student tends to slack off. People assume that science and math classes will be difficult, and they expect a challenge. But a demanding syllabus in theology is regarded as taking things a bit too far. It is often said that students want the challenge, but do parents and school administrators want that for the students? I am not so sure.
Moral Therapeutic Deism
Secondly, in tandem with the first point, there’s an assumption that religion is merely therapeutic. Sociologist Christian Smith’s “moralistic therapeutic deism” (MTD) is the default and sacrosanct notion of religion embraced by most Americans. MTD serves the function of helping us feel good about ourselves and promises to discomfit no one else. Fear of making theology class intellectually challenging is similar to turning theology into spiritual bootcamp with, it is thought, great potential for harm (or at least, unease).
Theology teachers are usually kind and understanding people, perhaps also thinking of their class in the same way. They don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, do not want to tempt extremism, and they certainly do not wish to be identified as the reason little Johnny did not get into Harvard or hear that little Jane hates the Church because her theology teacher gave her a “B.” Those theology teachers who do demand more from their students face enormous pressure to relax their standards and go easy on the students.
Given that the topics covered in theology class are personal, it is easy for the class to become a group therapy session. While it is good that students share their feelings and thoughts in class, the job of the theology teacher is to instill in them the grammar of theology so as to elevate their intuitions and better understand all things in the light of Christ. Moving beyond an “expressivist-experiential” model does not mean opting for a “cognitive-propositional” model, as postliberal theologian George Lindbeck called them. There is a way of bringing together the fruit of both models, allowing the faith to illuminate the whole of reality. The way Pope Benedict XVI does theology in a personalist mode (i.e., directing everything to an intimate, intelligible encounter with Christ) is worthy of emulation. But this approach has to be presented to the parents in such a way that they want their children to be exposed to a Christ-centric theology.
Evangelizing the Parents
Thankfully, at the beginning of each semester, I was given an opportunity to present my vision for each class during parent-teacher nights. I would emphasize my general approach of keeping doctrine and practice in unison. During these meetings, I was allotted ten minutes to present myself and the plan for the class to the parents. Instead of covering the usual class details (contact information, grading scale, assignments, etc.), I used my time as an opportunity to evangelize the parents and emphasize the primacy of God. I wanted the parents to become interested in the class content, hoping most of them would be eager to learn more about the faith if it was to be presented in an intellectually stimulating way. For the most part, that intuition turned out to be right. Some parents stuck around to ask me more about the class content, even expressing their own desire to take the class. The parents who showed up later in the semester for parent-teacher conferences told me that they never learned the intellectual tradition of the Church, and they found the class material quite interesting. Still, I also had many parents upset with me for not making enough use of colorful, easier textbooks.
I was not compelled by the textbooks, sometimes lamenting their presentation of a topic, other times finding that they fell into the dumbed-down brand of teaching the faith. While the books gave some sense of stability and uniformity to the subject, I did not want textbooks to determine how I would teach the class. Unfortunately, because schools are often so desperate to find theology teachers, they will hire someone who needs the textbook to guide them. Typically, such teachers are not ready to teach the high-level theology found in a work by Aquinas or Bonaventure. Sadly, many college theology courses never cover this stuff, so it’s no wonder it is not being taught in the classroom. In such cases, a good textbook is important. However, they’re difficult to find. Aside from Word on Fire materials, the few textbook series that readily come to my mind are the Encountering Jesus series by Ave Maria Press and the Didache series by Midwest Theological Forum.
Having Courses at Various Levels
Finally, high school theology classes should be broken down into various levels in order to meet the needs and abilities of students. Usually, schools have a few senior elective classes that are at a more advanced level, but often only a handful of students take them. This reinforces the harmful trend of theology being taught at the lowest common denominator and never introducing students to the richness of the faith. Smart students end up looking elsewhere for an intellectual challenge, which they often find in the sciences and math, dismissing theology as intellectually inferior. Theology, like every other subject, needs to work for students at the level by which they can best understand while receiving welcome challenges. Theology curriculums designed for learning at several levels just might be the key to attracting them to life in Christ.
Taking up Bishop Barron’s challenge not to dumb down the faith in the classroom is difficult, but it’s not impossible. But one teacher cannot do it alone. Expectations about theology class need to change, and that will only occur if we get parents, administrators, and teachers informed and excited about Christ and his Church.