Temporary Amnesia

23 Aug

In the decades immediately following the close of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), we witnessed an alarming de-emphasis of doctrinal teaching in religious education in favor of an overly experiential approach. The result of this catechetical malfeasance was a generation–make that two generations–of poorly formed Catholics.

So while the feminists burned their bras and draft-dodgers burned their flags, catechists and pastors burned their Baltimore Catechisms, proclaiming their liberation from the rote memorization of doctrinal formulas and the old, “pre-Vatican II” Church. But were we better off because of it? What were the fruits of the catechetical novelties of the 60s and 70s? Surely not an increase of practicing Catholics who know and love the Catholic faith.

Now, memorization without a personal relationship with Our Lord and without understanding and internalizing what one has memorized is highly problematic. Yet the pendulum swung way too far in the other direction during my own childhood in the late 60s and 70s, perhaps as an overreaction to a dry, lifeless approach to catechesis during the prior generation. 

Now I think we’re finally finding a firm middle ground when it comes to memorization.

In this regard, the Magisterium has clearly emphasized the role of memorization in catechesis. The following is taken from Blessed John Paul II’s 1979 apostolic exhortation On Catechesis in Our Time (no. 55):  

“At a time when, in non-religious teaching in certain countries, more and more complaints are being made about the unfortunate consequences of disregarding the human faculty of memory, should we not attempt to put this faculty back into use in an intelligent and even an original way in catechesis, all the more since the celebration or “memorial” of the great events of the history of salvation require a precise knowledge of them? A certain memorization of the words of Jesus, of important Bible passages, of the Ten Commandments, of the formulas of profession of the faith, of the liturgical texts, of the essential prayers, of key doctrinal ideas, etc., far from being opposed to the dignity of young Christians, or constituting an obstacle to personal dialogue with the Lord, is a real need, as the synod fathers forcefully recalled. We must be realists. The blossoms, if we may call them that, of faith and piety do not grow in the desert places of a memory-less catechesis. What is essential is that the texts that are memorized must at the same time be taken in and gradually understood in depth, in order to become a source of Christian life on the personal level and the community level.” (Emphasis added.)

Next, in the 1997 General Directory for Catechesis, promulgated by the Congregation for the Clergy and formally approved by the Holy Father, we read the following:

“Use of memory, therefore, forms a constitutive aspect of the pedagogy of the faith since the beginning of Christianity. To overcome the risk of a mechanical memorization, mnemonic learning should be harmoniously inserted into the different functions of learning, such as spontaneous reaction and reflection, moments of dialogue and of silence and the relationship between oral and written work.

“In particular, as objects of memorization, due consideration must be given to the principal formulae of the faith. These assure a more precise exposition of the faith and guarantee a valuable common doctrinal, cultural and linguistic patrimony. Secure possession of the language of the faith is an indispensable condition for living that same faith. Such formulae, however, should be proposed as syntheses after a process of explanation and should be faithful to the Christian message. To be numbered amongst them are some of the major formulae and texts of the Bible, of dogma, of the liturgy, as well as the commonly known prayers of Christian tradition: (Apostles’ Creed, Our Father, Hail Mary . . .)” (no. 154, footnotes omitted).

This last paragraph rings especially true to me, as it seems to me that many middle-aged Catholics are religiously illiterate; they don’t know the “language” of the faith. I find that in my writing, speaking, and everyday conversations I can assume less and less of a catechetical foundation on which to build.

Gratefully, though, I do see a new generation of catechists, teachers, and parents, as well as young priests and religious, who incorporate memorization into their instruction of youth in a most positive way. I’ve found that my own children don’t mind memorizing Scripture verses or various doctrinal items, which then feed into our prayer time, virtue training, and other aspects of Christian living. As a Church we are once again remembering the importance of memory.

As part of this weekly catechetical series, I’ve been recommending resources that are helpful in passing on the Catholic faith. Today I recommend the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This volume is a condensed version of the Catechism, but in a question-and-answer format that lends itself, like the Baltimore Catechism of old, to memorization. In addition, many common prayers (in both Latin and English) and other helpful items are found at the back.

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