A Life Worth Living- Religious Education
Can you possibly imagine that a person almost fifty years ago could have accurately foretold what is currently going on in the Catholic Church today? Now, you may not until you find out the name of the that person- Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. He predicted on television with these words:
“First of all, we are at the end of Christendom,” Bishop Fulton Sheen solemnly said during a television show in 1974. “Now not Christianity, not the Church. Remember what I am saying.” Then he defined what he meant. “Christendom is economic, political, social life as inspired by Christian principles. That is ending — we’ve seen it die. Look at the symptoms: the breakup of the family, divorce, abortion, immorality, general dishonesty.”
That was 1974. Today we know it’s even worse with the definition of marriage and gender drawn into the picture. And the crisis within the Church. What has caused this crisis? Who is responsible? What can we do about it?
Back in 1974 Bishop Sheen reminded his TV audience that of 22 civilizations that have decayed since the beginning of the world, 19 rotted and perished from within. “We live in it from day to day, and we do not see the decline. We take it for granted—we get used to things, and almost accept them as the rule.” Despite the decline blaring today, isn’t that a rule? How many Catholics accept the counter message to Humanae Vitae?”
Sheen then skillfully pointed out “the press that we read, the television that we see, is in no instance inspired by Christian principles. As a matter of fact, there is, on the part of many of us, the tendency to go down to meet the world — not to lift the world up. We are afraid of being unpopular — so we go with the mob.”
Bishop Sheen noted that we were living in the fourth 500-year period of Church history, explaining “the Church is not a continuing thing — it dies and rises again. It proceeds on the principle of Christ himself as priest and victim. “And there comes the defeat, the seeming decay, we are put in the grave, and then we rise again. We have had four deaths in our Christian history.”
The death of Christendom was he right? Did he predict almost 50 years ago all of this happening right before our eyes today that accurately? How could he have known about this and if he knew would that also mean that others may have known as well? Inquiring minds would like to know much more. To look at what Bishop Sheen was talking about in 1974, let us look at what has happened in Catholic Religious Education.
First, there has been a great decrease in both the amount of students in Catholic Schools and the total amounts of Catholic Schools here in the United States. Led by parishes and Dioceses, Catholic schools were built and populated at a remarkable rate. In 1875, there had been fewer than 1,500 Catholic schools in America; by 1930, thanks to strong support for Catholic education from Rome, that number had increased to more than 10,000. The massive post-war Baby Boom was the final catalyst, producing nearly 80 million American children who needed schools. Between 1941 and 1960, non-public-school enrollment, driven by Catholic schools, grew by 117%. When it reached its zenith in the mid-1960s, the nation's Catholic K-12 education system maintained more than 13,000 schools serving more than 5 million children — approximately 12% of all American students. Most of these schools were in America's cities, and particularly its older cities in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, such as Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. In these areas, Catholic schools represented a huge portion of the primary and secondary education system: For example, in 1960, approximately 360,000 students attended New York City's Catholic schools — 37% of the average daily public-school attendance. Today this is simply not the case. Enrollment in Catholic Schools today runs around. From the high point of over five million students in the 1960’s Catholic School enrollment has decreased to right around 2 million students or a 60% decrease. However, when you consider that the population of the United States has grown from 179 million to over 330 million the loss of this student population is indeed very shocking.
The single largest factor in the decline of the Catholic Church School system had to do with the rising costs of education and the rising costs of running a school. In 1920, 92% of the schools' staff were "religious" — nuns, priests, or brothers. Since teaching was their billet, these employees were virtually free. By 1970, however, more than half of Catholic-school principals and teachers were lay. Unlike their religious predecessors, these educators required salaries and benefits; moreover, they were increasing in number precisely as the growth of public-school unions and collective bargaining was pushing teacher and administrator salaries higher in the public sector. In order for Catholic schools to remain competitive, the compensation they offered had to increase.
The result of this lack of Cathoic Education can be seen today in many of the commonly held beliefs by US Catholics.
Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in 2016 published some very interesting statistics in this area:
- Less than a quarter of all U.S. Catholics (22 percent) attend Mass weekly, with most (57 percent) reporting that they visit a church “a few times a year or less often.” This compares to 60% attendance in the early 1960’s.
- About three-quarters (76 percent) of U.S. Catholics pray at least monthly, and nearly all (96 percent) believe in God.
- When it comes to the Bible, 61 percent of Catholics believe Scripture to be the “inspired word of God.” (Curiously, 21 percent of Catholics break with their church when it comes to biblical fundamentalism, with 21 percent saying they believe the Bible is “to be taken literally, word for word.”)
- During Lent, just under half of all U.S. Catholics (46 percent) receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, but most Catholics (62 percent) do not eat meat on Fridays. About four in 10 Catholics say they either give alms or try to change their behavior during Lent.
- Confession, or the sacrament of reconciliation, remains wildly unpopular with most Catholics, with 71 percent reporting that they either go less than once per year or never. Just 3 percent go once a month or more.
- Two-thirds of Catholic millennials attend Mass “a few times a year or less often,” compared to a majority (55 percent) of pre-Vatican II Catholics, who go at least once per week. Fewer millennials (25 percent) pray once a day or more than those who pray just a few times per year or less (30 percent).
- Millennials are more likely than older Catholics to say they sometimes (21 percent) or frequently (10 percent) have doubts about the existence of God, though a majority (64 percent) say they believe in God sans doubt.
- And just one in 10 millennial Catholics attended a Catholic primary school, compared to 54 percent of Catholics born in the 1940s and 50s
- Part of the reason for the decline in church participation among millennials could be education. Just over a third of millennials (36 percent) say they were enrolled in religious education programs, compared to 50 percent or more of older Catholics.
There is a deep cause and effect relationship to religious training when you are young and Church attendance throughout the rest of life and also Church attendance of your family.
Second, there is a real decrease in Religious Education in the Parishes. A public school with a dropout rate of 50 percent and two-thirds of area parents opting out of it would be considered failing. If the school were unable to turn those numbers around in a few years, it would likely be shut down. And yet for decades, Catholic parishes in the United States have invested in religious education programs that have proven no more effective. Without family the Catholic population cannot grow and at the rate we have families leaving the Church we can not depend on growth based on geographic migration. The sounds of silence is more than a title to hit song, it is the lyrics of things to come-as a generation of people stay away from the Church.
Being a Catholic parent comes with obligations and among these is the commitment to raise children Catholic. Our purpose in life to be fruitful and multiply. You can not do this on your own or without God’s help not matter who you are.
According to a 2015 Special Report by Mark M. Gray PhD, “A majority of parents attend Mass at least once a month. More than four in ten regularly read their parish bulletin. Parents are just as likely as older Catholics to believe the Church’s core teachings without doubt. Yet, the survey results also indicate that many 21st Century parents do not have their children enrolled in the Church’s religious education programs. For many religious education appears to happen at Mass and perhaps in the home. But how is this happening? Catholic parents are rather unlikely to use Catholic media—especially online. They are also infrequently praying with their children. Perhaps most distressing, some express indifference about their children celebrating their First Communion. The Catholic children being raised today are of a yet unnamed generation following the Millennials. They have never used a television without hundreds of channel options. They have no memory of a time before the internet. Many have coexisted with the creation of YouTube, Twitter, iPhones, the Xbox, and the widespread adoption of Wi-Fi. They are inclined to believe they will come of age during a time of virtual and augmented reality devices, self-driving cars, and intelligent robots.”
This poses some serious and monumental challenges for the rest of this century and the next, How does an institution that is nearly 2,000 years old connect with them in this rapidly evolving digital environment? Will they choose to be a member of a local brick-and mortar institution and attend its services weekly? Will they attend Church live streaming? Will they donate money through online giving? How will they come to know what their faith is about? Wikipedia? Siri? Will they pray the rosary? Will they marry in the Church? Will they have children and have them baptized, and raised in the Church? Will they sass the faith on to their own children or will the Church become a thing of the past?
Bishop Sheen saw this in 1974. Amazing, astute, and direct to the point. Now it is our turn to do something about it. Knowing the problem is the first step in the solution to this problem of living a worthy life.