Let's be honest, the problem with Catholic culture in America is fundamentally a problem of education. Since the Baltimore Catechism went out of style in the 1960's, American Catholics had been without a comprehensive and pedagogical resource with which to form their or their childrens' minds. It was not until 1995 that Bl. John Paul II introduced us to the revised and updated Catechism of the Catholic Church - the first definitive Catholic Catechism since the Council of Trent in 1566. This set the stage for what is now the infancy of an intellectual revival in the Catholic Church, but damage had been done. At least 2 generations of American Catholics were, at best, unformed and, at worst, misinformed. The consequences of this Catechetical void are felt today pervasively in most parishes. Though I have been blessed to have worked with several outstanding parish DRE's, I have yet to meet one whose job I envy - they have it tough. Here's a short list - three things that parishes can do right now to drastically improve religious education:
1) RESPECT FOR THE STUDENT'S INTELLIGENCE. We have got to stop assuming that a 13 year old cannot understand something written for an adult. The truth is usually the opposite. We should remember that most higher education in America is doing a pretty good job of systematically miseducating its constituency; if we can get them before that, all the better. Adolescents and even children have a certain perspicuity that renders them entirely more docile to reality than most older folks: they are teachable and, believe it or not, they can read. If you are wondering why they do not take instruction seriously or why they do not dive into the material on their own time, maybe it has something to do with the coloring book fluff pamphlet that we have given them as a text. Though there are some exceptions, most R.E. books made for youth are horrible and insulting to their intelligence. Never assume that a young person cannot handle a primary text: give them the saints, give them the Bible, give them the Church fathers, hey - give them the Summa if you have to; just don't give them the fluff. Save the money, dump your "Exploring the Journey" butterfly and puppy picture book, and see number 2.
2) ITE AD YOUCAT. "Study this Catechism! This is my heartfelt desire. Study this Catechism with passion and perseverance.... You need to be more deeply rooted in your faith than the generation of your parents..." Pope Benedict XVI is right! The newly released YOUCAT (Youth Catechism) is a great resource. Besides being rock solid, it is actually engaging. Youth and Catechists alike can benefit from it's systematic and lucid explanations of every topic. If you need a text based timeline off of which to base your entire curriculum, use this book. It's also something that a young person will keep as a resource for the rest of his days. Don't worry if you're a fluff-o-holic, the images at the bottom of each page makes a cool flipbook. From 5th grade, through high school aged R.E.: If you give your class one book, make it the YOUCAT.
3) FIRST PRINCIPLES.
Find a college graduate with a bonified liberal arts education - not just a 'Catholic' education, but a liberal arts education. If you've got an alum in your parish of a place like Thomas Aquinas College, St. John's College, or any real Great Books Program, my suggestion is to take them out to dinner and make them an offer they can't refuse. That person can be your most valuable resource. Don't just ask them to teach 'a catechism class;' ask them to teach your catechists - swallow your pride and ask them to teach...you. Enrich your entire team with a few lessons. Your catechists might know what the virtues are - they might be able to name them; but do they know what a virtue is? As good and valuable as they are, you won't find much philosophy among best of the Steubenvillian DVD series and alike, so let's dig a little bit deeper than Catholic radio for our personal, intellectual enrichment. Why is it good to be good? If we cannot answer this, the most fundamental of moral questions, to those whom the Lord has entrusted to our care, we have failed them. A little philosophy can go a long way when catechizing youth; it keeps their attention and introduces them to the world of transcendence: the Catholic world.