The Crisis in Parish Catechesis
The numbers are in, and they are not good.
According to numerous studies, Christianity is losing a large number of members annually – a phenomena known as disaffiliation. One report stated that 3,500 people disaffiliate every day. Another concluded that “nearly one-in-five adults under age 30 say they were raised in a religion but are now unaffiliated with any particular faith.” What is perhaps more shocking than that rate is when the phenomena is occurring. About 80% of these religious “nones” are walking away from their faith by the time they reach college age. Even more disturbing:
The median age of disaffiliation is 13 years old.
Let that sink in! If the fruit of apostasy is ripening in the “tween” years, its seeds must have started growing in childhood.
Lest one think this just a Protestant problem, reports indicate that Catholicism is actually “suffering the largest decline among major religious groups: a 10-percentage point loss overall. Nearly one-third (31%) of Americans report being raised in a Catholic household, but only about one in five (21%) Americans identify as Catholic currently.” This loss rate is nearly 5x worse than Evangelicalism.
The problem is not experiential. In fact nearly 70% of “nones” report positive memories of their religious practices. Major motivations for people leaving their childhood religion are that “they stopped believing in the religion’s teachings (60%),” or that “their family was never that religious when they were growing up (32%).” Yet, ironically, the response of the typical Catholic parish continues to be requiring children to learn our religion’s teachings apart from their family!
The Challenge of Classroom Catechesis
Most parishes today still operate on a “classroom” model of catechesis. Catechetical Leaders act as principles to the catechists who then teach students using textbooks to be tested for their level of preparation with little to no parent involvement. Of course this outcome was never the goal of parish religious education – but once the classroom model was adopted, it was nearly inevitable. The classroom model fosters a “school mentality” where formation is limited to classwork and supporting parents means supplanting them.
Under the classroom model it is easy for faith formation to be treated as a subject to be learned rather than a faith to be modeled and lived. It should come as no surprise when many families come to see the sacraments as prizes to earn, attending Mass a requirement meet, and catechesis as a program to graduate. When faith formation is reduced to a set of sacramental requirements it will produce a “faith” that is easily dismissed once they have been checked off.
The quality level of the Catholic Church’s various catechetical programs certainly varies from parish to parish, and it must be admitted that too often it is not what it should be. But here’s a reality check: in a typical religious education program, class time makes up a fraction of a fraction of a child’s life. If a program meets 30 hours a year, and the child is present and on task for every one of those hours, that means that 99.7% of a child’s life experience lies outside of parish catechesis.
When non-practicing parents are thrown into the mix, the results are pretty predictable. No matter how good a program is, one percent of a child’s life won’t likely overcome the other ninety-nine.
While it would be easy to continue blaming “poor catechesis” for the state of the Church, or the classroom model it continues to rely upon to fix it, these are not so much the problem as they are contributing to the problem: our diminishing Catholic culture. Almost any curriculum will work in the context of a faithful Catholic culture. Conversely, no curriculum will significantly overcome the lack of a faithful Catholic culture. 
The goal, then, is to form the culture, not just change its curriculum – and a faithful Catholic culture begins at home with the family.
Family Faith Formation
This is why leading Catholic curriculum providers have begun responding with a “flipped” model of catechesis which places the parents at the top of the parishes’ formation programs rather than the children. The theory is that if the parish devotes resources to forming the family influencers, it can be far more helpful for the children.
How this looks in practice is that curriculum are developed along a “trickle-down” approach that has parents taught to use resources that they then share with their children. This generally occurs in a monthly meeting that prepares parents to teach several lessons in the coming weeks (on their own time table!) before returning for more formation the next month.
This fundamental process can be modified to include whole-family catechesis (where the entire family meets to be taught and do activities at the same time), or offered with a catechetical “childcare” option where parents are taught and interact together while their children are catechized (to some extent) elsewhere. Programs could also be offered in segments to include stages of each format. And all of this can be conjoined to a regular (or special) Mass offering or adoration time.
Parents as Primary Catechists
While the above conclusions and ideas might sound radical, they are consistent with the mind of the Church which calls parents their children’s “primary catechists” (note that “primary” does not mean “only” and actually implies others’ involvement – e.g., CIC 777, 914). This idea has been asserted numerous times in Church documents (see below) which themselves have been cited and expanded upon in the standard catechetical resources over the last several decades.
- “Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. . . . Parents have the mission of teaching their children to pray and to discover their vocation as children of God.”
[CCC 2223, 2226]
- “The right and duty of parents to give education is essential . . . and it is irreplaceable and incapable of being entirely delegated to others.”
[Familiaris Consortio, 36].
- “Since parents have given children their life, they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators.”
[Gravissimum Educationis, 3].
- “The family’s catechetical activity has a special character, which is in a sense irreplaceable.”
[Catechesi Tradendae, 68]
- “The right of parents to beget and educate their children in the bosom of the family must be safeguarded.”
[Gaudium et Spes, 52]
- “Since they have given life to their children, parents have a most grave obligation and possess the right to educate them. . . . Parents above others are obliged to form their children by word and example in faith and in the practice of Christian life.”
[CIC 226 §2; 774 §2.]
The Church’s expectation that parents act as catechists to their children might sound frightening or radical – but it really is a simple reflection of history, tradition, and everyday reality. Parents teach their children how to walk, talk, think, and behave – it’s just what happens in parenting. Most often these lessons are “caught” more than they are “taught” of course – because children learn from their parents simply by being around them.
University of Notre Dame’s Dr. Christian Smith, the lead sociologist and conductor of the largest survey on the subject, found that, “Just 1 percent of teens ages 15 to 17 raised by parents who attached little importance to religion were highly religious in their mid-to-late 20s. In contrast, 82 percent of children raised by parents who talked about faith at home, attached great importance to their beliefs.” He concluded that, “The connection is nearly deterministic.” Other factors such as clergy, youth ministry, service projects, or even religious schools paled in comparison. Smith concluded that, “No other conceivable causal influence … comes remotely close to matching the influence of parents on the religious faith and practices of youth.” Smith has even described parental involvement as a “necessary condition” for a child to remain strong in their faith. His words on the subject included this startling assertion:
“Without question, the most important pastor a child will ever have in their life is a parent.”
When it comes to raising children in faith, reports consistently show that parents matter more than any other factor. “While many churches have focused on the educational content of Sunday school, youth group meetings, and small group Bible studies, the study suggests that the ‘hidden curriculum’ of parental lives is the most powerful religious curriculum of all.” These reports would be unsurprising to Pope St. John Paul II who wrote that: “Catechesis runs the risk of becoming barren if no community of faith and Christian life takes the catechumen in at a certain stage of his catechesis,” and that, “Christian parents must strive to follow and repeat, within the setting of family life, the more methodical teaching received elsewhere. . . . Family catechesis therefore precedes, accompanies and enriches all other forms of catechesis.”
Practical Benefits to Family Faith Formation
The theoretical benefits of Family Faith Formation are considerable, but there are numerous practical advantages as well. The programs can be run with far less staff or volunteer support (which is always a major factor). Smaller programs could be implemented with just one overseer because that person will not be keeping role, tracking progress, dealing with behavior issues or dress code violations, handling safe environment protocols, purchasing supplies, etc.
Family Faith Formation can also run with limited monetary and physical resources as it does not require much of either. Children are taught at home, so facilities are freed up, classroom materials are largely unnecessary, and textbooks (i.e., Bibles, Catechisms, or curricula) do not need to be stockpiled or replenished as they wear out. The lower costs can be covered by enrollment fees which themselves could be lowered since parents are not having to finance the staff, office supplies, utilities, building maintenance, etc. required by the classroom model.
Finally, a huge selling point for all involved is that the Family Faith Formation model resolves most scheduling conflicts (for parents as well as the parish). Most programs are not dependent on when or where formation takes place. This means no annual enrollment rush, no concerns over which students get which classes / catechists, and fewer conflicts with other parish activities, holidays, and family vacations.
Both / And
No matter how perfectly planned a parish school program is, there will always be those for whom it will not work. Schedule conflicts with school, work, sports, and other extracurricular activities are impossible to fully mitigate; and these are more important than ever for children’s future success (we cannot simply brush them off because they are not of “ultimate value”). The reality is that families will find a way to work around schedule conflicts even if it means going to another parish or dropping out of Catechism for a season. Neither of these alternatives should be acceptable to a parish committed to its parishioners.
Moreover, parish models cannot always account for the needs of every family no matter how flexible their schedules are. Some children are just not mature enough to handle Catechism classes. Home school families may not wish to relinquish their kids to programs designed for the general parish population. Families with special needs children may not be able to find a good fit in a program lacking qualified volunteers or the necessary materials.
There are a multitude of legitimate reasons why a given parish family cannot be served by any single program. So, even if a parish wishes to retain the classroom model for those who desire it, Family Faith Formation makes for an excellent backup plan.
Challenges to Parish Family Faith Formation
Will parents want to be catechists?
Regardless of how many faithful families a parish might have, finding catechists is always difficult. So what will happen when the parish turns children’s catechesis over to all of them?
They’ll do what they are already doing – being the primary catechists of their children!
As stated above, “Primary Catechist” is an unavoidable and irreplaceable role for parents. It is one that parents have by nature – not one that is awarded by experts. It is one that they take on simply by being parents. The usual reasons someone does not volunteer as a catechist are schedule conflicts and feeling unqualified. The parish which adopts a Family Faith Formation model can help with both. The schedule obstacle is a non-factor because the parents can do catechesis whenever they wish. As for qualifications, most families (like most volunteer catechists) will not need have or need high-level theological training because they are teaching from the curriculum (like most volunteer catechists).
What about non-practicing parents?
Of course it is possible that non-practicing parents will see family faith formation as simply a way out of classroom requirements. But the reverse can be said (and has been demonstrated) as well: the same non-practicing parents are already using parish religious education to get out of teaching their children the faith at home!
Families that merely drop off their children for religious education but who do not support it at home by attending regular Mass, sharing in what their kids are learning, or showing children faithful examples at home, are a common challenge. Family faith formation can give parents both the ability and duty to do these things in a way that “traditional” classes do not.
Yes, it is possible that the .3% of a child’s life spent in class will overcome the other 99.7% of their home life. However, such an outcome is statistically improbable – and even if it should it occur, is less likely to equal the impact of a parish full of formed families. And even if direct children’s catechesis is thought to be more impactful than research seem to indicate, Family Faith Formation is not actually a major change. A typical classroom model of a weekly one-hour class will equate to about 25 hours over the course of a “school year.” If those classes get substituted for a monthly two-hour Family Faith Formation meeting which includes children’s catechesis (another benefit to families: babysitting!), that is only 7 fewer hours per year (about the number of absences allowed per year).
Finally, pitting family faith formation against classroom catechesis constitutes a false dilemma. On the one hand, even if parents were to somehow escape all parish influence, the basic problem would remain. Their children are still going to face an overwhelmingly (99.7%) non-Catholic life. On the other hand, participation at Mass and children’s catechesis can easily be integrated into the basic model of family faith formation. Escaping parish influence will be far more difficult with monthly Mass attendance and 18 hours of parental formation than it is while sitting in the parish parking lot!
Church documents, official publications, research data, and common experience are all pointing to the same conclusion: the number one influence children have is their parents.
The faith that children live or leave will almost certainly be the one their parents – not their parish – forms in them.
Family Faith Formation is basically the principle of subsidiarity applied to children’s catechesis – it recognizes the settled fact that the impact of the parents on children’s spiritual lives dominates all other factors. Under this model the parish’s role becomes one of equipping (not replacing) the children’s’ primary catechists at home. The focus shifts from providing catechists in classrooms to helping parents succeed at being the religious educators to their children that they already are.
 See Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics, Saint Mary’s Press, September 2017.
EXODUS: Why Americans are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back at https://www.prri.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/PRRI-RNS-Unaffiliated-Report.pdf.
 This is contrary to the spirit of Canon 843 which states that, “Sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who seek them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them. Pastors of souls and other members of the Christian faithful, according to their respective ecclesiastical function, have the duty to take care that those who seek the sacraments are prepared to receive them by proper evangelization and catechetical instruction, attentive to the norms issued by competent authority.”
 Also noteworthy is a 2000 study which concluded that if “a father does not go to church – no matter how faithful his wife’s devotions – only one child in 50 will become a regular worshipper. If a father does go regularly, regardless of the practice of the mother, between two-thirds and three-quarters of their children will become churchgoers (regular and irregular).” (https://www.romancatholicman.com/dad-takes-faith-god-seriously-will-children/).
 A system designed according to Protestant industrialist ideology. See Steve Kellmeyer’s Designed to Fail: Catholic Education in America.
 See Gerard Rummery, The Development of the Concept of Religious Education in Catholic Schools 1872-1972 available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1467-9809.1977.tb00396.x.
 E.g., Sophia Institute’s Family of Faith (https://sophiainstituteforteachers.org/shop/family-of-faith), Loyola Press’s Christ our Life (https://www.loyolapress.com/faith-formation/christ-our-life/christ-our-life-2016/program-overview/family-catechesis), Family Formation (https://www.familyformation.net),
 E.g., The General Directory for Catechesis, pp. 171-173, 212-213, 236-239; or The National Directory for Catechesis, pp. 100-101, 202-203, 234-235, 259-260.
 Steve Kellmeyer notes that no biblical author wrote to children, neither Jesus nor the Apostles taught children, no early Church Father or Doctor instructed children, and no Council mentions forming children until the 6th century (viz. preparation for the priesthood). “Education in the faith was exclusively the task of the parent.” (Designed to Fail: Catholic Education in America, ch. 1).
 A “necessary condition” is one which does not guarantee an outcome, but without which the outcome cannot occur. Contrast this to what Smith calls “nearly deterministic” which implies a nearly sufficient condition (one which guarantees the outcome).
 Catechesi Tradendae 24.
 Catechesi Tradendae 68.
 See Joe Paprocki’s Family Catechesis, Adult Faith Formation, and Combatting the “Drop-Off” Mentality at https://catechistsjourney.loyolapress.com/2017/10/family-catechesis-and-adult-faith-formation.
 Numerous studies are cited in John Roberto’s Best Practices in Family Faith Formation that all point to the same conclusion: http://www.faithformationlearningexchange.net/uploads/5/2/4/6/5246709/best_practices_in_family_faith_formation.pdf.
 For a comprehensive survey of data on this subject, see Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford, 2005) and its follow-up (Smith with Patricia Snell), Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford, 2009).