Sunday, November 19, 2006

A Tale of Two Dioceses: Grade School Religious Instruction in the Archdioceses of Detroit and St Paul-Minneapolis

Bernie Grutsch likes knowing his three youngest children are learning their Catholic faith according to a defined curriculum that uses a textbook.
“Some of the schools we’ve seen or talked to have a tendency to say they pull a little bit from here, a little bit from there,” Grutsch said. He is the father of third-grade and sixth-grade girls and a fifth-grade boy who attend Holy Family School in St. Louis Park, Minn., in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
“Our concern with that type of approach is that as parents you don’t have the ability to know what is being taught,” Grutsch added.
At Holy Family, Grutsch’s children are learning from Ignatius Press’ Faith and Life series, one of 121 books and series that have been reviewed by the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism and declared to be in conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (A complete list of such texts can be viewed at
Grutsch’s wife, Marilyn, a third-grade catechist in the Holy Family Parish religious education program, which also uses Faith and Life, said the series is “in line with what the Church teaches without being fluffy and watered down. It really gets to the meat of what the Catholic faith is.”
Barb Rumschlag, director of religious education at St. Anne Parish in Monroe, Mich., in the Archdiocese of Detroit, and the mother of a sixth grader in the program, feels similarly about Benziger’s Christ Jesus the Way series, which also bears the bishops’ declaration of conformity with the Catechism. “It seems to be very grounded in the Catholic faith,” she said.
The two textbook series and others that have a declaration of conformity with the Catechism are the result of an effort begun in 1996 by the U.S. bishops to improve the quality of religious education by upgrading the nation’s catechetical textbooks so that they are consistent with the Catechism.
A textbook-review process, in which publishers voluntarily submit texts before publication and agree to make changes needed for a declaration of conformity with the Catechism, is aimed at making certain that students in Catholic schools and parish religious education programs are receiving a complete and accurate presentation of the faith based on the Catechism.
In response, some dioceses, including Detroit, which is headed by Cardinal Adam Maida, now mandate that catechists use books bearing the bishops’ declaration of conformity. However, others have no such requirement. For instance, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, led by Archbishop Harry Flynn, merely provides a “recommended list” of six publishers, all of whom have texts and series on the bishops’ conformity listing. Parishes and schools are then free to choose whatever materials they think best suit their students.
John Vitek, president and CEO of St. Mary’s Press in Winona, Minn., has estimated that a third of the dioceses in the country require texts in conformity be used.
As part of an investigation looking at the 20 largest dioceses in the country in terms of elementary population, the Register recently examined the religious-education textbook policies and practices of the archdioceses of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and Detroit.
In St. Paul-Minneapolis, the policy on textbook selection reflects the “culture” of the archdiocese, which emphasizes decentralization and helping local leaders serve their parishes and schools, according to Lori Dahlhoss of the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education and Formation Ministries.
“The archdiocese at this point has very few what you would call ‘mandates,’” Dahlhoss said.
St. Paul-Minneapolis does have a set of religion standards designed so that no matter what kind of textbook or religious education model is used, schools and parishes can still be held accountable for certain learning expectations, Dahlhoss said. The standards are based on the Catechism, the national and general directories for catechesis, Scripture and human development.
“This allows for the flexibility that has been a part of this diocese for a long time,” Dahlhoss said, “but it’s also calling us to shared responsibility for the handing on of the fullness of the Catholic faith.”
In spite of the archdiocese’s lack of a mandate when it comes to religious education texts, most of the parishes and schools in a random check of 10 by the Register were found to be using books from the bishops’ conformity listing.
The exceptions were St. Joan of Arc Parish in Minneapolis, Nativity of Our Lord Parish in St. Paul, and
Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Minnetonka.
At St. Joan of Arc, Kathy Itzin, director of grade-school formation, uses the Pflaum Gospel Weeklies, a lectionary-based resource, for Grades 1-6. Because it is not a traditional textbook, the series has not been evaluated by the bishops. Itzin said it does have a scope-and-sequence chart correlating each lesson to the Catechism, however. As a supplement, the parish also uses Living the Good News, another lectionary-based resource from Church Publishing, Inc., which produces materials for Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal and other churches.
St. Joan’s program for Grades 7 and 8 uses Way to Live: Christian Practices for Teens, published by Upper Room Books, a non-Catholic publisher. Itzin said the St. Joan program emphasizes the Gospels, Christ and social justice, although it does teach other things specific to the Catholic faith, such as the Eucharist.
“If you form people with knowledge of living out of the Scriptures,” she said, “they come out a well-formed Christian.”
At Nativity of Our Lord Parish in St. Paul, children in Grades 1-7 learn from texts that have been found in conformity with the Catechism, but eighth graders are enrolled in a mini-course program using two resources that lack the conformity designation. They are Ascension Press’s T-3: The Teen Timeline, a Bible study, and a series on Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body for teens.
Randy Mueller, director of religious education, said he chose those materials because, even though they had not been reviewed by the bishops, he believed them to be consistent with the teaching of the magisterium.
At Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Minnetonka, the junior high program is using Discovering, an older series from St. Mary’s Press that has not been through the bishops’ review process because St. Mary’s Press is only submitting new texts to the bishops’ committee. Grades 1-6 use a series from the bishops’ conformity listing.
Patricia Byrd, parish religious education coordinator, said she wasn’t concerned that the junior high series lacks the conformity declaration since it likely will be changed in the future as the program is revised and new materials are brought in.
Told about the three parishes using nonstandard texts, Dahlhoss said she thinks the use of such materials will be less frequent as the archdiocese moves toward greater awareness and use of its religion standards, which have only been in place about a year. She added that she thinks educators in the archdiocese are trying to be conscientious about using up-to-date materials. “I’ve been exceedingly impressed with the leaders,” she said.
Ronald Pihokker, director of the Archdiocese of Newark catechetical office, has said that by designing programs from several sources parishes run the risk of confusing catechists. Textbooks, he said, are based on programs that have various kinds of ancillary support, including teacher guides.
“So if you don’t buy into the whole series,” he said, “you’re running a number of different risks. You’re losing all that support, losing the continuity of the curriculum as it’s designed for that particular series.”
Pihokker also said that major publishers have gone to great lengths to provide programs that cover all the bases. “The danger is that when we put something together ourselves, something is falling through the cracks,” he said.
[...Snip] National Catholic Register

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