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No, the situation could hardly be more serious, unless Diocletian reclined still in his palace, and martyrs still faced night arrest and torture in the amphitheaters. The situation could hardly be more dire, unless the old Roman law still survived that stated flatly, frighteningly, “It is unlawful for Christians to exist.” No such law operates today, but the Catholic Church in the United States behaves as if one did. The situation is this: that the Catholic Church in the United States is committing suicide through refusal to educate its people.

I have almost twelve years of formal Catholic education at my back—seven-and-a-half years of Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) classes, four years of religion classes at a Catholic high school—and for the edification of my reader I will now report everything I can remember.

I remember we drew and colored pictures for the first several years of CCD, at the same time that we were experiencing the sacraments of first communion and first confession.

I remember that even as late as the first day of our eighth-grade CCD class, our teacher asked us what we would like to do, and if we would like to color. Being thirteen-and fourteen-year-olds, I think we hinted that we’d rather not. Our teacher went on to become a priest.

I remember we memorized the Act of Contrition one year, and the Beatitudes another.

I remember in high school, the second half of our sophomore year religion class was devoted to “Sex, Sexuality, and You.” There was a purple-covered textbook by that name, and in it was a drawing of an erect penis. I vividly remember that.

I remember one day in high school we saw a filmstrip on Church history. The narrator mentioned Constantine and the Great Schism.

I remember our junior and senior year religion textbooks were called Deciding and Relating, and one day we talked about what would be the moral thing to do if two boys asked us out on a date for the same night. I remember we learned that most of the Gospel stories, none of which we actually read, had been invented by authors who wanted to make Jesus seem like a god, because by 100 AD the memory of his life was fading.

I remember we learned that the only two things anyone really knew about Jesus’ birth were that he was born during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, and that he was born during a census.

I remember we learned that Pope Innocent III ordered all the Jews in Europe to wear yellow badges on their hats (so you see he did not really live up to his name, “Innocent”).

I remember we had to bring a New Testament to CCD classes, and a Bible to our high school religion classes. We never read even as much from them as I later would read in college biblical or world literature courses—where, in the interests of the higher criticism, I was instructed to ignore the Bible’s mythological patina and look on Jesus in his true form, as one of a half-dozen Near Eastern vegetation gods—to look on the Almighty himself, in fact, in his true form, as a Sinaitic volcano god. Professors fear nothing.

I remember my high school friends and I sniffed out, with unfailing adolescent instinct, the racy parts of the Old Testament, and giggled at lunchtime over the flat-chested little sister in the Song of Songs.

And that is just about all. My reader may say that my memories are my own fault. He may say that if my memories of a Catholic Christian education are this sparse, it is because I was a bad student, and did not pay attention to twelve years’ worth of surely more valuable lessons than these. He may be kind, and say that naturally all children sometimes let their wits wander in the schoolroom, and are the poorer for it in adulthood, or he may be severe, and say that I was perverse all along, absorbing then only what I wanted to learn, recalling now only what I wish to retain. He may say simply that human memory is a faulty, fragile thing.

All such protestations may be true, and I will not, therefore, defend myself against any but one of them: for I do insist that I have not recalled only what I wish to retain. My reader must believe that I have not really selected the most damaging memories I can think of, from some larger store, in order to cast my education in the worst possible light. I have set down every item of my Catholic schooling that I can with certainty bring up. Every one; but perhaps if I honestly display, not only my poor memories of the Catholic things I did learn, but also a catalog of all the Catholic things, the fundamental things, of which I remained ignorant long after my religious schooling was finished, then my reader will be persuaded that it was the education that was to blame, and not the student.

Until the past few years, when I began to try to educate myself, I was so unacquainted with the Bible, particularly the New Testament, that I did not know who were the twelve apostles. In fact, I persisted for quite a while as a child thinking that the Lord had twenty-four close friends, twelve apostles and twelve disciples. I long did not understand the differences among apostles, disciples, and evangelists. I do not remember exactly when these confusions were cleared up, but I am sure the clearing was not done in a classroom.

I did not know the difference between the Gospels and Epistles.

I did not know which were the holy days of obligation, nor when they occur.

I did not how to say the Rosary, nor what its decades represent.

I knew no prayers except the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be (I had long since forgotten the Act of Contrition). I remember in high school an elderly nun, substituting for an absent teacher, once tried to lead us in a recital of the Memorare, and rebuked us with old-fashioned disgust, poor lady, when only four or five girls out of a class of twenty-five could follow her.

I knew almost nothing of the Church calendar, of its seasons and feast days.

I did not understand the Immaculate Conception. I always thought that the feast of the Immaculate Conception commemorated the conception of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and that the days from December 8 to December 25 represented, in telescoped form, the Virgin’s pregnancy.

I did not know what was original sin: I thought it was sex, and could not gather what sex had to do with either the apple or the “Fall.”

I did not understand what was signified by the word “Passion,” nor did I know why a lamb was supposed to represent Christ in this connection. I learned about the Lamb while reading Jeff Smith’s essay “The Syre Proof: Wine and Theology” in The Frugal Gourmet Cooks With Wine.

I was ignorant, and remain basically so, of the gigantic topic of Church history.

I still cannot answer the equally gigantic question, What is a Christian, to my own satisfaction, and have no idea when I will be able to do so. For you see, I will not be satisfied with any definition of the term until I know that my definition is the Church’s definition—I wish to be correct—and from experience I know how difficult it is to get the American Church, in the person of its appointed teachers, to tell the faithful anything, however elementary. I guess I may run across the definition sometime. For my reader must understand this point, that when I display my ignorance, when I say “I did not know, I did not understand,” I do not mean that the Catholic fundamentals were given me and I could not grasp them. I mean that such fundamentals as I have listed were never discussed in any Catholic classroom in which I ever set foot. Never discussed, never presented, hardly hinted at; I have just run across things later. We were too busy coloring, doing things that took twelve years to do but left only a handful of impressions on my memory.

Lest my reader complain again that my reflections are too personal, too arbitrary to be trusted, lest he say that my idiocy is my own problem (and indeed there is a stern paragraph in the Pocket Catholic Dictionary under the entry “Vincible Ignorance”), I will introduce him, gladly, to the Catholics of my acquaintance who are even bigger ignoramuses than I am. These are Catholics who have endured enough official education to be permitted to make the sacraments.

One of them does not know that the bread and wine at Mass literally become the body and blood of Christ. He thinks they are symbols of the same, and is incredulous when told he ought to believe in Transubstantiation.

Another, asked to identify the twelve apostles, begins by reeling off the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Asked to excise two names from that list, he draws back in surprise and then inserts Paul.

Another shrugged blankly upon one day encountering the phrase “church at Corinth” in a bit of reading—and if this should seem a minor fault, remember that to not recognize “Corinth” is to not know Corinthians, which is in turn to not know St. Paul and therefore a good chunk of the New Testament. Perhaps my reader begins to see what place Scripture has in an American Catholic’s formal education.

Another Catholic does not know the difference between the Assumption and the Ascension, nor what persons are honored on the feast days so named, nor when the feast days occur.

One cannot distinguish among the Gospel characters Pontius Pilate, Herod, and Caiaphas, nor among their titles and roles in the Passion narrative. Another believes that the Kyrie is the Latin version of the “Lamb of God” formula recited at each Mass.

One is not sure what person is called “Our Lady.”

These are the Catholics of my acquaintance whom even I, raw as I am, was able to catch out in ignorance greater than my own. What I insist upon is not that I move in an uncommonly foolish circle of people—for my reader must believe me: I am not stupid, they are not stupid—but that such ignorance as I have described is routine, routinely met. This is normal. If such a small sampling of the faithful population labors in such intense darkness, then how must the whole Church suffer? We do not know even the fundamentals of our religion, and we are not stupid. If the fundamentals had ever been given to us, I think we could have absorbed them. But they were not given.

How desperately the Church in my own school days struggled to withhold that gift: How frantically my teachers worked to fill the time with anything except plain information! They could stall for years. They are still stalling now, to judge only from the seminaries closing down, and from official worries about the Shortage of Priests. Of course. Without education, the strongest vocations for religious life will dry up like plants never watered. Who can join a club he’s never heard of? On behalf of their church, my teachers cultivated such innocence as would have made any harassed pagan emperor smile, and sleep soundly in his bed.

Naturally, none of this matters if Christianity does not matter, in which case my reader may put this essay down. I write because I am only puzzled to know what the American Church is thinking of. Christianity matters to it, I assume, and yet it will not teach. In my own parish’s weekly bulletin a priest writes of the need to pass on the Catholic faith to young people, and yet he persists in organizing pizza parties, ski trips, and weekend excursions to amusement parks, none of them very well received. (What fifteen-year-old is going to eat pizza and visit Wisconsin Dells with a priest?) To my knowledge this man has never gathered ten adolescents into a classroom to speak to them about their religion. No teacher ever stood up in any classroom of mine and made any positive statement beginning with the words “This is so.”

I would have liked to learn something, anything. I would have enjoyed, for example, reading the first chapters of St. Luke’s Gospel. Those chapters include the Magnificat and the stories of the angels and shepherds, and close with disarming, lovely simplicity: “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” My introduction to St. Luke came instead from Linus’ spotlighted speech in A Charlie Brown Christmas. I would have been interested in anything, even little things—the nine choirs of angels (angels, archangels, thrones, seraphim, cherubim, dominations, virtues, powers, principalities), the five great basilicas of Rome, the seven deadly sins (or are they called venial?). What are the catacombs, limbo, forty hours devotions, Melchizedek, what is Cluny and who are the Copts, and why the varicolored vestments worn at Mass each Sunday? They never would tell us. I sometimes think information was withheld from us, exactly in proportion to its interest. Every summer we were belched out of our Catholic classrooms, scores of boys who will never become priests, scores of girls who cannot dream of becoming nuns. They would not teach us.

No, it does not matter, if Christianity does not matter. But I think the Catholic Church in America still says that it does matter, and so I am puzzled. Why will it not teach? Does it imagine that the world will give young Catholics the Christian education it neglects? Is it afraid to make us freaks among our peers? Is it afraid to make us dissidents before the state?

Let me sketch the world into which our poor young Catholics will move, carrying their abysmal official education with them. Or rather, no, let me only sketch what wondrous new lessons await them even in the next phase of their secular schooling, before they finally venture out into the world. I warn you. Catholic schoolteachers, this is what you pass your graduates to. It is not only that they will move into—that they have long lived in—a vigorously secular world. You know that, and how secular, I leave it to you to reflect. Contemplate our American Christmas, if your reflections need prompting.

It is more than that. If they go to college, say, for just a year or two, our young Catholics will enroll in philosophy classes where they will be far more likely to read Nietzsche (famously, “God is dead”) and Bertrand Russell (less famously, “Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about Him”) than St. Paul or St. Augustine. They will be much more likely to work on their school’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar, learning as they do quite a bit about our popular culture’s devotion to the rehabilitation of Judas Iscariot, than to ever hear St. Jerome’s name mentioned. They may take comparative literature courses in which Jesus, the dying-and-reviving god, is grimly rebuked for that crack he made about dogs to the Canaanite woman, and then let alone. They may take history classes in which they will learn of the various interesting Middle Eastern cults that competed for adherents in the ancient world in the centuries after Christ’s death. (Too bad Isis lost. Women might have had a better time of it.)

If our young Catholics were educated Christians they might at least be able to speak out in such classes, debating with professors and fellow students as rational adults. Being illiterates, they are helpless. The waves wash over them, and they pose no threat to the workings of undergraduate liberal arts departments, where all things are relative, all scholars fair-minded, and all values worthy, but Christianity unquestionably beyond the intellectual pale.

These were your subjects, Catholic schoolteachers, this illiteracy your problem. And now it is too late. Before they turn twenty, whatever tiny store of Christian knowledge your young might have possessed will feel the coup-de-grace at university, that fortress of learning, that rearer and polisher of good citizens. And your young will progress fully out into that ferociously secular adult world, and help make their country—no, nothing so grand, their Church—however Christian it is.

For any Catholic, young or, I suspect, old, in school or out, who wishes to break out of these confining walls and venture in to the lonely, windswept pale, self-education is the only answer. All self-educated people run the risk of becoming pedants; the self-educated Catholic also runs the risk of tumbling innocently into error. Having decided that the faith into which I was born is, after all, my cup of tea, I should like at least to be correct about certain things. Unfortunately, no guidance is forthcoming from the terrified American Church. I am alone, but for the books.

I had been long safely away from any Catholic classroom when I found and read my first really useful Catholic book, Rumer Godden’s novel In This House of Brede. But for this, I never would have suspected that Catholic Christianity is a faith that intelligent people may take seriously. From this, I got my first inkling that Catholicism is a surprisingly sophisticated religion. I got that inkling, I learned to suspect, because the author was not afraid to write down plain information about the Church’s teachings, traditions, and history. She was not embarrassed to say in effect, “If you are a Catholic, this is what you are.” She taught me things that no Catholic schoolteacher ever had the knowledge, or perhaps the permission, to teach me. The knowledge she passed on sparked my interest and respect, and so I have concluded that basic understanding of a faith must be the first step to having faith. How many things I plainly learned from her.

I learned about the Church calendar, bow the liturgical year begins with Advent and concludes with the feast of Christ the King on the last Sunday before the next Advent.

I learned about the Divine Office, how it is a collection of hymns and prayers recited at certain times of the day (Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline, Matins) for no other reason but to honor God. I even learned from a catechism book that it is “highly recommended for all the faithful”—imagine!

I learned the everyday importance of the Psalms, and have begun to try to read them with attention.

I learned about the three Masses said for Christmas, and about the Triduum, the three days concluding Holy Week, and what the Church does each of those days and what events are commemorated. I learned that the Last Supper is remembered on Holy Thursday, and about the Paschal candle, “inscribed with the date of the civil year and painted with the symbols of the Resurrection”—she is right, it is so. One Good Friday when I attended a Stations of the Cross for the first time, I saw the sanctuary of the church just as she described it. (The sanctuary, incidentally, is where the altar stands, although I am not sure of the difference between the sanctuary and the sacristy.) The cross was gone, the altar bare of linens, “the doors of the empty tabernacle,” where the communion wafers are kept, “flung open.” It was a great pleasure to catch sight of that little box, which I assume is the tabernacle, with its doors flung open on Good Friday, and to know why.

I learned about feast days. Corpus Christi, Holy Innocents, St. Stephen, St. Thomas of Canterbury, Pentecost (so much to learn), St. Benedict, St. Basil the Great, Our Lady of Perpetual Succor, Our Lady of Consolation.

I learned what is a monstrance, and what is an exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, so that when the parish announced such an observance, I knew what it was, and could attend. And while I was there I heard an old woman tell her young companion to genuflect on both knees. So I learned that.

I learned how a new church is consecrated, and how many Church councils have been held from the beginning until Vatican II (twenty).

I learned the names of old books and writers, and I gathered up ancient rich words, culled by an educated author from God knows what sources. Aelfric. Ancient Devotions to the Sacred Heart. “The Dream of the Rood.” “‘But Rufinus is a stylist. It would be appallingly difficult to do him justice.’” Nicodemus. St. Hildegarde. “He has distributed freely. He has given to the poor.” “I shall run the way of thy commandments when thou has opened wide my heart.” “Christus vincit, Christus regnat. Christus imperat.” The Fleury ‘Play of Herod.’ The Portiforium of St. Wulfstan of Worcester. “The lines have fallen unto me in pleasant places.” “Having seen Him, I love and trust Him.” “Open to me the gates of justice.”

Open to me the gates of justice. I learned, most gloriously, about music. Information about great Church music percolates through every chapter of the novel. And when I was done with it, how wasteful it seemed to me ever afterward that Catholic schoolchildren should grow up singing little grotesqueries like “Let There Be Peace On Earth,” “The King of Glory,” the “A-men” from Lilies of the Field, or the inexcusably repulsive “To Be Alive”:

To be alive and feeling free 
And to have everyone in your family 
To be alive in every way 
Oh how great it is
To be alive.

Some of these pathetic, keening ditties find their way into the Mass, where adults must suffer them; and I, in my rawness, must grope through the public library’s record collection in search of the Catholic exotica Rumer Godden showed me. I learned about Thomas Aquinas’ poetry for the Corpus Christi Mass (Lauda Sion), “set to the melody of a sequence of Adam of St. Victor.” I learned that there is a tune called Tonus Peregrinus, “with its fitting wandering air,” and something else called the Epiphany Jubilate. I learned about something called the Sarum Antiphonal, and Gaude, gaude, gaude, Maria virgo, and “‘the plainsong Christus factus est, and whoever it was who composed the Easter mass.’” I learned of another something called Rorate Coeli (“Drop down dew, ye heavens from above . . . and let the clouds rain the Just One”). “The Lord God will give him the throne of David, his father” . . . Jesu corona virginum . . . In Exitu Israel . . . “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended . . . “ These old words trail down, here and there, like creeping vines from a misted jungle canopy, luring the eye up to unseen, unimagined, rustling humid heights. Old, past songs, past thoughts, past people, long past histories and passions. Waste. Wasted time, wasted riches, wasted faith.

Fortunately for the solitary student, as with books, one piece of music leads to another. I have learned other names since finishing Rumer Godden’s novel. I have found the Pange Lingua (“Down in adoration falling, Lo, the sacred host we hail”—more Thomas Aquinas), Dies Irae, Stabat Mater, the Veni Creator Spiritus and records of Gregorian chant. I have found Eusebius’ History of the Church, Augustine’s Confessions, St. Catherine of Siena, and Hildegarde’s Scivias. So many names and books have I discovered, as to rather make Deciding, Relating, and even Sex, Sexuality, and You pale in comparison.

St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life. St. Therese of Lisieux, Autobiography. St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul. St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, The Way of Perfection, Autobiography. St. Francis of Assisi, The Little Flowers. Juliana of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love. Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, First Dream. St. Ignatius, Spiritual Exercises; St. Augustine, Rule, St. Benedict, Rule. St. Catherine of Genoa, Treatise on Purgatory. Clement, Polycarp, Tatian, Origen, Gregory Hildebrand, Gregory Nazianzen. The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, The Epistle to Diognetus, Miscellanies, Monologium, Proslogium, The Consolation of Philosophy. Athanasius, Irenaeus, Serapion, St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom, Boethius, St. Anselm, St. Ambrose, Abelard, Pascal, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Isidore of Seville; Pensees, Paraclesis, Divine Dialogue, The Cloud of Unknowing, Etymologies, Abandonment to Divine Providence, Mirror of Perfection. Bede, Columbanus, Boniface, Alfred the Great. Dante. Michael Psellus, Photius, Theodore Abbot of Studion. St. Bridget of Sweden, Gertrude the Great, Mechthild, St. Robert Bellarmine, Erasmus. Evelyn Underhill, The Mystics of the Church. Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter. G. K. Chesterton, The Father Brown Omnibus. Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ. Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island. The City of God. Summa Theologica. Thomas Costain, The Conquering Family: “Now there was in Rome at this time a great Pope, one of the very greatest of all Popes, Innocent III.” Imagine! He whose dark prejudices we were only taught to pity. Can there have been more to him than we were told?

I have discovered that Christians wrote many books in the last two thousand years, surely enough books to fill a few years of Christian formal education today. Surely we need not have colored so much, nor fallen back upon Deciding and Relating when we were already seventeen. Surely the American Church could have hinted at the weightiness of the faith, even to children, even to us. We might have learned how old this faith is, how heavy in history, how complex in traditions and deadly serious in creed. For myself, enlightenment falls softly, dumbly, as befits a near-perfect innocent. I look up occasionally from my reading and think. My! They were very serious about this, weren’t they? “But Blandina was hung on a post and exposed as food for the wild beasts let loose in the arena.” Or this, “ . . . its mystery and history, from the creation and beginnings of the world, through the Old Testament, the patriarchs, the foundations of Rome, to the opening of the New Testament, ‘all woven together into a marvelous whole.’” A marvelous whole. Yes, and I think. My! This is no slouch religion, is it? “Go and wait on the poor when they are sick in bed, wait on them, I say, with your own hands.”

Surely, I think, it was not for what I was taught that the first Christians accepted, and left their homes and occupations to travel to foreign lands and preach to strange, hostile peoples. It was not for this that they simply stayed home and believed and got laughed at, which may be harder. It was not so that things could come to this pass that Christians accepted imprisonment and execution rather than worship their neighbors’ idols or even speak ill of the new faith. It was not for this that men and women retired to cloistered cells to pray for the rest of their lives, nor for this that they nursed the sick, taught the illiterate, copied old manuscripts, fought battles, cleared land, built cities, raised Christian children, worked. It was not for this that missionaries crossed oceans and forests, scholars wore out their eyes in study and monks faced Vikings with their altars at their backs. It was not so that things might come to this pass, that Christians for sixty generations have believed. It was not to come to this pass: that the most affluent, sheltered schoolchildren who have ever lived should while away the years drawing pictures of waterfalls and of how they feel, and their Church call it education. That the wealthiest, cleanest, most sheltered adolescents who have ever lived should be spared the rigors of Bible study, but encouraged to investigate the sacred scriptures of the world’s other major religions. Yes, it is unmistakable. Of the Bible, teachers seem to say, “Look, this is why it’s so weird”; but the Bhagavad Gita and the Koran are noble wholes. Why, in the epic of Gilgamesh you can even see how the Bible authors plagiarized about Noah.

To this pass: that the most coddled, innocent young people who have ever lived should be taught to look down on their faith from the lofty heights of twentieth-century objectivity, smiling in wonder at its transparent origins, I frowning gravely at its sordid past. (Those baby loaves-and-fishes stories . . . the Inquisition . . . not standing up to Hitler.) To this pass: that the most privileged Catholics who have ever lived should be taught by their Church that their religion is a lie; for being kept purposely ignorant of it is the same thing as being told it is a lie. Of all that I have learned by myself in the last few years—the most extraordinary revelation has been that it might be true. Well, why not? Assuming that all people who have ever lived until now have not been zealot fools or simple children, assuming that even the most startling books may have been written and preserved in good faith, and that common people in their millions do not necessarily willingly follow obvious fraud even to the death, why then—perhaps it was true. “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

Unhappily, I am on my own, and so will my children be. Unless we are sent missionaries from other lands, I think we are all on our own. Even if I teach my children myself, which is dangerous considering my ignorance and my autodidact’s susceptibility to error, they still cannot make the sacraments without official schooling. Thus neatly does the American Church smother Christian learning, snatching the faithful out of danger when they are barely out of diapers. What kind of a Catholic am I, who fights my Church for the right to bring up my children as Catholics? How does such a contest look to the bewildered child? I do not know if Christ and the apostles intended Christians to be lone neophytes struggling by lamplight over obscure books, looking up cross-references in this year’s Catholic Almanac in the effort to be correct. The work is interesting, so I don’t mind it, but I am not sure that it is making me a Catholic or a Christian. I do not know that it will help bring me to salvation, which is, after all, the point.

“You need the community,” says a character in In This House of Brede. I have the community at Mass, fortunately. With each passing week I try to more thoroughly appreciate it, since it is lay people’s only living, communal link to the Christian past that their Church has not suffocated. I hope it will never be outlawed, because if it were, I am not sure the American Church would know how to do anything about it, lost as it is in these bleak surroundings and only a few pesky vines trailing down. “I saved the Cross,” says Chesterton’s Father Brown, “as the Cross will always be saved.” I wish it were so, but I am afraid. Maybe not for us. Not here.

Nancy W. Yos, new contributor to First Things, is a wife and mother in Lansing, Illinois.

Image by Fortepan, licensed via Creative Commons. Image screenshotted and cropped.