How Low Can You Go?

The depths to which Catholic Catechesis has fallen


On Sunday morning [the second in Eastertide, 2008] I was snowed in. Hence I could not travel to Mass at Farnborough Abbey. Hence that evening I had to satisfy my obligation to attend Mass by attending my local parish Church - St Bede's, Basingstoke. Mgr Vincent Harvey presided at the typically casual and irreverent event - I was going to write "spectacle", but really it was so dull, tedious and uninspiring that it couldn't possibly justify such an epithet. The most remarkable aspect of the performance was the enthusiastic singing of Mgr Harvey [the Vicar General of the Diocese of Portsmouth], who seemed to fancy his distinctive vocal talents.

Never mind! As modern liturgies go it was "all right" - in the sense that (by modern norms) there were no obvious "abuses" - not that I tried to check for any! I was trying very hard to pay as little attention as possible to what Mgr Harvey was getting up to, so as to mind my blood pressure. Oh, sorry, I'm wrong. I'd forgotten that changing texts from the published norm still counts as an abuse. I can't be certain (because I wasn't following what Mgr Harvey was saying in a missal) but I'm pretty sure that he deviated significantly [in favour of "political correctness"] from the official text of the eucharistic preface. Of course, there was nothing "any good" about the liturgy either. It was conducted in an off-hand, slovenly and casual manner. Every attempt was made to emphasize aspects - such as the offertory and peace - that are (at best) of secondary importance and to de-emphasize the central act of Eucharistic Offering.

Enough! My business today is not to critique Mgr Harvey's liturgical ineptitude, but to discuss Catholic catechesis. Hence, on to his sermon.

  • It was suggested that we should "pray with Jesus" - not "to Jesus", but "with Jesus".
    • Now, this is not an absolutely wrong idea; but in the way it was put across it definitely gave the impression that:
      • "Jesus is a human being just like us" and
      • "Jesus has a relationship with God just like ours".
      • These two propositions are - of course - heretical.
    • I am not aware of anywhere in the New Testament where it is suggested that Christians do, did or should "pray with Jesus".
      • When He gave us his model prayer, He said "when you pray" not "when we pray".
      • In the Garden of Gethsemane He said "Sit here, while I go yonder and pray."
  • The "consecrated elements" were referred to as the "bread and wine of life".
    • Nowhere in scripture (still less, Catholic/Orthodox Tradition) are the contents of the consecrated chalice referred to as "the wine of life".
    • The consecrated bread is only so referred to because Jesus called Himself [not the eucharistic bread after consecration] "The Bread of Life".
  • It was stated that in our Eucharistic practice we discover God in each other, just like we discover God in our secular dealings.
    • No clear distinction was made between Christian fellowship and worldly society.
    • No mention was made of either the Sacramental or the Sacrificial nature of the Eucharist.
    • No mention was made of the fact that in the Eucharist we meet God objectively and transcendentally; in a way that is of an entirely different order than how we encounter God in our day-to-day affairs.
    • What was said could best be understood in terms of "the sign of peace" being the essential part and focus and summit of the Mass.
  • It was stated that in our practice of the Eucharist we should not reflect on God's glory or on the gift that is received or anything of this kind, but rather - as soon as communion has been received - we should hurry out of the church to get involved, once more, in the troubles of the world; just as the two disciples hurried from Emmaus back to Jerusalem.
    • It was suggested that the fact the the Mass does not terminate with the communion of the laity - and with them exiting the church immediately after receiving communion was a bad thing and a defect in the present celebration of the Mass.
    • Now - rightly or wrongly, I believe that in point of fact, the ancient practice was to terminate the Eucharist with the communion of the faithful, with no concluding blessing or prayers of any kind; but this does not mean that the laity scarpered as soon as they had received communion!
    • Apart from anything else, it is highly plausible that they spent a good deal of time in conversation and general friendly interaction!
Clearly, this catechesis is at the very least seriously defective; arguably it is materially heretical. Note that it was being delivered by the Vicar General of the Diocese of Portsmouth: the priest who is the Bishop's deputy and so should be an exemplar of the presbyterial ministry!

It is precisely because of this kind of uncatholic catechesis and eucharistic praxis that I systematically absent myself from my own parish. As far as I can perceive reality, what goes on there is an entirely different religion - in spirit and in practice - from that which I profess and which is presented and practised at Farnborough Abbey.


Yesterday I had the great pleasure of entertaining, James, the sixteen year old son of an old friend of mine, Amanda.

I should first tell you a bit about Amanda, James and his older brother, Stuart. Amanda has a deep faith and a heart of gold, but is not well versed in theology and is pretty much a "Vatican II Catholic". Both of her sons are/were students at St John Fisher School, Surrey; one of the best non-fee-paying Catholic schools in the country; where the conservative "Faith Movement" started and has a continuing influence. Both Stuart and James attended many meetings of the "Faith Movement", have been to many years of "Religious Education" classes, and have attended Church in a "vibrant" Roman Catholic parish: "St William of York" where they must have heard about 300-800 sermons. They have been brought up in a loving Catholic family and have been encouraged to develop a personal faith at home.

Stuart is my GodSon and is a deeply spiritual young man. He is pretty committed to God and Jesus and the Catholic Religion. However, when I started to get to know him properly, about a year ago, it became clear that he knew almost nothing about Catholicism, or the Church or about being a Catholic - except in the most superficial terms. He was sure that he wanted to be a Catholic, but he had very little idea as to what he was supposed to believe about anything or how he was supposed to live his life - apart from generally "being nice". He had no real experience of studying the Bible and his idea of personal prayer was at the level of "lists of petitions", like the bidding prayers of the Novus Ordo Mass. The only adequate phrase to describe his state of theological, spiritual and ethical formation (and this is no reflection on Stuart as a person, whom I have come to love and respect!) was "Pig Ignorance".

It is apparent that contemporary Catholic catechesis has entirely failed him. This is in spite of the fact that he is keen to understand and finds no difficulty in following my explanations of Catholic belief and practice based on systematic philosophy, orthodox theology and reference to Scripture. Under my occasional and irregular mentoring, he has come on leaps and bounds in his understanding of the Catholic Faith; but he still has a very long way to go - as do we all, of course!

This is a terrible indictment of contemporary Catholic catechesis. If it was going to succeed with any-one, it should have done so with Stuart; but it hasn't. It hasn't even succeeded in making him the kind of "Catholic" that, I expect, the people delivering the catechesis would have liked him to become. Stuart has a spiritual affinity for traditional worship, even though - until I could expose him to it - he had never known anything other than trendy, progressivist, happy-clappy, "Catholicism".

Back to Monday and to James.

James is a very private person. He is a deep, clear and incisive thinker. He is, rightly, suspicious of any and all people that he perceives to be trying to influence him. It takes a good deal of effort - backed by a degree of integrity - to win his trust and friendship. He is, in my view, even more intelligent than Stuart; having a command of English far beyond the norm for his age. When I first started to get to know him properly - about six months ago - he had just decided to give up on Catholicism. When I asked him why, he produced the following deeply troubling syllogism:

  • Major Premise:  The true religion [if there was such a thing] would make people happy.
  • Minor Premise:  Catholicism doesn't make people happy.
  • Conclusion:       Hence Catholicism is a false religion.
After hearing this from him (at the end of a long conversation about other matters) I sought permission from his mother, Amanda, to try to engage him in an informal reflective catechetical process, so as to encourage him to revise his view of the matter. She refused to encourage or envisage any such; on the basis that it was up to James to decide what he believed and it might do more harm to pressurize him than to "just leave him be". I was very upset with this decision, as I was pretty sure that James had never had a real chance to learn about Catholicism [even though he had been brought up in a "Catholic" family, listened to many "Catholic" sermons, received communion many times and attended a "Catholic" school for years] any more than had his brother, Stuart.

Over the next few months I sought to win James's trust and friendship in various ways, without the help of his parents, and eventually did so. This process resulted in yesterday's meeting.

I asked him about his experience of "Religious Education" at his "good Catholic school". He replied that it was simply "worthless". This did not surprise me, given the many long conversations I had had with his elder - and more "spiritual" - brother. When I probed further, he explained that it was all about "What the adherents of various religions typically believed regarding 'issues'" and was focussed on "facts" rather than understanding. He explained that there was an opportunity for the students to say what they each "believed" too - but there was never any presentation of why some belief might be thought to be true, nor any systematic explanation or defence of the Catholic Faith.

When asked to name the sacraments, he listed the seven specified by Trent - but under their modern names. When asked to give an account of what he's been taught [not what he himself believed] about:

  • "The Trinity", he produced a clear and unambiguous classical Sabellian account of the matter.
    • This certainly did not surprise me, as I've heard the same thing from a number of Catholic and Protestant pulpits over the last few years.
  • "The Incarnation", he disclaimed any ability to do so whatsoever.
  • "The Eucharist", he gave a Zwinglian account in terms of a communal meal at which people receive some "blessed bread and wine" and think about and remember Jesus.
    • This is, of course, exactly the kind of belief that would have been inculcated by the sermon I heard on Monday.
  • "Purgatory", he gave a pretty good - but naive - account, missing out any notion of "punishment".
  • "Infallibility", he said that he'd never even heard of it!
This after ten years of Catholic Religious Education! Jame's issue is not that he finds the lures of contemporary society or the claims of modern science - or anything else - preferable to the Catholic Faith. The fact is that he has no real idea of what the Christian Gospel is supposed to be, or of the content of the Catholic Faith. He has never had any of this presented to him in a coherrent or credible manner. It shouldn't need to be said, but just in case any-one misconstrues what I have written:
What I write here is intended as a critique of "the modern Roman Catholic Church" as an organisation; not Amanda, not any member(s) of her family! None of what I write about here is their fault. It is the responsibility of the leadership of "the modern Roman Catholic Church". Amanda (and other parents) should never have been placed in the exposed position that I have described. Parents cannot be expected - as a generality - to be evangelists, apologists or theologians. They require and should be able to expect support from professionals who have the appropriate charisms and training. They were "set up to fail" by the Church leadership who have withdrawn this support from them. I don't blame Amanda - or other parents - for this one bit!

Amanda's only "fault" was to trust the Catholic Church's present leadership and to be suspicious of me: an out-of-work meddlesome acquaintance, with no relevant qualifications and who is in serious dispute with the Catholic Church's present leadership on a wide range of important issues and, indeed, pretty much its entire "orientation". Some kind of fault! Who could blame her for this? I certainly don't!

I then spent a good deal of time explaining to James the first things about the Gospel and about Jesus' promise of "Eternal Life" and the "Resurrection" - all of which seemed to be pretty new to him. I tried to convince him that his syllogism failed because:
  • He had no real idea of what the Catholic Faith is, even though he'd supposedly been subject to systematic "indoctrination" for ten years or more!
  • The same went for most people who were supposed to be "Catholics" - including many of the Church's leaders.
  • Hence, the fact that what "passes for Catholicism" regularly doesn't make people happy doesn't mean that "real Catholicism" is a false religion.
  • It only means that the sociological entity "the contemporary Roman Catholic Church" is a very, very poor implementation of "the Ideal Holy, Orthodox, Apostolic and Evangelical Catholic Church of Christ".
Update [July 2012] Stuart has just informed me that he has given up on the faith. He had put himself in grave danger of lapsing by travelling to the Far East in pursuit of work and Asian girls, to a place where it was inconvenient to practice his religion and where he had no access to Traditional Liturgy or any kind of spiritual direction or pastoral care. I had expected that this would be the outcome, but was still very upset to learn that what I feared would happen had indeed happened.

Update [December 2014] Stuart visited me this week. This was the first opportunity we have had to discuss why he lapsed. Stuart still vaguely believes in God - or at least some kind of "creative intelligence" - and is still committed to an objective account of both epistemology and ethics. He seems to have fallen away from the Church for the following reasons:

  1. His religion was never really personal; but mostly a matter of external observance. The catechesis and formation he received never had any spiritual depth.
  2. He found that - apart from me! - every Catholic he met seemed not to be in any way a better person because of the practice of their religion; but rather that Catholicism tended to make people worse. Stuart thinks that religion tends to bring out the worst in people; making them either self-indulgent or self-righteous.
    • Some Catholics seem to be blasé about truth and tend towards irrational sentimentalism or anti-intellectual "hippy style" self-indulgence, along the lines of: "if it feels good it must be right; and in any-case it is true for me! Who are you to tell me different? Everyone has a right to their own opinion!" This is very much the outlook of Stuart's mother. I have met many other such people in "progressive" Roman Catholic circles - and, more recently and tragically, in the UGCC parish which I used to attend habitually.
    • Other Catholics are authoritarian and narrow in their thinking. They only use "reason" to rationalise pre-determined positions and never to explore or deepen their understanding of the faith. Such people are terrified of doubt or uncertainty. For such people obedience is the only real virtue: once one believes that the Catholic Faith is true, one completely discharges one's religious obligation by handing over one's conscience and judgement to the hierarchy and in particular the Vatican and the Pope of Rome. 
      • Stuart told me of a friend of his, whom I met once, Matthew. Stuart used to like and respect Matthew as someone with a good intellect; but more recently Matthew had given Stuart the impression that he thought that the human intellect was little more than a play thing: something which one could amuse oneself by exercising, but not a worth-while tool to disclose what was true: only "faith" (more accurately "uncritical acceptance of the Catholic Magisterium in all its particulars") could determine truth. Matthew went to seminary, and Stuart assumes that he is now a priest.
      • Stuart also told me of the Dominican priest who was the chaplain for Catholic students in Leicester. I met this man once myself and fell-out with him quite quickly as he played the "I am a priest, therefore I know better than you" card. On one occasion, Stuart had asked him a probing question and the priest had answered with a "party-line response"; but Stuart had thought that he saw fear in the priest's eyes, as if the man knew deep inside that the answer he was giving was not adequate (perhaps even false) and was afraid of what this meant for the substance of his entire belief system.
      • On another occasion, Stuart put forward one of my ideas which he had found interesting to a priest only to have it dismissed out of hand as not worthy of consideration.
  3. Stuart feels that he does not really "belong" in the Church as he finds the attitudes which are common their repellent. Moreover he found that professing to be a Catholic caused him to be ostracised by secular folk, as they assumed that he bought into the negative outlook and inhumane image which the contemporary Church projects: basically anti-women, anti-homosexual, anti-sex, anti-euthanasia...
  4. Stuart finds that the practice of Catholicism is not in any way attractive or appealing. He said that he had found the Novus Ordo Roman liturgy as performed at Farnborough Abbey something of an exception.

It makes me angry

that those in charge of Catholic catechesis have allowed the situation to develop that deep thinking, spiritually minded, intelligent young people can emerge from what should have been a process of philosophical, theological and spiritual formation with no idea whatsoever of what the Gospel of Jesus is or of the history of the Church or of the content of Her Dogmatic teaching or of the relevance of it to their daily lives.

It makes me angry

that these people will take no responsibility for the abject failure of their project to make the Church "relevant to the Modern World".

It makes me angry

that they will not reverse the "modernization" of the Church that has destroyed Her soul and rationale.

It makes me angry

that there is no opportunity for me to address this situation in the way that I know that I both want to and am able to do, simply because I am "too traditionalist" in my views.

From three correspondemts:

"Your papers on Catholic teaching have been quite interesting. I wish you had taught my RCIA class. Our director of religious education decided to present catholic teaching on a level suitable for twelve year-olds. She was concerned that the people in the class would become confused or bored with a more advanced presentation of the faith. I have been in church since I was a toddler so her presentations had only a little new information for me." [August 2002]

"I had long ago visited [your web site], but this time I came to it with a new insight and a new perspective. Although I am quiet new to the Church, many of the reasons I came to the Catholic Church to start with aren't evident or present anymore. I originally was drawn to the Catholic faith through the catechism and then through much reading (although I think I could have saved much time by reading your site first). The tradition and liturgy spoke to me in a way that no other faith had up to that point.

I started RCIA over two years ago with the inquiry phase, but it became very clear that I already knew more about the church and the faith than many of my well intentioned members of the RCIA team. This only strengthened my resolve to join the Catholic Faith. I then moved into the next phase right before Easter. My first celebration of Easter in the Catholic Church was a very moving and spiritual one. Never before had I experienced the true meaning of Easter as I did then.

Soon though, certain things began to bother me. I noticed that very few people would genuflect when coming in for Mass, or would bow to the alter when they passed it. I knew this was a tradition and one that showed great respect to the holiness of the place. I asked the members of the RCIA team and their response was "We used to genuflect when the host was kept at the front of the church, but since we now keep it in a room off to the side we no longer feel it necessary." I understood but their reply only troubled me more. I asked that while would explain the lack of people genuflecting, but what about them not bowing to the alter? "Oh, the priest does that for us." and that troubled me even more. These are just a few of the examples of what I've experienced since I started on the second part of my journey. There are more, but from reading your site I'm sure you know already what I've been feeling." [November 2002]

"I can think of at least three seperate occasions when I have tried to convert to Roman Catholicism. I've attended RCIA in a couple of typical parishes and really just found them wanting. Most people seem to have been there just out of convenience for reasons of getting married, etc. I haven't met anyone who comes to the Church from the perspective of having not found Truth in other churches and out of a deep hunger for the Sacraments. My most recent experience in an RC parish found catechists who were spewing theology that was far more liberal than the most liberal protestants I have know." [September 2008]

This is the way that the Church dies, and it deserves to do so!

"And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night?

Will he delay long over them?

I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily.

Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

[Lk 8:7-8]

Madrid, Jan 14, 2009 / 01:12 am (CNA).- 

A study by the University of Madrid professor Pedro Gonzalez has revealed that the percentage of young people aged 15-24 who call themselves Catholic dropped from 77 to 49 percent during the last decade and that almost half of them say religion classes were practically useless. According to the study, the drop is the result of the Church's positions on issues such as homosexual marriage, abortion or euthanasia, which are positions considered "unpopular" by young people. Likewise, 79% think the Church is too rich and 82% think the Church's teachings on sexual matters are outdated. However, half of all young people say the Church helps the poor and needy through institutions such as Caritas. Regarding religion classes, almost half of all young people said they were completely useless. Thirty six percent thought they were somewhat or very helpful, while 10% said they did not take the classes. 

Before the 1970s I had never met a Catholic who claimed to believe anything else about the Trinity except that God is three distinct persons in one divine being: Father Son and Holy Ghost. This is because we had learnt well our catechism; the Mass, Sacraments, and Devotions were very much centred upon the worship of the Holy Trinity; and our creeds, prayers and catholic language in general explicity and clearly professed belief in the Trinity of God and the Divnity of Christ. 

I remember no hint of modalism or sabellianism. We spoke of the Tabernacle as God's house, the Sacred Host as God's Body, the Mother of our Lord as God's Mother, knowing that it was the Second Person of the Tirnity, not the First or the Second. We said that God was born, God died and God rose again for our sakes. Nobody doubted that Chist is God, that the Father and the Holy Ghost are also God, but not Christ. 

This changed slowly but surely after the Second Vatican Council, due to ecumenism and rapproachment with liberal protestantism, the total abandonment of cathechesis of children and youth, the expunging from the Mass, Sacraments and Devotions of any reference to the Trinity and to Christ's Divinity. Eventually the language, beliefs, hymns and devotions of many of the Catholic laity - especially younger Catholics who grew up without catechism -  changed too; from a clear Catholic Orthodoxy to a muddled, vague belief in a unitarian God - with Jesus as His adopted human Son and the Spirit as a sort of meaningless wind  - akin to modern liberal, protestant (semi)-Arianism. 

Still, most Catholics my age still know that there are Three Distinct Persons in One Godhead.  The majority of Protestants seems to have abandoned Orthodox Trinitairian belief and worship much earlier. 

Offically we Catholics still profess pre-Vatican II Trinitarian Orthodoxy; but in practise, many no longer seem even to have heard of the Holy Trinity: certainly not those who were brought up with the Novus Ordo Missae and  Catholic mis-education classes on Saturdays. [A Catholic Priest (November 2009)]