The Upper East Side of Manhattan is an unlikely spot for any populist phenomenon, especially within the Church. Yet, for the last 12 years, a dedicated group of lay persons has been quietly bringing off a minor revolution in the way the Catholic catechism is taught to children. This small revolution, which is bound to spread west of the Hudson, is called the Narnia Clubs, after the C.S. Lewis series of novels for children.
Of course, “revolution” is in the eye of the beholder. To those afflicted with what Russell Shaw has dubbed “a hide-bound ecclesiology,” the idea of lay people taking responsibility for the religious education of grade-schoolers is alarming and dangerous. Isn’t CCD supposed to be the exclusive business of the Church? Isn’t that what nuns are for? Well, yes. But in many places the Church has entrusted catechism to a class of people who, to put it delicately, lack a supernatural outlook, and nuns are seldom available anymore.
But to those acquainted with the current mind of the Magisterium, the Narnia Clubs is a very logical development. The laity, John Paul II has told us, have got to get involved in catechism. Even in dioceses which have escaped the general implosion of catechetics, lay people should pitch in if only because of the current demographics of priests and nuns. And in those places where the deposit of faith has been reduced to “post-critical” mush by the local CCD establishment — well, to quote Cardinal Ratzinger, certain fiefdoms within the Church ought to have their monopolies impinged on by “a qualified laity.” In a CCD program in Connecticut, for example, the Book of Genesis is no longer mentioned on the grounds that it is “scientifically inaccurate.” Somebody ought at least to send a care package of Magisterial documents on how to read Scripture.
Like all good things, Narnia started small. A handful of parents met in the living-room of a very talented woman named Mickie Teetor. Now, on any given weekday, nearly 200 grade-school children — ages 7 to 13 — meet in apartments and classrooms all over the Upper East Side to acquire sound Catholic doctrine, along with the spiritual formation they need to cope with a radically secular environment. Narnia classes are taught by unpaid volunteers: writers, editors, housewives, Wall Street executives, teachers, students, and seminarians. Several priests also help with instruction for First Communion and Confirmation. Many of these volunteers lead busy professional and family lives and make great sacrifices to teach. Each receives a modest stipend to cover expenses and commuting costs. The $300 tuition pays for textbooks and a full-time director. And, yes, there is some fundraising.
As for the text books, Narnia uses Ignatius Press’ superb Faith and Life series. These texts are clear, intelligent, and doctrinally sound. They were produced by Catholics United for the Faith in response to widespread complaints that a number of post-Vatican II catechisms fudged many truths of the faith. (These complaints were not fanciful: for details, see Msgr. Michael Wrenn’s Catechisms and Controversies.) The Ignatius books reflect the actual teachings of the Council and, while respectful of the child’s experience, are untainted by current fads like affective education and values clarification.
Orthodox Catholics now find themselves in a missionary situation among their co-religionists. Since the Council of Trent, the Church, whatever mistakes it made, did manage to see that the deposit of faith was passed from generation to generation. That chain is now broken. The collapse of classical catechetics in the 60s and 70s is a catastrophe which is not yet fully understood by the American hierarchy. Today, for all they know about the faith, many Catholic children might as well be belong to remote pagan tribes. Sunday sermons are not information-rich, and baby-boom parents, who were the original victims of the post-Vatican II CCD experiments, often have only vague notions of why Christ came to earth. But these same parents, despite their practical indifferentism, are nervous about not “exposing” their children to the faith. This is where a program like Narnia can do enormous good.
And speaking of the grown-ups: the average Catholic probably does not spend five consecutive minutes reading or thinking about his faith once grade-school catechism is over. So this has been an extra dividend of Narnia: the adults who get involved find that the program amounts to a refresher course in the faith. We also try to let the parents know that they are the primary religious educators of their children. And this includes the fathers, who often think that passing on the faith is woman’s work. The pope himself once told a journalist that it was his father who taught him that there is no contradiction between manliness and a life of prayer.