A certain gentleman I know told me that his young son is attending a private Catholic school that is run independently of the diocesan or religious order systems. He and his wife were evidently happy with the school: “It is a much more loving place, no Baltimore Catechism sort of thing.” Aside from the fact that few remember the last time that famous and worthy catechism was actually taught to anybody, this remark set me to thinking about what it logically implied.
What first came to my mind was the memory of my own first- or second-grade experience in Eagle Grove, Iowa. My brothers and I went to the local Catholic school, not the larger public school. When we walked by the public-school kids on our way home, we were often taunted as “Catleggers.” There were hints that they wanted to fight us. A few years later, in another town, I can recall that we went out of our way to avoid a bigger and tougher kid by the name of Ray. Whether we were better prepared to stand for what we held by turning the other cheek or by defending ourselves — or perhaps by a little of both — was not always clear. I do not mind little boys learning to be “loving,” provided they also learn at a pretty early age that sometimes they have to stand their ground and defend the truth, even if they lose.
But this brings up a further question: Is the teaching of the catechism, Baltimore or General, really an impediment to teaching children to be loving? I think, on the contrary, that it is rather dangerous to teach boys to be loving without also teaching them doctrine. This is more than the “tough love” that we sometimes hear about in connection with delinquents or other types of problem students or adults. Indeed, I would contend that we cannot know what love is unless we know the general doctrinal framework in which love exists in relation to the rest of life and to other virtues. Love does not come to us in spite of the truth but rather — if it is to be sane and safe — because of it.
The first thing that a young boy learns is not love but justice. When we were young, most of the fights I had with my brothers were over conflicting claims to justice. It was in this context of sorting out what was just and what was unjust among me and my brothers that some inkling of love for them came into my mind and heart, something including but also beyond justice.
Christ said, “If you love me, keep the commandments.” What can this mean except that in order to love, we must know what the commandments entail? Moreover, I advocate teaching young men and women what it is that they are to hold even before they can understand the full meaning of what this teaching implies. Thus, teaching the catechism is not a bad idea. If we are only taught to be “loving,” without any doctrinal context of what this means, chances are that we will have a difficult time distinguishing between selfishness and love. It will be easy to buy into the modern doctrine that whatever it is we want ought to be ours because we “love” it.
My acquaintance’s remark about his son reminded me also of Dorothy Sayer’s 1954 essay “Creed or Chaos?” from The Whimsical Christian, still one of the great expositions on the relation between what we know and what we do. Though she spoke of England in particular, her words still ring true:
The brutal fact is that in this Christian country not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion what the Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ…. Theologically, this country is at present in a state of utter chaos, established in the name of religious toleration, and rapidly degenerating into the flight from reason and the death of hope.
Simply advocating love or tolerance without informing our children of the structure of the world is not the best way to educate them at any point in their lives.
Critics of the Baltimore Catechism assume it taught that a second-grade memorization of basic Church doctrine — the Church never doubted that children should be taught serious things — would suffice for the same Catholic at 40, who in the meantime had learned absolutely nothing more about the intelligence of his faith and its logic. In fact, the Baltimore Catechism had different editions for different ages. Its creators assumed that on reaching college or adulthood, the reader would continue to seek an understanding of the faith more adapted to his stage in life.
In the end, the chances of succeeding in teaching students to be “loving” while neglecting to teach them doctrine are almost zero.
This column originally appeared in the November 2001 issue of Crisis Magazine.