Catechesis and the Classroom

William Liston (Former Religious Education adviser to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Motherwell).

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

In 1974, the first post-Vatican II document relating to religious education in Scottish Catholic Secondaries was published by the National Religious Education Committee appointed by the Scottish Conference of Bishops. 

The document, entitled ‘The Approach to Religious Education in the Catholic Secondary School’, was written in response to the exhortation in the 1971 General Catechetical Directory that National Conferences of Bishops should review the aims and practices of catechesis in the light of Vatican II .

Prior to Vatican II, the aim of religious education was to assist pupils to develop an understanding of faith as an intellectual assent to a set of doctrinal truths. These truths were mainly communicated to pupils by use of the Scottish Catechism of Christian Doctrine, which, having a question and answer format, tended to encourage rote learning. The effect was that, for many pupils, religious education was not experienced as “a vital living force in their lives” since they struggled to understand the links between the truths and the ‘Good News’ of God’s call to personal relationship.

It was not surprising, therefore, that the writers of the 1974 document proposed significant changes in the approach to religious education in Secondary Schools.

Specifically, they highlighted “the Good News that Jesus is God’s Divine Son” as the central focus of religious education and, indicating that it should communicate this message “in a way that is meaningful and relevant to the lives of its hearers” , expressed concern to meet the needs of pupils according to “their age, maturity and intellectual ability” .

In recommending such changes, the writers were reflecting a two-fold catechetical principle, expressed in the Directory as “preserving fidelity to God” – providing information about God’s revelation, ‘and “having concern for men” – giving due consideration to pupils’ needs with respect to their age and stage of development. 

Significantly, they proposed that, in implementing the two-fold principle in the classroom, teachers should adopt an inductive approach rather the contemporary deductive approach. The implication of this change was that, in studying any topic, pupils would start with an exploration of their lived experience and only thereafter consider how Christian doctrine and practice could enlighten and give meaning to that experience. 

A later S3/4 textbook, ‘Horizons’, exemplified this new approach. Introducing topics such as ‘Teamwork’ and ‘Boy Meets Girl’ the writer stressed “that it is more important to get through to the pupils than to get through a syllabus” – a clear illustration of the shift towards relevance to pupils’ lives.

In more recent times, the Catholic Education Commission has published ‘This Is Our Faith’ and ‘This Is Our Faith: Senior Phase’, and, along with the Scottish education authorities, related materials entitled ‘Experiences and Outcomes’ and ‘Principles and Practice’. This latter text addresses aspects of classroom methodology akin to the 1974 document. Specifically, it highlights what is termed “The Emmaus Approach”, referencing the episode in St. Luke’s gospel when Jesus converses with two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

The ‘Emmaus Approach’ is highlighted as an example of inductive learning and the document explains how it can be used in the classroom by a process of ‘Engaging, Reflecting, Questioning, Explaining, Deepening and Responding’ . Significantly, the document indicates that the Emmaus Approach “can be useful at appropriate stages on the journey of faith”. This statement invites the question: at which developmental stage is an inductive approach ‘appropriate’? P3, P7, S2, S5 …?

In considering a possible answer to this question, we should recall that the 1974 document applies to Secondary schools, whereas ‘This Is Our Faith’ and related documents cover both Primaries and Secondaries. 

I would argue that, just as Purnell contended that “the older the children become the less appropriate is catechesis as the direct aim of the teacher”, on the evidence of the 1974 document and the recent ‘Emmaus Approach’, inductive approaches become more appropriate at Secondary level. It is at this later stage that pupils are more likely to have acquired the intellectual capability and emotional maturity to connect their lived experience to doctrinal truths, in the context of a deepening personal relationship with God.

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