Bishops Teaching Children
A Practical Method
By Which Roman Catholic Bishops
Can Personally Direct
The Religious Education
Of the Children of Their Dioceses
Cambridge, Massachusetts USA
Written in the Year of the Great Jubilee
The Bishops Teaching Children method is a practical way for a bishop to personally direct and personally be responsible for the religious education of all the Catholic children in his diocese. Although 'everyone knows' that the local ordinary can not personally direct the religious education of the children in his diocese, this is exactly what the Bishops Teaching Children method makes possible.
If a bishop and his diocese implemented the Bishops Teaching Children method, the children of that diocese would soon begin to learn exactly what the bishop wanted them to learn, and moreover, the children would learn what he wished to teach them more quickly and more deeply as the years passed.
Thus, when the local ordinary uses the Bishops Teaching Children method, he really is, in fact as well as in name, the chief teacher of his diocese.
As befits any truly practical innovation, the Bishops Teaching Children method is a simple idea that has a very detailed and complex inner structure. For instance, the basic principles of how an automobile works can be explained simply. However, detailing what one needs to know to actually make or repair an automobile is another matter.
'Humble as Dirt'
The Bishops Teaching Children method is a very simple idea, and that in itself is highly significant. One very important reason that many people, and not only bishops, are not completely satisfied with the state of current religious education, is that 'religious education' itself has become a 'complex' idea - which really means, a very slippery idea.
The phrase that the Bishops Teaching Children method uses to describe itself is 'humble as dirt.' 'Humble as dirt' is also the phrase the Bishops Teaching Children method uses to describe religious education.
If one can say this gently, the Bishops Teaching Children method asks bishops to take the Catechism of the Catholic Church seriously. No amount of religious education, however perfect, can make the Church. The Eucharist makes the Church [CCC 1396].
Moreover, by and large, morality is not the name of a 'subject' that can be taught in 'religion' class. As the classical moral theorists knew, moral development is largely caught, not taught, mostly shaped mediatively in and through daily social interactions of all kinds, and very little (though a little) by direct instruction.
By and large, as Aristotle already knew, we develop morally through practice, and only a little through precept. Although Aristotle's conclusions began to be challenged, even dismissed, around the time of the Enlightenment, the best cognitive and behavioral science of our day rather overwhelmingly supports Aristotle's viewpoint.
So, 'religious education' is not education in spirituality (a task that only the Lord can assume, in and through the sacraments), and it is not education in 'morality.' Neither spiritual development nor moral development is the name of a 'subject' that can be taught in 'religion' class.
The only job religious education can really do is give children intellectual knowledge of their faith. Unfortunately, that is an embarrassingly humble job. After all, the Devil himself knows the identity of the Holy One of God. [Lk 4:33-34] The Devil himself is quite able to cite passages in Scripture. [Mt 4:1-11] One could easily say that the Devil has a very advanced knowledge of 'religion.'
The Bishops Teaching Children approach begins by asking bishops, and all Catholics, to face the facts. 'Religious education' is not the name of a grand and glorious endeavor. In fact, religious education has no connection whatever either to 'catechesis' or to 'moral development,' except by the sacramental activity of the Lord himself through the Holy Spirit.
Religious education is as humble as dirt. Its dignity comes not from itself but solely from teaching the truth. It has only one job: to give children an intellectual knowledge of their faith. The essential, the constitutional, humility of religious education, far from demeaning the faith, only serves both to highlight the crucial and foundational role the sacraments play in the formation of the Church, and to emphasize the staggering impact that all men, and all of man's institutions, have on the moral development of children.
Could it even be suggested that sometimes, we have tried to make religious education into what it is not - a grand and glorious endeavor - either because we began to have less faith in the sacraments, or because we wished to avoid the uncomfortable fact of our joint, mutual, and personal responsibility for all children's moral development? Did we imagine that someone else could assume our own responsibility for the moral development of all children, or did we imagine that our own powers, and not the Lord of history, makes the Church?
So, the Bishops Teaching Children method asks bishops to see religious education as humble as dirt, and as focused on only one humble job: giving children intellectual knowledge of their faith.
However, this humble task is a task that religious education can do. Thus, facing the fact that religious education is as humble as dirt has a practical benefit: religious education then has a definite, specific job that it can do well.
A Simple Explanation of a Simple Idea
Here is a brief outline of how the Bishops Teaching Children method works.
The Bishops Teaching Children method begins with bishops' Questions, which are always based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Bishops' Questions, answered by all the children of the diocese yearly, determine the extent of the children's current knowledge of the faith, Science evaluates what methods best helped students answer the Questions, and who used those methods, and Competition monetarily rewards the better methods, and monetarily punishes the inferior ones.
Then you re-set the bar to get an upward spiral. Now, whatever standard the established-'better' methods can reliably achieve becomes the minimum standard. Fall below that, and you don't get any more money. Do even better than 'better,' and big goodies flow your way - until a competitor finds a way to improve even further.
That's all there is to it. The three elements are: Questions, Science, and Competition. A Competitive free market becomes focused on only one thing: how to prepare the children of the diocese to answer bishops' yearly Questions. Science evaluates how well the children did, and which Competitors were responsible. The bishop gives next year's religious education money only to the better Competitors, a new and even more strenuous Competition begins, and so on.
The children soon begin to learn exactly what the local ordinary wishes to teach them, and moreover, they get better and better at learning it every year. The Bishops Teaching Children method really is bishops, personally teaching children.
Slightly more detail is given as follows.
The Bishops Teaching Children method insists that the writing of Questions is solely and entirely an episcopal responsibility: only bishops can write Questions. The writing of Questions is one of the foundational elements that make the Bishops Teaching Children method work. Everything and every one in the entire system of religious education in the diocese becomes focused on answering bishops' Questions.
This is a direct and personal exercise of the local ordinary's apostolic authority and sacramental competence as chief teacher of his diocese. The writing of Questions begins the process whereby the local ordinary personally directs and is responsible for the religious education of all the children in his diocese.
A bishop writes Questions so that each child in his diocese can eventually establish adult minimal competence in the Catechism. Only the local ordinary is competent to decide what 'adult minimal competence in the Catechism' is. The Bishops Teaching Children method insists unequivocally that deciding the nature and extent of 'adult minimal competence in the Catechism' is no 'technical' question to be decided by 'experts,' but rather is a direct exercise of the local ordinary's sacramental competence and apostolic authority, and can not be delegated to any one else.
The writing of Questions, which directly establishes the nature and extent of 'adult minimal competence in the Catechism,' is thus solely an episcopal activity, according to the Bishops Teaching Children approach.
Thus, no one but a bishop can write Questions. Of course, the local ordinary can ask other bishops to help him write Questions. It is conceivable that bishops from all over the world, including the Holy Father himself, could write Questions, which children in one diocese, or many dioceses, could use. Thus, something done for a practical purpose (to share the burden of writing Questions) could even become a visible expression of the sacramental character and apostolic authority of the local ordinary in union with the universal episcopate of the whole Catholic Church.
Chapter 5 homes in on the technical details of Question writing. After demolishing the anti-testing shibboleths of many religious educators, and after re-affirming the tenet that only bishops are sacramentally competent to write Questions, it shows how 'even a bishop' can write them. In other words, the writing of Questions requires sacramental competence and a willingness to write Questions, not sophisticated technical expertise. Chapter 5 shows, in some detail, how bishops can write Questions, and in doing so, it shows that bishops not only must, but also can, really and truly, write Questions themselves.
The Bishops Teaching Children method also homes in on exactly what is 'Competing' in the competitive free market it sets up. Many Americans seem to think that if children, or perhaps schools, compete, then American general education at the primary and secondary levels will improve. One of the Bishops Teaching Children approach's tasks is to show that neither children nor schools are the proper and fundamental competitors, either in general education or in religious education.
The Bishops Teaching Children method insists that the primary Competitors within it are the responsible adults, not children. The Bishops Teaching Children method exists to protect Catholic children from ignorance, but by holding adult, not childish, feet to the fire. Children are, of course, co-responsible for their religious educations, but the Bishops Teaching Children method allows no adult involved in religious education to avoid direct and primary responsibility for what children learn.
The Bishops Teaching Children approach asserts that if children a) show up and b) do what the teacher tells them, then they have done their job. If they still fail to learn, that is an adult's fault, not theirs.
Further, allowing schools to compete sets up such an intrinsically poor competitive market that such a competition is morally objectionable if any practical alternative exists.
A free market approximating perfect competition exists when all buyers have free and fair access to all sellers. However, by the iron laws of geography, each 'buyer' (each family) has access to a bare handful of the tens of thousands of schools in the United States. By the iron laws of geography, buyers have essentially no free and fair access to sellers - if the 'sellers' are schools.
Economics may be an imperfect science, but two hundred years of economic research has repeatedly demonstrated that no free market can even theoretically be created under such circumstances. Thus, when schools compete, no real market is created, and competitive improvements can almost be guaranteed to be both minimal, and unevenly distributed.
On the other hand, methods, textbooks, and curriculums do not have to stay in one physical location. They can move rapidly, all around the country. In fact, they can move right to your parish religious education program. A competition in methods has a much better chance of creating an efficient market in which all buyers have access to all sellers.
The Bishops Teaching Children approach lets religious education methods compete in a real market. That way, all children, in all parishes of the diocese, can reap the benefit of religious education methods that a) have proved themselves against all comers and b) are continually pressured by a true Competitive market to improve even further.
We should also remember that this truly Competitive market is focused on one thing, and one thing only: how to do a good job of preparing children to answer bishops' Questions, which are always based on the Catechism. Competition is resolutely focused on achieving, for each and every child in the diocese, adult minimal competence in the Catechism, as that is defined and established by bishops' Questions.
Of course, Competitors will only stay focused on ensuring that all the children in the diocese attain adult minimal competence in the Catechism, as long as the local ordinary resolutely makes the money flow only toward Competitors who are better at doing that.
From a business point of view, the real innovation of the Bishops Teaching Children method is that it turns the local ordinary, and the whole local church and all its members under him, into a new kind of buyer of religious education. One of the main jobs of Chapter 7 is to outline and underscore the 'business' of this highly-focused, extremely well-informed, very disciplined, and tough new buyer of religious education.
A Scientist is the Bishops Teaching Children method's umpire. He determines which Competitors are 'out' and 'safe' in the Competitive game, and writes a yearly Report, in which everyone can see exactly how all the Competitors did. The Scientist also understands the technical details of test design and evaluation. In technical terms, the Scientist is proficient both in research design and interpretation and in psychometrics.
Science evaluates how well Competitors did at preparing the children to answer bishops' Questions. Chapter 6 outlines what is needed, and also explains why relying only on 'common sense' evaluations of results just won't work well enough to produce fair and vigorous Competition.
For instance, suppose Competitor A wants the bishop to give it all of next year's religious education money, because the children using its method made an average score of 91 on the yearly Questions, thirty points higher than Competitor B. Competitor B points out that only ten children used Competitor A's approach, and also that Competitor A deliberately sought out the ten smartest children in the diocese.
Is it really fair to compare Competitor A's ten children with the ten thousand taught by Competitor B? On the other hand, even though Competitor A used bright children, there was a thirty point average difference in scores, and thirty points is still thirty points. Is Competitor A in fact the stronger method, even though Competitor A did his best to make himself look good?
Who sorts this all out? The umpire, of course. Even though science is always imperfect, there are known scientific ways to handle questions like this, but it takes sizable theoretical and math expertise, and considerably more than a cursory look, to do so. That is why a Scientist, and Science, is needed.
Thus, the three elements of the Bishops Teaching Children method: Questions, Science, Competition, work together. Each element is an essential part of the overall structure that produces the good results. Take even one element away, and the good results which all three elements working together produce, quickly become evanescent, if not downright invisible.
The Sacramental Foundation of It All
Even though the Bishops Teaching Children approach obviously relies on a sizable amount of technical, scientific, practical, and business acumen, its true foundation is theological, or rather, sacramental.
The Bishops Teaching Children method makes nine moral assertions about religious education.
For example, the Bishops Teaching Children method insists that the local ordinary really is the chief teacher of his diocese. For the current system of religious education, of course, 'chief teacher of the diocese' is simply a title, which no one is actually supposed to take seriously. A group of religious education publishers and a religious education bureaucracy really teaches the children, in all dioceses.
To the contrary, the Bishops Teaching Children method asks all Catholics to take the apostolic authority of the bishop as chief teacher extremely seriously, shows how that sacramental reality can be expressed in actual practical terms, and then daringly asserts: whether bishops ever consider the Bishops Teaching Children method specifically, each bishop must forever seek practical methods to express his apostolic authority as chief teacher, as a matter of moral obligation.
The Bishops Teaching Children method also asserts that the local church exists. It is a sacramental reality, which, in union with the whole Catholic Church, is "the holy society by which we belong to God," as St. Augustine said. Thus, the diocese is not a 'private' agglomeration of children, families, and parishes, but instead it forms a genuine public, the "local church" and all its members, which, under its local ordinary as chief teacher, alone has sacramental competence to teach.
The Bishops Teaching Children approach shows at length that these sacramental realities are not the founding assumptions of the current system of religious education, at least on a practical level, and possibly even on a theological level.
Transparency vs. 'Privacy'
Instead, the founding practical assumption of the current system of religious education appears to be 'privacy.'
'Privacy' in small doses is a fine thing, but as a founding assumption, it is the Universal Solvent of religious education. It dissolves everything it touches. As a founding assumption, 'privacy' makes accountable religious education quite literally inconceivable: within 'privacy,' true accountability is a thought that can not really even be thought.
The Bishops Teaching Children method speaks of Questions, Science, and Competition as its three constituting 'elements.' To continue the chemical metaphor one step further, in nature, elements often combine with the assistance of a catalyst. In the Bishops Teaching Children method, that catalyst is transparency.
A radical transparency is the catalyst that enables the three elements of the Bishops Teaching Children method to cohere and to work together. The transparency of the Bishops Teaching Children method is therefore a kind of anti-'privacy.' 'Privacy' dissolves, transparency unites. 'Privacy' renders accountability unimaginable, transparency makes it vivid and practical.
Simply put, transparency means that, to the extent permitted by ordinary morality, every feature of a diocese's implementation of the Bishops Teaching Children method is a matter of public record, readily accessible to anyone at all, forever.
The Bishops Teaching Children method intends the religious education of the local church to be an open book, down to the name of each individual child, all his sub-scores on each yearly set of Questions, which Competitor was associated with that child and score, and where every last dime devoted to that child's religious education was spent.
The Bishops Teaching Children approach shows at length that this radical transparency - so fundamentally antagonistic to 'privacy' - has a fully sacramental foundation in the sacramental character of the local church and all its members, under its local ordinary as chief teacher, as teacher of 'all.'
The Bishops Teaching Children method also establishes that the actual effect of the doctrine of 'privacy' is not to protect children, but rather, to protect the livelihoods of adults, at the expense of children. The Bishops Teaching Children method very much wants children to be protected, but insists that one of the chief things the local ordinary, and the local church and all its members under him, are charged to protect children from, is ignorance.
Children, however unlettered, are not stupid. Even if they themselves do not take first prize, they can understand the value of religious education such as that proposed by the Bishops Teaching Children method, in which adult expectations are very clear, and adults, not children, are promptly - even spectacularly - punished for ineptitude.
Children also can tell the difference between religious education in which their 'privacy' is protected, but hardly anyone really knows, or even seems to care, how much they have actually learned, and religious education in which the current extent of their knowledge of the faith is indeed not 'private,' but yet, with a mother's ferocious care, the whole local church under its ordinary sees to it that each very real child in the diocese is protected from ignorance.
The very worst thing about 'privacy' as a founding doctrine of religious education is that, even at its most magnanimous, 'privacy' only allows the bishop to care about 'children' - an abstraction, a statistical construct.
The Bishops Teaching Children approach says, only transparency allows a bishop, and the whole local church under him, to really be what a bishop, and the whole local church under him, really is, by the bishop's apostolic authority and the local church's sacramental character: the teacher of 'all,' the teacher of each and every child in the diocese. Only transparency allows the bishop, and the local church under him, to care specifically about each child - about your child - and what he specifically has so far learned about his faith.
Furthermore, simply on a practical level, transparency, not 'privacy,' is the catalyst for the effective operation of complex socio-cultural systems, such as a system of religious education. As economists have shown, if knowledge about a complex system is mostly 'private,' held in dribs and drabs by a few here and there, that system will simply not work very effectively or accountably. Transparency, with a much firmer sacramental foundation than 'privacy,' also works better in practice.
The Bishops Teaching Children method is radically focused on the practicalities of religious education. This is why Chapter 2, "Sacramental and Moral Foundations," is such an important part of the main body of the text, for in the end, all practicalities regarding religious education are sacramental and moral practicalities.
There are eight chapters in the main body of the text. Chapter 1 states the practical, realizable goals possible with the Bishops Teaching Children method, which are reproduced below. Chapter 2, as stated just above, makes nine moral assertions about religious education, and includes an extended discussion of the Bishops Teaching Children method's sacramental foundations.
Chapter 3, "Is It the Steam Engine of Our Day?" points out that changes in thought patterns are probably a necessary component of any successful implementation of the Bishops Teaching Children method.
Chapter 4 develops this theme, with an extensive treatment focused around two stories. Religious education has been notoriously difficult to improve because our thinking about religious education tends to take place within frameworks that make real solutions impossible. In other words, our first step out the door in the morning tends to be in the wrong direction, which makes reaching our goal difficult!
The first part of 'Our Problem' (so called) is that, regarding religious education, we tend to be romantics, either romantically optimistic or romantically enraged, instead of the plain realists we need to be. Our romanticism tends to obscure the fact that religious education must take place in daily life, not in some ideal realm. As a framework for religious education, the Bishops Teaching Children method has a better chance of succeeding because only its goal is grand. Everything else about it is unbelievably mundane, even coarse. The Bishops Teaching Children method is not romantic about daily life. With no apologies, it takes for granted, and uses, the ordinary motivations of daily life to focus the attention of both adults and children on what those children need to learn about their faith.
The second part of 'Our Problem' is the problem of expertise. Juvenal's question, "Who will guard the guardians?" was never more apt than it is now, when the intellectual framework for 'expert' thinking on education is so disordered that a phrase like, "what research is telling us about how children learn" can successfully be invoked by distinguished and influential educators, directly into the teeth of public refutations by dozens of working scientists actually doing research in the relevant area.
No sinister conspiracy is necessary to account for this. Over the course of history, such a thing has happened in many different fields. 'Expertise' is a moving target, and 'experts' can get so seriously lost - an entire field can get so seriously lost - that the field actively resists truth, causing serious harm. Moreover, this can happen at any time, without our knowledge, without our consent.
Catholics above all should be able to acknowledge this possibility. Reason is not a wind-up machine that we can set and forget, and man's reason is ever prone to sin and error, even if the man in question happens to be a nice, hard-working, well-intentioned, and distinguished professor at a Catholic university.
The Bishops Teaching Children approach asserts that the current seriously disordered intellectual climate in religious education can only be fixed by practicalities, not directly by a further contention of ideas (a contention that has already become practically interminable). The field of religious education will become more intellectually ordered only when its academic debates begin to have practical consequences.
In other words, the field of religious education will become more intellectually and scientifically coherent as soon as a) real bishops in real dioceses begin to write Questions, and b) each bishop resolutely allows his diocese's religious education monies to flow only toward Competitors who better prepare the children of his diocese to answer his Questions. Crude as ever, the Bishops Teaching Children method claims that even a professor knows how to count the money in his own pocket.
Chapter 4 concludes with a general outline of the Bishops Teaching Children method, one more detailed and lengthy than that found here.
Chapters 5 through 7 are detailed, sometimes technical, and often elaborate discussions of the three essential elements of the Bishops Teaching Children method: Questions, Science, and Competition. The Questions element is discussed in Chapter 5, Science in Chapter 6, and Competition in Chapter 7.
Finally, Chapter 8, "Implementation," gives some practical hints as to how a bishop with his diocese could begin the process of discussion that could lead to a practical implementation.
An Appendix summarizes, in some detail, the contents of each chapter in the main body of the text. A reader of the Appendix is encouraged to refer to the particular chapter for supporting references and argument, and elaboration.
Eight Practical, Realizable Goals
Chapter 2 of Bishops Teaching Children
(Chapter 1 in its entirety is reproduced just above as "Eight
Practical, Realizable Goals")
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