It may help to think of today’s “alternative lessons,” which are generated largely by the ubiquitous entertainment industry, as an alluring, easy-to-consume catechism.
Young people—and adults, too—have more questions, spiritual and mundane, than ever before. We struggle to adapt to what has been called “liquid modernity,” where new circumstances surge in like the daily tides. Producers of popular culture provide compelling guidance to surf the waves of change. Imagine if these were presented in a compendium-like Q&A format.
Tragically, the answers would be incomplete, to the point of dismissing, misinterpreting, ignoring, or scorning timeless insights and values the Church provides. The “A” in the secular “Q&A” is often vague, without much definitional rigor or critical thinking, simply adopting the narcissistic, emotion-based tenor of our times.
The answer is also packaged to be easily absorbed and memorable—adding a “spoonful of sugar,” or a dopamine hit, to make it persuasive. Thus, the competition between this pseudo-catechism and the Catechism of the Catholic Church is profound, demanding wisdom and zeal from all of us.
An Overture for Evangelizing
This new approach “recognizes that the passing on of the faith is no longer in a Catholic culture, but in a secular and hostile culture toward Christian faith,” according to Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of the Diocese of Bridgeport.
He talked about the new challenges in an interview with Catholic News Service last year. The USCCB’s Subcommittee on the Catechism, which he chairs, is launching a new “springboard for faith formation” because Catholic parishes need to re-create a “Catholic culture that recognizes we’re in the 21st century,” as CNS reported.
Recent decades have not seen “catechesis” flourish. Of course, we think of the standard, religion-based definition of the term. But some type of catechesis will always occur so long as people have soul-searching questions; the absence of one type merely leaves a vacuum to be filled by other means.
The etymology of the term, rooted in the Church, draws upon the Latinized form of a Greek word for “instruction by word of mouth.” But one source suggests catechesis originally meant “to resound. . . in someone’s ear,” and kata implied “down” as in “thoroughly.” We might posit an unofficial definition: “oral instruction that resounds deeply.”
The mission of an “evangelizing catechesis,” at the heart of the bishops’ new project, is all about fostering an individual’s encounter with Jesus Christ and helping it to resonate through the Church, as explained in an article in The Pillar.
Many people have traveled on a long detour from Christ, consuming secular “answers” to key questions that arguably make an encounter with Him seem more difficult and foreign. Is He outdated? Is He real?
We need to be armed with an understanding of the arguments put forth by entertainers, media pundits, social media influencers, and the amalgam of secular voices—some of them wise, some of them shallow and destructive. At their thought-provoking best, they put us in touch with eye-opening truths; at their worst, they encourage an individual to be satisfied with “my truth.” That’s self-catechesis on autopilot.
Many well-intentioned people, immersed in the resounding din of artificial reality, want a deeper sense of understanding. Lacking good guidance, they surrender to their natural “mimetic desire” to learn from others, to copy the in-crowd.
Catholic catechists need to formulate for themselves what a secular Q&A might look like. Imagine the internal and external dialogues students experience with non-Christian influencers every day. Too many for-profit prophets seize on ideas and feelings they can highlight at the moment or slip in subliminally as a shading of the facts.
Those asking life’s important questions get answers that make an impression but lack context or connection to real meaning and clear cognition. Our goal, in this case, should be to provide responses that illuminate the experience--not by being a buzzkill, but by expanding upon “the rest of the story.” Call this “spotlight evangelization,” which starts with common ground and then widens the aperture to show more that’s going on.
Of course, the simultaneous advantage and obstacle Catholic catechists face is that our popular culture’s post-modern talking points are moving targets, often cloaked. Many lessons of entertainment are performed and insinuated. They are a patchwork of viewpoints, adopted and amplified on nearly all our screens in varied ways. They reflect liberated but random human creativity, subject to constant redefinition to address new conditions and causes.
These do not fit the structure of an authoritative catechism. Some of their principles contain virtues for a serviceable map of meaning—but only if one is not seeking intersections with the broader landscape and the Kingdom of God.
If pressed, purveyors of this pseudo-catechism will cite intellectuals and arguments for the sake of “truthiness.” But, such sources focus only on “what works” in this world at the moment. They preach a desire to “be on the right side of history,” to be cool and current.
The worst of these ideas run contrary to human dignity and God’s love. They tend toward false pride and self-gain. They energize content producers to create a “buzz” to be edgy. They ignore Pope Francis’s 2020 comment that “no one is an extra on the world stage, and everyone’s story is open to possible change.” They encourage lockstep adherence to the loudest advocates of poorly defined “progress.”
Raising the Curtain on Good Questions
Catholic catechists and all people of goodwill should build up their enthusiasm for an honorable defense of truth vs. mere truthiness. The lackadaisical groupthink spawned on our screens can indeed become “hostile” to living out the Christian faith, as Bishop Caggiano said.
We can be grateful that our key, indelible resources for a peaceful but impassioned confrontation are decidedly not statements of polarization. They are the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church—two time-tested, life-changing love stories more riveting and uplifting than anything Hollywood could imagine.
In the context of total love, trustworthiness, beauty, and goodness, to which all human beings are drawn, we can spark a sense of mission, a reason to question and learn more, in those we teach. Our books and their messages have the power to fascinate young people, to reveal what they know their screens can’t show them.
For example, the Bible has been called history’s first hyperlinked text; it is said to contain 63,779 cross-references. God enables His followers to be storytellers and connection-makers par excellence.
We all should seize our responsibility to interact to enter meaningful conversations with hungry audiences because we bring unique insights to the table. We can serve ourselves, our families, our communities, and the world by pointing beyond randomness and promoting good order with a taste for truth in charity.
The summons to proactive discipleship—a prebuttal or preemptive rebuttal—can be galvanizing for young people who are drawn to the spotlights. They should set high standards, rejecting toxic entertainment. W.B. Yeats described the grim scenario of lethargic surrender in "The Second Coming": “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
Bishop Robert Barron offered his rallying cry in a video last year. “We’ve just got to come to terms with it. The spiritual life’s a battle . . . always has been, is today, always will be, until the end of time.” Those who stand with the ways of God “will be opposed by many,” with risks for all, and we must not be silent.
As a step toward emboldening the over-entertained, catechists and all evangelizing Catholics may have to work harder to explore the polluted waters in which students are swimming. We must be conversant with trends in movies and Netflix series—or worse, the more shadowy abundance of violent video games, TikTok clips, and porn.
Let’s ask those to whom we minister: What are you watching? How does it make you feel? What impact do you think it has on others? Does it seem really real? Is there another side of the story you would like to understand better? These questions provide teachable moments and opportunities for prayer to the Holy Spirit.
Such preparation constitutes “basic training”—and fosters self-care—for our nascent corps of servant-leaders. We can affirm youth’s dissatisfaction with the status quo and “the same old story.” A serious mission to think for themselves to make their passions more compassionate may help young people stem the tide toward anxiety, addiction, violence, suicidal thoughts, and cynical isolation in their ranks.
The Catechism can reveal a wonderful legacy of well-considered, organized, connected answers. But we all need to be asking the right questions with a pressing need in mind.
This all can start with an authentic, amplified Christian concern recognizing and addressing the dubious messages found in our popular media, even as we highlight and applaud various theatrical thrills and constructive lessons pumping through our cultural lifeblood.
Our evangelization today will resound deeply amid this century of challenge and tumult. The bishops recognize that a peaceful but profound face-off between two divergent catechisms is already occurring, with eternal consequences. Christ is the answer, to be sought in all our virtual or very real adventures—making us learners/disciples, not mere spectators.
Let’s “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition” for our high-definition, panoramic battleground. As a preliminary checklist of protocols and tactics, reflecting on "St. Patrick’s Breastplate Prayer" can help us get ready for the spotlight.