“Poorly catechized”

22 09 2008

Like most canards, the phrase, “poorly catechized” is whatever you want it to mean. Some people seem to think that it means that people don’t read the Bible enough. Pace  the testimony of some of the Fathers of the Church, reading Scripture by yourself is not a noble exercise per se. And for most of history, most people couldn’t read anyway. Sometimes “poorly catechized” means that people simply don’t know their catechism. Every good Catholic should then have a dog-eared copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (I would prefer the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent: I prefer my doctrine dry and straight-to-the-point.) But in my mother’s village in Mexico, they learned all they needed to know in rhymes and songs. So that base I think was covered. Some people think “poorly catechized” means that people misbehave themselves more than usual. Well, we have unlimited access to Catholic radio, print press, and you can’t even type in the word “Catholic” into Google without getting hundreds of apologetics sites, each waiting to get in a rumble with any wayward “separated brethren” that comes their way. Has Catholic morality gotten any better? Wait, don’t bother answering that…

So I have concluded that “poorly catechized” merely means that some great theological mind out there seems to think that the practices of certain people are kitschy, primitive, and not at all to their liking. How much do you really need to know about fourth century Trinitarian theology for it to really make an impact in your day to day life? Is knowing all about the theology of grace really going to keep you from gossiping, cutting people off in traffic, or having uncharitable thoughts toward your boss? On the other hand, is it going to remind you that in the end, divine doctrines are only vaguely grasped by mortal minds, and doctrine should be probed only on a need-to-know basis (the mantle of theologian is not something to be eagerly coveted)?

That is why I grasp tightly onto my trinkets, my holy cards, and my statues of saints. Loving God and your neighbor and behaving yourself are really not that hard of concepts to grasp, but they are what’s important. A scapular around my neck reminds me more of my sinfulness than a million treatises on original sin read with great erudition. Ideally, you should have both. But if you don’t have the former, I can’t see the latter doing you much good.



10 responses

30 09 2008

I have only ever used that phrase to describe American Catholics who were taught about Caring and Sharing in religion class, instead of the actual intellectual content of the Faith. Not that Caring and Sharing are unimportant, but they should be situated within a discussion of the cardinal & theological virtues!

A young Catholic woman recently told me, with a straight face, that Jesus is not God and so she doesn’t worship Jesus. I gently informed her that the Catholic Church taught that Jesus is indeed God, and that it considers denying the divinity of Christ a heresy, she asked me why I was calling her names.

23 09 2008
Arturo Vasquez


I meant they were a little wayward in other ways. But yes, only God can judge.

23 09 2008

I’ve seen “poorly catechized” used to describe both the should-know-better-but-don’t otherwise educated white American Catholics (as Matt K and jacobus point out) and Catholics who use religious practices that are unfamiliar to most American Catholics. In my experience, the latter use of the term especially pops up in forums where there is alot of Protestant vs. Catholic exchange, and old Catholic practices and current ones in Latin America, the Philippines, etc are dismissed by American Catholics as the result of “poor catechesis” when Protestants bring them up in an attempt to horrify the sensibilities of all those who are reading. In some ways it’s a racist response, though I think it derives more from the inexposure of most American Catholics to anything in the Catholic world other than the writings of Newman and Chesterton as A.V. would say – Anglo-derived Catholicism as the only correct form.

In the old sharecropping communities that I know of, in MS, TX, and LA, Baptists (black and white) often had Sunday school where a great emphasis was placed on memorizing Bible verses, even if the people were illiterate. (Separately, I recall a great emphasis being placed on literacy in the Westminster catechism.) There were illiterate poor who could recite all of the Gospels-and more-from memory.

In contrast, the Catholics (those who didn’t/couldn’t attend parochial school), though they knew their Rosary, Angelus, Ave Maris Stella, Salve Regina, loads of other Catholic prayers and feasts and celebrations, did not know their Bible verses, and I think this resulted in their seeming somehow stupider, since they couldn’t quote words from a book. My father and others in southern LA, members of the first generation to be literate (and speak English fluently), were told that they were not allowed to read the Bible anyway. But hey, my illiterate great-grandmother, when asked why she forgave her niece who had been having an affair with her husband, responded, “If I didn’t forgive her, I couldn’t ask God to forgive me,” which points to a more mature faith than some I know who can expound on the details of original sin for hours.

Hey A.V., my grandfather and great-grandfathers weren’t “wayward men” just because they used the Books of Moses. My grandmother sincerely believes in those practices in the same way that she believes in burning palms and saying prayers to Our Lady of Prompt Succor during a hurricane. Only God can judge.

23 09 2008
Arturo Vasquez

Zora Neale Hurtson did some rather interesting field work with a congregation of Pentecostal black sharecroppers in the South in the 1930’s. Really fascinating stuff. It was interesting how closely their music sounded almost the same as the Voudou priests of Haiti as caught on film by Hurtson and Maya Deren, drums and all. People became possesed by “the Spirit”, one woman saying, “I sense evil in here”. Not your typical Protestant congregation, but probably typical of Pentecostals.

AG’s father also told me about some wayward men in his Creole community who would dabble in the occult, with the various Books of Moses and other esoteric things. Some would wear copied-out verses of the psalms on their person to protect themselves from bullets and knife blades. Even though they were Catholic, this was also common in other parts of the South. You could get these how-to Hoodoo books by mail order. Malay faith healers also seem to do the same thing with verses from the Koran.

If only Protestants were still like that. It would make religion in this country look a lot more exotic.

23 09 2008

I don’t know if this is on topic or not, but ever since reading this post, I’ve been thinking something. Despite the importance that individual bible-reading has in Protestantism, most Protestants were not literate until fairly recently. I would think that the average Alabama sharecropper (white or black) circa 1930 was just as ignorant and superstitious as his Catholic counterpart in Mexico. Why, then does nobody decry these poor Protestants as “poorly catechized” or whatever the equivalent may be? Or maybe they do. I’m not sure.

23 09 2008


I think this is a great post. I have bins of books in the mud room that I have almost given up on. I am coming to realize that only a very basic knowledge of the Faith is needed to live a holy life, though I am neither very knowledgable or holy. It seems that to love God and neighbor greater than oneself primarily through prayer and penance and nourished by the sacraments is what gets lost when the Faith becomes overly intellectualized. To know, or to live (as you said, hopefully both, but if not, hopefully to live).

So I guess it is better to keep things simple. In the family context, a family altar on the living room wall with holy cards, images, icons, candles, and flowers. Rosarys, scapulars, and making visits to the Blessed Sacrament. Loving the little things, look for opportunities in the mundane details of daily life to offer oneself in sacrifice. I feel proud when I hear my four-year-old with St. George and St. Gabriel medals around his neck talking about St. Michael getting Satan with his sword and how the fallen angels lost their wings and were cast from heaven for saying NO! to God. Or my 2 year old playing with his trains randomly exclaiming “Hail Mary, Amen”. They pick this stuff up, it is all real to them. Continue the enlightening posts.

22 09 2008
Arturo Vasquez

I should have qualified this by saying that I speak mostly of the past and not the present, especially when speaking of the developed world. “Poorly catechized” usually becomes an excuse for iconoclasm and theologically patronizing attitudes. Of course, I would admit that the typical suburban Catholic nowadays or the Mexican kid crossing the border with a Santisima Muerte amulet is poorly catechized. I am more taking issue with the Bouyers’, von Balthasars’, and other chic theologians of the world who think that they knew better. Then again, maybe this is a battle that we long ago lost. “Poorly catechized” became a banner to overthrow everything. But that is the subject of Wednesday night’s post…

22 09 2008

I agree with Matt K. When people use the phrase, they usually don’t mean poor Mexicans with 50 images of NSG on the walls but no understanding of the difference between homoousia and homoiousia. They do usually mean the white, middle class, cradle Catholic who wonders aloud why women can’t be priests and gays can’t marry, thinks Latin is for the birds, and thinks that the non-denom church down the street is just as good a place to spend Sunday morning as the local Catholic church. But then, this blog long ago convinced me that watching an old woman light a candle in front of the BVM is the best catechism there is, so what do I know.

22 09 2008
Matt K

I usually only hear the phrase applied to the type of people who don’t realize that you should be absolved of mortal sins before receiving Communion. Or even know what a mortal sin is…

I think in that context it’s a fair label. Such people are usually genuinely surprised to learn about those things.

22 09 2008

I’ve always felt like the whole “poorly catechized” explanation as to why the Church is in its current state never held water. For starters, most Catholics over 50 or so were taught the faith in the pre-Vatican II Church, with the Baltimore Catechism, hand smacking nuns, side altars and all the rest. They know the faith and many of them abandoned it. It’s worth asking how many ex-altar boys and their distaff counterparts were rocking out at Woodstock; the participants certainly couldn’t have all been secular Jews and former mainliners. As you said, any young Catholic can go to the Vatican site or any number of apologetics sites if he or she wants to know what the Church feels about X, but how many care enough to do so?

As a matter of fact, the Catholic Church is one of the few religious organizations where the general public has an idea of where it stands. Most people may not agree with the Church’s stances on abortion, contraception, divorce, or stem cells, but they do know that she has a stance. In comparison, who knows what the United Methodist Church or the Presyberterian Church of America says about anything?

There are many ways to learn something. You can read about it, hear about it, or experience it. Most Americans learn about Catholicism by reading about it. In the Mexican village society that you describe, one learns about the Church by living it. Given the state of the Church in the USA, that kind of experiential learning is almost impossible, except maybe in parts of Louisiana. We spend one or two hours in mass on Sunday, do our own particular prayers and devotions at home, and then what? The rest of time we’re probably surrounded by the dregs of pop culture. Sometimes a scapular is all one has to remind oneself of what needs to be the first priority in life.

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