A detail from "St. Augustine Reading Rhetoric and Philosophy at the School of Rome" by Benozzo Gozzoli (1464-65).
In the 1960s, contrary to the inherited
wisdom of mankind, educators in general and Catholic educators, too,
decided that having students memorize things was a terrible notion.
If I recall, the thinking was that memorizing was a purely mechanical
operation, that it did not penetrate to the deep truth, and that it
turned out mindless robots who would uncharitably spew their mind
chaff out at opponents to distract them and protect them from being
caught by the truth.
Or something like that.
The fear of being “hypocritical”
was at work herethat great Calvinist weight that hung like an
albatross around the necks of the puritans and which they transferred
to their Progressive descendents who still demarcate the Elect and
the Damned based on worldly signs. Their acute awareness of the
difference between the outer man and the inner man made some of them
greatly aware of how debased is our state in this world, but also
made some of them greatly concerned with the evidentiary signs of
Some of them strove to align the inner
man with the outer one, even though they were convinced that not they
but God was the only one capable of that. Their modern Progressive
descendents gave up on that project as ultimately hopeless and
decided that the only way to achieve the alignment of the inner and
outerto become “authentic”was to erase the difference:
which meant accepting one’s unfashioned self not only as one’s
“natural” condition, but as one’s highest ideal. Indeed, it
sometimes seems that for Progressives “hypocrisy” is not only the
greatest sin, but perhaps the only one. It certainly seems sometimes
like the only one they are interested in convicting others of.
That affected the modern view of
pedagogy (as it did liturgical ad libbers, seeking “authenticity”).
Even losers began to receive awards because they were “great” in
and of themselves. It was reminiscent of the way in which declaring
oneself already “saved” somehow was warped to mean that no one
had to make any effort at holiness as a result.
Before, the problem was finding the
best way to bring an unformed being into alignment with the highest
wisdom offered by culture. But after Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s
ludicrously unrealistic picture of pedagogy in Émile, this
was reversed: the “highest wisdom” of the culture was judged as
a sham and a debasement that created and protected hypocrites, and
the pedagogical mission came to be seen as the destruction of that
culture in the child, so that the authentic inner manthe noble
“Rote memorization” was a
foundational pillar of the older pedagogy, so it had to go, along
with all other methods of instilling into the child the conventional
formulations of wisdom. Rote memorization was seen as a purely
“mechanical” operation, opposed to what was “natural.”
Perhaps the new pedagogues were inspired by the Platonic notionput
into the mouth of Socrates in the Menothat the highest
learning is essentially an act of anamnesis, a remembering of
what one already knows. In any event, Catechism class began to have
its students meet at the springs and banks of the River Lethe in
order to make them deliberately forget their past and their
tradition, in order to allow their underlying truth to shine through.
It was bruited about that one must act
and behave as one feelsand so the refusal to accept the argument
that that often entails sin. No, it was said, sin lies in not acting
the way one is naturally inclined to. Only that is freedomand it
is in essence good: No matter what it is that one does, the fact
that it is what one chooses validates it. Otherwise one is
“inauthentic,” one’s freedom is artificially (and therefore
evilly) restricted, and one is a hypocrite: for then the inner man
and the outer man are not the same, but are different.
And so too about the content of the
Faith, about doctrine and dogma: These now became “oppressive”
structures under the modern gnostic view, imposed from without upon
the inner man, and so are “inauthentic.” Such views are
“tyrannical” by definition, and, as Jefferson and Franklin loved
to say, “Disobedience to tyrants is obedience to God,” using
terms that John Knox morphed Calvinism into, in order to justify
their revolt against earthly authority. The puritans of New England,
so concerned with catechisms and confessions of right belief, within
the space of two generations, threw off such “restrictions” as
tyrannical, and became Unitarians and Universalists who chafed at any
creeds or restrictions on their “freedom.”
The same Calvinist rigidity remained,
however, even though Calvin had been turned upside down: Human
agency and responsibility for one’s being a member of the Elect
(and so saved) remained voided, as it had been in Calvin, but now
that same negation of human agency meant that they stayed up at night
dreaming dreams of salvation for all, no matter what they had done on
earth, rather than dreams of eternal damnation, no matter what they
had done of earth. The Day of Judgment had indeed passed, but now
that was a matter for rejoicing, not for paralyzing terror, for the
judgment on mankind was that it was redeemed.
The conviction that we all have to
worry that we are indeed losers (no matter what evidence we may be
able to produce to the contrary) suddenly became we are all winners
(no matter what evidence we may be able to produce to the contrary).
Of course, anything that imposed itself on us and caused friction
between who we are and who we should be was false and “tyrannical”
and obscured the fact that the inner man was already saved. For it
created a difference there between the inner and outer, and that
difference was summed up as “hypocrisy.” As we would say today,
it was a kind of “false consciousness.” So the sons and
daughters of the puritans became radical revolutionaries dedicated to
Liberty (unrestricted as far as possible) against earthly authority
and convention, and saw everyone else as hypocrites, as leading a
false and double life, as mewling compromisers who accepted infernal
restrictions upon the true liberty of the sons of God.
And so the trajectory was set, always
expanding liberty, always sloughing off “artificial” impositions
and restrictions, always investing this quest for liberty with the
nature of a quest for realizing one’s “authentic” self, already
free and only temporarily bound by false conventions. This
translated into pedagogy that was aimed at recognizing and affirming
that the self was already deserving of “esteem” no matter what,
and at arming oneself with the weapons one might need to recognize
and defeat false impositionscivic education was therefore
understood as “critical thinking skills.” And “question
authority” was eventually articulated as the highest good.
Many Catholics assimilated all this.
By now a very large swath of “Catholics” in America has been
converted to Progressivism, expressed in religious terms along the
lines most clear in Unitarian Universalism, even though they may
still call themselves “Catholics.” For such a “Catholic,”
the highest value is the free exercise of “choice.” And, this is
simply a freestanding and unrestricted value and does not depend on
what it is that one “chooses.” It is the very exercise of that
freedom of choice that gives it its value. Except, of course, when
one chooses to submit to someone elselike a child within one’s
womb or to a marriage commitmentor to any discipline external to
one’s essentially uninhibited self. Choosing to submit to someone
or something out of one’s control, of course, is choosing to give
up one’s unlimited freedom, negating the Progressive’s principle
of freedom of choice, and so cannot be allowed.
As with so many other aspects of
religious life, the Second Vatican Council served for many as a kind
of seal of this conversion. In its wake, as in so many other areas,
the Progressives’ theological and anthropological assumptions and
its utopian projections swept away traditional Catholic practices and
beliefs. The practice of catechesis now began to condemn the “rote”
memorization of the catechism. Such a method, it was now believed,
produced only parrots, who could recite without truly understanding.
The new utopian, iconoclastic,
millenarian, catechetical fire swept through Catholic pedagogy and
burned up the old books of catechism, and even all efforts to instill
doctrine, dogma, or practice, and left in its wake “religious
education” classes that were reduced to having children learn that
Jesus (whoever that was) loved them and that we love him too when we
make a bunch of fun collages. A “sacrament”? What is that?
It’s Jesus loving me. A “commandment”? It’s Jesus loving
me. The Council of Nicaea? It’s Jesus (who was that again?)
loving me. ... when do we get the cookies and grapejuice? So, in
short, a disaster. A “Faith” pretty much void and pathetically
transparent (“loving me”). Not because my generation threw out
the catechism (Baltimore or otherwise) per se, but because my
generation adopted the indifferentist universalism in the light of
which any catechism is an unjust fetter.
As for catechesis and memorization:
Yes, memorization is a kind of submission. But it is not bad.
Outside the howling winds of pedagogical theory affected by the
hurricanes of unspoken but fundamentally Christian-tinged theological
battles, this is still recognized. In the sciences, for example, at
least in science education that really prepares one to do science,
rather than bloviate about it. Or even in non-Christian religious
And so something like that was always
understood, too, in Christian education. Sheer memorization was no
guarantee of holiness, but committing the content of Faith to one’s
memory was more like a necessary condition, although, of course, not
a sufficient one, on the road to holiness. The Apostle’s Creed,
the Nicene Creedthese are the “seal of the Faith,” a kind of
testament to what one strives for and dedicated oneself to. The
catechismin the form of its content in one’s memorywas the
armor and weapons with which one waged spiritual battle, not only
against one’s external opponents, but against the
still-unreconstructed parts of oneself.
Without such a weapon, one is both
without conviction and without defenses. Although one may not
“fully” understand an article of Faith when it is first
memorized, the memorized form is meant to serve as a seed that will
grow and leaf out as its roots spread in the soil. It is something
that can be more fully appreciated, tested, and understood as one
grows. It is not something that is meant to simply lie inert in the
mind. Memorizing creeds and contents of the Faith is one of the
first things you had a child do, with the intention that it would
serve as the basis for further growth and maturity. It was not
enough to “have it in one’s notes” rather than in one’s mind.
It was the seed corn, the beginning of pedagogy, not the end of it,
as critics later claimed. In itself, it does not create hypocrites,
but provides a guide for bringing the inner, unreconstructed man up
to (and closer to) the outer one.
So remind me: why did we give that up?