walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

a Few More Complaints about _Religious Literacy_

I think I'm actually going to read this thing, at least the rhetorical part. I'm guessing I'll never make it through the what-you-should-know section at the end without wanting to go do something Very Dire to the author.


"The White House had been dominated until Carter's 1977 inauguration by a New England ethos that viewed public professions of religion as bad manners or bad faith (or both). Senator John Kennedy, while campaigning for the presidency in 1960, felt obliged to pledge to make policy on subjects such as birth control, gambling, and education without any regard to his Catholicism."

The first sentence is quibble-able, altho not true. Eisenhower, for example, felt compelled to join a church and be baptized to quell concerns when he won election (he was raised what would now be called a Jehovah's Witness, but left for West Point as soon as he could, quite incompatible with JW beliefs). The second sentence is absolutely true -- and absolutely misleading. Prothero is arguing that the presidency has become more clearly religious/less secular and using Kennedy as an example, when in fact, Kennedy saying he wasn't going to use his religion in making policy was intended to quell the concerns of a predominantly Protestant electorate that was openly wondering if the Pope would be setting our domestic and foreign policy.


"Moreover, efforts to update catechetical training have replaced time-honored instruction about church traditions with touchy-feely conversations about one's personal values."

This struck me as an interesting assertion, extremely difficult to prove one way or the other but easy to come up with compelling anecdotes. Since elsewhere Prothero specifically mentions the Baltimore catechism and it going away (not entirely, but never mind that now) with Vatican 2, I hied myself to wikipedia and started reading a Baltimore catechism (there are _many_ variants), then downstairs to quiz my rabidly ex-Catholic, atheist husband to find out (a) how his CCD class was run and (b) how he would do with a few sample catechistal queries. He was sufficiently unaware of the catechism to think that it was in Latin.

While he didn't necessarily know the precise terminology used in the Baltimore, he clearly understood the basic concepts (including really basic stuff that a lot of young Catholics do screw up, notably, the Trinity, which Prothero laments ignorance of and which I've also been shocked to encounter) and recognized the credal (is that a word?) source of several of them. From which I conclude that you can convey the details of Catholic belief to someone (and have it stick decades later, long after faith has departed) without benefit of "time honored" wtf. Even if something has gone awry in communicating doctrine to young Catholics, it is incorrect to blame it on not using a catechetical instructional method. I'm not sure anything _has_ gone awry in communicating doctrine. I'm certainly unconvinced that it is somehow historically new and interesting that Catholics don't know Catholicism. In any event, if CCD is really spending a lot of time on social service, I don't see the problem. What, you'd rather have someone who has the doctrine down solid and does no social service, or someone who spends all their time with the poor and has no clue what eternal means? Never mind the concept of immanence.

Now, off on a serious rant.

If you survey the vast social landscape across time and space, most Catholics were/are doctrinally ignorant. To some degree, this was because they were CINO (given the meaning of Catholic, sort of redundant) -- someone showed up, baptized them, told them their gods were now "saints" and their festivals were now holy days, boom, you're Catholic. The catechism in its earlier form wasn't intended for the laity (this is kind of funny, given that most of the teaching, even, is now done by laity) -- this was advanced instruction and reference for the priests and bishops. Ordinary Catholics weren't supposed to be _thinking_ about doctrine, much less learning it assiduously. That way lay heresy. (Heh. Unintentional pun noted on reread.)

Post Reformation, of course, in the new world order of curious intelligent comparatively wealthy folk who were incarnating their status seeking and need for a hobby through religion (also interior decorating, fashion, food, etc.), the Catholic Church as part of the Counter Reformation decided it was time to actually require their members to know the official doctrine of the Catholic church. But this _still_ didn't include ordinary folk -- this just meant that men had to go to seminary before they joined the hierarchy. It wouldn't be until much later, and in the egalitarian US, that Catholics in general (anyone they sprinkled the water on) would be expected to learn any kind of detailed doctrine.

For Prothero to fluff right over this means he is either (a) like the _worst_ historian ever in his chosen study area (religion) or (b) disturbingly dishonest. I would expect better out of a Boston U prof. *shrug*

Given that his argument revolves around if-we-understood-the-history-better-we-would-avoid-problems, this bodes poorly for him. If Prothero's argument were instead, boy, if people _really_ studied religious history, that'd put an end to that nonsense (i.e. having faith) _right now_, I would have some sympathy. But no. In fact, he spends a chunk of text on dishonestly cherry-picked evidence to support the thesis that secularization in on the wane.

Oh, tell that to Pew. Do, Prothero, do.

In any event, the wikipedia entry on Prothero sez he defines himself as a "confused Christian". I'll certainly buy that, altho possibly not in precisely the way he intended it.

You'll be seeing more about this. I'll try to keep them labeled clearly so you can skip at will.

ETA: I may be being unfair to Prothero's history. I think he's about to cover the history of the catechism.
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