Why Johnny Stopped Going to Church: Part 1

An interviewer once asked Pope Benedict XVI a question which parents also ponder: Why is it that, despite years of formation in Catholic schools, reams of our youth end up knowing more about, say, Buddhism (or environmentalism) than their faith? Benedict replied, “That is a question I also ask myself. Every child in Germany has 9-13 years of religion in school. Why, in spite of that, so very little sticks, if I may put it like that, is incomprehensible.”

It’s not only parents and priests in Europe that wonder at the loss. In Australia, a national study showed that a mere 3 percent of recent grads from publicly-supported Catholic schools attend Mass immediately after graduation – all the while believing that, in the words of researchers, religious beliefs are “purely personal lifestyle choices” (see Gerard O’Shea’s Educating in Christ, p.81). Again, in Canada the most recent comprehensive study of belief and behavior of students in Catholic schools revealed startling comparisons: if you are 15 years old and attend Holy Cross High School you are more likely to believe in a divine power and more pro-life than if you had studied at a public high school, which is good… but at the same time, you’re more likely to fornicate and smoke marijuana. (See the following charts from my book, The Case for Catholic Education: Why Parents, Teachers, and Politicians Should Reclaim the Principles of Catholic Pedagogy.)


In the United States, where parents have to pay for parochial schools, there is greater diversity in outcomes. When it comes to sexual belief and behavior, however, the situation is often just as bleak.

Why have so many of our schools failed to insinuate Catholic beliefs? Even after a Catholic education, why does Johnny stop going to church?

The causes, of course, are complex. Human freedom plays a role. So does our culture’s attack on the family. So does state-mandated aggressive “non-judgmentalism.” So do the poisonous melodies of Lady Gaga and company. But a new book encourages us to consider yet another source, often overlooked by educators: flawed theories of learning.

A few days ago I finished reading a study by the aforementioned distinguished professor of religious education, Gerard O’Shea, of the University of Notre Dame (Australia). O’Shea is a husband, a father, a grandfather, and served as a teacher or principal for thirty years prior to taking up work as an academic. He is now dean in Notre Dame’s School of Education. His book Education in Christ: A Practical Handbook for Developing the Catholic Faith from Childhood to Adolescence is a gem and reflects his broad experience both in the classroom and in the library.

The book’s first part invites educators to ground their art in an authentic anthropology. The second part sifts through the best of contemporary developmental psychology, particularly in the light of the Church’s own embedded “mystagogy.” Among modern psychologists, O’Shea finds Maria Montessori’s insights most compatible with classical virtue theory and the Church’s own method of introducing the mysteries of salvation through the Liturgy. I suspect any Catholic educator will find much in which to delight in these chapters, with pages of charts and pithy summaries of official Church documents on education to boot.

What undergirds O’Shea’s observations, and what I think is particularly helpful, is his deeper retrieval of the link between faith and reason in the act of teaching. The link is often ignored and, in education programs, sometimes deliberately undermined. In the next article in this sequence I’ll take up some of the wider cultural causes that have strong correlations with loss of belief among Christian youth. But here, when we ask “why has Johnny stopped going to church?” one answer is: our pedagogy has sometimes directly undermined his motives for attending.

Too simplistic? Consider again. In the heady heydays of the 1970s through the 1990s the trend in education circles, including religious education circles, was to adopt theories of learning which seemed to fit hand and glove with the spirit of the times. Schools and colleges were trying to adapt to the new freedoms proclaimed in the 1960s. Out was structured grammar, calculus, and dry catechisms, in was “whole language” learning (aka: encouraging a child to read without teaching them the rules for sounding out words), “business” math, and in religion, often well-meaning books that tended to treat faith as an entirely personal and subjective experience.

Behind these experiments in textbooks and pedagogy, or at least partially behind these experiments, lay a novel theory of learning: “Radical Constructivism.” The chief representative of this school is the education theorist Ernst von Glasserfeld (d. 2010), author of some 300 books, chapters, articles, and other publications. He once described his theory in this way: “Knowledge is the result of an individual subject’s construction not a commodity that… can be conveyed or instilled by diligent perception or linguistic communication.” What this boils down to is: Immanuel Kant was right. Effort at conforming your understanding to an objective reality is wasted energy. Knowledge is something we “make up” – not something we discover.

Of course, von Glasserfeld was not the first to propose such an idea. Those who study the history of philosophy, even educational philosophy, could point to Richard Rorty, John Dewey, or Friedrich Nietzsche (or Kant) as the original sources for such a notion. But it was von Glasserfeld who helped make scepticism officially fashionable in educational circles – served up in education textbooks and B.Ed. programs as the latest “findings” in the “research” that any respectable teacher was now bound to accept.

Once such a view of “knowledge” is accepted, ethics classes descend into little more than clarifying “lifestyle choices”; once such a view is accepted, catechesis devolves into therapeutic moralism. Even more, once such a view of “knowledge” is embraced,  any system or organization (such as the Catholic Church) that claims to teach “truth” must, of necessity, come to be regarded as an instrument of aggression, an agent oppressively forcing its ideology upon an essentially free will. This is the view that Philip Pullman’s work vividly illustrates.

A thought experiment: What if our engineering departments decided that knowledge and meaning were categories we “imposed” upon the world? How many bridges would have to fall before we hauled out the professors and called them to account? Well, in Catholic schools, the bridges have been falling for a long time now.

Here we’ve taken up one of the intellectual reasons why our schools can’t keep Johnny going to Church; in our next segment, we’ll take up some of the other contributing causes, in the home, and in our culture.

RYAN N.S. TOPPING is vice president and academic dean of Newman Theological College in Edmonton, Alberta. His most recent book on education is The Case for Catholic Education (Angelico Press); his forthcoming book is The Gift of the Church: How the Catholic Church Transformed the History and Soul of the West.

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