Beyond the Echo Chamber

So yesterday evening we had a meeting at my parish to kick off the confirmation program for this year. There were around eighty people in attendance (other than the folks running the meeting), half kids and half parents. Our youth minister opened the meeting with a prayer, and then told us that the confirmation program was going to be a little different this year. And then he asked how many of us knew what the Catechism of the Catholic Church was.

Naturally, I raised my hand. And I looked around. Nothing. I was all alone. After a moment or two, my pastor raised his hand. Still nothing. Just me and him (and the other members of the confirmation team, who didn’t put up their hands but certainly could have).

The youth minister encouraged us not to be shy. Still just me.

None of the other parents knew about the CCC.

I was floored.

Now, mind you, I don’t tell this story to bang on my fellow parishioners, or to lament the low level of catechesis at my parish. On the contrary. The youth minister asked the question knowing full well what the answer was going to look like…and then he and our pastor explained a plan for changing this:

  • The confirmation program is going to be based on studying the catechism (in the form of the highly-regarded youth catechism, or “Youcat”).
  • Parents and their teens are going to be studying it together, month by month.

This is very cool, and I’m looking forward to it.

The two of them went on about for a while, and our pastor made an observation: what most adult Catholics know about the Faith is whatever they learned as a child in catechism class. For most, catechism class ended with Confirmation, around 8th grade; for some, it might have ended even earlier, after First Communion. And as he pointed out, you wouldn’t expect to have success in any adult endeavor based on a fourteen-year-old’s understanding of the subject. We But that’s the situation we’re in, and we’ve got a plan to begin to deal with it. As I say, cool.

I tell this story because my guess at the number of hands would have been much higher. I’d have guessed at least 25%, and maybe 50%. Instead, there was just me. Now, why I would I expect it to be higher?

Let me rephrase that question. What kinds of Catholic do I hang out with? Well, let’s see. I’m a Lay Dominican. I hang out with other Lay Dominicans once a month; and I assure you, they all know about the CCC. And then, on-line: I hang out with blogging Catholics. These are Catholics who care enough about the Church to write about it on-line. From the frequency with which I see the CCC mentioned, most or all of them know about it.

And the point is, these are not typical Catholics.

The term “echo chamber” has been floating around the blogosphere for a while now. You’re in an echo chamber when your positive interactions are only with people who think about things the way you do, and you begin to think that all of the sane people in the world must think that way, too. Every month or so, I see another call to get out of the echo chamber, and to see your opponents as real people with something worthwhile to say. And this is good advice, and we’d all be wise to follow it.

But…but…there’s a tacit assumption here that what’s beyond the echo chamber is the Real World. And that turns out to be hogwash: what’s really outside the echo chamber is just a bigger chamber with more disagreement in it. The set of Catholic bloggers, whether liberal or conservative, progressive or traditional, labeled or “merely” Catholic, simply isn’t representative of the American Church. It’s worthwhile listening to the different voices, and essential to remember that there’s a person beloved by Christ behind each one, but you can’t safely generalize from that set to the people in the pews with you on Sunday.

Now, there’s good news and bad news here. The bad news is that you’re never going to get out of the chamber: no matter how hard you try, you’re going to be dealing with a particular set of Catholics, and there’s no reason to think that whatever set you’re dealing with is representative of the Church as a whole.

The good news is that there’s no need to generalize. We’re called to serve our neighbors, which is to say the people that God puts us next to. They’re the ones we need to get to know. Each of them is different, and each reflects Christ in a unique way.

Generalizations are odious.

  • By Mary Emily, August 20, 2013 @ 5:53 pm

    Please tell me: what study program or guide will you be using? Have been searching for way to crack open the YouCat with my teens.

  • By Will Duquette, August 20, 2013 @ 6:17 pm

    I think it’s home grown, but I haven’t seen it yet. What I do know is that the focus this year is on the Mass, with the Youcat being the primary study material. Plus there will be an on-line quiz for the material for each section…and the last part of the quiz is a place to enter questions you have, for the catechists to answer at the next section. They’re really encouraging us to dig in to the material.

  • By MelanieB, August 20, 2013 @ 6:36 pm

    I’ve been dipping in and out of the YouCat and have been pretty impressed so far. Some of it is really quite well written. A lot of good fodder for conversation there.

    I love the point that you wouldn’t expect to have success in any adult endeavor based on a fourteen-year-old’s understanding of the subject. That’s a really good way to frame the problem for the parents.

  • By Will Duquette, August 20, 2013 @ 6:51 pm

    What I don’t know is how the other parents took it. Me, I thought it was a great idea; but then, I wasn’t told that my knowledge of my faith was lacking. Or, rather, I was told (along with everyone else) that it very well might be lacking…but I also know that I study a lot, so I didn’t take it personally. I think the leaders were reasonably diplomatic, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two people went away with their noses out of joint. (Of course, my pastor would probably tell me that someone always goes away with his nose out of joint.)

  • By CathDad, August 20, 2013 @ 6:52 pm

    Have you seen Chosen? It’s a new Confirmation program coming out that actually features the Nashville Dominicans, along with a lot of other solid presenters. It looks incredible.

  • By Will Duquette, August 20, 2013 @ 7:02 pm

    I haven’t. (I’m not a Catechist.) But I like that the Nashville Dominicans are involved.

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