Central Catholic High School photo
Megan Manning and Madison Vecchi listen in Scripture class at Central Catholic.
Central Catholic High School photo
Megan Manning and Madison Vecchi listen in Scripture class at Central Catholic.
Religion departments at Oregon's Catholic high schools are working to comply with U.S. Catholic bishops' curriculum guidelines that emphasize doctrine and reason.

Overall, it's a bittersweet task, say officials.

The nationwide framework, to be implemented in Oregon beginning with freshmen who enter next fall, sets out six core religion courses and two electives. 

Benedictine Sister Betty Larson, assistant superintendent of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Portland, says the new requirements are strong academically, but schools will need to get creative when it comes to teaching the personal side of faith — developing a relationship with God and living out beliefs. 

"It's very solid theologically but it definitely lacks a formation piece," Sister Betty says. "The schools will need to work with teachers to bring formation into the academic theology."

In the years after the Second Vatican Council, religion teachers at Catholic high schools began to experiment with modern imagery and media. The bishops, deciding the trend was shirking the treasure of Catholic teaching, released detailed guidelines in 2007. Their hope was to bring teens closer to faith by showing the solid underpinnings of belief. 

Core courses in the new framework cover the revelation of Jesus in scripture, the person of Jesus, the paschal mystery, the mission of Jesus as continued by the church, the sacraments and life in Jesus. Electives include more scripture, church history, living as a disciple in society, responding to the call of Jesus and ecumenical and inter-religious issues.

Archbishop John Vlazny is allowing the high schools to change the suggested order of core classes. Sister Betty this spring and summer will be reviewing proposals from the high schools.

Theology departments have spent years developing curriculum and most do not relish changing directions. "It's a challenge," Sister Betty says. "But the schools are willing to go and begin the process."

"I understand the bishops wanting to make sure the students have this knowledge," says Patty Gorman, chair of the religion department at St. Mary's Academy.

Gorman, who has been teaching for 34 years, sees good ways to make what St. Mary's now offers fit the framework faithfully.  

Gorman does worry that too heavy an emphasis on doctrine could deter interest in some students. Teachers, she says, will need to overcome with creativity.

"High school religious education is about planting seeds," Gorman says. "We also want to offer a method of critical thinking. I think we can do this within the guidelines."

Tim McMonagle, religion chair at Central Catholic, says his school designed its religion curriculum carefully so that it works well for the population. But McMonagle also knows that teachers tend to "fall in love" with what they created. After review, he likes much of the bishops' plan, especially the explicit and abiding focus on Jesus. He says his faculty are up to the task of filling in faith formation gaps. 

Rick Martin, religion chair at Marist in Eugene, appreciates the need for comprehensive knowledge of theology and doctrine. Too many youths are inarticulate about faith and too many leave the church, he says.
"The bishops’ contribution of doctrinal strength needs to be met by our contribution of pedagogical experience," Martin explains. "We must learn how to match their content with those strategies that are pastoral and formative, nurturing of the faith."

Mark McCormick, chair of religion at Blanchet Catholic in Salem, says his school will need to make only a few adjustments. He's taught at the school for 11 years.

"Blanchet has been following the framework at least since I've been here by just kind of sticking to the basics of Catholicism," McCormick says.
Blanchet will move a scripture course to freshmen year and create a class on the paschal mystery, which will be similar to the old Introduction to Catholicism. A comparative religion class will remain as an elective.

"All in all, I think that this is a positive move for Catholic high schools across the nation to reiterate the essential teachings of the Church, to re-emphasize those beliefs that make us Catholic, and to challenge our Catholic schools to lead their students to a deeper faith in God," McCormick says.

"We are excited to see the U.S. bishops producing this framework for high school educators," says Joe Volk, chair of the religion department at St. Mary School in Medford.

"Catholicism draws upon a rich tradition of doctrine, and this framework gives teachers tremendous guidance. At St. Mary's, we recognize, as I am sure many of the archdiocesan schools do as well, that many of the doctrinal elements are already a part of our rich curriculum."