By Jim Gauger
Special to The CS&T

A revised theology curriculum, based on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document, “Doctrinal Elements of a Curriculum Framework for the Development of Catechetical Materials for Young People of High School Age,” was implemented in the Archdiocese’s 17 high schools during the 2010-11 school year.

The curriculum breaks down in the following manner: freshman year – “The Revelation of Jesus Christ in Scripture” and “Who is Jesus Christ?”; sophomore year – “The Mission of Jesus Christ (The Paschal Mystery)” and “Jesus Christ’s Mission Continues in the Church”; junior year – “Sacraments as Privileged Encounters with Jesus Christ” and “Life in Jesus Christ”; senior year – “History of the Catholic Church” and “Responding to the Call of Jesus Christ.” {{more}}

At Monsignor Bonner-Archbishop Prendergast Catholic High School in Drexel Hill, the freshman class began using the new curriculum last September. Next year the sophomore class will study under the new guidelines. The following two years will see the junior and senior classes complete the curriculum. That timetable would complete the implementation of the new curriculum in the 2013-14 school year. The courses are designed to build on a foundation laid by the preceding courses.

They replace courses centered on “Foundations of Faith,” “Sacred Scripture,” “Catholic Morality” and “Church and Vocation.”

“The curriculum has been revised three times since 1976,” said Eileen DeStefano, chairperson of the theology department at Bonner-Prendergast. “The bishops wanted to unify the curriculum throughout the United States.”

DeStefano, who has taught theology at West Catholic High School and Bonner-Prendergast and is a longtime member of the Archdiocese’s Curriculum Committee, said over time the study of theology became “more formation than information.” The goal now, she said, “is that the courses are much more intense, more content-oriented.”

Elizabeth Riordan, director of secondary religious education and staff development in the archdiocesan Office for Catechetical Formation, said during the 1970s and 1980s, “there was a lack of clear doctrine presented in the classrooms.” This changed when the Catechism of the Catholic Church was issued in 1992.

“Students now have a whole approach to theology,” Riordan said. “Religious education has a strong content: What do we believe and why? How do we live this faith? We want the students to love our Lord and love the Church. This gives us true freedom and happiness.”

This strong background of information is crucial to students’ process of learning the rudiments of their faith.

“Textbooks are now more content specific,” DeStefano said. “When talking about spanine revelation – what that means, how we understand it – we look at encyclicals of the popes and (work) of the Vatican Councils. These are primary sources and are very important.”

Only the freshman classes in the Archdiocese have gone through the new curriculum. DeStefano said students at Bonner-Prendergast have responded well to the change, and when they graduate, they will better understand the Bible and Jesus Christ. “They will be constantly linking the teaching of Jesus to the Church,” she said. “More information will make the students strong in their faith. You have to know the faith to live the faith.”

The blending of information and formation is a positive thing, said DeStefano, and technology is an essential part of theology classes. Students map out projects, do research and then make a PowerPoint presentation in the classroom. Through the use of netbooks and laptops, students can access documents concerning Church teaching on moral issues. They can correspond and collaborate with one another through Google Docs, where they can create and access documents.

The introduction to the Bishops’ curriculum framework describes its mission this way: “The Christological centrality of this framework is designed to form the content of instruction as well as be a vehicle for growth in one’s relationship with the Lord so that each may come to know Him and live according to the truth He has given us.”

The freshmen in archdiocesan high schools have taken the first step in fulfilling that mission.

Jim Gauger is a freelance writer and a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish, Glenside.