Challenging Students to Understand the Faith Is Not Only Good, It’s Necessary

By Andrew Willard Jones 

Dr. Andrew Jones holds a PhD in Medieval History from Saint Louis University and is an expert on the Church of the High Middle Ages. He is the author of Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX and the pioneer of the Formed In Christ series of faith formation texts, as well as the author of several books in this series.

Formed in Christ, catholic high school students
Photo Credit: Alexis Brown

In many academic disciplines, parents and educators understand that it is important for students to read the best books, even if they don't understand everything in them. For example, we often have high school students read Hamlet. Why? It certainly isn't because we think the typical sixteen-year-old can understand everything in Shakespeare's masterpiece. Rather, we understand that it is good for the student to be exposed to the best English that has ever been written. We understand that it is important for him to struggle with a difficult text and be guided in his reading of it by parents and teachers who are more advanced.

But for some reason this line of thinking is rarely applied to the study of our faith. We have an immensely deep and rich intellectual tradition. The greatest thinkers in Western Civilization for centuries applied themselves to better understanding Christ and his Church. And yet, all too often, high school students are not exposed to this heritage. For some reason, we understand that it is all right for Hamlet to be over students' heads, but we don't apply the same wisdom to the far more important study of the faith.

In religion classes, we all too often act as if Christianity must be "brought down" to the student's level, must be made "relevant," must not challenge him intellectually but rather "meet him where he is."

This sentiment is not totally wrong, of course. Christianity must be explained in a manner that anticipates the student’s abilities and challenges. There is a balance to be wrought. This is the balance that the Formed in Christ series finds.

With Formed in Christ, students will read Scripture, the Catechism, the Doctors of the Church. They will be initiated into the great discussion that is our tradition. These readings, however, are situated always within commentary that is both approachable and challenging.

The students are led systematically through the basics of the faith in such a manner that after completing the series, they will both hold a solid doctrinal foundation that has meaning at their level of understanding and will carry with them always the knowledge that the faith goes far deeper. They will know, because they have read them, that St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas cannot be discounted as fools, and someday, when they are challenged by the intellectual "elites" of our own times, they will be able to fall back on the bottomless genius of Catholicism.

Humility before the depth of the tradition is one of the greatest and most underestimated protections against abandoning the faith. Our teenagers need this protection now more than ever.

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The Formed in Christ series is a solid and faithful resource that provides a thorough treatment of the Catholic faith and the various branches of theology. Ideal for personal study or for use in the classroom. Each book can be read alone for an-depth treatment of special topics in the faith, but the series is especially useful as a whole for a systematic study of key doctrines in the faith. Teachers may use this series to draw lessons for all core curriculum subjects in the USCCB’s doctrinal framework for high school level theology.