A Catechesis of Culture

By Frank Castillo.*


Religion may be one of those enterprises that eludes definition, just like culture may be a difficult concept to describe. Culture could be understood as the organically constituted totality of the spirit of peoples, which they enact and embody in their religious transcendence, in their anthropology, literature, science, social principles and structures, political definitions, law and their vision of the future. This lofty definition unveils the sins of omission in our current attitudes of a pragmatic functionalism with an overemphasized sense of efficiency and profit. It reveals the absence of a deep probing into the operating discourses that make up our social realities.

Inculturated Catechesis

In my experience as a senior editor and multicultural specialist for a religion publishing company, I have discovered that we tend to expect easy answers to the complex questions of our times. I argue that our attempt to interpret reality should not be simplistic. We need both, faith and reason, and never just faith or reason, to understand the intersection of faith and culture, religion and spirituality, or catechesis and culture. I find that the way in which catechesis is carried out is not conducive to authentic liberation of those we catechize.
Catechesis, according to Pope Paul VI, is a complex process that encompasses many dimensions of human life: “It is impossible to grasp the concept of evangelization unless one tries to keep in view all its essential elements.” If the Gospel is to be transformative, a liberative catechetical process must consider the lived experiences of all peoples and their many dimensions. A properly inculturated message is important because it can determine people's relationship to themselves, society, and culture.

I propose a renewed catechetical practice based on the needs and experiences of racial and ethnic minorities. In Luke Chapter 4, Jesus demonstrated that he had made a fundamental option for the marginalized. The catechesis of Jesus aims to set the captives free by announcing to them the Good News: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

Catechetical Business

As multicultural specialist for a publishing company, I review catechetical textbooks for publishing. Most catechetical publishing companies seek to strike a balance between presenting sound doctrinal material and meeting the demands of the market. New changes in educational trends and psychology have been incorporated in catechetical publishing. Publishers highlight the importance of sharing the faith in light of human experience. However, the challenge of how this is presented in the catechetical material is difficult to resolve. Bishops demand a more theoretical and intellectual articulation of the faith to the detriment of experience. In a meeting of the Subcommittee on the Catechism of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops with catechetical publishers, one bishop stressed the following: “It is of utmost importance to use appropriate language about the incarnation since this has profound implications for the Church. We must work together when it comes to answering that question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Answering this question can radically change the understanding of the Trinity if not presented correctly. It also affects our understanding of the Church.” These types of statements make it challenging for publishers to present the faith in an age-appropriate and culturally sensitive manner. For publishers, developing doctrinal material becomes difficult considering the process of conformity that the United States Conference of Bishops has set in place for catechetical publishing.

 1 Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 17.
2 Lk 4: 18-19, in which Jesus quotes Is 61.


The Process of Conformity

Catechetical resources are submitted for Catechism conformity through rigorous conformity protocols. Manuscripts submitted by the publishers are, in my estimation, subjectively read and reviewed by a catechetical expert. The reviewer, chosen by the bishops, interprets if the manuscript properly aligns with the conformity protocols. The bishops claim that the subcommittee only reviews doctrinal content and not for methodology. Yet, since the reviewers interpret the texts at their own discretion, sometimes they make recommendations that lie outside their expertise. For publishers, the process of conformity dictates what and how material is published. Most companies know that if they intend to sell in the Catholic market, the bishops’ declaration of conformity is something they cannot do without. Dioceses or parishes will not purchase catechetical material that does not have the bishops’ declaration of conformity. The conformity process, as it exists now, adds an unusual burden to production timelines. In addition, it may also hinder any effective process of inculturation publishers attempt to make. 

 3 Frank J. Caggiano, “Doctrinal Presentation of Christology in Catechetical Texts,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis Annual Meeting with Catechetical Publishers (Chicago: unpublished notes for presentation, 2016).  

4 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, “Conformity Review,” available from http://www.usccb.org. See also Evangelization and Catechesis Mandate, https://www.usccb.org/committees/evangelization-catechesis/evangelization-and-catechesis-mandate and, on the Conformity Review Process administered by the Subcommittee on the Catechism (of the Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis), https://www.usccb.org/committees/catechism/conformity-review-process.  


Un-inculturated Catechesis

A catechetical textbook that I recently edited, in my estimation, offers a weak presentation of cultural aspects that are central in the development of the faith of adolescents. The textbook lacked cultural sensitivity in issues of diverse populations. The textbook, which presented Jesus being revealed in the Old Testament, did not prompt readers to consider issues of justice. Yet, the book’s introduction reads as follows: “Prayerfully reading and studying the Old Testament is important to our Christian living. God’s Word in the Old Testament reveals to us that we are God’s People who are in a Covenant with him. God’s Word also prepares us to receive Jesus as the Messiah.” This seems to provide a mere spiritual reading of the Old Testament. It fails to engage issues of cultural diversity. When presenting the Exodus, the book failed to mention the historical identification of the African-American community with this biblical story. Kelly Brown in her book, The Black Christ, discusses how significant the Exodus event has been in the struggle for civil rights. Then—and earlier in African American religion and culture—the Exodus from Egypt signaled God’s liberating action in history. Brown adds that Martin Luther King Jr. believed that “God identified with Black people as God had identified with the Israelites.”

Covenantal Justice 

Regarding the Babylonian Captivity and Exile, the textbook completely ignored issues of exile or migration. If the central idea of this text is to present the Covenant as the key to understanding God's relationship with the people, then a central aspect of that relationship is being ignored. Each of its chapters is meant to illustrate different covenants that God has made, yet justice as a response to the Covenant is absent. Biblical scholars define the faith of Israel as covenantal.8

5 I believe that the new Directory for Catechesis promulgated by Pope Francis in June 2020 should have a major effect on the Conformity Review Process in the United States as a benchmark for life-long faith formation. In the current process, “conformity” is about synchronization or homogenization of the faith. This is contrary to the nature of a faith lived en lo cotidiano. If this new Directory is to make a significant impact on catechesis in the Catholic Church of the United States, it needs to reject the USCCB’s current Conformity Review Process. The current “requirement” of conformity needs to change and include the notion of the gradual unfolding of catechesis, or of the “progressive maturation of the formation process in which the entire community is involved.” Conformity requires completion. However, complete coverage of the Catechism in six to eight years is not a gradual unfolding. Educators are then, by design, forced to do ongoing catechesis with people who, by the standards of the new Directory, should still be in initiatory catechesis. (See Rino Fisichella, “Press Conference to present the Directory for Catechesis prepared by the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization,” Bolletino Sala Stampa della Santa Sede, June 25, 2020, available from https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2020/06/25/200625c.html  
 6 Be My Disciples Old Testament: Christ Revealed in the Old Testament (Cincinnati: RCL Benziger, unpublished), ix.  
7 Kelly Brown Douglas, The Black Christ (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1994), 40.   
Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 412.  


If those being catechized are to understand that faith and spirituality need to be lived concretely in real socio-historical situations, then catechetical texts should allude to what Ada María Isasi-Díaz succinctly declared: “To struggle for justice is to pray.” 9
Publishing companies sin by omission by not considering the reader, the catechizing, the young, the U.S. Hispanic/Latino(as), the African Americans, women or other minoritized peoples.

Publishers intend to present a neutral catechism, at best, or at worst a White, Euro-centric message that fails to engage. The communal and social dimension of the people of Israel, and of the Christian people, is absent. These texts, filtered through a critical perspective, could lead to a liberating catechesis. There seems to be some hesitation on the part of the publishers and the bishops’ Subcommittee on the Catechism to present a clear treatment of the Church’s social gospel. 

Attention to Culture

What seems to be missing is an exploration of the cultures that make up the church in the United States, or the relationship between catechesis and culture. The delineation of a contextual or local theology may help readers discern how the Gospel and the church’s teachings interact and become incarnate in culture. Robert Schreiter declares that culture is the concrete context in which this interaction takes place. Educators should be interested in the interaction between the text and the reader. Such interaction can help explain the different levels of meaning in instructional texts. The task of finding meaning through religious experiences is often compounded by sociocultural, economic, and political contexts. According to Thomas H.

 9 Arturo Pérez, Consuelo Covarrubias et al., eds., Así es: Stories of Hispanic Spirituality (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1994), 16.
 Robert J. Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2003), 21.  


Groome, “religious instruction needs to become an: education that is intentionally religious [and] is clearly a transcendent activity.” 11

Decisive Catechesis

Just like Jesus brings the good news, catechists must use Scripture and the teachings of the Church to bring the catechizing to an intimate communion and knowledge of Christ. The model that is in place now is an education that relies too much on a conversion based on evidence rather than on the Christian witness. This misplaced emphasis goes contrary to what the Catholic Church has underscored. The General Directory for Catechesis states: “These are the profound reasons for which the Christian community is in herself [sic] living catechesis. Thus she [sic] proclaims, celebrates, works, and remains always a vital, indispensable and primary locus of catechesis.” 12 This is accomplished when the whole community understands that collaboration and communion have to take place between ordained and lay people, between presider and gathered assembly, and between human and Divine Persons.

The community serves as this privileged encounter where unity is maintained. Leonardo Boff writes: “We must be converted to the Trinity to recover diversity and communion, which create the dynamic unity that is ever open to new enrichment.” 13

 11 Thomas H. Groome, Sharing Faith: A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry: The Way of Shared Praxis (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 13.  
12 Congregation for the Clergy, General Directory for Catechesis (1997), 141, https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/documents/rc_con_ccatheduc_doc_17041998_directory-for-catechesis_en.html.  
13 Leonardo Boff, Holy Trinity, Perfect Community, trans. Phillip Berryman (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2000), 67.


According to Gaudium et Spes, “The term ‘culture’ means the specific way in which human beings belonging to a given people cultivate their relationship with nature, with each other, and with God, in order to arrive at ‘an authentic and full humanity.’” Culture and the message of the gospel must be in continual dialogue through catechesis. 

Catechesis from the Margins

A liberative catechetical process attends to the demands of culture, is attentive to the needs of the learners, and engages the entire community. If Sacred Scripture and Tradition form the foundation of catechesis, then those who teach must filter these through the lenses used by the diverse communities who make up the church. Cyprian Davis, OSB, asserts: “The words of the Bible involve us today. Christ is on His cross down the street. The Samaritan woman is at Jacob's well on the corner. Moses goes down to Pharaoh at the state capital.” 15 Such understanding of Scriptures is important for catechesis because it opens up an entry point to how this particular group in society relates to and reads the Bible. This is what Justo González terms contextuality, which “provides new and valuable insights into the meaning of Scripture, of the gospel, and of doctrines in general.” 16

 14 Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, 8.  
15 Cyprian Davis, OSB, “Understanding the African American Community,” in A Vincentian Guide to Diversity/Multicultural Issues (St. Louis: Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, 2012), 37.   
16 Justo L. González, “Contextual Theologies,” in Essential Theological Terms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 38.


An effective catechesis is one that brings together human experience and places it in conversation with tradition, the doctrine of the church, and Sacred Scripture, all in the context of diverse cultural realities. Emphasis on human experience not only facilitates a better understanding of catechesis and the place it has on the life of diverse populations, but it also allows to properly ground the many other sources for catechesis. Popular piety is a rich source for catechesis and has traditionally been a privileged way for people to express their faith, trust, and devotion to God, the Virgin Mary and the saints. In his book, The Faith of the People: Theological Reflections on Popular Catholicism, Orlando Espín proposes that we approach popular devotions as an epistemological network, “a communication relationship among interconnected nodes that have the capability of transferring data from one to another.”

These sources for catechesis highlighted above, can be further enriched by understanding the diverse contexts where minorities live and act. This renewed approach to the catechetical process that highlights human experience, epistemology, hermeneutics, and service to the community is one that is born out of a concrete encounter with the Christian message mediated by culture. We can infer from the General Directory for Catechetics that the liberative message is Jesus Christ himself and, that echoing Schreiter, inculturation is the word used to describe the proper relationship between faith and culture.

Renewing Catechesis

A renewed catechetical theological process then looks at culture and message. Luke presents the ministry of Jesus as something that is inculturated. Jesus was clearly a person of tradition who was raised in the faith of his community and family. If human experience is fundamental for understanding and assimilating the message, then it is important that catechists pay attention to the social and physical location of those they serve. 

 17 Orlando O. Espín, The Faith of the People: Theological Reflections on Popular Catholicism (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1997), 163.  


Continuing with the idea that Jesus enculturates his message so that it can be grasped by his hearers, the setting of where this message is being delivered needs to be considered. Robert Pazmiño describes Galilee, the region where Jesus’s ministry took place. This was a place full of religious and ethnic diversity, a place where people were bilingual and bicultural. Pazmiño writes: “It was in this very context of Galilee that God chose to be incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Yet it is the very nature of this multicultural context which is often ignored in considering Christian religious education today.” People in this region were so oppressed and imprisoned that they could not heed the liberating message that the Messiah was bringing them. Jesus attempts to ground and contextualize his liberative message in the reality of his time. In the same manner, an effective liberative catechesis must be contextualized because the socio-historical, economic and political realities of people, give rise to specific questions that the Christian message must answer in meaningful ways.

I argue that U.S. Hispanic Latino(a) theology and other theologies that come from the margins are poised to better present the liberative message of the faith. Virgilio Elizondo, in Galilean Journey, offers a re-envisioning of the faith. Michael E. Lee offers great insights into Elizondo’s concept of mestizaje which may offer a key to understand the mission of Jesus of Nazareth in the formulation of a liberative catechesis. Lee states: “Following David Tracy’s understanding of theology as the mutually critical correlation between an interpretation of a faith and an interpretation of a contemporary situation, I would characterize Galilean Journey as a foundational correlational text of Latino/a systematic theology with important Christological implications.” Mestizaje is important for the construction of a liberative catechesis.

18  Robert W. Pazmiño, “Double Dutch,” in Voces: Voices from the Hispanic Church, ed. Justo L. González (Nashville: Abingdon, 1992), 139.  
19 Michael E. Lee, “The Galilean Jesus as Faithful Dissenter: Latino/a Christology and the Dynamics of Exclusion,” in Jesus in the Hispanic Community, ed. Harold J. Recinos and Hugo Magallanes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 18.   


Reading the Gospel from this perspective is a culturally conditioned enterprise that must be used to shed light on the cultural reality of those on the margins. This goes beyond seeing mestizaje in a spiritual dimension, but more importantly, in understanding the implications that the concept has for catechetics. It provides us a key to understand that Jesus of Nazareth was a mestizo, and that as such, he lived in two cultures, two socio-cultural and linguistic realities.

Conclusion: A Catechesis of Culture

The work of theology draws from different sources to create a framework for understanding the reality of God and human life. U.S. Hispanic/Latino(a) anthropology and ecclesiology based in human experience and celebrations has a definite impact for understanding the concept of a mestizaje of the faith, culture, race, language and human life. Because human life is understood as relational, a liberative catechetical process must move the heart. The catechized need to be “impregnated” with the Word of God. A liberative catechesis requires intimacy. It cannot flow from a merely pragmatic or practical worldview.

A renewed catechesis that leads to liberation moves beyond conventional notions of teaching to an authentic witness of life. An inculturated catechesis helps conceive and understand the unimaginable. The best catechesis is one that, just like popular devotions, stimulates imagination, the heart, not only the mind.

 20 Ibid.,” 20.  
 21 Catechesi Traedende, 20.  

  • Francisco Castillo, D Min, works as a senior editor and multicultural specialist at RCL Benziger, Publishing.  He is also  adjunct professor in the theology/philosophy department at Barry University. He worked for 13 years as a Catholic educator for the Archdiocese of Miami teaching high school and serving as Theology Department Chair, and Director of Campus Ministry.  He is a member of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States, a member of the National Hispanic Institute of Liturgy, and of SCALA (Sociedad de Catequetas Latinoamericanos).  His professional interests include Catholic social thought, liturgical theology, liturgical and theological aesthetics, liberation theology, U.S. Hispanic/Latino(a) theology, religious studies, comparative religion, religion and film and cultural identity.  He is also a writer and poet.  He lives in South Florida with his wife and son.