Karen Carter is a historian of French Catholicism. She has been teaching in the history department at BYU since 2006. From her office window she can see the hospital where she was born, but she has lived in other places besides Provo, including Orem, California, DC, and France. Her high score in bowling is 216, and she is currently studying confession and communion in rural parishes in eighteenth-century France.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, both Catholic and Protestant churches began to use texts known as catechisms to educate their members in church doctrine. The catechism was a series of questions and answers that the believer memorized and repeated back to priest or pastor. Catechisms had originally been used to teach adult converts Christian doctrine before they were baptized, but the genre disappeared once infant baptism became the norm. With the religious upheaval caused by the Reformation, church leaders of all confessions became increasingly concerned that members know and understand church doctrine so the catechism became popular once again. Luther and Calvin both published catechisms, and many others appeared in the next several centuries.
Catechisms served as a test of orthodoxy. In a time when churches were carefully delineating and standardizing their doctrines, it was important for leaders to have some sort of way to measure orthodoxy, and the catechism was a good tool to test it. Church leaders argued that if you couldn’t recite your catechism, then you couldn’t participate in certain rituals. In the Catholic context, that meant that you had to know your catechism if you wanted to take first communion, marry, or become a godparent to an infant at baptism. (Whether this actually happened in practice is hard to determine, but at least this was the Catholic clergy’s goal.)
The catechism also appealed to church leaders because it was safe: believers memorized the material and (theoretically) internalized it, so they had no need to speculate about doctrine or stray from orthodox beliefs. The catechism was designed to teach believers exactly what they needed to know—no more, and no less.
In Mormonism we have no significant doctrinal tests. Although children are encouraged to memorize the Articles of Faith, they would not be denied baptism if they failed to do so. No one has to repeat any scripture or other text in order to get a temple recommend. Even in the temple, the amount of recitation is minimal, and does not involve any tricky theology or doctrine. Instead, all of our tests deal with behaviors—the wearing of temple garments, chastity, the Word of Wisdom, etc. Therefore, it should follow that a text like the catechism would serve little purpose in the Mormon world.
Yet it seems that the most important texts of Mormonism have in fact become increasingly catechetical. We have manuals for everything—even nursery. Every ward and branch teaches the same thing at the same time. And this one-size-fits-all system means that church lessons are overly general, with prescribed, banal questions like “How does this [insert principle] apply to your life?” These manuals are safe, like the catechism, and require little intellectual thought. Everything has been sanitized and correlated, with anything the slightest bit controversial edited out. Even in sacrament meetings speakers are, more often than not, assigned a conference talk to summarize or read aloud, and thus there is very little room for speculation. As a result, some might argue that we privilege manuals and conference talks over scripture or anything else. Take a look around a typical chapel—you will see the Proclamation on the Family and various mottoes and themes hanging on the walls, but few scriptures, or even pictures that illustrate scriptures. The fact is, scriptures are controversial, while manuals are not.
But if we have no doctrinal tests, why do we require so much doctrinal education? Why should controversies even bother us? A person has to take deviant views to the extreme and then publish them publically before church discipline is put into place; in reality, a wide variety of doctrinal views are allowed within the umbrella of the LDS church. Overwhelmingly it seems that practice—behavior—is more important than anything as far as maintaining membership is concerned. So why do we need to do anything more than what the scriptures ask us to do: love each other, and minister to each other?
I would love to hear other ideas for church services that focus more on the gospel of Christ, instead of the gospel of church correlation committees. I would like to see our church meetings reflect the idea that practice is more important than doctrine. Instead of three hours in classes, how about we spend an hour taking the sacrament, listening to music, and meditating on scripture? Then we could spend the remaining time doing home teaching and visiting teaching, or simply socializing with others in our congregations. There must be better ways to spend our time than sitting in classrooms participating in the Mormon version of catechism class (otherwise known as reading quotes from General Authorities typed on little strips of paper). Few of us remember much about church lessons, but if we build good relationships with people, those will be remembered for a lifetime. Our prescribed church services should help us to create those relationships.