American and Catholic: Inviting Current Events into Religion Class

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In this article from the April 2002 Connect, Patrick Lannan encourages teachers to integrate current events into the classroom and offers strategies for doing this. Recognizing that the goal is to form responsible and faith-filled Catholics, the writer delves into what it means to be American and Catholic. A timely article for both ideas and reflection!

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, my students discussed Catholic social teaching on war and peace. One of my students said, "This is not the time to be Catholic; this is the time to be an American." He was struggling to balance commitments to both his church and his nation. As a member of both of these communities, he holds obligations to each. Yet he could not see how to honor both obligations simultaneously. I see this student's struggle as central to my challenge as a religion teacher. I teach religion because I believe that Christianity can make a difference in the world. If I cannot teach my students to exercise their faith through responsible citizenship, I will not have fulfilled my dream. So, how should I teach my students to respond to current events?

American Catholics live as Catholic citizens of a democratic society. As Catholics, we believe that all people have an obligation to contribute to the common good. We serve one another by giving our gifts to society. When we do this, all people live more fully human lives (see Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [Gaudium et Spes], 1965, numbers 23–32). As citizens of a democracy, we believe that the people hold ultimate responsibility for the government and that the government should serve the people. Either way, through civics or through Catholic social teaching, the buck stops with us. We must inform our consciences and build a just society. Conscientious citizenship depends on an awareness of the world around us, analysis of current events in accord with our values, and action based on the dictates of conscience. These three steps--awareness, analysis, and action--also form a process for putting faith into action. This process guides our contributions as citizens of our nation and our world, and informs our faith response to current events.

Awareness of current events fosters relationships of solidarity with other people. Ignorance of current events serves injustice. If we ignore current events, we ignore the lives of other people. When we ignore people, we do not love them. Jesus' followers formed a community despite their differences. It's hard to imagine a more diverse community than the first-century church: multiethnic, multilingual, and multicultural, it cut across existing social and religious barriers. Yet the people gathered as one in Christ's name. Today Christ calls us to do the same. Church teaching is clear that we are to live in solidarity with all persons. When we live in solidarity with others, we live as Christians. Solidarity is dedication to the well-being of others. Pope John Paul II writes, "Solidarity helps us to see the 'other' . . . as our 'neighbor,' a 'helper,' to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God" (On Social Concern [Sollicitudo rei Socialis], 1987, number 39). The Second Vatican Council calls us to solidarity by saying, "The joys and the hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well" (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [Gaudium et Spes], 1975, number 1).

When we teach young people in our religion classes, we incorporate current events, not to comprehend the actions of powerful leaders but to understand what helps or harms the people of the world, especially poor people. Our goal is to teach solidarity--a personal commitment to the well-being of others. Since a heartfelt understanding of how other people live grounds the human experience of solidarity, we encourage students to look past the headlines and toward the people affected by the news.

Activities That Nurture Solidarity

Educators nurture solidarity with educational activities that allow students to explore other people's life experiences. During these activities, students' emotions guide their learning because people feel solidarity before they live it. When we feel emotionally connected to other people, we want to see them do well, and we support their efforts to improve their lives. At the same time, these activities should help students understand other people so that they can gain insight into their hopes and struggles. For example, a number of my students studied Palestinian culture by making a Pomegranate Seed Street video about life in Palestine. Like the popular children's program Sesame Street, it featured monsters and puppets learning the Arabic alphabet, tasting food, displaying fashion, and dancing to Palestinian disco. Their video helped their classmates see Palestinians as more than supporters of Hamas. It broke down barriers to solidarity.

An even more poignant means of teaching solidarity involves introducing students to people face-to-face. Many Catholic schools require volunteer service of their students. We can structure these service experiences to allow students to meet the people they serve and to serve people touched by current events. In a similar manner, some schools immerse students in the life of communities affected by economic hardship or political oppression. These immersion experiences raise students' consciousness and nurture patterns of solidarity. At a protest against the School of the Americas (recently renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), in Fort Benning, Georgia, a high school senior spoke of her school's immersion trip to El Salvador. While there, she met a Salvadoran girl who urged her "to not fall asleep in the American dream." Her memory of this girl inspired her after she returned. What had started as a simple friendship grew into a personal commitment.

Analysis, the second step of the process of putting faith into action, implies both social analysis and moral assessment of current events. Before we can form our consciences, we need to understand what is happening. The goal of social analysis is to understand the social forces that impact others' lives. For example, when students learn about homelessness, they need accurate information about its causes. This implies a rudimentary understanding of economics. Students also need to understand politics, international relations, and ecology. This opens our curriculum to other disciplines and encourages collaboration with teachers in other departments.

Social analysis is important, but in our religion classes, we also need to teach moral analysis. We teach students to perceive and respect the inherent dignity of self, other people, and creation; we can also teach them to recognize the moral significance of life experience. For example, one student looks at a fast food restaurant and sees lunch while another student sees environmental degradation. Why? The second student remembers what she has learned about global economic structures, ecology, and agricultural practices. She recalls her relationship with the natural world, and she feels her love for God's creation. All this imaginative thinking and feeling sparks a response: "This place wrecks the earth. I won't eat here." Students sharpen their moral acuity when they associate the images stored in their memory with the emotions of loving relationships.

Using Stories to Engage Imaginations and Emotions

In our religion classes, we can coach students' moral perception by leading them to see and feel as Jesus did. Jesus taught with parables, and we should do the same. Scriptural stories evoke emotions. When we immerse ourselves in these stories, we can actually feel compassion. When we recognize contemporary situations that mimic the events described in the biblical stories, the emotions associated with the stories rise to the surface. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. taught people to recognize the similarity between the Exodus and the civil rights movement in the United States. We can design activities that encourage students to draw connections between biblical stories and events in our time. We can retell a parable for modern times through a skit, with a cartoon, or in writing. We can also lead students in guided meditations based on the Scriptures; ask students to look for and journal about scriptural themes, such as healing, mercy, or courage, that emerge in their lives; and have students re-craft some of Jesus' sermons for our time.

When we teach students of other faiths or students who are not rooted in any religious tradition, Jesus' life and the Scriptures may be less persuasive because the emotional connection may be diminished. Yet Catholic social teaching seeks to persuade all men and women of good will. One way of bridging the gap between different religious and moral traditions is to teach human rights. In human rights education, instructional techniques focus on interpersonal solidarity and the connection between specific human rights and the human experiences these rights protect. Again, teaching with images, emotions, and stories of people's lives serves our objective. The heroic examples of figures from other religious traditions, such as Mahatma Gandhi, complement stories drawn from the Christian tradition. Broadening our perspective also teaches our students that Christianity has not cornered the market on compassion.

Finally, when we teach current events, we need to teach students to act. This last step in the three-fold approach to social action brings solidarity to its natural conclusion--support for others' efforts to improve their lives. Action, when characterized by solidarity, empowers other people. Because of our work, other people should have a greater ability to reach their potential and to contribute to the common good. Solidarity leads us to support others' efforts to improve their lives.

Strategies for social action can include raising consciousness, doing works of charity, developing community and developing social policy. To raise consciousness, we can share our learning about current events outside our classroom. We can educate the broader community through newsletters, Web sites, street theater, posters, presentations, videos, and so on. Works of charity will probably be the most familiar means of social action for our students. Many high schools sponsor charity events. The religion curriculum supports these events by exploring who we help, how we help, why this is important, and what else people can do. This gives our charity deeper significance.

Developing community involves building working relationships with other community organizations near home and abroad. When we support organizations in a sustained manner through the support of our young people, we model social justice and contribute to the common good. Developing social policy is a form of social justice with great human impact. We can guide social institutions, including government, toward compassionate policy, always led by our own informed consciences. Students can write letters for Amnesty International, organize protests, write to politicians, and prepare people for elections through informed voter education campaigns.

Because people do differ in their moral conclusions about contemporary situations, we should encourage students to act as citizens in accord with their conscience but not try to tell them what political position they should support. We can, and should, leave that decision to students' consciences. We should expect disagreement among them because even those with similar values can come to different conclusions because moral decisions become less obvious as we make decisions about more specific cases.

When we ask students to act on the issue of homelessness, for example, some might want to lobby government for a higher minimum wage, but others might emphasize job training in the private sector. To respect our students' freedom of conscience and to allow us to remain humble--after all, we could be wrong--we need to allow for differing conclusions. After teaching students how to form their consciences, we must trust that the Holy Spirit will guide them and hope that they will open their lives to the Spirit. This follows the example set by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which states: "The leaders of the Church have the right and duty to share the Church's teaching and to educate Catholics on the moral dimensions of public life, so that they may form their consciences in light of their faith. As bishops, we do not seek the formation of a religious voting block, nor do we wish to instruct persons on how they should vote by endorsing or opposing candidates" (Origins, October 1999, "Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility for a New Millennium," page 313).

Teaching current events in religion class encourages students to live in solidarity with others though awareness of the human impact of world events, analysis of the moral dimension of these events, and action of conscience that supports others. To teach students to respond to these events with compassion, we need to engage their emotions and imaginations. Perhaps the most powerful tools available to us as we undertake this task are the examples of Jesus and the social teaching of the Catholic church.


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Published April 1, 2002.