This is an extended version of the original article in our May/June 2018 edition of our magazine, Family Foundations. You can subscribe or order individual issues here.
When Emily Macke was approached to write an 8-semester Theology of the Body curriculum for high schoolers, she wasn’t overwhelmed as one would expect.
“My first reaction was excitement at the opportunity,” she said. “Naively, I initially thought it wouldn’t be overly difficult. After working on the high school lessons for 5 ½ years, I was clearly wrong!”
Macke’s assignment is only a portion of a much larger movement humming to life in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Starting in 2011, the archdiocese began reassessing and re-creating its high school religion standards. A motion was made to integrate Theology of the Body (TOB) — Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching on the human person — which had hereto not been mandated in any official capacity. The archdiocese turned to Ruah Woods, Cincinnati’s TOB educators, for advice. Ruah accepted the challenge to produce the 8-semester curriculum, ultimately assigning the task to Macke, Ruah’s TOB Educator Coordinator.
Ruah’s main function in the Cincinnati Catholic community was to provide TOB classes and programming for everyone from high school students to engaged and married couples. The archdiocesan request for a school-specific curriculum fit in with Ruah’s mission so naturally that they didn’t think much of it.
That is, until the archdiocese began revisiting their K-8 Grade Course of Study in 2015 and expressed interest in integrating TOB there, too. They believed that TOB education was most effective if first introduced at a young age then built upon year after year.
And so, development of Rooted: K-12 Theology of the Body Curriculum quickly became a significant part of Ruah’s ministry.
In order to tackle the enormous project in an orderly fashion, Ruah hired two more curriculum writers: Molly Meyer for K-5 and Meghan Schofield for 6-8. Providentially, all three writers share an educational background with Masters Degrees from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute, and are dear friends.
“This curriculum is a fruit of that friendship,” says Meyer. “We all share the same worldview…. We all have a unique style of writing and teaching, but our foundation is the same.”
Their compatibility and mutual trust played a critical role in crafting a cohesive and consistent vision for such a far-reaching curriculum.
Beyond the necessary market surveys and research at the inception of any project, the three women prioritized spiritual growth and enhancing their own understanding of Pope St. John Paul II’s texts.
“The first step in ‘translating’ TOB for any age group is to spend time with the text itself and try to see what Pope St. John Paul II is saying,” Schofield explains. “This takes time, patience, prayer, and many conversations with others who also know this work.”
This allows the writer to “begin to see through to the heart of the message,” according to Schofield. But that’s only half the battle. Creating a 13-year curriculum that appropriately caters to various age groups and interests is one thing. Ensuring that it’s consistent, complete, heresy-free, and successfully explains a complex theological anthropology is quite another.
“As a team, we’ve asked questions such as, ‘To understand fruitfulness in high school, what does a young child need to know?’ That way, we’re always looking at the whole instead of piecing things together,” Macke says.
Schofield adds that there’s no shortage of collaboration: “We three writers will often read over what each other has written, or if there is a particular concept we are trying to communicate, we ask, ‘How did you communicate this to your age group?’ Or even more basically, ‘I’m having trouble thinking through examples for this — what do you suggest?’”
The idea of recurring themes may seem repetitive from a “big picture” perspective, but not only is it necessary for long-term learning, it’s actually the trademark method of JPII himself.
Macke and her cohorts found this approach appropriate for their purposes and happily adopted it. “People often compare JPII’s approach to a spiral that revisits the same themes but in a deeper way,” she says. “That’s been a model for us.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the most resistance to the new curriculum has come from teachers themselves who, already overworked, hesitate to add what they perceive as an “extra” teaching. Macke discovered this largely during her initial research.
“It seems that teachers and diocesan officials tend to view TOB as just a chastity program, “ Macke admitted, “and therefore, beyond morality or possibly vocations, it doesn’t seem to have a place.”
Macke insists that such a sentiment is understandable — TOB has been embraced by chastity educators and speakers such as Jason and Crystalina Evert — but there is so much more to TOB than what fits in the chastity realm. Clearing this misunderstanding is something the team has made a point to emphasize in the lessons. “Theology of the Body is first a matter of Christian anthropology — understanding who the human person is,” Macke clarifies. “This has implications for everything!”
Ruah Woods sees this kind of misunderstanding often, and they chose to use it as an opportunity. The high school part of Rooted is separately titled “Called to More,” and provides lessons for some of the most common religion courses, including Morality, Social Justice, Christology and the Sacraments. By illustrating how deeply TOB is entwined with these other subjects, the authors hope to illustrate that it is about so much more than just chastity and sexual ethics.
All of Rooted has been specifically designed to fit into existing religious curricula as seamlessly as possible, especially for those diocese —such as Cincinnati — seeking to incorporate TOB as an “anchor strand” in their education programs.
Rooted, which had its humble inception at a diocesan meeting in 2011 is set to be completely finished in 2019, after seven years of development.
Some of it is available now, thanks to the wise decision to roll it out in stages.
Called to More, the 9-12 grade element of Rooted, took the longest to develop — 64 lessons in 6 years — and actually piloted in select schools during the 2015-2016 academic year while it was still being produced. Grades 9 and 10 are available for nationwide purchase now and the full high school curriculum is set to release this summer.
The K-5 lessons are the most recently piloted: currently being used in more than 1,200 classroom throughout the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. The full K-5 lessons are set to release alongside Called to More, after a mere three years in development.
In a bid for the quickest to be produced are the lessons for grades 6-8, still in their early stages but already scheduled to pilot in the fall. Sign-ups to participate in the pilot released are currently available at Ruah Woods Press and are not limited to Cincinnati.
As of Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018, Archbishop Dennis Schnurr officially mandated TOB education for grades K-8, with K-12 as the total vision, although high school TOB planning is not yet required.
Although the program is still new and no quantitative results are available, the anecdotal results have been promising says Steve Deiters, Director of Ruah Woods Press.
Understandably mixed reactions from teaches at the onset of the pilot have become overwhelmingly positive. “Teachers are so overworked, it’s hard to concentrate on what’s next,” Deiters explains. But in his experience, “once they attend a retreat or in-service and learn what Theology of the Body is really about, many actually look forward to teaching it. And their students reward them by receiving it with great joy.”
The experience of parents seems to be similar.
“Parents are often hard to reach,” Deiters admits, “but once they learn what TOB is about, they intuitively know how important it is for their children to learn and live these foundational truths as a path to genuine happiness — which is what every parent wants for their child.”
As for the students themselves, the program seems to deliver TOB in such a way that it cuts directly to the deepest cry of their hearts. Deiters reports that the students thrive on the program and are thrilled to learn how fundamentally they are related to God and to each other. As the students begin to understand how to become who they were created to be, the very atmospheres of the schools seem to change.
Deiters relates a story from the largest archdiocesan grade school in Cincinnati, which voluntarily began integrating TOB into its lessons a few years ago.
“[The principal] notes a real shift in student behavior — especially when it comes to discipline,” Deiters says. And the changes have continued with the continuing emphasis on TOB. “Students who know who they are don’t need to be told that pushing another child of God into a locker is wrong. [The principal] says that even the typical Principal’s Office disciplinary meetings go differently, with the students often on their own articulating that they know they ‘weren’t being a gift to others.’ His discipline files have evaporated from a full drawer a couples of years ago to a file folder about 1 ½ inches thick.”
Foundations for life
It’s exactly that kind of culture-shifting effect that the creators of Rooted — and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati at large — hope to see played out over time on a larger stage.
In a world of rampant fatherlessness, increased suicide, public violence, and a thousand other tragedies, a curriculum such as Rooted may be the key to teaching our youth to properly cope with the cry of the heart in a broken world.
“Everything about this K-12 curriculum goes beyond putting a Band-aid on a cultural sore,” Emily Macke explains. Instead, Rooted and TOB in general, seeks “to heal the deeper wounds and misunderstandings at the root of a culture of death.”
Widespread TOB education is promising for creating a culture of NFP. After all, Deiters points out, “NFP will be naturally embraced by those who know who they are and what they were created for.”
“It will take a great deal of time,” he admits. “[TOB education] is a strong but slow-acting agent of change.”
“With the current cultural climate,” she says, “I think its close to impossible to share the beauty of the Church’s teaching on life if we don’t first walk with our young people in their understanding of who they are as a human person.”
Beyond what TOB can teach regarding identity and human worth, it’s also critical to establish a foundational understanding of concepts like love, truth and freedom — another thing often neglected in today’s culture. Through his teachings, Pope St. John Paul II offers clear and relatable explanations of all these things which are necessary to set the stage for moral decision making all throughout life.
“[All] these are themes that are highlighted throughout the high school curriculum. Even in the younger grades, seeds are being planted,” says Macke. “When these young men and women are preparing for marriage, I hope that they will remember what they learned in grade school and high school and will naturally be drawn to NFP as a response to God’s love and a way of loving each other. …This is a long-range vision, but I have great hope that, like the parable of the sower, these seeds will take root and flourish.”
Of course, while NFP can be foundational to responsible parenting and living a joy-filled marriage, the scope of Theology of the Body — and therefore Rooted — extends far beyond that.
Emily Macke says that, while she naturally hopes to see young adults embrace chastity and understand marriage as both a vocation and sacrament, she hopes the impact of her work extends to the faith as a whole.
“I would love to see young people who see the beauty of Jesus, the Church, and of their own lives,” she says. “How incredible if they can experience wonder and gratitude at the world and see their faith as a gift!”
Steve Deiters’ hopes are similar. When asked what impact he’d like to see from Rooted, he answered simply, “A world transformed by love.”
With the release of Rooted in 2019, dioceses hoping to incorporate Theology of the Body into their course of study will have a ready-made way to do so. But if anyone’s looking to write their own curriculum, the folks at Ruah Woods are ready with advice.
Meghan Schofield suggests keeping it authentic and honest no matter the age level.
“The most significant thing I realized…is that simplifying TOB doesn’t mean you have to lose the depth of the message,” she says. “The simplicity and power of the truth is accessible to all — it’s just a question of finding the way to communicate it clearly and authentically.”
Molly Meyer agrees, pointing out that “[children have the] capacity to receive and absorb much more than we give them credit for at every age.”
Emily Macke used a similar test for authenticity and age-appropriateness, often asking herself questions like, “What would a high schooler say to this? What questions or concerns need to be addressed? How can this lesson in theology be an invitation to conversion and not simply an academic exercise?”
But for Macke, who got married and had two children over the course of this project, the lessons are more than professional.
“It’s been fascinating for me to work on a lesson on a particular topic — let’s say truth, for example — and then have our older daughter almost simultaneously start asking questions that unbeknownst to her are related. How does one explain truth to a three-year-old?” Macke wonders. “How do we help our children, whether they are four or 14 grow in their faith? …I know that the way I answer questions at home now will set the stage for how they will be answered in the years to come.”
“The work ahead is enormous,” Steven Deiters agrees, “but it’s not bigger than God.”
— CCL Staff Member