If a youngster swears, is he headed for hell until he makes it to confession?
Did God the Son exist before he came to earth in the person of Jesus?
Were Adam and Eve really historical characters?
The questions came bubbling out in an elementary school classroom at St. Philip Neri Roman Catholic Church in Ferndale Wednesday.
But the questionersweren't children; they were adults seeking to find out exactly what the church is teaching today.
Carol Dunnigan, 28, had a practical reason for attending the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults class. She wanted her daughter, who attends the church's school, to be able to take communion with her 6-year-old friends.
"I was interested in learning more about the church, anyway," said Dunnigan, who was not raised as a Catholic.
About 30 people gathered for the sessionwith the presiding priest, Msgr. Francis Zorbach. Some were lapsed Catholics seeking to renew their faith. Many were non-Catholics seeking information about thechurch's teaching. And some young adults said they are brushing up on doctrine to prepare for marriage or for having a child baptized.
Programs such as RCIA, founded in the 1970s asa result of the Second Vatican Council, aim at re-evangelism, says the priest. Along with a scripture series at the parish, which about 60 people attend, RCIA is part of an ongoing attempt to lure non-active members back, as well as stem the loss of members to evangelical Protestant churches.
Like most other churches, St. Philip Neri lost about 1,000 of its 3,200 members in the 1970s. The numbers have neverclimbed that high again, Zorbach says.
The U.S. bishops' 1987 pastoral statement for Catholics blamed the lack of adult education for weaknesses within many Catholic churches. "We need a pastoral plan for the word of God that will place the Sacred Scriptures at the heart of the parish and individual life," the bishops wrote.
A more recent pastoral letter said the challenges posed by evangelical churches should be a chance to "understand and mature in the Christian and Catholic faith in which we have been baptized." The bishops also suggested a stronger emphasis on the Bible and on encouraging church membersto feel they are part of a body.
At St. Philip Neri, says Zorbach, RCIA attempts to fill some of the void, helping people understand and mature in their faith. The classes also give people a sense of community.
The program lasts about six months, culminating with the possibility of joining the Catholic faith at Easter.
Three priests at the church split up the teaching duties. Zorbach taught the first leg of the program, including last week's discussion about basic theology.
"Non-Catholics and some Catholics, too, have a knowledge of God, but as far as the Catholic faith is concerned, they know very little," the priest says. "How we operate as a ritualistic church, the liturgy, they're quite interested in that. Basic Christianity, they know. We're expanding on that knowledge of God."
In RCIA, complex concepts such as the Trinity become clearer, and more real, said thosein attendance.
Zorbach explained the Trinity -- the concept that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit all in one -- as a mystery, akin to an electric outlet. "We wouldn't go stick our finger in it," he said. "You know there's power there and you respect it, even if you can't explain it."
RCIA also exists as a clearinghouse to sweep away incorrect ideas people may carry with them, the priest said. Any changes in interpretation of dogma or practice are clarified for adults who may have learned something different in their Catholic childhoods.
Says Robert Dunnigan, 28, "When I was in Catholic school, we were taught that the book of Genesis, the beginning of the Bible, was true, every literal word. We're learning (in this class) that the first few books were inspired by God, but not verbatim. The change is interesting to me."
Zorbach roused the concern of at least one middle-aged class member when he insisted that a nun who warned a recalcitrantchild that he would go to hell if he cursed was incorrect in interpretation.
"We have mis-trained children in too many cases, and thenwe have to 'undo' it," the priest insisted.
The class was ready. Clasping their textbooks, "Christ Among Us, A Modern Presentation of the Catholic Faith for Adults," the students prepared to start learning theology from an adult perspective -- and get it right.