|If you haven't seen this play, segments of it are available on Utube. It is hysterical.|
America Magazine is running an extended series on the proper role of theology in Catholicism. The opening article was written by Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawlor. These two gentleman are noted for having written the book The Sexual Person, which emphasizes relationships over acts in determining the morality of sex. I happen to agree with their position, but the Vatican, not surprisingly, does not. In any event, the book does demonstrate the value of theology in it's more speculative interactive sense, as this book has stimulated a lot of discussion. While I found Salzman and Lawlor's article well done, I was more taken with a response to it written by theologian Vincent Miller. Miller makes the point that if bishops' really wanted to know what was going on in the minds of the 'sensus fidelium', the could start by asking theologians what was going on in their classrooms--especially undergraduate classrooms.
‘So many of us long for ecclesial conspiratio in Spiritu.’
I appreciate Lawler and Salzman’s attention to the important distinction between theology and catechesis. They are distinct tasks and the church needs both.
In the undergraduate classroom, however, I find the tasks are not easily separated. This does not reduce one to the other, but shows their necessary cooperation.
Part of the problem is the poor state of catechesis among our students. I don’t think this is a particularly new situation. For most of Christian history the faithful knew very little. Conversations I’ve had with elders catechized under the Baltimore catechism seldom reveal a particularly detailed grasp of doctrine. Many are able to remember only a few answers. (Question #3!) More than a few seem better able to recover childhood anxiety about answering incorrectly than the doctrines themselves. It’s also far too late to blame it on the 60’s or Vatican II. We’re teaching students 20 years after the John Paul II generation. (I've always found it particularly humorous that the 'poor catechesis' attributed to Vatican II is still in play twenty years after the JPII generation took ascendancy.)
Nonetheless, inadequate catechesis is a problem. With few exceptions, my classroom seems to be the first time my students have ever heard of the Council of Chalcedon. To be fair, that is a decidedly non-liturgical creed and they do know the Nicene-Constantinopolitan one. Regardless, the undergraduate classroom provides the first time they have ever been asked to think about what the creeds might mean.
Inadequate preparation in parish formation doesn’t, of course, reduce the university classroom to catechesis. It does point to the unavoidably theological nature of good catechesis. We are in a university. I’m asking them to think, and…yes, this will be on the test. They have to master concepts. I tell them I don’t demand that they believe anything of course. And I mean it. But, like any good professor, I strive to present the material in the most compelling manner that I can. As a theologian, I have the added responsibility to present the Gospel as compelling. I can’t say I’m particularly good at this. It takes so much. Knowledge of the tradition—I got that in school. But the Ph.D. didn’t bring knowledge of what they care about. What do they hope for? What do they fear? What do they love? What cultural references speak to them? Each generation is different. Each class is a microcosm of diversity.
Professors also speak to one of the most important groups for the church. One the bishops never get to hear from: the unconvinced, the unattracted…the non-confirmandi.
More than once, I’ve stood in the classroom, well-honed syllabus in hand, and felt the ground shift. This no longer works. They’ve gone elsewhere. Now I need to figure out where; and then, how to teach theology there as well.
This is one of the great intellectual privileges of teaching college students. It is something theologians have to offer to the church. We aren’t catechists, but this knowledge born of experience certainly can help the bishops fulfill their catechetical responsibilities. The ground shifts everywhere.
College theologians know deeply what 18-year-olds can learn about the Catholic faith. We’ve danced, wrestled, argued and prayed about this in the classroom and in faculty meetings for years. We get feedback. We assign the beautiful essay that changed our life, and find for the students, well, not so much. We craft lectures and guide conversations thinking all has been made clear. Then we read 70 exams and see that we weren’t nearly as clear as we’d thought. And...oh yes, anonymous, quantitative course evaluations! It is not easy to keep the dialogue going; to listen to their concerns (sometimes expressed very negatively) and to respond year after year. Pastoral letters and homilies aren’t about to get anonymous evaluations, but those who write them could profit from conversation with those who receive daily feedback. (To some extent the internet has given Catholic leadership evaluation of this sort. Unfortunately it hasn't resulted in dialogue.)
Theology and catechesis are intertwined in another, more complex way as well. It’s a university classroom. Students get to talk back, question, challenge. This isn’t geometry. We aren’t doing proofs. Frankly I’m surprised at how little real challenge there is to the most central doctrines: the incarnation, trinity, the paschal mystery. That is good news too often overlooked in our polarized church. (I've frequently wondered about this as well. Progressives in the main are not questioning the central doctrines which actually define Christianity as a spiritual system.)
They do challenge certain things. They question the church’s disciplines and practices regarding gender. Regarding sexual ethics, they question some things, and don’t talk at all about others. Catholic social doctrine? They’ve apparently been catechized by Fox News. What do I do then? Is it catechesis or theology? Well, I never edit the church’s doctrine or morals for them. I present controversial points in the most compelling manner that I can. They’ve never heard most of these things before either. Make no mistake, they certainly know what is forbidden, but seldom why. (For me it's this lack of knowing 'why' that marks the failure in catechesis.)
So far, so good. But this is neither theology nor catechism. Any religious studies teacher is obliged to do as much. In such a setting, students aren’t expected to buy any of it or particularly care for the traditions being considered. Religions believe all sorts of things. Here’s a strange one. It’s on the test. Poor catechesis works this way as well: objective, clear, discrete, and insulated from existential challenge.
Theology and good catechesis are intertwined in their demand for more.
First, if students are going to care about the Catholic tradition, I have to show them more than how “it” works in the abstract. I have to locate their concerns within it. I always strive to show them that their critical questions may not come from the “outside.” (Some do, of course.) Their questions may be deeply Catholic ones. On matters of gender, it matters tremendously that there are Catholic feminists who proceed from Catholic assumptions and advance Catholic arguments. Incarnation and sacramentality give Catholic feminism a particular character. They’ve never heard that as well. They have, however, heard of late that such theologians are a “curse.”
Second, “theology” in the sense developed in Lawler & Salzman’s essay, is essential for a catechetical end. It’s important to be able to show that this is a living tradition, a way of thinking; and yes, arguing. This does not set up theology as an alternate magisterium. Not every argument is accepted. It shows students that the church thinks in specific ways and that they might think with it. If relativism is the officially approved boogey-man of the age, its less remarked upon twin—an obsession with identity and boundary maintenance—is no less part of the dominant spirit of the age. Both leave students comfortably unchallenged. (Well stated, because these two positions are mirror images of each other and both need to be acknowledged.)
Lawler and Salzman rightly point to the mediating function of theology. Much of that happens in the classroom. As the bishops contemplate the 10th anniversary of the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, they might want to consider starting conversations with the theologians in their diocese about teaching. Ask them how they teach and what they’ve learned about students. Ask about their frustrations and successes. So many of us long for ecclesial conspiratio in Spiritu. We’ve never been asked. This saddens us more than most bishops would ever suspect. Perhaps such conversations could begin a true conspiracy ex corde ecclesiae.
Vincent Miller is Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton. He is the author of Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture.
I think the reason Vincent Miller's piece caught my attention is because it precipitated a trip down memory lane. I was quickly back in the classroom as an 18 year old having to take theology and more or less calculating it as an easy A, more or less a vacation from my pre med courses. I was utterly wrong. Theology captivated my young mind and opened a whole new way of relating to the world--especially the Catholic part of the world. The first course I had to take was called "Church and Worship". I actually thought it would reinforce my somewhat naive idea that somehow Catholic theology was the study of sacramental and pious practices. Uhmmm, that idea was blown out of the water the very first week. The priest who taught the course insisted on bringing up practical situations and asked for practical solutions.
One such practical situation was what should a good Catholic do if they knew their parish priest was drunk at a party and still insisted on driving home. A girl not named me, answered she would pray the rosary for his safe trip. Ninety heads nodded in agreement, mine included. Our teacher shook his head and then asked if any of us aspiring saints would think to take the priest's keys and drive him home. Shock--take a priests keys? Not these kids. Our response told our professor everything he needed to know about where we all were in our faith formation. Not very far. The next thing we knew we were immersed in tracing the historical sacramental theology behind ordination and why we had come to believe praying the rosary was more important than taking away a drunken priests car keys. From that moment on I was hooked on theology.
I find the same kind of thing still happens today with this supposed generation of secularists whose favorite past time is texting other young secularists. Capture their imaginations and one can discover far more is going in those minds than tweets and texts. The unstated questions many of them have are the same kinds of questions mankind has always had--who are we, where are we going, are we alone, what really happens when we die? They just don't buy the same pat answers from fifty or sixty years ago, anymore than they buy the surface trite of twenty or thirty years ago. You can see it in their eyes. Tell them Jesus was all about the mystical power of love, and they will say "Show me the love, Show me the power of love. Show me how love answers the reality of loneliness, sickness, poverty, and death." It does, but first I have to show them that what they conceive of as love is not love as Jesus taught it. Just as one of my first teachers had to show me that piety was not theology and pious practices would not solve immediate practical problems.
Vincent Winters is right on target. If bishops would take the time to hear and understand what is going in today's classrooms they would be much better prepared to evangelize our young Catholics. Unfortunately, I doubt most of our current bishops would even think to do that. It's far safer for them to pray a rosary over the issue.