Monday, September 5, 2011

The Proper Role Of Theology Is Beyond The Catechism

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.’
Vincent Miller
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.   


  1. To my young confirmation class, the nun instructor on a weekly bases would rune competitions to answering the questions of the Baltimore catechism. To be "ready for the Bishop," we were forced to learn the questions inside and out. It was like a weekly cap to the hard attention we were asked to pay to these questions. On Fridays we would have the spelling bee of catechism. A month before Confirmation, we even competed with two other schools, and the nun informed us that she would select the ones that would be on the altar to answer the Bishop's questions on the day of the big event.

    Well I was diligent enough to win the competition amongst all the three schools in that I tied with a girl in my class as neither of us could be asked a question we did not know. So entering high school, we certainly knew the answers as given by the Catholic Church.

    My high school studies of religion as it was called was more a study of history of the councils and what they meant. It was also a study of the history of Church tradition. We were admonished, over and over, again to be certain when we wrote our papers that are sources were "Catholic" sources.

    This was my preparation for the study of theology in college and the seminary. It was interesting to me that my Professor at Marquette chose for the first year study of the Old Testament, the study textbook by Anderson a Lutheran scholar that emphasized the evolutionary element of morality as man grew and developed through the texts of the old testament.

    Some asked the Professor, a Jesuit priest, why he choose a text by a Lutheran, and I recall that he said that Anderson brought the best approach that he had found to the study of these books. This priest was thoroughly catholic and he knew every aspect of the Baltimore Catechism that I ad learned in secondary school in order to be confirmed. His idea was to show us how the revelation through the Spirt became ever more mature as time passed and he did that job very well.

    By the time I was in both the seminary and medical school, I was taking many classes in medical ethics. I began to see that the idea of modernism and relativism was the boogie man of dogmatism. Medicine taught me that medical science was indeed relative to the virulence of disease and the underlying health of an individual. There were more answers, more drugs and antibiotics produced every year in our Modern Society. I actually began to believe that eventually we would live in a society with modern answers to all the major disease. Little did I know that many of these disease would morph to treatment and present us other problems that we as medical scientists did not have to consider at that time. (For existence the presence of the "super bug" a staphylococcus that most antibiotics could not treat. and more virulent forms of cancers became apparent e.g.. Aids.) Yes I learned that medicine and medical ethics were indeed relevant to what was happening in the bodies and the minds of each individual. I learned that people could be kept "alive" in states of coma that they may never recover or if they did "recover" many months or years later could not be guaranteed much of a (cont. in next post)

  2. quality of life. I saw both young and older people in these states. I saw frankly "brain dead" individuals on respirators in ICU's. I saw both concerned and guilty family members that did not know when to stop excessive treatments. I saw bishops at first sympathetic to the peace of families when ill family members were not given extreme medical measures and these people died. Then more recently, I saw Bishops without the benefit of any critical medical understanding insisting that some of these critical and "brain dead" patients be kept in vegetative states for years. I see a mismatch of the stucture of dogmatism and the relative possibilities of medical care. While it is true that there have been some seeming miracles of medical care and revival of an extremely few people who in the past would not have made it, this is an extremely rare phonemic. Yet we see bishops insisting that miracles be waited out when the real story in many cases is the real suffering of both patients and families. It seems that in this postmodern world even the best medical scientists are not always paragons of omniscience and omnipotence by an ill-advised and faulty educated episcopacy. Thus entered the current JPII Bishops with an omnipotent set of dogmatism. Something is truly wrong here!!!!

    Yet this is in fact one of the many interactions between what has begun to be called the magisteruim and the working professional. (The term Magisterium was rarely to never heard until the last 20 years.) The omniscients claimed by people using this term has been more than problematical. These men in all academic fields, theology, philosophy, science, mathematics, history, politics are claiming a know it all understanding without any valid resume. Well studied and thinking academics, are selected out and condemned by the bishops because the Episcopacy of JPII has found "right and wrong" answers in secondary school dogmatism.

    The above article stated, " If relativism is the officially approved boogeyman 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." I don't believe that the seeming balance from the quoted part of the above article approaches the complexity of the scientific and medical ethical situations. It should be learned and then understood by all the Episcopacy that all moral actions and problems are indeed 'RELATIVE.' They must be!! The more we as humans begin to understand in the evolution of our God given minds, the more we see that we understand very little. All our actions are now, were in the past and will be in the future RELATIVE TO THE UNDERSTANDING THAT WE HAVE AS HUMANS. The problem is not as the Roman Catholic Episcopate states them----- relativism and modernism. The real problem is DOGMATIC CLERICALISM. Dogmatic clericalism is without advanced thought of what the Holy Spirit is telling the thinkers of the day. Dogmatic Clericalism is in fact relying on answers that we can not know and pronouncing them infallible. Dogmatic clericalism is without resume and requires thought processes that should have been discarded in the adolescents of our college educations. Dogmatic Clericalism only relies upon FEAR for its enforcement. It is deeply flawed and in catholic terms is the sinful heresy of the day.

  3. @rdp46,

    Here, here!




  4. Bear with me. I might be the class clown but...

    Catechism is largely a "jug and mug" exercise. The teacher pours the knowledge into the empty vessels. It is an obsolete 19th century method of teaching. Drill and kill. Furthermore, as Catholic theologians know, modern life is divorced from the rhythms of natural life. Most people in capitalist societies serve the external reward and not their own internal, ultimate goals. (Which according to our beliefs should be spiritual.) Humanity's alienation, in our time, originates in the capitalist's requirement for fragmented pieces of the worker's life, (or worse from a fascist government). JP2 never understood that capitalism itself requires most people to be alienated from authentic living. It isn't just "relativism".

    I was the boy who asked the "what if" questions. I drove the nuns crazy in elementary school. And I didn't spare the Bishop at confirmation either.

    I have a vivid memory of a province-wide Catholic youth group meeting with some of the ecclesiastical hierarchy back in the 70's. After the formal meeting ended there was a social. Most of the other members of the our student executive were, I am not kidding, sitting at the feet of the Cardinal. The Cardinal was enjoying a scotch and cigar, if I recall correctly. Baaa... Baaaah... Baaaa. (I am very fond of Cardinal Carter, but I chose to have a different relationship.) Meanwhile I was engaged in an interesting discussion about ethics with two priests, one who was the president of a college. As a result of that discussion I was inspired to study philosophy and ethics at a Catholic university.

    Anyway, I will close my ramblings by recommending a bit of gentle humor. My own experience of catechism was very much like the authors of "Growing Up Catholic"

    As reviewer Gayle Finlayson said, "In under 150 pages four enthusiastic products of Catholic upbringing
    present a delightfully nostalgic--if irreverent--expose for the enlightenment and edification of the non-initiated. In humorously succinct fashion they offer readers this handy-dandy instruction book with explicit directions--a holy How To manual for promoting moral rectitude in a wayward world. Are you considering upgrading from some lesser faith? No matter if you are an Atheist, Protestant or Buddhist, this cleverly all-inclusive guide prepares future converts for all sacred events--from Baptism to Bingo. Even if you were not privileged to GROW UP CATHOLIC treat it as an abbreviated but highly palatable free pass on the Soul Train from Baltimore. "


    PS Incidentally, I admire the current Bishop of Baltimore for keeping the Legion of Christ out of his community when it must have been difficult to resist the pressure from the Vatican.

  5. So perhaps, p2p, I was chronologically several years behind you in questioning the dogmatism of the church. It was also true in math and science. To me there was a goodness in following what teachers and leaders said and believed. In my studies it was the act of learning the scientific method that changes all that. It was Cardinal Ratzinger who changed it all for me in my church. With his inquisition of the thinking theologians of our time, I began to understand the dogmatism of the curia. It was JPII's fears of communism that seemed to lead some members away from thinking about the capital sins of greed, envy and avarice.

    These three capital sins were and are every bit as bad as lust--- the favorite of the Episcopacy to condemn in everyday laity but to ignore in everyday clergy. Finally when I hit about 40 yrs. old some years ago, I could no longer stomach JPII or any of his hypocritical Bishops. Not that there were and are a few exceptions, but those exceptions are very few today or they are paralyzed in the fear of punishment by Rome. Good luck Cardinal Schonborn--- a once papal candidate who is caught directly in the cross hairs of the church hypocrisy. If he reacts as a "true" Roman prelate, 60 to 75 % of Austrian Catholics seem poised to disagree. If he reacts on the side of the courageous 400 clergymen in Austria, he will provoke the ire of the powerful churchmen in Rome-- the ever “infallible” members of the curia and perhaps Benedict himself.

    Good look Ireland, if they accept the Church stand of no responsibility for the accusations of Rome by the Irish Prime Minister, the feelings of being snookered by Rome will continue to grow throughout “Catholic” Ireland. If the government continues to not agree with the Church, it may be difficult for the current conservatives to get the contributions needed to be re-elected. What Ireland must not accept is that the Church can be treated as if it is a church and a city state at the same time. The Vatican has certainly not learned this lesson.

    As more countries understand the impossibility for the Vatican as an institution to wear the two hats of a government and the church, perhaps they will force the curia to choose what they want to be. Perhaps also the Italian Government will soon wise up and begin to tax Church property in Rome and around Italy as few Italians use it on Sundays or any other day. Perhaps the Italians may even wise up more and refuse to recognize any civil state inside Vatican City and swallow up this museum. They could charge a pretty penny for admission of tourist to view the artifacts.

    The RCC is imploding from within and the speed is ever increasing. No need to ask or make fun of the Bishop any longer. It is time to demand of these men to either follow Jesus Christ or more and more (most) of the laity will (already is) simply ignoring these feisty old hypocrites.

  6. Well stated gentlemen. Don't have time to post much of a comment now, but I will later this evening.

  7. Does anyone else here read Graham Greene? ( The Power and the Glory, The Lawless Roads, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, Brighton Rock, Our Man in Havana, The Third Man, The Quiet American etc.)

    I was thinking about rdp46's comment on being a bit of an iconoclast, wondering where it began for me.

    My somewhat anti-clerical (or maybe it was anti-authoritarian) physician grandfather was certainly an influence, although he died before I was born. He was an immigrant who must have been quite brave and self-sufficient to leave his family and friends behind. Who knows what he might have seen. Yet he had close friendships with clergymen.

    My father and mother encouraged individuality, although they could be quite conformist in a 1950's manner. Long before there was "childproofing" my parents, more so my grandmothers, taught us to do what we knew to be right, even if it meant standing up to authority. It is not always easy. From an early age they encouraged development of moral conscience. How else could one avoid the near occasion of sin, commission of sin or sin by omission? The holy rulebook doesn't fit in a kid's head the way a pocket novel will.

    So the role of literature and art must have been a big influence. "Easy Rider" and other anti-establishment films of the 60's and 70's had a part. In my case novels were more influential and Graham Greene was one of my favorites.

    I think much of the power of Greene's writing comes from his somewhat distant, almost detached observations.

    Many of the issues we discuss here were addressed in Greene's novels. "The Power and the Glory" is set in Mexico of 70 years ago. His whiskey priest might have been the template for Marcial Maciel's life. He's a drunken debaucherous priest on the run from the civil authorities and more. How interesting that the Vatican has been so influenced by the clergy who came from Mexico, Spain and the former Soviet empire, where the church was oppressed in that era.


    Generals fighting the last war and all that eh wot?

  8. p2p, I certainly have read my share of Graham Greene. I especially loved "The Heart of the Matter", and "The Power and the Glory". Great great books. Greene's books are great stories of conversion rather than conformance. There is a difference.

    Dennis, this business of the Church wearing two hats is undoubtedly why they can't fathom the importance of the separation of Church and State. Mayhaps you are right and Ireland is going to show them there is a very big difference.

  9. I read Graham Green In HS and although I was very interested in his work, it did not phase me as much as some other works did.

    As a Sophomore, I read a work assigned by my history professor entitled The Authoritarian Mind. I can not recall the author. It was a very difficult work for me to understand at that time in my life, but it made a deep impression on me. Along with learning the scientific method and the philosophic idea of the hypothesis, this work influenced me as no other.

  10. Dennis, the book I vividly remember from high school was One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. We had to pick out a book and read it for a test. Our teacher then individualized the test based on the book you had selected. I had three questions, one of which was to compare and contrast McMurphy with Jesus Christ and cite New Testament passages to support your contention. I can remember thinking 'you have got to be kidding me'. But then the book suddenly came alive for me. It took me forever to finish that test. This was in a public high school no less. Come to think of it, I don't know that I would ever had the opportunity to read that particular book in a Catholic high school--or answer that question.

  11. As a senior in HS at a jesuit school, I recall an essay question for a midterm. There were three choices of questions, but I selected the one, "Do the Jewish people need Jesus." It was very thought provoking to me and I like you wrote until the priest told me to hand it in.