I learned this year that my home diocese is drawing a curtain on the course program in which I have taught, in its various formats, since 1978. Starting in August our catechists and school teachers will receive theological formation on-line through the massive program developed by the Archdiocese of Chicago. There is much good to be said for this change, in terms of quality of content and ease of access for the students; also, in our diocese, responsibility for ministerial faith formation training has been transferred to the Office of Schools, which brings much-needed professional organization to the process currently in place. I do wonder about the omission of the “human factor”—though at the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I take my state-required psychology courses on-line. Of more practical concern to me is that as of August 1 my contracting work with the diocese comes to an end. I never thought in this line of work I would lose place to technology!
Recently I finished teaching course 211, “Catechesis and Human Sexuality,” and as I said good-bye to the principal I joked that “I can take these outlines home now and burn them!” Although I still have five “play-dates” left on my calendar through the late spring, none involve morality and/or human sexuality, at least directly. There are no subjects in the theological agenda harder to teach, and to be frank, I am glad to be out from under the responsibility.
One may ask, why is the teaching of moral theology harder than other areas of theology? Isn’t everything right there in the Catechism? That is essentially the “classicist” position of moral theology I have referred to in many earlier posts. As I teach under the bishop’s mandate, I have the obligation to provide the authoritative Church teachings, and specifically the sources. Technology is a big plus here, for after each course I email the course outline to participants with hyperlinks to all pertinent Magisterial documents, be they specific Catechism paragraphs, papal encyclicals, Vatican II documents, professional commentary, etc. I am also very clear that, whatever one may think privately, a catechist or teacher must represent the Church. If this becomes a matter of continuing or pervasive tension, honesty dictates that one steps out of the position. I never reached that point, nor do I feel that way now, though as I said earlier the job is never easy.
That said, when I am teaching a course (or writing, for that matter) I am in face to face engagement with thoughtful human beings—the men and women of good will referred to throughout Vatican II documents. Many are practicing Catholics, some are not. Some are Christians of other faith families, others have no affiliation but work for the Church because their professional skills are needed for the educational mission. Their own catechetical histories are incredibly diverse. From questions I receive in class, I deduce that many Catholics have no knowledge of a birth control teaching, for example, until they try to use diocesan medical insurance to fill a contraceptive prescription. Seriously. I hear complaints about that. Many of the Catholics I teach are very loyal and dedicated to their local parish, in its religious, communal, and humanitarian dimensions.
I send an email to my students a few days before the course to give them directions to the hosting parish (last Saturday was easy—everybody knows where Cocoa Beach is) but I also invite them to send me an email with issues and/or topics related to the course that they would want me to address. In other words, I put out the word that while we have a curriculum to cover, I believe the educational process is a dialogue, too. I enjoy a cluster of the Socrates-minded. For example, one student on Saturday asked me to parallel Israel’s history with “what was going on outside of Israel,” a great question, and fortunately one that I had anticipated in the outline and the bibliography. (Father Boadt to the rescue.)
A catechist/teacher/preacher only becomes effective by listening to such questions and addressing them as worthy inquests. In the teaching of moral theology, though, a teacher is more likely to encounter intellectual and emotional questions because the subject matter can be highly personal. One example may suffice: the issue of infertility. The official Catholic teaching was most recently formulated in this 1987 document (written by then Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI) and I incorporate this document into my presentation, privately aware that there may be some participants in the room who have conceived children in this way. Overall, the students seem to respect the logic of it—I never had an awkward moment on this issue in terms of anger with the Church. But they do respond to it. If I can sum up their observations over time, the sense seems to be that couples who spend as much as six figures to bear children are doing what they understand the Church wants them to do. If there is one parcel of catechetics that has been successfully passed along to today’s Church, it is the relationship of the sacrament of marriage and children.
I acknowledge their sincere questions as legitimate ones to pursue. I explain the place of conscience and the role of personal advice in the confessional. I explain the difference between “grave moral matter” and the full embrace of a mortal sin. I talk about a hierarchy of moral teachings. I am clear that any Catholic couple who has attempted, successfully or not, to bear children through medical intervention is not excommunicated; to the contrary, a child is always a blessing. Sometimes I bring up the little-known fact that Pope John Paul I, weeks before his election in 1978, refused to condemn the parents of Louise Brown, the first IVF baby born that July, observing that “they just wanted to have a baby.”
If you are a regular reader of the Monday stream, you are familiar with Bernard Haring, Josef Fuchs, and the “historical” approach to moral theology, which in part emphasizes an inevitable tension between the ideal and the possible in a particular circumstance. The Eight Beatitudes—those open-ended calls to perfection—are the paradigm of all moral judgment and action. All Church moral teaching stands at the service of the Gospel. Pope Francis’ method of teaching moral theology, as in his Laudato Si and Amoris Laetitia, draws heavily from revealed Scripture. The moral theology teacher takes his or her students into these unfamiliar waters; Pope Francis has been severely criticized for steering the Bark of Peter into Biblical understandings that, at the least,
The Catholic educator and the Catholic minister carry an accountability for more than just the status quo of the Church, including its moral operations. Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes understood that God’s grace is given to all, that our questioners, even our enemies, serve us with their insights. “The Church is not unaware of how much it has profited from the history and development of humankind,” and “also recognizes that it has benefited and is still benefiting from the opposition of its enemies and persecutors.” (GS, 44) One can take the dim view, I suppose, that all questions and criticisms of Church practice are fruit of the poisonous tree of modernity or the corruption of society. I have chosen not to adopt this stance because the Gospels themselves do not. Next Sunday’s (Ascension) Gospel from Matthew commands “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” I have never left a classroom after an engaging course with thoughtful, critical students without becoming a better man myself, because a listening evangelization has brought me in touch with their grace, their Spirit.