A major problem, of course, is that catechists as a rule get their initial and ongoing theological formation “on the job.” Excepting those who majored in Catholic religious studies in a Catholic college, Catholic school teachers, for example, are exactly that, full time professional teachers in multiple disciples. The demands of that profession are well documented in the private and public sector. To achieve a minimal professional competence in religious education and Catholic mission, dioceses create training programs such as the one I have been teaching since 1978. Given that catechists are generally all professional people with demanding lives, the pressure to keep these courses short and unobtrusive is heavy. It is possible to become a diocesan certified catechist in my region with seven hours of training in the entire Old Testament, or New Testament, or Morality. We presently have no follow-up for long term catechists or an updated bibliography.
Compare this with a description of a priest’s training from Commonweal Magazine in an excellent essay on current trends in American seminaries. One point of particular note: a seminarian needs two years of philosophy (or a degree, as my program called for) before undertaking the religious content of training, generally a masters level in academic or pastoral theology.
This requirement for philosophy background would be a near impossible sell in the present catechetical environment. And yet, there is a good reason the Church insists upon it for future priests, and I believe that we might find here a key for adult faith formation. This was brought home to me this week when I opened my birthday present early, Kevin Madigan’s Medieval Christianity: A New History (2015). His opening chapter, “Pivotal Moments in Early Christianity,” is one of the finest arguments for the study of philosophy as a prerogative for adult faith formation. He observes that one of the biggest paradigm shifts in the study of Christian history is our understanding of doctrinal development.
The nature of what we call today “Christianity” was not clearly evident to the first generations after the apostles. Such issues as the nature of God, Creation, evil, salvation, etc. were in play among Christian and pagan philosophers alike. Madigan argues that the Christian Church needed an embattled environment of thought to clarify its own understanding of Christian truth. He briefly but accurately describes the philosophies against which Christianity came to identify itself: (1) Gnosticism, which held that matter (including the body) was evil and that salvation consisted in the release of inner divine knowledge back to its divine origin. (2) Marcionism, which held the concept of a creator God as perverse on the grounds that this kind of God created evil; its founder Marcion denied any “Jewish portion” of the Bible—including the entire Hebrew Scripture—as false, which led the mainstream Christian community to define the Bible as we know it today; (3) Montanism, which held that Revelation was available directly to individuals; and (4) Docetism, a form of Gnosticism which held that Jesus, if he were truly a savior, could not have been human; the Jesus of the Gospels was a vision. Hence “Docetism” from the Greek, “to see” or “to show.”
None of these movements self-identified as enemies of Christian faith. In general, their adherents were thinkers and philosophers of their time, attempting to solve the critical life issues just as the Church’s bishops--Irenaeus, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria and the other great second century Catholic saint/philosophers—were doing for the mainstream community. In truth, Christian apologists borrowed just as heavily from contemporary thinking. The author of St. John’s Gospel did not invent the concept of “logos” or “word” as an embodiment of eternal wisdom.
I return again to the question of contemporary adult catechesis and professional training. A catechist must know the burning questions of the times—the highly convoluted matters of Islam and ISIS comes immediately to mind—and bring to the fore two ingrained skills: (1) how to genuinely hear the questions of contemporary believers and inquirers, and (2) how to draw from the rich wisdom of the Church in bringing order to chaos for those same inquirers. This is catechesis. It is not about selfies.