I was feeling a little beat and my head, admittedly, started to nod during last Saturday night’s sermon when my 5% of conscious brain suddenly registered a rather startling narrative within the sermon: that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was a highly educated woman who attended organized schooling for some years. This was rather startling to hear in a sermon, since the sacred scripture reveals no such information about the Virgin Mary, nor does any competent Biblical scholar claim such a thing. Dating practically from post-New Testament times, individuals for a wide range of reasons have composed apocryphal stories about nearly every person or event in the New Testament. You yourself may have heard stories in your youth that young Jesus made birdies out of mud, breathed on them, and turned them into real birds which promptly flew away.
As the preacher last weekend was also an educator, I was surprised that he would introduce into the liturgy an unverifiable and unsourced tale. I believe it is the right of worshippers and church members in general, not to mention honest inquirers outside the Church, to learn the source of educational offerings, even in sermons. It is particularly wise for church ministers to do so, because we are more frequently challenged by “the orthodox police” in adult education, i.e., those who hold to the narrowest construction of Church pronouncements without full understanding of their complexity and accompanying documentation. In 40 years of catechetical training I was accused of “heresy” a few times, and even reported to Rome once. I was quoted as saying that confessions should not be heard before Mass. My bishop at the time, having received the complaint from Rome, asked me to elaborate what had happened. What I actually said in class was that the Vatican-approved rite of individual Penance is a matter of some length, and I wondered if the brevity of time available before public Mass did justice to the full rite.
This incident occurred in the 1980’s; were a student to challenge me with a similar criticism on the Sacrament of Penance, I could readily cite the 2015 Instruction from the Congregation of Divine Worship, “Rediscovering the Rite of Penance,” which assumes that every confession is a divine engagement of intensity. If I may quote from this document:
It is not simply a question of the penitent speaking out a list of sins as if into the air or to no one. One confesses to the priest. The priest, for his part, is instructed to engage in a careful interaction with the one confessing: «If necessary, the priest helps the penitent to make an integral confession and gives him suitable counsel». This back and forth between penitent and priest is nothing less than the ritual form that enacts the penitent’s encounter with Christ himself in the person of the priest. For this reason, the priest is instructed to help the penitent to understand the deepest meaning of this encounter.
In truth, all Catholics need to exercise some measure of precision in talking about the teachings and practices of the Church. Until recently I belonged to a small neighborhood faith group where we had a “pontificator” who was a dependable source of misinformation to the other members, most of whom did not have post-Confirmation catechesis or religious education. I am not quite certain how Martin Luther came up in discussion, but someone saw fit to render a string of biographical inadequacies, marital difficulties, and theological errors about Luther that would have surprised Luther himself and probably offended anyone brought up in the traditional Lutheran heritage of faith, whatever their faith tradition today. Accurate readings of Luther’s life and works are available today such as Eric Metaxas’s biography that I have used on Café posts.
Catholic catechesis in the present day is lagging. As journalist Kenneth Woodward explained to my senior priests’ gathering last November, every generation of American Catholics is exponentially less educated in the Faith than the previous ones, because of a parallel decline in theological training of church ministerial staff, notably catechists, Catholic school teachers, and parish facilitators. [Such functions were, years ago, exercised by religious women and men with bachelors’ degrees as a minimum, and many with theological masters’ degrees.] Parish faith formation personnel—those with the diocesan certifications or on-line programs such as the University of Dayton’s—tell me they feel very inadequate when addressing an assembly of inquisitive and critical professional men and women.
Complicating the situation further is the Internet, which has no means of distilling the wheat from the chaff where Catholic study is concerned. For example, if you enter the term “Catholic Encyclopedia” into your search engine, you will usually come here, a site called Catholic Encyclopedia. You do not need expertise in historiography to recognize that, as an academic or faith formation tool, a work completed in 1912 might not contain a century which produced John XXIII, John Paul II, and Francis; there is no entry for either World War or Vatican II. Random internet searching or visits to the local library are at best crapshoots.
Some parishes provide their members with free access to FORMED, an all-purpose Catholic multimedia site that carries the “good housekeeping seal” of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. FORMED runs the gamut from e-books to inspirational films to catechetical instruction. It is a good basic platform subscription service; my pastor has elected to pay for full-parish coverage. If I read the website correctly, a parish subscription for parishes of 250+ members runs to about $1850/year. Whether this service is too pricey for some parishes is hard to say, though it appears that accommodations are available for small parishes.
I recommend that an adult Catholic carry a subscription to a publication like America, the Jesuit weekly which combines news, theology, and culture, and register for email updates from publishers such as Paulist Press and Liturgical Press, which feature college level peer-reviewed works for the more intensive reader. And in terms of going to the source, every important document to come forth from the Vatican is available on-line for free at this attractive if complex site.
It is enough of a problem that the richness of Scripture and the experience of Church History is poorly grasped; it is worse when poor interpretation mixes with home brewed piety posing as sacred writ. I seem to recall from my high school years the principle of Gresham’s Law, that “bad money drives good money out of circulation.” Beware of counterfeit theology: hold that bill to the light.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything