I had lunch this week with my good friend Mike. We get together on the patio of a local Panera’s restaurant for salads, cinnamon buns, and Hazelnut coffee every few months. Mike and I are contemporaries [mid 70’s] and we first met about ten years ago when I was teaching the catechetical certification course for the diocese and Mike was working on his certification to teach in the religious education program of his parish. When the diocesan face-to-face instruction program was abandoned in 2016 in favor of syndicated on-line instruction, Mike and I kept in touch as he has assumed broader responsibilities for instruction in his parish, working with middle school youth. Right now, like teachers across the country, he is manfully struggling with virtual learning at a time when many of his students are already on-line all day with their regular public-school learning. It is no easy task for him.
I belong to several national on-line religious education and parish ministry support groups, in part to keep a finger on the pulse of what is happening with parish ministry across the country. What is distressingly evident is how many parish catechists, schoolteachers, and ministers plod through their responsibilities “one page ahead of the students,” as the saying goes, not from an absence of dedication but from an absence of training and experience. But more than that, catechetics and parochial ministry operate from an absence of “the big picture” of the rich tradition of Church history and Biblical Revelation. Catechists seem overly anxious about imparting data—what is a mortal sin, how to make a good confession—without a rootedness in the theory and history of what they teach. How does the human mind and conscience work? What is evil? What does the Bible understand by the terms sin, forgiveness, redemption? In short, we are going through motions without an understanding of the world of religious reality behind the data. Our catechists—and, truthfully, our preachers—are “teaching for the test.” Ask any schoolteacher—retention of factual data rarely survives summer vacation.
What distinguishes Mike and others like him is an innate sense that there is more to the faith than his elementary course material or the slow drumbeat of parish life he is exposed to, and he finds himself in a position of seeking a deeper knowledge of theology, very much on his own. During our lunch this week he had many questions about the nature and function of bishops, how they are appointed and the nature of their authority. [John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II (2008) would have answered nearly all his questions about bishops, but who routinely advises our catechists--or any Catholic adult--on such resources?] Mike has lived his Catholic life under some poor bishops and some good ones—we agreed we are fortunate to live under a particularly good one right now, John Noonan in Orlando. Like many bishops, though, Noonan is handicapped in fully servicing the needs of Catholics like Mike by a multitude of roadblocks, the biggest one being that for generations now since Vatican II our educational efforts have been targeted to the lowest common denominator, such that the money for quality Catholic education in all its forms is hard to come by.
There are attitudinal challenges to be met. Shakespeare was right when he wrote that “knowledge maketh a bloody entrance” and many years later Einstein observed that “information is not knowledge.” A seminary professor in my own time hit the mark when he opined that “piety comes and goes, stupidity remains forever.” [The faculty may have been discussing my theological progress fifty years ago.] All these points are pertinent to Catholic life. From what I hear from the pulpit and see offered on many websites, Catholic parish life rests content on commonplace information and simple piety. If you have ever wondered why sermons as a rule seem so pedestrian, one answer is the limited knowledge that priests and deacons bring to the pulpit; they are reduced to repeating what they know.
The argument is made that raising the bar, drawing from the more profound Catholic sources of yesterday and today would “confuse the faithful.” This was the argument I heard from my diocesan director when I protested that our theology courses for catechists and others should aim higher than the lowest common denominator. I pointed out that many of our students were college graduates or comparably skilled, and that we were certifying them for responsibilities previously filled by professionally trained religious women. Moreover, most of us live in a society grappling with complex questions. I was teaching a sexual morality class a few years ago when some nurses taking the course asked about the morality of parents allowing their children to undergo sex change surgery. I was caught off-guard, in part because I didn’t know this was a general practice, and I had not come across case studies about this in my moral theology reading. As a psychotherapist, I was able to speculate that there was a civil and ethical question about a minor giving informed consent. But, like it or not, this is the world we live in, and adult Catholics—particularly its ministers and teachers—need a level of competence to offer moral insight and make prudent decisions.
The “brain drain” in Catholic life is acute in all areas of theology, to questions as basic as the identity of Jesus Christ. He was born, lived, and died a Jew. How do his words make sense in the New Testament if we do not understand the world of the Old Testament? It was my contention then, as it is now, that religious ministry—and especially adult faith education—should be of a college level or very close to it. This challenge becomes more critical as religion is coopted into the American culture wars; the fact that some Catholics in the U.S. are “scandalized” by Pope Francis is an indication that Church teaching and theological discourse over at least the past century, if not further, has not percolated through to the general mindset of Catholics. In many cases Pope Francis is repeating centuries old teachings of saints and popes that never made their way into religious education or adult faith formation.
The “dumbing down” of Catholic life to formulas and data obliterates our millennia of rich experience and thought, not to mention art and architecture. It leaves Catholic adults with incomplete options, such as an overemphasis on piety and devotion that cherry picks the Bible and the Catechism and results in a shallow evangelism vulnerable to misunderstanding and extremism. It is little known that the Church condemns a denial of reason in the exercise of faith, a heresy known as fideism and most recently condemned by Pope John Paul II. In other words, the exercise of reason—the study of Scripture and Tradition—is the necessary partner in a life of faith.
I am encouraged that there are many Catholics like my friend Mike, hungry to enrich their faith and ministry for a greater appreciation of the wonder of God. This Café blog was founded with them in mind [though I find myself reading and studying more than ever to meet this challenge and discovering more of what I don’t know.] But my work is a drop in the bucket compared to what the institutional Church needs to be about in leading its people to wisdom. In the second installment I will do some daydreaming about access to theological study for all adult Catholics, and particularly for those who currently exercise ministry or hope to do so.