11 January 2009

Unlearning what we never learned in the first place

While digging around the internet for a review of a book I'm using in my thesis, I found over at First Things, this wonderfully "on-target" post by the recently deceased Fr. Richard John Neuhaus:

In March 1993, we published “Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for Decline” by Dean Hoge and his colleagues, who had done a careful study of the Presbyterian Church (USA). When all the other variables are taken into account, they argued, the real reason is a lack of belief. R. Scott Appleby, professor of history at Notre Dame, applies that analysis to contemporary Catholicism. “The challenge of Catholic education and formation in our media-driven, cyberspace age is no less than this: older Catholics must be restored to and younger Catholics introduced to a sense of Catholicism as a comprehensive way of life-as a comprehending wisdom and set of practices that bring integrity and holiness to individuals and to the families and extended communities to which they belong and which they serve.” The years after Vatican II, he writes, saw the rise of the first “post-ethnic generation” of American Catholics, people for whom Catholicism was no longer an intact culture (or subculture) but one choice among others in the religious marketplace. In addition, Catholicism today is marked by many voices-right and left, liberal and conservative-claiming to define what is authentically Catholic. “In the realm of ideas and Catholic self-understanding, change came most powerfully with the introduction of genuine pluralism into American Catholic theology once Thomism was supplemented, and in many arenas supplanted, by narrative, feminist, liberationist, and other inductive theologies grounded in experience.” The result is “a rich farrago of theological options, many of them rich and enlivening but experienced by Catholics piecemeal and without benefit of an overarching view of ‘the Catholic thing.’” In his address to the Catholic Academy for Communication Arts Professionals, Appleby concludes with this: “Catholic communicators must be leaders among those who package the faith, not as a series of discrete bits and bytes but as organic, interdependent sets of beliefs, insights, and practices by which one may lead a morally coherent and spiritually fruitful life.” Mr. Appleby’s cultural critique is, I believe, pretty much on target. He is also right in understanding our current circumstance in terms of a crisis of belief. But is the problem that a manualist Thomism has been displaced by narrative, feminist, liberationist, and other inductive theologies? In religious studies courses, perhaps, as well as in many departments of theology misleadingly called Catholic. Without discounting the influence of the systematic academic unlearning of Catholic teaching that students had never learned in the first place, most Catholics have never heard of the liberationist and other theological fashions Appleby cites. What they have heard and believed and internalized is that there is no such thing as authoritative Catholic teaching; that Catholicism is a matter of “discrete bits and bytes” to be accessed according to felt needs. We do not need communicators who will “package the faith” more attractively. We need teachers and exemplars-parents, priests, bishops, religious, academics-who invite a new generation to the high adventure of living the faith. That adventure is compellingly depicted in Scripture and living tradition, including Vatican II and its authoritative interpretation by the Magisterium, and not least by John Paul II. Mr. Appleby is right in saying that Catholicism is a comprehensive and coherent culture shaped by a story entailing truth claims that require a response of faith. What is missing from his account is any reference to where and how that story is authoritatively told. I am not sure that the faith can or should be “packaged,” but I am sure that no skills of the communication arts will make up for uncertainty about the faith to be communicated


  1. Of course faith shouldn't (more more accurately, can't) be packaged. Faith is meant to be lived. When we attempt to package, market and "sell" the faith we bring it down to the level of every other commodity in our consumer-driven culture. Such a faith is not worthy of our ascent.

    Incidentally, for similar reasons I'm generally blase about movements to remove God from the Pledge of Allegiance and other civil rituals; a god so generic that anyone from any faith can identify with it (which is the only type of god that can pass Constitutional muster) is not worthy of our worship.

  2. I will miss Fr. RJN and his "While We're At It" section of First Things.

    Fr. Neuhaus - requiescat in pace.