Pretty much everyone admits that the quality Catholic catechesis in this country has taken a dramatic nose-dive in the last forty years. Replacing the contents of the historic Catholic faith with poorly digested pop-psychobabble, leftist political rhetoric, feminist power-grabs, and Protestantized biblical scholarship, our professional catechesis have left the U.S. church with at least two generations of Catholics incapable of articulating the most basic tenet of what we claim to believe as heirs of the apostles.
These same Catholics can emote canonical emotions on cue; “share” their faith when asked (i.e., give an uneducated opinion on some hot-button topic); and defend to the death the libertarian definition of conscience that they believe allows them, without consequence, to use artificial contraception, obtain abortions, divorce and marry without an annulment, and just generally do whatever they please. What they can’t do is describe, defend, or assent to the Roman Catholic faith as revealed in scripture, defined by the Fathers in the creeds, taught by the magisterium, and lived by the Church. And because they don’t know the faith, their “right to dissent” is wasted on tilting at Ecclesial Strawmen.
That we need a top-to-bottom, radical overhaul of the entire catechetical enterprise in this country is as obvious as a rabid possum in the outhouse and as pressing as finding that possum another home…quickly.
One fairly common solution to the problem of vincible ignorance of the faith is the establishment of diocesan centers for continuing education or adult lay formation programs. Insofar as any of these actually teach the faith, they are wonderful as antidotes to forty years of catechetical neglect. However, these centers and institutes are often recruitment and distribution facilities for dissent and pastoral malpractice. The more notorious of these will actively teach against the faith in the name of “cultural or historical relevancy” and in the name of “adult conscience formation.”
Another, and I would argue more specifically “Vatican Two,” solution to the problem is the parish-based, lay-run adult study group. The Episcopal Church offers what I think is probably one of the best organized lay-run continuing education programs called “Education for Ministry.” This is a four-year program that covers all the major elements of a professional seminary education at the master’s level. No doubt there are orthodox Catholic equivalents out there; however, most of the ones I’ve seen or heard about just can’t seem to get the basics right and refuse to side with the church on controversial issues, opting instead for wienie apologies or outright lies.
Below you will find a list of books that I believe one would need to start and maintain a three-year, once-a-week, lay-lead catechetical group in a parish.
But before we get to the books, let’s browse a few mandatory cautions:
1). No one living is as smart as two-thousand years of Church teaching and tradition. Some have come close (Rahner, von Balthasar) but 99.99999% of us are not yet ready to declare ourselves capable of consuming, digesting, regurgitating, and examining critically the monstrous volume of theology, philosophy, spirituality, history, science, biography, etc. produced in the church for the church. Therefore, a certain humility is required when stepping off into this project. This means leaving undeveloped and uncritical positions behind. The know-it-all has nothing to learn.
2). Do not let process crowd out content. If you have twenty minutes left in your group and you have the choice between looking up the word “consubstantial” in the dictionary or sharing your feelings about the Creed, find the dictionary and learn something. “Sharing” has its place but that place is near the back of the line. It has been the whole “sharing” obsession that has emptied our catechesis of its content.
3). Read. read. read. . .and wonder why! Every text deserves the respect of a critical reading. Ask questions until you are confident you could explain the basics to a tenth-grader. There is nothing about the faith that requires us to just shut up and take it. However, humility requires that we assume that it is our inability to understand that is confusing us about the doctrine rather than the falsity of the doctrine, or the unwillingness of the Church to explain themselves clearly (cf. #1 above, “I’m Not 2,000 Years Smart!”).
4). Don’t shy away from disagreement or argument. At the same time, don’t be a bully. Divine revelation is fixed. Our understanding of that revelation is fairly fluid and requires us to talk to one another for better understanding. This is not to say that everything about the faith is up for grabs. It is to say that particular expressions of the objectively true faith can be questioned and explored for clarity. Example: I’ve tried for some eight years now to understand the Church’s teaching on what happens to us after death. I’ve read just about every official document and still I fail to get it. I do not assume that this is a lack of clarity on the church’s part or a failure on the church’s part to make her case. I assume that I am simply not yet capable of “getting it.”
5). You are not an idiot, so please don’t come into the process thinking the project is above you. Yes, most of the ideas and texts are somewhat difficult. So what? Read the text. Look up the words you don’t know. Check references to scripture and the Catechism. And just get what you can as you can. If you think there’s a quick and easy way to have 2,000 years of the faith jammed into your brain…well, I got a possum farm I can let you have for cheap.
For a three-year, once-a-week, two hour class, I would divide the reading (roughly) this way:
Year One: Scripture & The Fathers
Gospels, Pauline Letters: 3 mos.
Patristic sources: 6 mos.
Secondary Texts listed below: 3 mos.
Year Two: Medieval Period
Early Medieval: primarily Anselm, early scholasticism: 2 mos.
Medieval: Bernard and Aquinas, high scholasticism: 6 mos.
Late Medieval: Mystics (Eckhart, etc.): 4 mos.
Year Three: Trent, Vatican One & Two
Council of Trent: 2 mos.
First Vatican Council: 2 mos.
Second Vatican Council: 8 mos.
I. Necessary Texts (all three years)
a. a Bible (in order of preference: NRSV, NJB, NIV, NAB)
b. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994
c. Companion to the CCC (full texts of the footnotes in the CCC)
d. Documents of Vatican Two, Austin Flannery, OP
e. Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Volume 1: From Its Beginnings to the Eve of the Reformation, Wm Placher
f. Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Volume 2: From the Reformation to the Present, W, Placher
g. The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, Bernard McGinn
II. Year One: Texts for Patristic Period
a. Robert L. Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God, 2005.
b. Andrew Louth, et al., Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers, 1987.
c. John R Willis,. Teachings of the Church Fathers, 2002.
d. Henrry Chadwick, The Early Church, 1993.
e. www.newadvent.org (click under “Fathers”)
1. Ambrose, “On the Mysteries”
2. Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine” (for the brave), “The Enchiridion,” & “Of Faith and the Creed”
3. Clement of Rome, “First Epistle”
4. Ignatius of Antioch, “The Martyrdom of Ignatius”
5. Any other you would like to include…
III. Year Two: Texts for the Medieval Period
a. Carl Volz, The Medieval Church: From the Dawn of the Middle Ages to the Eve of the Reformation, 1997.
b. Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas, 1993
c. Robert Barron, Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, 2008
d. Selections from the Placher anthology
e. Selections from the McGinn anthology
f. Rule of St Benedict
IV. Texts for Trent, Vatican One & Two
a. document of the Council of Trent (on-line)
b. documents of the First Vatican Council (on-line)
c. documents of the Second Vaticna Council (on-line)
d. Mysterium fidei, Humanae vitae, Pope Paul VI
e. Redemptor homine, Redemptoris mater, Veritatis splendor, Fides et ratio, Pope John Paul II
f. Deus caritatis est, Spe et salvi, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI
Most contemporary Catholic catechesis is based on the notion that you are too stupid, too lazy, or just don’t care enough to read moderately difficult texts about church history or theology. Frankly, this might be true. But even if it is true and despite yourself you truly want to immerse yourself in your faith: READ! Don’t try to understand every sentence, every paragraph. Read the assignment and just keep reading. Every time you want to skimp on the reading, say to yourself, “Ah HA! There’s something on the next page the Devil doesn’t want me to see!”
Keep your heart and mind open to the movement of the Holy Spirit as you read and discuss the texts. We learn in more ways than just the intellectual. Contemporary adult catechesis has one thing right: experience is vital to the process of integrating knowledge; in other words, knowledge has to be lived in order to become wisdom, otherwise it degrades to mere information.
If you have someone who has read some of these texts or knows something about the history of the faith, it might be a good idea to invite them to your group. You might even want to make him/her the group facilitator. This person ought to be able to help the group discuss the texts critically. If you keep your nose in the texts (and away from opinions, preferences, and feelings), there should be no danger of any one person dominating the group. Very often we are told that “sharing our feelings” is the best way to avoid one person from dominating an intellectual exchange; however, I’ve been in many, many groups where one Unstable Emotional Bully shut down most legitimates conversations with, “That offends me…” The proper response to this claim is: “OK. But are you harmed?”
Yes, this is an ambitious plan. Lots of books. Lots of reading. But just think: at the end of a mere three years you will have under your belt, in your head, and on your heart a nice chunk of knowledge about the Catholic faith and the rest of your life to turn that knowledge into wisdom!
If you want a few suggestions for advancing the reading list to the upper-classmen undergraduate level, let me know. If you want to tone it down a bit, that’s easy: keep the anthologies of primary texts and the histories. Put everything else aside. . .for now.
These suggestions should be applicable to most any way your group wants to configure itself.
The basic idea is to read the texts and then have an intelligent conversation about what you have read. A caution: you will be tempted, as we all are in this postmodern age, to let the conversation drift into “sharing feelings” or “sharing experiences.” Strictly speaking, there is nothing wrong with this. However—and this is a Big However—, merely giving words to a memory or an emotion or a fantasy provoked by the text is not what intelligent conversation is about.
Yes, we must contemplate, and contemplation is much more than just “reasoning through” propositions and syllogisms. Contemplation is reading to pray, reading to understand, reading to grow in holiness and wisdom. Therefore, it is important that you actually know what the text says before you start sharing. Otherwise, what is it exactly are you experiencing?
. . .read the passage out loud and offer a summary of the basic argument or claim being made. . .
. . .as a group discuss any unfamiliar terminology or concepts; grab the dictionary if necessary.
. . .now, begin a “close reading” of the text; that is, take the passage apart one or two phrases or sentences at a time, parsing each one in relation to the next. One way to do this is to grab a thesaurus and look up key words to see what their synonyms might be.
. . .as you go along reading a phrase or sentence, back up and repeat the whole sentence or series of sentences until it makes some kind of sense for you.
. . .once you have the basic sense of the idea/argument/claim, discuss it until the group has exhausted all of its questions.
. . .questions can take the form of “What does he/she mean by X?” or “How are X and Y related here?” or, more critically, “Since X is ________, then why can’t we say Y?” or “Is X true?”
. . .the idea here is to avoid at all costs the Death Phrase: “I feel that________.” Feelings are fine and wonderful gifts from God, but if you are going to grasp content, you must hold off on feelings and experiences until you have something to feel about or have an experience of. Very often we use “I feel” to mean “I think” and the former becomes a way for us to express an opinion that appears to be immune from critical assessment.
. . .to say, “I feel that Augustine’s idea of Original Sin isn’t very helpful” or “I feel that Ambrose is being negative” is pointless. How I feel about an idea says nothing about whether or not that idea is true, good, or beautiful.
. . .make your feelings into a claim about the truth, goodness, and/or beauty of the idea being presented: “I think that Augustine’s idea of Original Sin is dangerous.” Now we have a discussion! Tell the group why you think that this true.
. . .stick to the text; stick to making “I think” statements; avoid “I feel” statements and grow in your knowledge of the faith!
It is better to spend two hours thinking through one sentence than it is to spend two hours emoting over an entire book.
Just like feeling, thinking is something we all do, and we all have the right and responsibility to express our thoughts.
Do yourselves a favor and think with the Church! Assume our 2,000 year old Church has something to teach you and let yourself be taught. Disagreeing with a Church teaching is almost always about a failure to understand the teaching properly.
If you disagree with a Church teaching, make sure you understand it fully. Put the teaching “in suspension” and see what develops over the course of time. Please note: just because you’ve put a teaching “in suspension” doesn’t mean that you are free to dissent from the substance of the teaching. For example, let’s say that I put the Church’s teaching on adultery “in suspension.” I cannot then say, “Well, since I don’t agree with this teaching, and I’ve suspended my assent to the teaching, it is morally acceptable for me to have an adulterous affair until I decide that the teaching is correct.”
You can’t learn anything new if you come to the text with your mind made up with regard to the truth of the teaching.
Anyone in the group who bullies the others to accept or reject a teaching should be shown the door. This is faith formation. The assumption from the very beginning has to be: we are here as faithful Christians to learn our faith as it has been given to us. This is not a project of theological innovation nor is it a project designed to help you memorize the Catechism.
A note on conscience: “Conscience” is not a magical word that allows us to believe anything we want to believe about the faith. Your conscience is a divine gift that allows you to recognize the truth when you see it. Conscience does not invent the truth; conscience discovers the truth. Conscience does not make a belief true; conscience makes sure we only believe true things. Be careful, therefore, how you wield the gift of conscience! Please leave comments and ask questions!
Please leave comments and ask questions!
And if you really like this plan of study, buy me a book!