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Will EllisSeptember 25, 2023
Senior Kenia Viri serves as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion during a Mass marking the feast of St. Francis of Assisi at Franciscan-run St. Anthony's High School in South Huntington, N.Y., Oct. 4, 2022. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Something strange recently occurred at a national Catholic educators’ convention. Or rather, something strangely failed to occur. Seemingly every topic under the sun related to Catholic education was discussed, save one—teaching theology. As a theology teacher at a Jesuit high school, I was struck by a question: Why do theology courses in Catholic schools often seem to be a mere afterthought?

One possible reason is that theology classes have become less important for parents, and thus less important for administrators struggling to attract students to their enrollment-challenged schools. “In today’s climate of college admissions and professional ambitions,” to paraphrase an administrator I spoke with at the convention, “theology class is usually the last priority for students and their parents.” College applicants from Catholic high schools are in intense competition with applicants from non-Catholic schools, and that may lead to a focus on maintaining parity in core academic subjects. Theology is not one of them.

At the same time, students in Catholic schools often say that after 12 years of whatever religion and theology classes are offered, they feel uninspired. The most common reason is that they feel their questions are never meaningfully addressed. They feel spoken to instead of listened to. They find theology classes irrelevant to their daily lives.

Students in Catholic schools often say that their questions are never meaningfully addressed. They find theology classes irrelevant to their daily lives.

These voices should sound an alarm to Catholic educators. We need to reimagine and reprioritize instruction in theology.

High school is a good place to start. Not to discount the value of religion classes in elementary school, but high school students are intellectually primed for theology. They are at the optimal cognitive stage to develop higher-order thinking and to form their own identity and beliefs apart from those of their parents and other authorities. They are asking existential questions about faith and religion, often for the first time. In other words, they are actually already doing theology, albeit unconsciously and unguided.

These are also the years in which many students in Catholic schools begin to reject faith altogether. Their newfound critical thinking can create a fortress of skepticism. When their serious questions go unaddressed for long enough, many students give up. Faith of any kind, much less a Catholic faith, no longer makes sense to them. It appears to their developing worldview as irrelevant and irrational.

High school students are asking existential questions about faith and religion, often for the first time. In other words, they are actually already doing theology, albeit unconsciously and unguided.

And here lies the missed opportunity. What better forum to explore genuine questions about faith than in a welcoming, intellectually rigorous theology classroom?

Among these skeptical students, certain intellectual blocks recur with predictable frequency. They fear the church teaches that all non-Catholics, or at least all non-Christians, are doomed to eternal damnation. But here is an invitation to learn about baptism of desire, the nuanced insights of Julian of Norwich on the nature of salvation and Karl Rahner’s “anonymous Christian,” not to mention the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which flatly rejects such exclusivism.

Some students worry that Old Testament books like Genesis must be read historically and literally, contradicting all we know about cosmology, physics and biology. Amazement brightens their faces when they learn Genesis is theological poetry, not scientific explanation.

They assume they must either believe the Big Bang theory or believe in a God-willed creation. Their eyes widen when they learn a priest invented the Big Bang theory.

They fear the church rejects evolution. They are astonished to learn about the Jesuit scientist-mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his fascinating theology, largely inspired by modern evolutionary theory.

The list of questions goes on, as do the opportunities to guide intellectual formation:

Doesn’t the church demand blind faith? Tee up a discussion of St. Anselm’s definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding” and how faith divorced from reason and questioning is mere fideism.

Certain intellectual blocks recur with predictable frequency. They fear the church teaches that all non-Catholics, or at least all non-Christians, are doomed to eternal damnation.

Is faith in God’s existence irrational? Enter the rational proofs of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Isn’t theology frozen in the past? St. Anselm to the rescue again, with the idea that theology, by nature, is provisional, always open and ready for development, progress and growth.

Why does the church believe it alone possesses truth? Enter a discussion of Aquinas finding great wisdom in the pagan philosopher Aristotle, Augustine discovering profound truth in Plato, Thomas Merton finding genuine insight in Buddhism, and countless scientist-theologians learning more about God and his creation through the sciences.

Doesn’t the church demand unthinking obedience? Cue a discussion of debates within the church and the doctrine of the primacy of individual conscience.

How is theology relevant to the ills that plague current society? Enter the church’s “best kept secret” of Catholic social teaching and its ongoing quest for greater social justice. For example, teens worried about climate change can encounter the beauty, hope and urgency in Pope Francis’ “Laudato Si’.” They can also engage the ecological vision of Hildergard of Bingen, where nature and physicality are celebrated as manifestations of the sacred.

Isn’t theology a dry, abstract exercise divorced from mental health and human psychology? Not according to the theology of experience offered by St. Teresa of Ávila, in which the spiritual journey is cast as a process of ever increasing self-awareness, individualization of an authentic personality and confrontation with one’s shadow-self.

In the increasingly atomized and isolated world of teens, theology around community and relationship can be more relevant than ever, helping them to form a new sense of self based on unconditional value. Students can also learn that the skills of theology—critical thinking, constructing arguments, finding logical fallacies, making conceptual connections, reading complex texts, sustained reflection—can aid in any career they aspire to pursue.

Students can learn that the skills of theology can aid in any career they aspire to pursue.

Some educators might fear that if a theology class is intellectually challenging, it will not be spiritually enriching. In my experience, the opposite is the case. Especially at the high school level, the primary blocks to student spirituality are intellectual. Students feel that the church lacks legitimate intellectual content. Once this content is revealed, the result can be a newfound respect and openness.

Besides, common sense and neuroscience confirm that true education, in any subject, requires challenge. Students do not need hours of theology homework every night, but if they are not placed in learning situations that demand intellectual sweat, then deep education is not happening.

So where should schools and teachers begin? Schools can reinvest in prioritizing theology. Emphasize it to students and parents. Pitch it. Sell it. And solicit constant questions about it. Encourage ceaseless challenge.

Aquinas, perhaps the greatest theology teacher in history, believed the dialectic between student challenge and teacher response is exactly what makes theology so powerful. It is this process that makes the practice intellectually rigorous, spiritually enriching, personally relevant, and stimulating to both teacher and student.

Show that Catholicism is a thinking, questioning, struggling faith. If students are already ready for thinking, questioning and struggling, a theology class could be the ideal environment.

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