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The editors of America have asked a selection of theologians and bishops to respond to the article, "Beyond Catechesis" (9/12) by Michael G. Lawler and Todd A. Salzman. In the coming weeks, we hope to add more responses to this page. We will also continue the conversation on the role of Catholic universities with an article by Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, which will appear in the September 26 issue.

UPDATE (9/19): Cardinal Wuerl's article has just been published online.

UPDATE (10/17): Read the latest response by Thomas Rausch, S.J.

Our symposium begins with articles by Thomas Groome, Bishop Thomas Curry and Vincent Miller.

‘Nothing is more central to the church’s mission than how it educates in faith.’

Thomas Groome

I generally agree with the proposal that Michael Lawler and Todd Salzman make for a more effective working relationship between theologians and bishops. Using Frank  A. Sullivan’s helpful schema of the two-way theological mediation needed “between the magisterium and the faithful,” they argue convincingly that both mediations are much needed, are not being done well and they make helpful suggestions for improvement. I find it regrettable, however, that they caricature and diminish the role of catechesis in order to make their argument. And they did not need to do so.

By way of caricature, they add after their first reference to catechesis “(as in catechism).” This misrepresents catechesis as a one-direction imparting of doctrinal confessions from some magisterium-approved source; the association, at best, might be to the Catechism of the Catholic Church but more likely with the Q&A format of the Baltimore Catechism.  Contemporary catechesis has long ago rejected this self-understanding and practice. 

Indeed a constitutive aspect of the catechetical task is to inform people in the scriptures and traditions of Catholic faith, but catechesis goes far beyond information to formation in Christian identity and transformation as life-long conversion in Christian discipleship. Rather than a depositing of information in passive receptacles (what Paulo Freire called “banking education”), a now standard catechetical pedagogy is to enable people to bring their lives to faith and faith to their lives (see the General Directory for Catechesis).

By way of diminishing catechesis, the authors explicitly state that “this narrow understanding (theology as simply defending the magisterial teachings of the church) appears to reduce the theological task of the theologian to catechesis”  (emphasis added). But why reduce? They could surely make their point without this hierarchical ordering between theology and catechesis. Why not “confuse with” or “fails to distinguish,” etc. We could take it that reduce was simply an unfortunate choice of word here if the authors had not gone on to state that “Theology may include catechesis, but it is also more than that.” Why “more than”?

If there should be a hierarchical ordering between theology and catechesis (which I do not favor), it would be more accurate to say that theology is “less than” catechesis, or “stops short of” catechesis, at least as its primary intent. Nothing is more central to the church’s mission or more vital to its well-being or more significant for “the life of the world” (Jn 6: 51) than how it educates in faith.  I will resist the temptation, however, of inverting the relationship that Lawler and Salzman propose between theology and catechesis. Instead, I simply say that both are essential partners in the church’s life of faith and teaching ministry. 

The theologian’s job is to mediate an in-depth and scholarly representation from the faith life of the people to the magisterium, and from the magisterium to the faith life of the people. The intended outcome is to develop and lend access to in-depth scholarship in the spiritual wisdom of Christian faith for our time. Catechists, then, follow a similar dynamic, enabling ordinary people to mediate from life to faith to life. While catechetical education informs people through good theological scholarship and the teachings of the official magisterium, its primary intent is to enable people to integrate Christian faith into their daily lives as lived faith. We might say that catechesis intentionally reaches beyond “faith seeking understanding,” to encourage judgment and decision as well (a la Lonergan’s dynamics of cognition). In this it forms as well as informs people to live as disciples of Jesus. This is no secondary function!

Thomas Groome is Professor of Theology and Religious Education at Boston College and Chair of the Department of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry in Boston College's School of Theology and Ministry.  His most recent book is Will There Be Faith (Harper, 2011).

'The distinction between catechesis and theology will not, in itself, address the issue of when and how a college is Catholic.'

Thomas Curry

Catholic bishops have not withdrawn the status of Catholic from colleges or universities, but a government agency has. In a couple of instances involving collective bargaining, the National Labor Relations Board has decided that, in effect, the colleges involved were not Catholic. These are egregious decisions and a usurpation of authority over religion by a government agency. They are, however, salutary reminders to colleges and bishops that if we endow the government with power to separate the church and the state, it is going to confine the church to the sphere of the State’s delineation.

What the NLRB could legitimately have asked, however, was: apart from how the colleges defined themselves, did they have religious provisions in operation that would involve the government agency in matters beyond its competence and jurisdiction. Government officials, for example, cannot determine if professors are teaching according to agreed upon religious norms.

One can readily agree that there is a distinction between catechesis and theology. However, that in itself will not address the issue of when and how a college is Catholic. One college noted that it promoted the “idea of Catholicism.” For government, the world of ideas is beyond its ken. What government has to focus on is what the Constitution calls “overt” actions. That might be a good launching platform for a discussion involving bishops and colleges.  

Respecting academic freedom but also mindful of the "collective responsibility of theologians” and prudence in the “presentation of open, controversial, theological issues to Catholic laypeople” bishops and colleges might ask what overt actions should colleges require teachers to follow or avoid remembering that most students will not become professional theologians. In this, the sensus fidelium might well be consulted, particularly those members of the faithful who decide to support their children in Catholic colleges and universities.

Even in the absence of religious requirements, the government may not judge the Catholicity of colleges or universities but it can decide that how they define themselves has no relevance to the government’s authority to involve itself in their management. Without religious requirements they are, in fact no different from secular colleges.

The overreaching of government agencies presents both bishops and colleges with an excellent opportunity to join together in the defense of religious liberty and to work together to define and clarify the substantial religious nature of Catholic colleges and universities.

The Most Rev. Thomas Curry is auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Catholic Education.


‘So many of us long for ecclesial conspiratio in Spiritu.’

Vincent Miller

I appreciate Lawler and Salzman’s attention to the important distinction between theology and catechesis. They are distinct tasks and the church needs both.

In the undergraduate classroom, however, I find the tasks are not easily separated.  This does not reduce one to the other, but shows their necessary cooperation.

Part of the problem is the poor state of catechesis among our students. I do not think this is a particularly new situation. For most of Christian history the faithful knew very little.  Conversations I have had with elders catechized under the Baltimore catechism seldom reveal a particularly detailed grasp of doctrine. Many are able to remember only a few answers. (Question #3!) More than a few seem better able to recover childhood anxiety about answering incorrectly than the doctrines themselves. It is also far too late to blame it on the 60’s or the Second Vatican Council.  We are teaching students 20 years after the John Paul II generation.

Nonetheless, inadequate catechesis is a problem. With few exceptions, my classroom seems to be the first time my students have ever heard of the Council of Chalcedon. To be fair, that is a decidedly non-liturgical creed and they do know the Nicene-Constantinopolitan one.  Regardless, the undergraduate classroom provides the first time they have ever been asked to think about what the creeds might mean.

Inadequate preparation in parish formation does not, of course, reduce the university classroom to catechesis.  It does point to the unavoidably theological nature of good catechesis.  We are in a university. I am asking them to think, and…yes, this will be on the test. They have to master concepts. I tell them I do not demand that they believe anything of course. And I mean it.  But, like any good professor, I strive to present the material in the most compelling manner that I can.  As a theologian, I have the added responsibility to present the Gospel as compelling. I can not say I am particularly good at this. It takes so much.  Knowledge of the tradition—I got that in school. But the Ph.D. didn’t bring knowledge of what they care about. What do they hope for? What do they fear? What do they love? What cultural references speak to them? Each generation is different. Each class is a microcosm of diversity.

Professors also speak to one of the most important groups for the church. One the bishops never get to hear from:  the unconvinced, the unattracted…the non-confirmandi.

More than once, I have stood in the classroom, well-honed syllabus in hand, and felt the ground shift. This no longer works. They have gone elsewhere.  Now I need to figure out where; and then, how to teach theology there as well. 

This is one of the great intellectual privileges of teaching college students.  It is something theologians have to offer to the church. We are not catechists, but this knowledge born of experience certainly can help the bishops fulfill their catechetical responsibilities. The ground shifts everywhere.

College theologians know deeply what 18-year-olds can learn about the Catholic faith.  We’ve danced, wrestled, argued and prayed about this in the classroom and in faculty meetings for years.  We get feedback.  We assign the beautiful essay that changed our life, and find for the students, well, not so much.  We craft lectures and guide conversations thinking all has been made clear. Then we read 70 exams and see that we weren’t nearly as clear as we’d thought.  And...oh yes, anonymous, quantitative course evaluations! It is not easy to keep the dialogue going; to listen to their concerns (sometimes expressed very negatively) and to respond year after year. Pastoral letters and homilies aren’t about to get anonymous evaluations, but those who write them could profit from conversation with those who receive daily feedback. 

Theology and catechesis are intertwined in another, more complex way as well.  It’s a university classroom. Students get to talk back, question, challenge. This isn’t geometry.  We aren’t doing proofs. Frankly I’m surprised at how little real challenge there is to the most central doctrines: the incarnation, trinity, the paschal mystery. That is good news too often overlooked in our polarized church.

They do challenge certain things. They question the church’s disciplines and practices regarding gender. Regarding sexual ethics, they question some things, and do not talk at all about others. Catholic social doctrine? They’ve apparently been catechized by Fox News. What do I do then? Is it catechesis or theology? Well, I never edit the church’s doctrine or morals for them. I present controversial points in the most compelling manner that I can. They have never heard most of these things before either.  Make no mistake, they certainly know what is forbidden, but seldom why.

So far, so good. But this is neither theology nor catechism. Any religious studies teacher is obliged to do as much. In such a setting, students are not expected to buy any of it or particularly care for the traditions being considered. Religions believe all sorts of things.  Here’s a strange one. It’s on the test. Poor catechesis works this way as well:  objective, clear, discrete, and insulated from existential challenge.

Theology and good catechesis are intertwined in their demand for more.

First, if students are going to care about the Catholic tradition, I have to show them more than how “it” works in the abstract. I have to locate their concerns within it. I always strive to show them that their critical questions may not come from the “outside.”  (Some do, of course.) Their questions may be deeply Catholic ones. On matters of gender, it matters tremendously that there are Catholic feminists who proceed from Catholic assumptions and advance Catholic arguments. Incarnation and sacramentality give Catholic feminism a particular character. They’ve never heard that as well. They have, however, heard of late that such theologians are a “curse.”

Second, “theology” in the sense developed in Lawler & Salzman’s essay, is essential for a catechetical end. It is important to be able to show that this is a living tradition, a way of thinking; and yes, arguing. This does not set up theology as an alternate magisterium. Not every argument is accepted. It shows students that the church thinks in specific ways and that they might think with it. If relativism is the officially approved boogey-man of the age, its less remarked upon twin—an obsession with identity and boundary maintenance—is no less part of the dominant spirit of the age. Both leave students comfortably unchallenged.

Lawler and Salzman rightly point to the mediating function of theology. Much of that happens in the classroom. As the bishops contemplate the 10th anniversary of the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, they might want to consider starting conversations with the theologians in their diocese about teaching. Ask them how they teach and what they’ve learned about students. Ask about their frustrations and successes. So many of us long for ecclesial conspiratio in Spiritu. We have never been asked. This saddens us more than most bishops would ever suspect. Perhaps such conversations could begin a true conspiracy ex corde ecclesiae.

Vincent Miller is Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton. He is the author of Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture.

"Teachers of undergraduates have a responsibility beyond that of the theologian whose only public is the academy—something many theologians today are unwilling to acknowledge."

Thomas Rausch, S.J.

Michael Lawler and Todd Salzman make a number of important points about the role of theology in the church today. Certainly the theologian’s task is different from that of the catechist. The term “catechesis” originally referred to the oral instruction given to those preparing for baptism. But the catechist’s task is more than simply instructional. It includes deepening an awakening faith, helping it to sink deep roots, to grow and to flourish. Theology’s task is different. It has an important critical function, yet that function should always be at the service of the church. 

The theologian’s task is to reflect critically on the church’s language, to make sure that it better expresses the timeless truths of the faith in language intelligible to new generations, to update it where necessary, make it more precise, incorporating new insights. Theologians must address issues that arise from different cultural contexts or from new concerns of the faithful. They need to be able to distinguish the church’s faith from what remains popular belief or theological opinion.

At the same time, theology is also a work of the church. Like the bishops, theologians are teachers; however, their authority comes not from their office, but from their scholarship. They speak not for the church, but from it. In their concern for the church’s mission they need the freedom to question traditional expressions, even magisterial formulations, to free them from their historically conditioned limitations and make them intelligible in new contexts. Their role cannot be reduced to simply providing support for the teachings of the magisterium. But theologians also have the responsibility to critique the work of their colleagues in the academy when their theology fails to adequately reflect the church’s faith, something they are often reluctant to do.

Catholic theology needs also to be “catholic,” in the sense of embracing not just one particular school, method or approach, but by bringing the church in all its diversity—its catholicity—into the reflection of the faith. That includes the church struggling for justice in Latin America, the church in Asia in dialogue with the great world religions, the church in Africa moving beyond its colonial roots, and the concerns of women, the poor and the marginal. 

A recent article in The Tablet reports that Pope Benedict has given over 85 percent of the Vatican’s highest ranking positions to people from Western Europe or North America. Furthermore, nearly 90 percent of his appointees did their theological studies in Rome.  What this means is that the many voices of the world church have been reduced to a virtually single voice. Lawler and Salzman are right in arguing that the magisterium relies too heavily on safe theologians schooled in a Roman theology, and lay and third world voices are in danger of being excluded from the dialogue.

Yet there is one point on which I take issue with them. The distinction Lawler and Salzman draw between theology and catechesis is too facile, especially when they place it in the context of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution, Ex corde ecclesiae. Ex corde is not speaking about theology in general, but rather about those Catholics teaching theology in Catholic universities, who “are called to be witnesses and educators of authentic Christian life, which evidences attained integration between faith and life, and between professional competence and Christian wisdom” (no 22). What I found missing in their article was any sense that theologians teaching in Catholic universities might have some responsibility for the faith development of their students, that being a Catholic theologian is an ecclesial vocation. Faith formation is more than instruction; it cannot be reduced to learning the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It calls for meeting the students where they are, getting them in touch with their experience, addressing their questions. To say this is not to deny the critical, exploratory and creative aspects of the theologian’s task. But it does suggest that those teaching undergraduates have a responsibility beyond that of the theologian whose only public is the academy—something many theologians today are unwilling to acknowledge.

The theological illiteracy and ignorance of the Catholic tradition that afflicts so many young Catholics today, including those in our Catholic universities, has been widely acknowledged. John Cavadini and Cathleen Kaveny are among the many voices who have noted his problem. Yet too many academic theologians too easily divorce theology from a pastoral concern for the religious lives of their students with the argument that theology is not concerned with catechetics. Research interests or personal agenda prevail over seeing themselves as mediators of a tradition. Recently at my university, a colleague wanted to drop from a description of our department’s mission an emphasis on the “service of faith,” arguing that our mission was education, not faith formation. Students generally take only two courses in theology, yet early on they are faced with religious pluralism, deconstruction in Christology and criticism of the church for its authoritarianism, patriarchy and sexual repression before they have read a gospel from beginning to end or encountered the tradition’s greatest thinkers. What this means is that the academy is winning out over the church.

My own department is strong in its Catholic identity. Yet when our majors were surveyed by a faculty committee, they collectively responded that “they had been better instructed in modern and postmodern developments and critiques of the tradition than in the tradition itself.”

There are some contrary voices. In an essay in the volume Theological Education in the Catholic Tradition, James Heft observes that as a critical reflection on faith, “theology always has a catechetical component.” Students cannot reflect critically on a faith of which they are ignorant. If this is the case, then “faculty should provide supplemental instruction just as history and language professors do to get students up to speed in the discipline.”  In Robert Imbelli’s fine volume, Handing on the Faith, several contributors called for a catechesis that integrates witness, experience and actual practice, the responsibility not just of specialists but of the whole church. That includes theologians.

I do not mean to suggest for one minute that theology is not a critical, academic discipline with an important role to play in the life of the church. Nor is this an argument for turning our colleges and universities into the neo-conservative Catholic colleges so dear to the Cardinal Newman Society.  But there is an essential pastoral side to the discipline of theology for those teaching in a Catholic university that frequently is not acknowledged.

Thomas Rausch, S.J., is the T. Marie Chilton Professor of Catholic Theology at Loyola Marymount University.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Lawrence Velasco
12 years 7 months ago
After reading this ariticle and the responses from learned men, I believe that Thomas Groome said it all in his concluding paragraph....

The theologian’s job is to mediate an in-depth and scholarly representation from the faith life of the people to the magisterium, and from the magisterium to the faith life of the people. The intended outcome is to develop and lend access to in-depth scholarship in the spiritual wisdom of Christian faith for our time. Catechists, then, follow a similar dynamic, enabling ordinary people to mediate from life to faith to life. While catechetical education informs people through good theological scholarship and the teachings of the official magisterium, its primary intent is to enable people to integrate Christian faith into their daily lives as lived faith. We might say that catechesis intentionally reaches beyond “faith seeking understanding,” to encourage judgment and decision as well (a la Lonergan’s dynamics of cognition). In this it forms as well as informs people to live as disciples of Jesus. This is no secondary function!
Adam DeVille
12 years 7 months ago
Prof. Miller's article is especially insightful in his understanding of where students are coming from today, their concerns and anxieties, and the questions they bring to the classroom. He is absolutely right to insist that theology and catechesis are interconnected: it is utterly fatuous in this age to imagine that they can or should be separated. I see the results of today's college students "catechized" in Catholic schools for fifteen years, and those results are a complete disgrace. At least three-quarters of such students today are unconscious and unwitting "heretics," believing a bizarre stew of neo-Arianism and neo-Modalism. That being said, Miller is right: there is remarkably little direct and frontal challenge to the central Christological and Triadological doctrines of apostolic Christianity, in part, I suspect, because they are not well understood. Prof. Miller is further right in his method of trying to do more than merely explain a doctrine in the abstract. I have found some modest success with such a method myself, trying to show students their own concerns from within. And always, always, everything must be linked back to the Triune God. If one builds a close link between dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church, on the one hand, and the nature of God on the other, then the former are often much more comprehensible, and much more acceptable, to students who seem to have grown up with the typical caricatured image of both God and Church as some abstract, authoritarian "Dr. No."

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