Ever since I wrote here about the importance of care with language, distinguishing between “Vatican” teaching and authentic “church” teaching, (What are “Church teaching” and “Church” teaching?) our reader David has been engaging me in a dialogue in the comments thread, which has come around to a discussion of the place of the Catechism. As I do not like to use comments as a place for complex arguments, and as the issue of the Catechism is an important issue in its own right, I want to reply to David’s last question here, instead.
First, a selection from the comments thread of the relevant points on the Catechism which have gone before:
Terence: The Catechism is a dumbed down summary of the content of teaching across a wide range of primary sources, best known for its use in teaching children by rote. The modern version is better, but I still cannot understand why otherwise intelligent adults use it as a substitute for thought
David: And you would propose what as the textbook?
Terence: I wouldn’t.
David: What are you proposing as “the Church’s teachings”? How is a layperson, such as myself, supposed to inform himself on the Church’s teachings?
And it is this last question, which I have not yet answered, that I want to address here.
My own education was entirely in Catholic schools. Throughout my primary education, at least since I was old to enough to use textbooks, a catechism was a key part of my religious education – in primary school. First, it was a slim little red one, later a slightly fatter edition, in a pale sea green, if memory is correct. We used this for rote learning. When I moved to high school, the Catechism disappeared. Instead, the key book that was used to in our RE classes became the Bible, in a Ronald Knox edition. Over the course of five years, we explored the Bible from many different perspectives, highlighting passages, checking the cross-references in the footnotes, writing out verses and summarising important passages. (How I wish I still had that old Bible, which for years I carted around the country with me, unopened). In the early years, we concentrated on the narratives of the Old Testament. Later, we covered the Gospel stories and parables, and later still investigated specific themes as illustrated in Biblical texts: “God is love“, “God is Truth“, “God is father”, “God is compassion“, “God is Mercy”, “God is Justice“, “God is Light“, “God is Wisdom“, and so on. To illustrate each, we hunted down and wrote out in our exercise books a wide selection of relevant verses, and memorised them all. But although we memorized the verses, they were always presented to us as guiding principles, not as a set of rules. Formal Bible study was also supplemented by a wide range of other lesson material, from practice with different forms of prayer and meditation, to homely and uplifting stories from the Reader’s Digest. In the last years of school there were even lessons examining the lyrics of popular songs of the day – the late sixties – for both the damaging (drugs, indiscriminate sex) and more inspiring messages (love, justice ) they might contain. More and more, in the later years, the emphasis was on thinking for ourselves and evaluating moral principles, rather than simply applying rules.
I suppose this has coloured my approach to religious formation ever since. For me, the Catechism is firmly positioned in my mind as part of elementary rote learning, while a more mature approach to learning about the faith includes reflection on Scripture, the use of supplementary materials, and consideration of competing views. This was further modified for me during the years in which I was heavily involved in the Christian Life Communities (CLC) in Johannesburg. For the CLC, the “formation” program was essentially about offering training in Ignatian spirituality, in the application of specific techniques of prayer not just to to send messages to the Lord, but also to learn to listen to the messages God is sending to us, with direct application to our personal lives.
I fully recognise that the modern Catechism is directed at adults, and is far more sophisticated than the kiddy version I had at school, but for me the fundamental problem remains. It is a dumbed down summary of a range of complex documents – and represents quite specifically the thinking of the Vatican. It most certainly has a place, but we need to understand what that place is. David asked “What textbook would I use?”, and I replied “I wouldn’t”. I do not believe that religious belief can be simply reduced to a set of rules inscribed in a text book.
He asks further “How is a layperson, such as myself, supposed to inform himself on the Church’s teachings?”, to which I now reply, by all means us the Catechism to inform yourself on the Church’s (i.e. Vatican) teachings, at least in the first instance. But understand that it is just a summary, sometimes of far more nuanced and complex issues, and that far more important than Vatican teaching is the discernment of God’s will. The two, Vatican teaching and Christ’s teaching, do not always co-incide.
So alongside familiarity with the Catechism as a guide to Vatican teaching, I urge the use of Scripture, and reflective prayer, especially what the Jesuits call the prayer of awareness (“examen of consciousness”) to discern what the Lord is saying to us about our own lives. I also recommend the open-minded reading of additional material, of views from other sources and of additional Vatican documents, and the use of our God-given powers of intellect and reason, assisted by prayer, to evaluate the confused and conflicting messages that will ensue.
Use the Catechism by all means. to inform oneself on “Church” teaching. Just do not treat it as a text book, or confuse it with Gospel truth.
Filed under: Uncategorized |