Friday, January 13, 2012

Catechists or Theologians?

Are priests, pastors, preachers supposed to be catechists or theologians?

In 1992 Pope John Paul II formally issued Catechism of the Catholic Church, presenting it as "a statement of the Church's faith and of catholic doctrine." He declared it to be "a sure norm for
teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion."

He asked his fellow bishops and all the faithful "to receive this catechism in a spirit of communion and to use it assiduously in fulfilling their mission of proclaiming the faith and calling people to the Gospel life."

He called the CCC "a sure and authentic reference text for teaching catholic doctrine and particularly for preparing local catechisms."

A second edition of the CCC, with some changes, was published in 1997

In 2006 the United States Catholic Bishops published a "local catechism," United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, described as an adaptation of the CCC.

The US version is more reader-friendly than the Vatican's catechism, and tries to relate the Church's teaching to the culture of the United States. Most chapters begin with stories about saintly people, many of them Americans, e.g., Elizabeth Seton, Orestes Brownson, Junipero Serra.

Both the CCC and the US catechism were written to serve a noble and necessary purpose. We need to know the Church doctrine; we need tools to insure faithful and comprehensive teaching of the truths of our faith. Both of these publications are to be hailed as authentic reference texts.

The U.S. Catholic Bishops have developed guidelines for publishers of catechetical materials. These guidelines insist on a core curriculum to insure doctrinal content in the instruction of  young people of high-school-age. (Significantly the presentation of these doctrinal elements includes far more references to the CCC than to the U.S. adaptation.)

Although the US adaptation is not as widely used or known in our country as the CCC, both are most helpful in catechesis, faith formation, and even research of Church doctrine.

There is a flip-side, however, namely, the tendency to think that a catechism answer or explanation is necessarily the only way of understanding and holding on to a truth.

Those of us who memorized the Baltimore Catechism as youngsters still remember some of the answers it provided. "A sacrament is an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace."

That answer is valid, but falls far short of the full reality. When we learned that there are seven sacraments, we did not count on an ecumenical council's also saying that the Church itself is in the nature of a sacrament (cf. Lumen Gentium, #1).

Pope John XXIII made it clear at the start of the Second Vatican Council that fundamental teachings of the Church always remain the same, but the way they are presented can change.

And this preservation of truth joined with changing cultures and language as well as the potential for gaining new insight and deeper understanding of a truth is the task of theologians.

An old notion endures that the pope alone is in charge of the Church and that bishops are simply local representatives of the pope. Without prejudice to the rightful authority of the Bishop of Rome, it is also true that "together with their head, the Supreme Pontiff, and never apart from him, they (bishops) have supreme and full authority over the universal Church even if this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff (cf. Lumen Gentium, #22).

How the pope can be the supreme authority and at the same time how the bishops can have supreme authority is something of a conundrum, and it is the role of theologians to probe such mystery and find ways of expressing the truth in its fullness.

There is also a catechism tendency to make all Church teachings equal in certainty. In truth a catechism includes truths that will never change plus teachings which are subject to change.

For example, you may recall answer #48 from the revised Baltimore Catechism: "When we say that Christ descended into hell we mean that, after He died, the soul of Christ descended into a place or state of rest, called limbo, where the souls of the just are waiting for him." Today the existence of limbo is almost universally questioned, and significantly the official Church has neither defended or abrogated the teaching.

Theologians (whether working in systematics, liturgy, patristics, etc) explore the truths of faith and work to keep us accurate and honest in our presentation of those truths.

Theologians remind a pastor who tells his congregation, "I am here to save your souls"  that Christ has already done that. Theologians remind us that there is evidence of women deacons, evidence that in the early Church any Christian could administer the anointing of the sick, evidence that bishops were elected by their local congregations.

It is not a matter of "either/or" when it comes to praising catechists or theologians. It is "both/and."

Seminaries have the obligation to form priests who are as adept in theologizing as they are in catechizing. Emphasizing one to the neglect of the other would be a disservice to the Church and the Gospel.

Theology keeps us aware of the hierarchy of truths, and preserves the mindset that there is always more to learn and other ways of formulating a truth.

Priests, pastors, preachers are supposed to be theologians and catechists.

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