A White-Collar Church and Its Discontents

In response to my latest defense of the Baltimore Catechism, reader bpeters1 argues that reverting to the catechism would turn back the clock to a less enlightened age. Excerpt:

Do we really want to inculcate the Catholic population with the very neo-scholasticism which (Card.) Henri de Lubac, (Card.) Yves Congar, and even Joseph Ratzinger so loudly decried? From what I understand, Hans Urs von Balthasar went so far as to refuse to undergo doctoral training in theology because he so detested the neo-scholatic method, the very method which informs the Baltimore Catechism! For all of the problems and struggles the Church has had since Vatican II, the best and brightest theologians of the pre-Vatican II era (including our current pope!) found the theology of that very era dull and lifeless, and insisted on a movement away from the sort of theological method employed in the Baltimore Catechism. Do we really want to revert back to that? Richard McBrien once said, “You want to go back to the Church before Vatican II? I’m a product of the Church before Vatican II!” Regardless of what you think of Fr. McBrien, it’s worthwhile to consider those words!

I share the reader’s opinion that the recent history of the American Church has brought some good changes. Like American society as a whole, Catholic theologians are more considerate of the experiences of the poor, minorities, and women. That’s a good thing.

But stop to consider the premise of the reader’s argument: If the Baltimore Catechism were re-introduced, the Church’s leading theologians would be up in arms, fearing that the development would return the Church to the days of authoritarianism and judgmentalism. This premise strikes me as false. Neo-Scholasticism does not need to descend into authoritarianism any more than neo-Augustinianism needs to descend into relativism.

After all, the Church in the decades immediately before Vatican II produced more than liberal theologians like Richard McBrien. It also produced some of the best Catholics of the 20th century — Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, Caesar Chavez, Sargent and Eunice Shriver, Bishop Sheen, Thomas Merton, David L. Lawrence, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Monsignor John A. Ryan. None of these figures was authoritarian. They were orthodox. For example, Day and Monsignor Ryan were not only tribunes for the poor and working classes, but also opponents of the sexual revolution.

Do not many Catholics hunger for clear and complete orthodox instruction and programs? One young priest suggests that they do. According to Father Seamus Griesbach, Generation X and Millennial Catholics believe their catechesis was watered down to the point of caricature:

We had not been taught the fullness of the faith, we were not given adequate tools to handle real life – to deal with evil, to seek what is good. We were not trained in the virtues, we were not given a solid foundation in logic and critical thinking, we were not exposed to the cultural and religious treasures of our western heritage. Instead, we had been brought up by a generation that was convinced that the way to show their love for us was by being likable and entertaining us. The youth ministry mantra was, I’ll never forget, the “4 F words”: food, fun, friends, and faith.

But in the face of terrorists trying to kill us, criminal priests, divorce, substance abuse, psychological illnesses, violence, and promiscuity, the 4 F words just didn’t cut it, being likable and entertaining didn’t cut it either. Many of my peers left the faith, tired of being around a bunch of people who seemed obsessed with being likable, rather than being good. Who didn’t have any answers for the larger questions of life. Who didn’t seem to want to talk about suffering and death and desire and addiction.

In theory, producing a new Baltimore Catechism could combine the best of both worlds. It would feature the best of the pre-conciliar era of instruction (clarity and completeness). Yet it would not posses the worst of the post-conciliar (vagueness and emotivism) and pre-conciliar (authoritarianism and judgmentalism) eras. Now that would help produce an enlightened age for the mass of Catholics if not the elites.

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11 thoughts on “A White-Collar Church and Its Discontents

  1. AuthenticBioethics says:

    OK, I’m sure I’m gonna get a ton of dislikes for what I’m about to say, so I want to preface it with this: I love this Church. On the other hand I am also somewhat skeptical that the catechism you envision can actually be pulled off with anything resembling the universal acceptance enjoyed by the Baltimore Catechism. First of all, please take a fresh look at the BC and see if it actually HAS the defects attributed to it. It might have been from the 1940s, but that does not mean it suffered from any of the defects people attribute to it or to the larger Church. In fact, it is really debatable that the Church suffered from those defects. The Catholic Church was authoritarian and judgmental and taught Catholics to be likewise prior to Vatican II and after Vatican II it has become less so? I think you’d get a different opinion from those who have been devoted to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass or who want to kneel to receive Holy Communion. I personally am not saying one way or the other, I am asking a question: Just how defective is the BC really? Secondly, there are not-bad catechetical resources and curricula for school-age kids out there already, not formatted like the BC, granted, but orthodox in content, complete in scope, and clear in presentation. My wife has said the Faith in Life series is pretty good. Third, good luck. The Faith in Life series is banned from Catholic schools and parish-sponsored catechesis in some dioceses. Now, like I said, I’m sure a lot of people are going to dislike my comments. But my main point is that the BC may not need improvement. Sorry if I offended anyone

  2. bpeters1 says:

    the above should read “..(which I may have misunderstood)…”

  3. bpeters1 says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful response, Mark.

    Just to be clear, I find your last paragraph more agreeable than I found your previous suggestions (which I may have understood). I was under the impression that you were wanting to simply dust off copies of the Baltimore Catechism from the 1950s and hand them out. I would be opposed to this sort of approach.

    On the other hand, producing a new sort of catechism (though I would be uneasy with calling it a “Baltimore Catechism”) aimed at “the mass of Catholics” would be a great idea. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, the CCC was originally designed as a template for the development of new “local” catechisms which could best address the needs of particular countries/regions/communities. But, to my knowledge, the intended wide-scale development (or at least popularization) of such catechisms never really occurred, as many people simply obtained copies of the CCC. I think it would be great for Church in America to develop such a popular local catechism, marked by the characteristics you mention (clarity, completeness) and not by vagueness, authoritarianism, etc. If this is your general goal, sign me up.

    Where I depart from your general goal is the methodology informing such a catechism. From what you write above, it sounds like you’re just fine with neo-scholasticism as a methodology (please correct me if I’m wrong!), so long as it’s not accompanied by “authoritarianism.” However, it’s not just the “authoritarianism” surrounding neo-scholasticism which concerns me (and concerned de Lubac, Congar, Ratzinger, etc.). It’s that its style is that of an “answer book” which encourages rote memorization – and while this certainly provides “clarity,” it also tends to reduce something like “faith” to something like intellectual assent to a series of propositional truths. One of those 20th century advancements which I treasure is the consideration of faith as a holistic (not just intellectual!) response by a person to God’s gracious self-offer – that is, faith is a response to God himself rather than to a series of static propositions or “truths” (which are only part of such a holistic response). I worry that the Baltimore Catechism, in content, (neo-scholastic) methodology, and format, falls into the more “mechanical” understanding of faith. I worry that it’s interaction with and usage of Scripture is rather problematic, as well. In the opening section on “method” in his Systematic Theology (of which a new edition was just published), Francis Schussler Fiorenza gives an excellent treatment of neo-scholasticism, acknowledging both its advantages and its pitfalls. In my opinion, the latter outweigh the former, and we ought to strive for clarity in a way which didn’t already unsettle the brightest theological minds from a past generation. In fact, turning to some of those minds and their own approaches and methods may be a good place to begin.

  4. Jason says:

    Just re-write the current universal Catechism and remove all of the philosophical and theological double speak which creates so much ambiguity and move on. The main problem isn’t the catechism, it is people adhering to the catechism.

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