Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Catechetical Pedagogy and Faith

When the Baltimore Catechism is brought up in certain Catholic circles, usually the result is polarizing. There typically is either a nostalgia for supposedly better times (pre-Vatican II) or a knee-jerk rejection of superficial catechetical pedagogy, a style of education also associated with the intense disciplinary practices of American sisters that has left a foul taste in many American Catholics' mouths years later.

If we would try to look at the issue clearly, then we would need to examine and define what we are talking about (this applies, of course, to any topic). We need to look at Faith, the Catechism, and a philosophy of education; finally, how do these associate?

Why has the Church produced catechisms throughout Her history? The catechism serves as a way to understand the Creed, and the Creed's purpose was to solidify and communicate the original experience of Christ that the Apostles had and were commanded to spread. Pure experience must eventually be codified into language, and the gap between language and reality will always leave something wanting. Experience itself does not need explanation although it may stir curiosity. Without guidance solidified through oral and written tradition, the experience will be lost. The Commandments illustrate this point very clearly: without the Commandments, man has no solid lampposts to guide his conscience. Although the Commandments are written on his heart by God even in the natural sphere, the tendency of man wounded by original sin is to silence the conscience. The Commandments then, far from being arbitrary commands, are anchors to help man on the way to genuine happiness.

Similarly, the experience of divine love in the Incarnation must be solidified so that others may anchor themselves onto God through faith. St. Paul tells us that faith comes by hearing (Rom. 10:17). The preacher does not preach pure experience but the codification of this experience through the medium of doctrine. St. Thomas Aquinas explained in theological terms the operation of grace that occurs in the conversion process, which can be summarized as such (Summa Th., 2a2æ.6):

1. The person hears the words of the preacher.
2. The grace of God moves the hearer to accept the words as true.
3. The hearer cooperates with God's grace and accepts the words, making an act of faith.
4. What formerly existed simply as intellectual words signifying an unknown reality that was inaccessible to the hearer now, through the theological virtue of faith, grant the convert direct access to God as supreme Truth. The words thus accepted form channels linking the believer to God.

Faith externalizes in the form of words signifying a reality, which we believe, says Aquinas. That belief, powered by God's grace, is faith internalized.

The words and the reality, however, remain mysterious to us because they touch on God's very nature, which overpowers the grasp of reason. Hence, faith does not give us complete understanding of the realities contained in the Creed but simply access to those realities contained, a sharing in those realities. Faith says, "I believe even if I do not understand, but I believe for the best and most compelling reason: the authority of Truth itself. Perhaps I may begin to understand if God so allows." In fact, at least some understanding must be given in order to preserve the integrity of doctrine. Hence the catechism.

The catechism is an explanation of the Creed, of Sacred Revelation. Because Sacred Revelation transcends the power of reason, reason alone cannot attain to the truths contained therein. Therefore, unlike natural sciences, man cannot come to a true knowledge of the Divine without the aid of the Divine.

How the contents are organized is an editorial decision based on the audience and circumstances. The Catechism of the Council of Trent was written for parish priests in order to help their preaching; hence while being theologically rigorous, it is not overly technical. The Catechism of the Catholic Church was written for bishops; hence while being simple in its depth of coverage, its language is dense and not immediately accessible to regular, lay readers. The Baltimore Catechism was designed for children in school, and in fact we now know that the method of question and answer, call and response was the method used by the earliest Christians in teaching new converts and preparing them for Baptism.

Question and answer in fact form a very important part of human understanding. The Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan drew attention to the point that a question frames and determines the kind of answer one will receive. By changing the question and its frame, one can evoke a different answer even if the question is "essentially" the same in content. Those involved in social science research are showing the truth of Lonergan's point.

Why is question and answer especially important when it comes to doctrine? Because doctrine is a specific answer to a specific question, a question that is innate in the fallen condition of man, and a question that must be guided. No one would ever think to ask, "Who is Jesus Christ?" It presupposes that we know that there is a Jesus Christ to ask about. To ask what the purpose of life is presupposes a notion that there is a purpose at all and that we can know it.

Hence, while a question and answer format is in itself very simple, the frame provokes deep insight into the very nature of Sacred Revelation and reality itself. If we can ask these questions and get these answers, then we know something about God, reality, and ourselves.

What's the problem then? I think the problem is twofold: 1) guilt by association; and 2) the exaggerated separation of externalized and internalized faith.

First, guilt by association. Question and answer is one educational tool that can be combined with others. Just because it was combined with poor methods of teaching that happened to be in vogue in the early-to-mid twentieth century doesn't mean that question and answer itself is a bad thing. But now the Baltimore Catechism is associated with the Puritanical pedagogy of certain religious. But having examined and distinguished what is properly question and answer, it should be clear that one would have to do more work to say that question and answer itself is somehow bad pedagogy for teaching the Faith.

Second, the separation between "objective" and "subjective" faith. I've introduced two very poorly understood words and used them as replacements for "externalized" and "internalized." I think the latter pair are far better and more useful in a discussion of pedagogy. This is for another discussion however.

Everyone recognizes that faith can be lifeless, empty words on the lips of a person who acts just as a nonbeliever would. Real faith, faith that has been appropriated as one's own, internalized, transforms a person even if not immediately and completely. It is a first step towards sanctification. The Pharisees, for all their obedience to the laws and performance of sacrifice, were not justified in the eyes of God, for God desires mercy not sacrifice. Nevertheless, Christ commands His disciples to exceed the Pharisees in their righteousness. What does that mean then?

It means that we ought not to separate faith externalized and faith internalized. While the difference is a useful conceptual schema in theological discussion, in practical, concrete terms the two must be united. When I confess my belief, it is a belief in Christ, in the Trinity, in the Catholic Church. My belief is directed, concrete; my internal act of faith expresses itself externally in concrete directions because it has a concrete direction. The words signifying realities guide my act of faith. Hence a Catholic cannot be "spiritual but not religious." Faith embraces both in an inseparable unity: the spiritual soul of faith requires the religious body of doctrine; without each other there is only a disaster and vagueness that can be led in any direction, swept away by every wind of doctrine as St. Paul warns (Eph. 4:14). I don't just "believe"; I believe IN Christ. I don't just "adore"; I adore GOD.

Here it would be good to address the objection to the use of question and answer in teaching the faith: "The problem is that the faith remains superficial, just memorized answers to questions that mean nothing to the believer."

This objection is problematic on several levels. Let's examine each:

1. The objection implies a Pelagian view of faith, something that the believer can will and do independently of a gift of God. In fact, no matter what method one picks to hand on doctrine, ultimately the grace of God must intervene to breathe life into those words of the Creed.

2. We must distinguish between memorized answers as such and someone who intellectually adheres to doctrine without the grace of faith.

Memorized answers as such are not bad. In fact, many times they are the necessary foundation stones for further understanding. We ponder a fact over and over, examining it this way and that, until one day a deeper insight takes hold of us, and we see the fact from a higher perspective. Suddenly, we understand the fact, the reason why it is the way it is. If we were asked to demonstrate it, we would be able to without hesitation because we now understand what used to be a "brute datum." Now it is a vivid reality. Now we can ask further questions. Now we can lead others to ask questions.

But then where exists the problem? The only possible problem I can see is that such a method does not guarantee that the faith will be appropriated by the individual believer, will not be internalized and made one's own. Perhaps, even more strongly put, the method of teaching doctrine through question and answer discourages the individual from internalizing the Faith. How could this be?

Perhaps from our perspective, the rote and mechanical pedagogical process implies that doctrine is something sterile, brute data to be accepted in the way we memorize algebraic formulas and polyatomic ions.

But actually, doctrine is always such because it is mysterious. Without grace, which absolutely no pedagogical method on earth can somehow secure, doctrine remains sterile, empty words signifying an inaccessible reality. We cannot merit grace, no matter what method we use to teach doctrine, no matter how much we dress it up or try to encourage a person to "make it his own."

In fact, there is only one way to make faith one's own, and it is the way that faith itself dictates: total surrender to Truth.

Hence the objection betrays a subtle placing of the individual above Sacred Revelation. The individual is more important or most important in this interaction. What this practically amounts to is that the individual must fully understand, must have a so-called "informed opinion." In other words, the individual is to judge for himself what is acceptable and what isn't. This placing of the individual's judgment above Truth is one of the principles of Modern thought, which reduces the mystery of religion to a set of ethics and a moral imperative guided by the individual's conscience without regard for a higher authority, such as the Church.

Faith, however, as well as reason both suggest that we only really appropriate truth when we kneel before it in humility, not when we have grasped it so that we can feel empowered to accept or reject it. In fact, truth overpowers us, not vice versa. It overtakes us, shakes us, wakes us from our preconceptions. All facts are useless until their truth grasps us.

But if we do not know doctrine correctly, what are we adhering to? Better then to know doctrine correctly even if one doesn't accept it than to believe wrongly and not realize that one is placing one's faith in a false god.

Faith has a form, but its life is guaranteed not by the pedagogy that we utilize but by the free, uncontrolled, unmerited grace of God. Its form is both the external guideposts of doctrine and the internal assent of the individual, with or without understanding.

The doctrine points us to the reality, which is mysterious, which is overwhelming, which blinds us because of its brightness.

Cafeteria Catholicism/Christianity is appealing because the individual remains in control. Actual faith means an act of surrender to God and hence a giving up of control. Cafeteria Catholicism appeals because the individual understands the "food" of doctrine being placed on the "plate" of one's assent. Actual faith accepts the fact that the food is a given, given to be eaten for our nourishment whether we understand what it is or why it nourishes us or not.

Yes, it would be a pity if a person were forced to memorize doctrines that he had no desire to accept. It would be a pity if a person memorized doctrines but never really cooperated with the grace of faith. It would be a pity if a person was forced to memorize anything and never given a sense of why such a process was important. It would be a pity if a person was made to do these things and punished for what was, to a child, perfectly innocent behavior and carried resentment for the rest of his life.

That being said, these potential problems apply to any pedagogical method because when it comes to faith, there is no method that guarantees cooperation with grace or even its being given. The best that a pedagogy should do would be to prepare the individual to cooperate well, and only on this ground should pedagogy be adapted. It's not question and answer though; it's the standardization of factory thinking that became so prevalent in post-Industrial culture and infected how the Faith is taught. We know now that individuals must be appreciated for their individuality, and education serves the individual rather than the other way around.

But no matter how good or bad the education is, faith is ultimately God's gift. These two principles must be upheld simultaneously and in tension: 1) good education prepares an individual psychologically to accept and cooperate with God's grace, but 2) this grace is unmerited, which means that no method, no education can secure it better than any other in itself, and even being given a so-called good education is a grace that cannot be merited.

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