Cliffs Notes or Oliver Twist: What is the relationship between catechesis and theology?

Yesterday I attended a workshop given by the Archdiocese of Seattle as an orientation for new ministers. As I am a new Director of Faith Formation in the archdiocese I was graciously invited to attend. It was a lovely day complete with stunning views of the Puget Sound (thanks to the Archbishop Brunett Retreat Center at which it was located) and lots of energy from the infusion of new blood into the archdiocese. I received a thick stack of glossy new books and lots of great instruction on helping new ministers and our volunteers connect with and educate the people of God. However, I felt myself constantly distracted all day. I am a systematic theologian by training and I couldn’t help but be consumed with thoughts about how the catechism is arranged, what is included, what is excluded and whether or not the tradition that I am absolutely in love with can be distilled into 700 pages of content.

As Pope Benedict has declared this year of faith on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II coming this October, I have spent the last month or so consumed with the question of the content of faith. Of course my years of rigorous theological training and my own experience has taught me that faith is a relationship, not an object. But nonetheless as a community we have explanations of that relationship that are principally given in the deposit of the creed but also in the rich diversity of multigenerational conversations present in the texts of Augustine, Thomas and Rahner. Another way of saying this is that I am fixated on the question of the relationship between catechesis and theology.

First, because I’m a systematician and love to narrow the parameters of any conversation let’s start with definitions. When using the word catechism I am referring to something which might be memorized as a pat answer (whether short of long). As such, catechism as used here is the exposition of doctrine for the purpose of preparing for full initiation into the church. One might still have engaging questions with regard to how catechesis is to be applied in the catechumen’s life but nonetheless, there is a right answer so to speak with regard to the catechism. Theology on the other hand has shades of right answers and wrong answers that might cover vast landscape. Theology is much more interested in questions then answers. As Anselm famously said, theology is faith seeking understanding. A more modern theologian such as Tillich might say that theology is the rational reflection upon how we behave, act or think about our ultimate concern, or faith. Given these definitions of catechism and theology, what is the relationship between the role of the catechist and the role of the theologian?

The catechists’ direct concern is preparing the catechumen for full initiation into the church. The role of the catechism is to provide the intellectual content of the tradition in a distilled format so that the catechumen is not simply taking a “leap of faith” over the intellect but engaging the relationship between faith and reason. The catechumen must be intellectually prepared to be fully received into the church. The theologian’s direct concern is looking at what the tradition has said about the faith and the content of the current questions of the faith and putting the two in dialogue with one another in such a way that is faithful to both. In a certain sense then, the relationship between catechesis and theology is as follows: catechesis and theology both concern the deposit of faith whereas catechesis primarily produces the right answers that faith provides for the catechumen; whereas theology primarily shapes and orients the conversational questions that arise for the fully initiated Christian community. In a certain sense, catechism opens the door to the life of faith; theology engages the meaning of the life of faith once one has entered. As opposed to religious studies, both imply a hermeneutical stance of belief in Christ, however as with most things, before one can even begin to ask the right questions, one has to have some preliminary understanding of the lay of the field. Catechism provides this initial orientation to the Christian life in the form of answers to questions. Theology provides the dialogue between historical and current conversation partners who have formally professed to live the Christian life and continue to ask…yeah…but what does it mean???

A further question raised but not answered here that I’d be curious about others opinions…what is the relationship between catechism and theology with regard to authority or hierarchal truths? Of course an encyclical letter (a genre not covered here) is the highest level of church teaching, but what is the relationship between catechism and theology with regard to authority? Has this dynamic been constant throughout history? Has it looked different depending on the historical needs of the moment of the church? How might we interpret the theologian’s responsibility to the catechism and vice versa?

3 responses to “Cliffs Notes or Oliver Twist: What is the relationship between catechesis and theology?

  1. Thanks for this interesting post.

    A priest remarked to me once that he didn’t see why theologians didn’t make more use of the Catechism in their work. After all, he said, it was definitive teaching. My response was that the Catechism is inherently a secondary source, and theologians generally engage doctrine at the level of primary sources. Would you agree?

    More generally, I agree that there’s a need for an introduction to the intellectual content of the faith, but I disagree that a catechism is a good way to do this — especially in an ecclesial culture where most religious education is catechetical in nature, rather than theological. As you say, there is a “right answer” in a catechism: thus, routine and near-exclusive use of the catechism give the impression that there is a “right answer” in the faith.

    • Thank you for the comment! I think that the catechism is an inappropriate text to be used in theology, properly speaking. It is not theology, it is a catechism and therefore not suited to the task of the field. However I do think that the catechism is an appropriate resource for instruction for those preparing to be received into the church as long as it is appreciated for what it is…a beginning to a journey not the journey itself. When treated as a stepping off point I’m comfortable with it. However if any one treats the catechism as a sort of “idol” so to speak (as you seem to describe) then the catechist is not only missing the point but also no longer doing catechesis and is in fact engaging in manipulation which has no place in authentic Christian conversion and initiation. But that distinction must always be maintained and I think your instinct is to say that those lines are often blurred in practical application. I agree and we must be vigilant to guard against this.

  2. Pingback: Theological Shark Week III: “What is the role of faith in the classroom?” « Daily Theology·

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