written by Timothy P. O’Malley
In less than three weeks, I’ll be back in the classroom teaching an intensive course introducing over forty students to a fundamental theology for catechesis. Most of my students will be parish ministers, high school teachers, or those involved in campus ministry at a secondary or collegiate level. Each day of the class on our blog, I will offer a series of reflections drawn from our syllabus to invite readers to follow along virtually.
Yet, before launching into this virtual syllabus, I wanted to offer a defense of the course’s title: Introduction to Catechetical Theology. Often enough in the academy, catechesis is preceded by the term “mere.” While the theologian advances knowledge and is engaged in critical inquiry, the catechist is “merely” teaching the particulars of Christian faith.
Such an assumption fails to grasp that the catechist is performing an act of theological interpretation in every moment of teaching. As Augustine notes in his De doctrina christiana (On Teaching Christianity), the first act of the teacher is not presentation but interpretation. A catechist without a theological education is for this reason a danger in the classroom, who will either rigidly present a Tradition to the student or will deform Catholic teaching in the process of teaching.
The last fifty years of catechesis in the United States has been dominated by these twin problems. Some methods in religious education have placed undue emphasis upon either the subjective or the communal appropriation of the Tradition. Relying upon methods of critical correlation in which the Tradition is modified through “experience,” what is passed on is often not Catholic. The Resurrection, for example, is not another example of how life comes out of death. Rather, it is the moment that Jesus, the God-person, is resurrected from the dead. In which our understanding of what it means to die as a human being is forever changed. To reduce the particular claim of the Resurrection to a general religious truth is frequently the result of these methods of critical correlation.