Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Vocations and the Catechism

Today I experienced another one of those coincidental confluences that makes you wonder whether anything is really a coincidence, or if it was arranged by the hand of God. If it's been arranged, then what in the world does He want me to do with it?

First, I read and commented on a post by Father Schnippel. He is the vocations director for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, and he was commenting on a column in newspaper of the Wichita Diocese on where vocations come from. The three areas that generate seminarians are family life, parish life, and life through education and formation. Father Schnippel's comment on education and formation boiled down to the need to teach youth the fullness and beauty of the truth, but also lead them into a life of prayer and spiritual formation. My comment concerned people who think they know better.

Second, I went over to the EWTN podcast site. Every month, they offer a series that has aired at some point in the past. It's available for a month, and then it is replaced by a new offering the following month. The offering for January is an eleven episode series, Catechism and Controversies:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church issued in its present form contains an authentic statement of the faith in its fullness. Unfortunately, there are those, and many are religious educators, who are already trying to subvert the teachings found in the Catechism. In a challenging and insightful way, Msgr. Michael Wrenn examines the inner workings behind the publication of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church as well as several problems found in today's religious education efforts.

I listened to the first few, and that brings me to the third item.

Three years ago, I took a Basic Doctrine class through the Archdiocese. One of the texts for the class was Introducing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Traditional Themes and Contemporary Issues, Edited by Berard L. Marthaler. During the course of the class, we had to read several of the essays and write papers on them. It wasn't easy reading, and for that reason, most of the students hated the book. I found it fascinating in that it opened to me a window into a world of people who really did not like the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

I had previously read the Catechism, and I loved it. There was one essay in the Marthaler volume, by Peter C. Phan, that we had to read and write a paper on and that I found downright offensive. Phan claimed that the structure of the Catechism was a "fundamental flaw" and that it "sundered" the integral unity between faith and life in a "monumental failure." My favorite line from his essay was this:

Furthermore, just as the old skins would burst if the new wine were poured into them, and the wine would spill, and both the skins and the wine be lost, so the four-part scheme proves to be the procrustean bed upon which a host of new theological issues are forced to lie. As a result, both the scheme and the doctrines suffer.

I had to look up the story of Procrustes to be really offended. I wrote a paper sharply critical of the author, and to the instructor's credit, she gave me a good grade on it, but I got the impression from the class that the instructor embraced much of the contemporary theology that the critics of the Catechism espoused.

How are these second two related to the first? While there are many of us who believe that the way to increase vocations is through embracing traditional formulations of Church teaching, with are authoritatively and clearly presented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we continue to train people to view those formulations as outdated and counterproductive. We have some fabulous priests, many of whom are young, but we also have many entrenched lay persons who are not going to go quietly and wield significant power in the formation of our youth.

I want to make it clear at this point that I am not talking about anybody at my local parish. I am merely relating my experience in an Archdiocese class. You can listen to the EWTN podcast series and draw your own conclusions. Note that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Doctrine Committee found it necessary to issue a notice finding fault with at least one of Peter Phan's books.


Father Schnippel said...


Good points, well thought out and reasoned.

The priest I replaced in my first assignment at a high school in the Archdiocese was astounded that for his students, at the tenth grade level, he was the first religion teacher that bought the whole system of the faith and didn't question any of it. No wonder there is a drop in vocations!

Kurt H said...

You're very generous, Father. I'm finding that with the limited time that I have to prepare posts and the desire to make posts timely when they need to be, I don't always think through what I want to say before I start to say it. I'm hoping that my posts will improve with practice.