The new Catechism and Cardinal Newman

The new Catechism and Cardinal Newman

Archbishop Eric D'Arcy

With the English edition of the 'Catechism of the Catholic Church' due for worldwide release next month Archbishop Eric D'Arcy of Hobart examines the challenge this presents for Australia's Catholic educators as viewed in the light of Cardinal Newman's writings. The Archbishop has written the following abridgment of an article of his, which first appeared in the international theological journal 'Communio', specifically for 'AD2000'.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) was a providential initiative of the Universal Church. If particular Churches are to capitalise on it fully, they will now need to commission classroom texts and teachers' resources for all the major developmental stages that students attain taking the CCC as the point of reference.

The CCC itself is not meant for the classroom. Its publication completes Stage One of the process envisaged by the 1985 Extraordinary Synod. Stage Two is also essential: producing actual catechisms for the different countries and cultures where the Church lives and teaches.

This is an exhilarating prospect. To catechetical writers and publishers, it holds out the most glorious opportunity in four hundred years. Nevertheless it bristles with difficulties, two of which are particularly formidable.

The first will involve a tension intrinsic to the task. In content, every such local catechism must be completely faithful to the doctrinal substance of the CCC; yet in style and methodology, it must be conceived and expressed throughout in the cultural idiom of the intended users.

In the English-speaking First World, a second difficulty will be particularly acute: many of our most dedicated faith-educationists do not believe the CCC to be a providential initiative at all; they simply do not believe in a systematically doctrinal catechetic. One's heart goes out to those of them who take up the work out of Catholic solidarity, but without much interior conviction.

I want to suggest that the thought and the heart of Cardinal Newman are uniquely fitted to offer them fellow-feeling and congenial leadership. Happily, interest in his writings has been quickened just now because of his being named Venerable by Pope John Paul, soon after learned conferences around the world had celebrated the centenary of his death.

Educationists willing to delve into his mind and heart will come to realise, first perhaps with relief and then with mounting self-confidence, that they are being called to become the vanguard of a whole new catechetical enterprise as the century begins to turn.

For Newman, authentic Christian faith involves both intellect and heart; but heart is much the more important. He chose as his cardinalatial motto, Cor ad cor loquitur ["Heart speaks to heart"]. He detests the idea that "belief belongs to the mere intellect, not also to the heart." For him faith is above all a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

This is why we see such multitudes in France and Italy giving up religion altogether: they have not impressed upon their hearts the life of Our Lord and Saviour as given to us in the Evangelists. They believe merely with the intellect, not with the heart.

This clearly resonates with a painful misgiving felt by many anglophone faith-educationists about the whole project of a CCC. They fear that a systematically doctrinal catechetic will lead to an impersonal, head-without-heart faith-life divorced from experience.

Newman believed passionately in each of two distinct things: the objective truth of the Church's doctrines; and the intensely personal character of the believer's possession of them. He never failed to keep the two clearly distinct; but he developed the creative tension between them.

For many years, however, anglophone catechists and faith-educators have been obliged to work out of a cluster of theoretical attitudes that plumped heavily for the personal, subjective aspect, to the serious detriment of their students' confident recognition of the Church's doctrines as objective truths.

And not only that: Experientialism, in its heyday as a catechetic twenty years ago, engendered a strongly felt loyalty to itself and instinctive suspicions to other 'models'. Even now, when the theory itself has been heavily modified, the reflex suspicions remain, especially of anything perceived as a systematically doctrinal model.

E.D. Hirsch Jr has traced experientialist and kindred theories of education back through Piaget and Dewey to the Romanticism of Wordsworth and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. "Even today," he writes, "Rousseau's principles reappear in the doctrine, straight out of Emile, that a child's positive self-concept is the true key to learning."

His argument against this whole current of thought is summarised at the start of his celebrated book: "Believing that a few direct experiences would suffice to develop the skills that children require, Dewey assumed that early education need not be tied to specific content. He mistook a half-truth for the whole. He placed too much faith in children's ability to learn general skills from a few typical experiences, and too hastily rejected "the piling up of information." Only by piling up specific community-based information can children learn to participate in complex co-operative activities with other members of the community."

The first three sentences of this sum up all too well the theory implicit in the dominant catechetic of the last twenty years. The fourth recalls the Church's constant recognition that, if her children are to share in the richly complex co-operative activities of the faith-community, they have to pile up an informed familiarity with the truths of the Faith, and its tribal rites and customs and expectations. The Extraordinary Synod of 1985, when it requested a Universal Catechism, was squarely in line with that constant recognition.

Of course Hirsch insists that Dewey was only half-wrong. He was half-right, often brilliantly so. Every good teacher since Socrates, and every good Christian teacher since Jesus himself, has drawn copiously on experience: one's own; one's pupils; their acquaintance, direct or indirect, with human experience in fact and fiction.

But the other half is also essential. It comprises all that which one cannot discover for oneself, but has to be taught in all the different ways that a community passes on its patrimony of achieved discovery and wisdom and imaginative creation.

This is true of faith-education as well as of secular. I do not experience the changing of the bread and wine into Our Lord's body and blood at Mass, any more than I experience the neuronal changes constantly occurring in my own brain. But a knowledge of the latter is an item of every educated person's general knowledge; a knowledge of the former is an item of every well-instructed Catholic's faith-knowledge; and in both cases one acquires the knowledge, not through experiencing it, but by being taught it by those who already possess it.

Experience is indispensable for making the truths of the faith one's own, for penetrating into their significance at greater and greater depth. This is true above all of experience by prayer: in the liturgy, in private personal prayer and meditation, in popular devotions. But in addition to all these, one must also have articulate doctrinal input at a level comparable with that of the rest of one's education.

However, this is to talk only at the levels of critical thought and empirical familiarity with outcomes. It is at the much more agitating level of strong loyalties and professional peer pressures that suspicion of a doctrinal catechetical operates. At that level Newman is a past master.

We are urgently in need of an up-to-date account of the place of doctrine in a complete education-in-faith. There are few signs that this need is about to be met. But children's lives cannot be put on hold. Writers and teachers cannot suspend operations until such an account is forthcoming. Pending that, they will find in Newman both leadership and guidance. He does not set out a formal account, in the schematic manner of a manual. Rather, he causes it to dawn on us, to grow in us, as we become more familiar with his thought and his heart.

Principle of dogma

In Protestant theology, non-doctrinal and non-propositional theories of faith have been around for centuries. Newman describes vividly how "the anti-dogmatic principle" confronted him as a young Evangelical. In Catholic theology such theories never made much way before the 1960s. Then, however, there was quite a heavy flirtation with them, frequently under the label "non-propositional." This still has deep-seated influence in catechetical practice, though less today in spoken principle.

The Church understands her doctrines to be objective truths, communicable without loss of meaning in propositions of human language. (This neither assumes nor entails a propositional account of Revelation.) There are rich insights available in Newman, ready and waiting, here and now.

Time after time he shows doctrinal knowledge to be integral to an authentic adult faith. "That vague thing, 'our common Christianity,' I discard for the reason that it cannot throw itself into a proposition." "Christianity is faith, faith implies a doctrine, a doctrine implies propositions," And alongside his statement that "Christianity is eminently an objective religion," consider one of the most haunting of all his "analogies": "The dogmatic principle is to Christianity what conscience is to the individual."

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