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What's needed in catechesis?

Claire, one of the frequent participants in our dot-Commonweal conversations, teaches catechism in France to eighth-graders, 13 or 14 years old. The other day I sent her a link to a website that specializes in catechesis. She was unimpressed by it and its materials, and, with her permission, I pass on her remarks in the hope that they might prompt a general reflection.

I've read a few of the texts and their proposals do not at all match the needs of my kids.Those texts emphasize the spiritual, experiential and community aspects, but that's what the Mass (in particular) is for. I try to prepare them so they can get more out of the Mass, but I cannot substitute for it, and I don't want to.Those texts downplay knowledge, but my youth are plagued by ignorance.When last month they had confession (for the first time in several years for most of them), the preparation consisted in giving them a long list of possible actions and asking them to think about whether each was good or bad, sinful or not; and in giving them a print-out of the words to be said by them and said by the priest, like a script of the event. But the words were not really explained and the sacramental aspect not mentioned, so, although they went to confession, they had the experience but not the understanding of what they did. That's ignorance.When we studied the Creed, I asked them: 'When at Mass we read the words "and was made man", sometimes at that point the people in the assembly do something. What is it?', and the only ones who had an answer offered: "Yes, at that point, we beat our chest." That's ignorance, too.The last but one session, I asked them what mission Jesus had given to his disciples. The more knowledgeable kids answered: "To announce the Good News". I asked: "And what is the Good News?" - Nobody knew, nobody could suggest an answer, even a wrong answer! That's profound ignorance.So all those texts from that website, with their insistence that the catechist is not a teacher, that the dynamics are different, that there are no lessons to be memorized by the children, that catechism has completely changed and is no longer about teaching facts and doctrines, those texts do not convince me. I have many uncertainties about exactly what to teach and how best to teach it, but not about whether to teach.


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Mr. Barberi:I'd be interested in how you would state the distinction between doubt and difficulty. I responded, not to what you said about catechesis, but to what you said about "the center of theological dispute." The discussion on the thread had moved in a direction that seemed to me to suggest that raising difficult questions was incompatible with firm faith. I thought Newman's distinction between doubt and difficulty was pertinent, and that it might even be useful in thinking about the meaning and manner of catechesis, for which, lest there be any doubt, I agree that something "more than prohibitions and negative injunctions and memorizations of things" is needed.I am aware that many moral theologians disagree with some magisterial teachings; the question I put was whether there were Christian moral teachings or principles with which they do not disagree, on which they have no doubts even as they confront difficult questions. If there are some, then perhaps Newman's distinction again is pertinent. My reference to Muslims was simply to illustrate how the "center of theological dispute" is not exhausted by moral questions and could readily involve doctrines such as that of the Triune God. I happen also to think that the communication of the faith is the primary challenge and that the moral questions can only be properly addressed from within a faith-perspective.

My problem with Newman here is that his distinction is not clear.He begins talkimg about "intellectual differences", but later talks generically, about "difficulties", which, I think, should include doubts in any sense of "doubt", whether doubt as an uncomfortable feeing associated with a dogma or doubt as an outright denial of a dogma.But Newman makes it very clear that a difficulty cannot be a doubtcof any sort.

Oops -- should have been "intellectual difficulties"Not " intellectual differences"

Another quote from Newman: That is no intellectual triumph of any truth of Religion, which has not been preceded by a full statement of what can be said against it. (Newman, The Idea of a University; ch. 8, section 7; p. 476).

Fr. Komonchak,I think we are agreeing on the major points of discussion regarding doubt, difficulty, catechesis, Muslims et al.To get into a heavy discussion about doubt and difficulty would not be as fruitful as your interest in my distinction would lead you to think. There are levels or degrees of intellectual difficulties as well as doubts. Some people have great difficulty in understanding theoretical physics but only have a small or inconsequential doubt about a particular theory. In my case, I have difficulty understanding the works of Martin Rhonheimer and have to read his works 5 or more times to understand his thinking and be able to either agree or disagree (or have serious doubts) with some of his philosophical conclusions about morality. While I may have serious doubt about some of his conclusions, and in certain Church teachings, I remain open to further education and realize that we must approach such issues with humility.As for whether moral theologians can agree on certain principles for which they have no doubt seems to me a moot point. For example, I think that most theologians agree with many principles of Aquinas's ethics but disagree on certain interpretations of his texts as they are offered in support of or in disputation of Church teachings. Few theologians would disagree that in human actions, good and evil are predicated in reference to the reason, as Dionysius says "the good of man is to be in accordance with reason, and evil is to be against reason." However, when we move to specific applications about the role of reason in the moral specification of voluntary human action, there are disagreements, doubts and difficulties among theologians. I am afraid that this subject can bring us far from your major point and it is easy to forget the major issue under discussion.I have no issue with your thinking that "communication of the faith is the primary challenge and that the moral questions can only be properly addressed from within a faith-perspective." However, I was more focused on the specific moral issues and problems that divide our Church and agree that we need more dialogue to reach a consensus of argument and a closer understanding of the truth. This also means better catechesis, less doubt and difficulty. The last thing we need is to close the book on such debates which the Magisterium has done regarding many moral teachings.When we both get to heaven we will know the truth. Until then, doubt and difficulty is the unfortunate part of the process of striving to understand the truth.

This is late in the thread to bring this up, but I see in Rocco's post today that the Alpha Course (a very successful catechetical program initiated by the Anglicans) is now being adopted in some Catholic countries as well as by many Protestant churches worldwide. I really don't know anything about it except that I've read that the Anglicans have had success with it. See Rocco at:

Oops -- that should have been "Alpha courses". There are many of them for different ages groups, etc.

Meanwhile I considered using the catechism and to see if there was anything that could be integrated to class, for example some concise definitions that could be carried over from year to year across different instructors, but it is not helpful. For example, on the definition of sin: "Sin is a word, an act, or a desire contrary to the eternal Law (Saint Augustine). It is an offense against God in disobedience to his love." Two problems. First, it gives two definitions, not one, so that's already a problem for consistency - I would like it minimalistic. Second and more importantly, that is not how to teach sin. The law-and-order emphasis, the perspective of legalism, obedience, offense against the supreme being, are counterproductive because they do not evangelize: it's not attractive. (For the opposite, look at how Paul's letters are full of often annoying directives but at the same time filled with contagious love!) In my setting at least, it is of no use.

Claire: I agree with your second point, but not with the first. There is nothing inconsistent in the two statements you cite. The second introduces considerations not found in the first, and one could argue that sin is an offense against God precisely because it is an act contrary to his law.The problem with considering sin in terms of violation of divine law is that law is almost always considered to be something external to the person, imposed from without, whether by God or by man. But the essence of sin as personal is that it runs counter to inwardly perceived and experienced obligation. That is, one has by one's intelligence and reason concluded that something ought to be done (or not done) and yet refuses to do it (or does it). And since it is by intelligence, reason, and freedom that we are made to move towards God, sin is both personal failure and a failure to advance in the path toward God. There are few places in theology in which extrinsicism has done more harm than in the matter of sin.

Joe, I agree, but my objection is pedagogical: if you want to teach something easy for children to remember, I think that a good way is to use a short formula, and this offers two of them (both different from the one I used, "turning away from God", and one that they have heard elsewhere, "a lack of love".) Even if, as I believe, all four expressions are valid, hearing a different definition every time they ask someone different creates a lot of confusion and hinders learning.

Claire --Here is Pope Francis' mini-sermon of yesterday about sin. Another little classic. I wonder just how he would define sin.

Claire,A possible third pedagogical problem with those definitions is that they raise more questions than they settle. At some stage of development, a believer may wish or need to hear about "the eternal Law," but that's a big topic to open in a catechism session. In the second definition, "disobedience to his love" is an expression that requires further explanation, because the common understanding, I think, is that love lays the lover under some obligation, not the beloved.

I don't think that any brief definition or description of something as complex as sin is going to obviate the need for further explanation. In fact, I'd prefer one that evoked questions. Questions are the great engine of intellectual development.The ambiguity of the word "law" in a phrase like "eternal law" can be illustrated by St. Thomas's treatment of law in the Summa theologica, which begins with three questions on law in general, followed by one question each on the eternal law and on the natural law, three questions on human law, eight questions on the old law, and three on the new law, or the law of the Gospel. The eternal law is said to be the divine wisdom insofar as it directs all acts and movements; any human knowledge of the truth is said to be "the radiating and sharing in the eternal law"; human laws derive their authority from the divine law to the degree that they conform with right reason; and all human affairs are subject to the divine law insofar as its precepts are known and insofar as it inwardly moves human beings to act. So when it comes to defining the new law, the Gospel's law, St. Thomas can say that "what is most important in it, that in which its entire power consists, is the grace of the Holy Spirit which is given by faith in Christ. And therefore the new law chiefly is the grace of the Holy Spirit itself which is given to those who believe in Christ." Thomas insisted on this to the point that he could write: "Even the letter of the Gospel would kill unless inwardly there were present the healing grace of faith."Ann: I think your comment about love and obligation might apply in many cases of love between human beings, but could scarcely apply to the utterly gratuitous love of the Creator and Savior. How does knowing such love for oneself not place one under an obligation to love in return--and this independently of Jesus' "new command" that we love as we have been loved?

JAK ---Is this addressed to me, Ann O.? At any rate, I don't understand your question exactly. Are you saying that because God loves us for no good reason on our part that we are obliged to love him back? Hmm. I wonder whether love is a matter of oughtness in the first place. Isn't real love, i.e., non-self-serving love, a matter of giving what isn't owed?But, again, "love" is so ambiguous that it's difficult to generalize. Even when it's not ambiguous it's difficult to generalize.

Ann: People who love perceive "oughts" that people who don't love don't see. What's the difference between the father in the parable, who perceives an ought ("We have to celebrate!"), and the older son, who doesn't feel it at all? Da mihi amantem, St. Augustine exclaimed, "and he'll understand."

JAK =-I sense some ambiguities about "ought". There are the oughts of moral obligations, the oughts of promises, and the oughts, no doubt, of giving to loved ones. But they differ in their groundings, I think, so not every "ought" is a moral obligation. Throwing a welcome home party just isn't the same as feeding your child. (This could take a whole thread.)

Ann: Well, of course, there are various kinds of "oughts"--who would deny it? But what might they all have in common? I'm mainly interested in the experience of the ought, e.g., X ought to be done; I ought to do X; etc. I think we all experience various kinds of oughts, and it's worth reflecting on the experience, the inner experience of a "must," an "ought." So often people think of "oughts" as externally imposed by parents, by the state, by God. I think the real oughts are matters of personal authenticity, the felt demand for consistency between what one knows what one should do and what one does.

'I think the real oughts are matters of personal authenticity, the felt demand for consistency between what one knows what one should do and what one does."Aren't there uses of the terms "ought" and "must" and "demand" which signify something objective, e.g., "It ought never to be done", "It's a must", and "The insult demands a response". What is a "felt demand"? If it's a feeling, then it's a subjective reality, while if it's a demand then it sounds like an objective reality. How can one act be both? Or should the concept "felt demand" be analyzed into the parts of some sort of process?I don't think that the expectations which result from being loved are "demands". If they were, then the lover would not be acting gratuitously in granting them. (ISTM gratuity is a defining characteristic of love). When God loves us it isn't because of what we are but because of what He is. (Actually I think that is a bit of an oversimplification, but it gets at my main point.)At any rate, I think that the subjective and objective meanings of "ought", "demand", etc. need to be sharply distinguished. They all connote some sort of requirement (whatever a requirement is), but that doesn't specify them as generically the same.And isn't "what one should do" ambiguous also? Did any of the phenomenologists do analyses of "feeling" obligated? I can't think of any, but I don't know them well. The linguistic analysts' talk a lot about Hume's is-ought distinction, so you'd think they would have done an lot of analysis of the meaning of "ought", but I don't think that's the case either.

Ann: In reply to some of your comments:

Arent there uses of the terms ought and must and demand which signify something objective, e.g., It ought never to be done, Its a must, and The insult demands a response.

Yes, of course, there are oughts that signify something objective. Thou shalt not... really means This ought not be done or You ought not do this...

What is a felt demand?

Its what one experiences when one has judged that I ought to do X. The judgement of duty poises you before the requirement of consistency between judgment and action. If I am a reasonable person and have reached a reasonable judgment about what I ought to do, then there is an inner push to do it. One can perceive it negatively, when one is sorry that one didnt do what one should have done, or did what one shouldnt have done. A guilty conscience, in other words, testifies to this radical inconsistency, which is basic sin.

If its a feeling, then its a subjective reality, while if its a demand then it sounds like an objective reality. How can one act be both?

I dont see why you think this is a problem. The demand may be existential, personal: This is what I myself ought to do. "It may also be general: This is what everyone should do. In both cases the judgment of duty can be mistaken or correct; if it is correct, then the subjective demand urges one toward what is objectively required. One doesnt have to choose between subjectivty and objectivity; its by the exercise of our subjectivity, intellectual, rational, and responsible, that we achieve objectivity.

I dont think that the expectations which result from being loved are demands. If they were, then the lover would not be acting gratuitously in granting them. (ISTM gratuity is a defining characteristic of love). When God loves us it isnt because of what we are but because of what He is. (Actually I think that is a bit of an oversimplification, but it gets at my main point.)

Once again, I was speaking of demands as experienced by the one loved, not as demands imposed extrinsically by the one who loves. For example, would you not think gratitude a felt demand consequent upon an awareness of having been gratuitously loved and blessed? Wouldnt we be rather harsh in our judgment of someone who was not grateful for it. Think of the parable of the unmerciful servant who, after being forgiven an immense debt, has a fellow-servant thrown into debtors prison over a relatively trivial debt. The master rebukes him: I canceled your entire debt when you pleaded with me. Should you not have dealt mercifully with your fellow servant, as I dealt with you (Mt 18:32-33)? Ought not those undeservedly forgiven forgive in their turn?

At any rate, I think that the subjective and objective meanings of ought, demand, etc. need to be sharply distinguished. They all connote some sort of requirement (whatever a requirement is), but that doesnt specify them as generically the same.

I dont have a problem with distinguishing between objective and subjective demands, on the grounds that not all subjective judgments of oughts are correct, that is, objective, that is, stating what really and truly ought to be done, either by me alone or by anyone similarly situated. But distinction is not separation, and objective moral judgements are reached only by the exercise of my subjectivity. Correct and concrete recognition of duty yields the felt demand for consistency, that is, a sense of obligation.

And isnt what one should do ambiguous also?

I dont know that the phrase is ambiguous. It just covers a very broad expanse of obligatory actions, actions, that is, that are obligatory on various grounds and for the sake of various goals.

Did any of the phenomenologists do analyses of feeling obligated? I cant think of any, but I dont know them well.

Max Scheler did a great deal of work in this area. But isnt it already in Aristotle who makes the just person the measure of what justice requires? By the way, another area that goes unexplored, at least as far as I know, is the experience of wonder? I think it was Aristotle who said that wonder is the beginning of philosophy, but do you know anyone who has studied wonder for itself, wonder as experienced?

"[A felt demand] is what one experiences when one has judged that I ought to do X. The judgement of duty poises you before the requirement of consistency between judgment and action. If I am a reasonable person and have reached a reasonable judgment about what I ought to do, then there is an inner push to do it."JAK =So a felt demand is a feeling which is the result of and accompanies a judgment of duty, such that the judger is inclined to act consistently with the judgment.My problem with this is that it reduces an "ought" to the subjective part of the ought -- to the feeling and judgment of the judger. As I see it, "ought" it is a relational word with two relata: 1) the person who has a duty, and 2) the *object* of the judgment and the inclination, viz., the objective reality which is produced by the judger's action. The object to be produced is *essential* to the notion of doughtiness. It is a*necessary* part of an equation concerning justice, so to speak. And the next paragraph of your post seems to agree with this. Why is it essential? Because *what the object is* constitutes the reality which grounds the obligation. It calls the obligatory relationinto being, so to speak.. For instance, you have an obligation to grade your students fairly because of what they are, not because of some subjective feeling. I would say that the subjective feeling to do right by them is itself produced by your grasp of what they are. In other words, "ought" cannot be defined apart from an object of the ought. (I once had a room-mate who thought that she was obliged to help clean the apartment only out of love, so she only cleaned up when she felt like it. I felt that was terribly unfair. She didn't know what a duty is.) As to gratitude, I don't think that gratitude is a felt demand to act in the sense above. The sense above pertains to a process involving rational thinking and choice. Gratitude, I think, is just a natural feeling which is psychologically automatic -- somebody gives us a gift and consequently we like the person and wish them well. Does gratitude demand that we reciprocate with a gift? Not if the gift was really a gift. Yes, some people are so self-centered that they have little if any feelings of gratitude, but that is just an ugly situation, not an immoral one.You might make a case for reciprocation on *aesthetic* grounds -- as a matter of fittingness. But not, I think, on moral grounds.Thanks for the Scheler recommendation. I've ordered a book.

Ann: I think I've been saying all along that one mustn't separate the subjective and the objective in the experience of an ought. I've used clauses like: "I ought to do X" or "X ought to be done" to convey what I'm talking about, so I haven't been excluding the object, the action, from my considerations. But it remains that in the conscientious person obligations are experienced as personal oughts. It's not just that cheating, for example, is wrong, but that I should not cheat: that "should" is now personal, now is part of what defines, constitutes, me, so that then to go on and cheat is not only to do what ought not be done but is also to betray my own self, my own integrity. What I am talking about as the experience of an "ought" is what the conscientious person recognizes when he has to admit to himself that he has violated his conscience. Think of the difference between giving a reason why you did something and rationalizing it away. If we have a reason why we didn't do something, it's not a violation of conscience, of personal integrity, whereas when we are offering a rationalization to oneself or to others, we know in our own hearts that it's not true, not an excuse, not a real reason.

JAK --So are you saying that a "personal ought" is personal not only in the sense that it is a person who has a moral relationship to something/someone else, but it is personal *also* in the sense that there is also an obligation to the self/the subject involved? I wouldn't dispute that. But the obligations are not identical.I think that especially in this culture we have to be careful not to see obligations and just acts as primarily concerned with the self. Much too often Americans judge moral acts on the basis of whether or not one is "comfortable" with the results. Being satisfied, or dissatisfied with one's actions is not a criterion for deciding whether or not one has done right by the object. Making self-satisfaction the criterion of for judging what is good distorts the whole process of making moral judgments. Further, on a theological level, having self-perfection as the goal of one's spiritual program is a distorted view of what a truly virtuous life is, I think. Self-perfection follows from perfecting our relationships with others, so our relations with others ought to be what we concentrate on, not our own being virtuous. "Spiritual" writings generally turn me off because too often they put the emphasis on one's own perfection, not on loving others. Still further, too often when smug Christians attempt to evangelize, their/our self-satisfaction turns off the seekers who want nothing to do with such an apparently self-centered moral system. I'm convinced that Pope Francis' success in capturing people's hearts so quickly is due in large measure to his message that what Christ calls us to first is service to others, not making perfect confessions. I love his term of scorn "self-referential". He sees that orientation as the source of much that is wrong with the world, including the Church. Not that you're disagreeing. I just think that when we don't make a clear distinction between the good of the subject and the good of the object that we can easily end up kidding ourselves about our own virtue.

Ann: I wasn't talking about some kind of narcissistic "Do your own thing", and, of course, judgments have to be made about what is the truly good, worth-while, thing to be done. In Lonergan's terms, for the morally converted (Aristotle's "just man"), authenticity, self-fulfilment, is self-transcendance, that is, decision moves away from a criterion that pivots on a calculus of pleasure and pain, to the genuinely valuable, whatever its cost to them might be. But it remains that "oughts," however "objectively" right, are experienced as "oughts" precisely because they are objectively the right thing to do.St. Thomas once commented that if a person does the good and avoids evil only because God commands the first and forbids the second, that person is not free, is not self-directed (He cites here Aristotle's dictum: "Liber est causa sui.") But if by inner inclination he does the good because it is good and avoids the evil because it is evil, then he is free, and this, he says, is what the Holy Spirit does in the hearts of the converted. Catholics still have such a problem with, such a fear of, subjectivity, which many of them cannot think of except as subjectivism. In that respect, we are so far from the likes of Augustine and Aquinas.