19 March 2011
This talk was given to the Catholic Religious of Victoria Symposium on School Governance.
Three massive changes are challenging our Faith. Changes - in western culture, in the Australian Catholic sub-culture and in the Church;
Changes in Western Culture.
Western culture has experienced changes over the last few centuries. These include: the renaissance of the 16th century, the scientific revolution led by Isaac Newtonian, the enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the evolutionary discoveries of Charles Darwinian, the psychology of Freud, Einstein’s theory of relativity, astronomy discoveries including the Big Bang. Over the same period history changed from story telling to a discipline where facts needed to be quantified and verified and sources listed. This changed historical discourse from being a work of the imagination more to being factual reportage and intellectual interpretation. Science and technology have created an explosion of knowledge. The growth of universal education and the expansion of wealth have led to a world with a new set of presumptions and certainties. The whole social order has moved from that of a small privileged class with a large under class to one of middle class privilege and wealth. The American and the French revolutions are key watershed moments in replacing monarchy and nobility with liberal democracy. Authority has moved from the king to the people.
The imaginative world of the catechism is no longer credible. E.g Who made the world? Answer: God made the world - will not do in a universe where evolution is taken for granted. Who made me? Answer: God made me giving me a body and a soul – will not do in a world where sexual procreation is understood. Why did God make me? Answer: God made me to know him, love him and serve him here on earth and to be happy with him forever in heaven – will not do today. The imaginative world of today’s younger generation does not include a factual heaven and hell. Serving God in the sense of keeping his revealed law implies a down from the top authority which sits uncomfortably with a democratic principle that authority comes from a consensus of the populace. The authority of a clerical hierarchy which communicates and validates the truth of God’s revelation and God’s law does not fit into their imaginative cosmos. The older generation has been able to flip between the old imaginative world and the new. I suggest that the old cosmos is now simply fanciful for the younger generations.
Changes in Australian Catholic Sub-culture.
Mid 20th century Catholic identity in Australia was marked by a strong sense of affiliation in a majority of Catholics. This showed in strong support for parish life and for the Catholic school. The principal and staff were either professional religious or strongly practicing Catholics. The students were Catholic with few exceptions. A majority of the school families were practicing Catholics – regular at Mass and the sacraments. The schools included religious practice in the official curriculum. They participated in the initiation of students into the sacraments of eucharist, penance and confirmation. Catholic doctrinal and moral catechesis was a major item in the curriculum. Evangelisation was taken as having already happened. The schools could rightly be described as confessional schools.
The scene is very different today. While the schools are still highly regarded for their education and their identification is Catholic, only a small proportion of the school families are now practicing regularly. Two generations of students have now passed through the Catholic school experience with a very weak sense of Catholic identity and very little interest in Catholic doctrine or morality. The schools score very well in the secular curriculum compared with State and other Private schools. The sacraments of initiation are still celebrated – but more as rites of passage than significant development of an internalised practice of faith. Broad cultural values are successfully inculcated but official Catholic morality, especially sexual morality, is often not accepted. This means that the catechesis in the schools is not being received.
If the schools are to remain Catholic aimed at forming students to be committed Catholics a new evangelization is needed. We can no longer just assume that the next generation will follow the allegiance of their parents or grandparents. And a prerequisite of effective evangelization is re-visiting the core Christian message and recontextualizing it in the light of the secular and pluralistic broad culture in which we live.
Changes in the Church.
The dramatic drop in the numbers of priests and religious is resulting in a consequent change to ministerial structures. This drop in recruiting is now 40 years on. The high rates of recruitment preceding 1968 have left a group still carrying on religious and priestly ministry. The problem is that this group is now over 60 years old and will all vanish from the ministerial work force over the next 15 years. Current recruitment rates will not change quickly if at all. While current church policy makes the drastic shortness of priests intractable, the education ministry can be and largely has been passed over to non-religious.
The departure of religious from religious owned schools is resulting in consequent changes in governance. Contemporary law and regulations demand greater accountability from our schools – administratively and financially. You are adapting to this challenge by the establishment of CRA and CRV and the creation of Personal Juridical Persons to be permanent owners of your schools when the dearth of religious peaks. This work is vital because the religious congregations and a hard core of the Catholic laity that they serve have a strong personal vested interest in making the schools educationally successful and identifiably Catholic.
Meanwhile, the Catholic sub-culture has loosened and become more open. The Catholic Church which 50 years ago enjoyed tight internal discipline and a united front policy is now multi-party with some being fractious over denied human rights, immersed in public scandals. Its leadership, still assuming monarchical entitlement, is to a large extent deauthorised.
The resurgence of reactionary, pre-conciliar forces within the Roman Curia has politically trumped the post-Vatican II development. They, in turn, have appointed a like minded episcopacy throughout the world. They have a small, but energized, group of lay supporters.
On the other hand amongst the priests and laity still committed to Vatican II the renewal is going on strongly in scripture, theology, history and the social sciences. This group is at odds with the hierarchy and going about its business at parish or small group level. Each of us has to make a choice as to where we stand in this divide.
The policy options are to reconfessionalise the schools if you belong to the reactionary group or to recontextualize them if you belong to the renewal group.
Two Mind Sets – Classic v. Evolutionary.
The theology which underpinned the catechesis that the older ones amongst us received was the neo-scholasticism which was revived at the end of the 19th century and imposed by Leo XIII as the only theology to be taught in seminaries. It, in turn, drew on the scholastic theologians of the 12th and 13th centuries – predominantly St. Thomas Aquinas. Central to that movement was the return to the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. This theology set the climate in which other classical theologians such as St. Augustine were interpreted. One difficulty in our contemporary age is that these theologies assume a static, classic universe in which the nature of things is set at their creation. But since the renaissance and especially since Darwin’s theory of evolution, Einstein’s theory of relativity and the theory of the Big Bang, the universe is seen as always in motion, development and evolution. Pope Benedict XVI constantly attacks relativism in today’s culture. But relativity is the cousin of evolution. There is no static nature of beings in an evolutionary universe. The pope’s problem with the concept is understandable when you realize that he is a leading theologian in the Augustinian, and therefore classic, static tradition. John Paul II was thoroughly trained in neo-scholasticism. Both have called for a new evangelization in the light of the collapse of the last few decades. The theological background of both of these men explains how their vision of a new evangelization is to try to reconfessionalise rather than recontextualize. They would like to see Europe return to the confessional state with established religion as it was in the days of Christendom. This is simply not going to happen. Accommodation is necessary.
Different Modes of Discourse.
We are not very skilled at recognising the different modes of discourse in our language. We recognise that factual report is not the same literary form as story telling. Truth can be found in the correct reportage of facts; but it can also be found in the affective and imaginative impact of a good drama or story. The language of fact – logos in Greek - is distinct from the language of meaningful experience – mythos in Greek. Theology, especially when it is told through story, as in the gospels, is mythical discourse. It yields truth via the meaning of the story rather than its factuality. The scriptures can be very badly misunderstood unless we make this distinction.
Karen Armstrong is one of today’s clearest writers on this subject. Read her Short History of Myth and, more recently, The Case for God.
Response: Confessional, Secular, Values Focussed or Recontextualized?
The Enhancing Catholic School Identity Project being run by Louvain University and commissioned by the CECV, is a rich source of research on this question. It is the basis for this analysis.
The confessional school has been described above. It had its hey day in the middle of the 20th century. By any criteria it is struggling today. A common observation is that we have lost one or two generations from Catholic belief. The policy of the newly assertive reactionary group is to reconfessionalise the schools. This will only be effective for a niche reactionary market. Opus Dei is developing this model but their clientele is very limited. In the broader environment of the parish and our existing secondary schools it will not work. Like it or not, we have to develop a new model.
One option is to keep the school’s ownership and name but to give away evangelization and catechesis and simply follow the secular curriculum.
Another option is to follow the secular curriculum but to have a strong extra emphasis on good values and good behaviour. Both of these are a departure from the primary purpose we had in establishing the schools.
The final alternative is recontextualization. Recontextualization is the term used for the re-articulation of Christian and Catholic belief in the light of the prevailing new realities of contemporary culture which is secular, pluralistic and liberal democratic. One takes the prevailing culture as a given. We presume that we cannot claim exclusive or even a primary right to have our faith view accepted. We have to enter into dialogue with this culture and present a case for Christian faith which we hope will be cogent.
The recontextualization option entails a total redesign of the RE curriculum. This necessitates firstly rearticulating our personal faith and theology.
Challenges entailed in Recontextualizing.
The challenges are:
• to recontextualize our own personal faith;
• to select, train and support school staff who are prepared to implement this recontextualization;
• to develop a recontextualized curriculum of evangelization and catechesis.
The Challenge to Personal Faith.
The challenge for those of us who have been formally part of the Catholic enterprise in Australia is to re-evaluate our own faith in the light of the cultural and sub-cultural changes of the last few decades. We want the Catholic Church and the whole Catholic enterprise to succeed. But this conviction must be more than just a tribal gut reaction. The prevailing outside culture is secular and pluralistic. It is only when we can self-confidently proclaim our faith in this environment that it is solidly rooted. I am convinced that it is only in a secular environment that the option of faith is genuinely free. All of us know Catholics, both religious and lay, who are ideological Catholics. They subscribe to a platform rather than have a faith position. All of us have seen people move out of religious life and then abandon or significantly modify their faith position once out of the constraining environment.
Contemplating God Today.
The dominant images of God as creator, provider, lawmaker and judge must be revisited and rearticulated. Otherwise they do not make sense. The button pushing, string pulling God of the old school catechism and also the recent new Catechism of the Catholic Church must be replaced.
One problem with this type of catechesis is that God is heavily defined. Yet we cannot define or limit God who is the ultimately unknowable, infinite transcendent mystery. Any statement we make about God is limited by our human intellect, imagination and language. Recontextualizing inclines us to return to theologies which preceded the scholastic theology of the late medieval period and the accompanying resurgence of Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy.
There has been a strong early tradition of apophatic theology - sometimes referred to as the via negativa (negative way). It works on the assumption that anything you say about God is necessarily limiting. The moment you make an assertion about God you have to deny it in the next breath. Read Karen Armstrong’s: “The Case for God” to get a good overview of theology through the centuries.
We need a renewed theology of Jesus Christ (Christology) and of salvation (soteriology). Christian belief centres on Jesus Christ. The path by which the earliest generations of Jesus’ followers came to believe in him as Christ, saviour, Son of God can be traced by examining the new testament documents chronologically. The earliest witness is St. Paul. His early epistles are dated to the early 50s – within 25 years of Jesus’ death. He presents Jesus as the authentic Christ or messiah of the Jews. Jesus is the Risen Christ and we can live in the Spirit if we believe in him. We become at rights with God by faith, not by the former Jewish way of keeping the law. Mark’s gospel is the next document 15 or 20 years after Paul’s first epistles. Mark see Jesus as Christ and Son of God. He presents Jesus as being invested with this status at his baptism by John the Baptist. Matthew and Luke are 10 or 15 years later and present Jesus as being Christ the Lord from his conception and birth. The Fourth Gospel presents Jesus as the Eternal Word who was with God from the beginning – the pre-existent Son of God. Over a short 50 years the first two or three generations of believers had developed a very high Christology.
The very concept of faith has to be revisited. Accepting nonsense as fact is not faith; it is stupid. Faith is not believing truths. Faith is believing in a meaningfulness to life and the universe which is perceived intuitively rather than by empirical explanation. It is approaching the experience of life with a new set of eyes and articulating the resulting vision using a different mode of discourse. The logical discourse which leads to accuracy and certainty in everyday life must be replaced with the discourse of mystery to articulate the ultimate realities. Logos as distinct from Mythos.
In the technical terms of this quest today we must recontextualize our faith.
This will affect our spirituality. Especially the way we envisage God. It will affect the way we pray. Some old sacred cows will have to make way. Among front runners in this re-articulation are the existentialist theologians Paul Tillich and Teilhard de Chardin. Their approach was implicitly followed by Vatican II especially in its Pastoral Constitution: Gaudium et Spes. Some theologians who will help in this recontextualization are Roger Haight: Towards a New Christology; Roger Lenaers: Nebuchadnezzar’s Statue - End of a Medieval Catholic Church; Philip Kennedy: A Modern Introduction to Theology – New Questions for Old Beliefs; Michael Morwood: Tomorrow’s Catholic.
There is a movement of strong fundamentalist reaction against this recent theological development. Some see their old certainties being attacked and want to re-group because they fear that the very basis of their belief system is likely to crumble. It is an understandable reaction – but a futile one because the changes which have made the recontextualization necessary are not going to go away. It is either change or fossilize – an ironic image since it is the observation of fossils which proved beyond doubt that our universe is not static but evolving. Fossils are the wake of evolution. For an insight into the fundamentalist reaction see Karen Armstrong’s: Battle for God.
The remaining challenges relate to developing staff who understand recontextualization and a curriculum of evangelization and catechesis for teaching students. If we recontextualize our own life of faith in the light of a realistic embrace of the culture of the secular world we will be able to see the way forward. The task is demanding but, to my mind, essential if we are to move to successful development of Catholic Schools in our contemporary world.