Promoting Knowledge of the Faith as a Ministry of Love
BY CHRISTOPHER KLOFFT
Because I teach theology on the undergraduate level, I have the opportunity to engage students with widely varying levels of catechetical formation. Some students have absolutely no experience of religious formation (a situation that is becoming noticeably more common today than in my past 16 years of teaching), while some students arrive at my Intro class with 12 years of Catholic school experience. On the first day of class, I bluntly ask the students about their self-perceived religious identity and their own estimation of knowledge about the faith. The students with no religious background are candid about their circumstances, while the majority of students coming from parochial schools usually define themselves as knowing the Catholic tradition “pretty well.”
But here’s the punchline: The overwhelming majority of the students who have had catechetical formation know little or possess amusingly inaccurate knowledge about the faith. In fact, those without religious backgrounds sometimes learn faster, as they have no preconceptions. My students are often bright, willing to learn, and genuinely good-intentioned. Many of them take pride in their Catholic identity, and many do possess a personal relationship with Christ. But they don’t know the faith.
This is not necessarily the fault of catechists; even the best educators need students who are willing to be taught. The task of catechesis faces a particular challenge when placed into the context of a secularized world with much louder competing voices. As a result, imparting actual knowledge of the faith sometimes gets secondary treatment behind encouraging students to treat others with respect and dignity, offering service to the community, and developing a general sense of affection for the Church.
Unfortunately, none of these emphases are likely to have a lasting effect on the spiritual development of the student without knowledge of the faith as a foundation. It is for this reason that “Knowledge of the Faith” is the first of the five tasks of catechesis presented in the Directory for Catechesis. In this article, I’ll explain why imparting knowledge of the faith is critical, as well as offer a way of understanding the task that can better tie it to the other five tasks of catechesis, such as moral formation and missionary discipleship and service.
There is a difference between catechetical knowledge and theology, but there can be a tendency to put too sharp of a divide between the two. Both are grounded in Church teaching (or they should be), and both serve to build up one’s understanding of the faith, which in turn presumably helps one to better live it. At a presentation given at the St. John Paul II Shrine in Washington, D.C., on September 12, 2013, Cardinal Donald Wuerl defined the difference between the two in this way: “The particular role of the theologian presupposes but goes beyond a catechetical presentation of the faith, ‘beyond’ not by contradiction … ‘beyond’ in depth, in intensity and in precision.” So theology advances on the foundation laid by catechesis. Catechists should not be afraid of theology!
A focus on relationships is central to understanding Christian theology, for we are people made in the image of a God who is himself relationship.
When hard questions come up in religious education classes, we hope that our catechists can offer satisfactory answers that do justice to the Church’s teaching. But I have heard teachers offer justifications for dodging such questions or providing minimal answers. I have heard them say, “We’re not theologians, after all.” In a similar fashion, there is sometimes a reticence to present the Scriptures, the creeds, or other parts of Church teaching because of a concern that students won’t be able to understand — or worse, that they won’t care.
As a result of these two perspectives, knowledge of the faith, which should be the foundation of catechesis, gets glossed over or minimized. The unfortunate result is students who occasionally pray, go to church, and try to act like “good people,” but with no knowledge of why they do these things and often little sense of a relationship with Christ, which has been a constant invitation by Pope Francis in his pontificate. By the time these students reach my classroom, many of them have already discarded what they learned as something they “graduated out of” at Confirmation.
The way through this problem is to look at the situation through a different lens. Passing on knowledge of the faith should not be seen as a dull or difficult task, but rather as part of a ministry of love. A focus on relationships is central to understanding Christian theology, for we are people made in the image of a God who is himself relationship. God’s eternal being is a love story between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Thus, any godly human endeavor should also be understood through our relationship with God, with one another, and even with ourselves. This includes teaching others, for in doing so, one actualizes the relationship that exists between love and knowledge
Daily reading of Scripture is essential for progressing in knowledge.
You can’t have real love without real knowledge. Without knowledge, one might have an infatuation, or one might be deceived. But if we really want to love someone, we also want to know them. We want to learn as much as we can about them, because the more we learn, the more lovable they become. Imagine if someone said to their beloved, “Can I share more of myself with you,” and their partner stuck their fingers in their ears and shouted, “No! I know all I need to know!” That would be odd! But this is exactly what many young people do when it comes to knowledge of the faith: They learn just enough that is still easy to understand (often stopping at “God loves me”) and dismiss the rest as unnecessary or too hard.
Christ came to us so that we might become one with him. The marital union between spouses is an analogy of this intimacy. This analogy is used throughout the Bible, from Genesis all the way through Revelation, to describe the kind of relationship God desires to have with us. We can’t have this kind of intimacy with a stranger! Only through knowledge can we make this love possible. And we do this by learning what God has shared with us in the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church.
I offer this observation about love and knowledge first of all as an approach to presenting knowledge of the faith to our students. Young people are especially motivated by their strong feelings, and even though true love requires an act of the will and not just affection, presenting the necessity of learning more about the faith as a prerequisite for a stronger relationship with Christ and his Church makes sense.
Equally important, this approach is also beneficial to catechists. Studying the Bible, reading Church documents, and even taking the additional step to read some theological texts, especially from the doctors of the Church, will all serve to build up knowledge in the catechist, which in turn builds up love for Christ. This will shine through to the students and
will also make the presentation of the other tasks of catechesis more relevant and more engaging.
Where to begin with growing in the knowledge of the faith? Always begin with the Bible. Daily reading of Scripture is essential for progressing in knowledge. After all, even the deepest theological reflection ultimately must be grounded in the inspired Word of God. The well-formed catechist should also be familiar with both contemporary documents in the Church, such as the Holy Father’s encyclicals and statements from the bishops, and classic theological texts from the tradition. One would do well to read the first 10 books of St. Augustine’s Confessions and St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. Presently there are excellent resources for using St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body with young people; often these are in the context of the moral life, but there is excellent theology in these audiences that go far beyond sexual ethics. I especially recommend reading John Paul II’s work directly, rather than relying on any of the excellent interlocutors available. Of course, this is only the beginning, for we can never exhaust the depths of the One we seek to know and love.
Love builds on knowledge of the beloved. This is true in human relationships. It’s true in the self-knowledge necessary for growing into a mature human being. It’s especially true in relationship to God, who is so much greater than we are, yet also closer to us than we will ever be. Our role as disciples is to call people to this relationship (see Romans 10:13-15). Excellent catechesis involves comprehensive spiritual development in morality, prayer, liturgy, and service to others, but all of these tasks are vivified and amplified by a solid foundation in the knowledge of the faith. Catechists should trust their own ability to plunge more deeply into learning about the faith themselves, and they then should trust that transmitting that knowledge to their students is an investment that will pay off. The object of our love, the One who first loved us, deserves nothing less.
CHRISTOPHER KLOFFT, STD, is Associate Professor of Theology at Assumption University in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is the author of Living the Love Story: Catholic Morality in the Modern World and blogs about Catholicism and popular culture at ChristopherKlofft.com.
This article was originally published in Catechist magazine, October, 2017.
Image credit: Courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content program.