Loss and Retrieval of the Holy Trinity in Catechesis

Caroline Farey FAITH Magazine September-October 2008 s
The Director of the BA in Applied Theology (Catechesis) at Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, discerns a worrying weakness at the heart of modern British catechesis, and suggests ways forward. Miss Farey also teaches philosophy at Oscott seminary.
Is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity actually taught any more? This may sound like an alarmist question. One would imagine that the sign of the cross and its accompanying words, ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen’, are still used and explained by the vast majority of Catholic parents, catechists and teachers. Sadly, this is not as common as one might have presumed in the past. In many catechetical resources the Blessed Trinity is no longer mentioned at all. In this article I’ll be highlighting three simple points: a) that the Trinity is being eliminated from Catholic teaching materials, b) that this matters, and c) that we can know the reasons why the Trinity is not being taught and can thus retrieve effectively the very foundation of Christian faith,hope and love.

The editor of The Sower recently revealed the following statistic: the report of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales Working Party on Sacramental Initiation, On the Threshold, “manages to compile a 66 page report of recommendations about RCIA without once referring to the Trinity, to the Father, to the Son or to the Holy Spirit”.[1] The text uses unvaryingly the word ‘God’ throughout. Another document, from the Catholic Education Service, called, On the Way to Life,[2] subtitled, ‘A framework for Catholic Education, Catechesis and Formation’, in its 99 pages, mentions the Trinity only once and that is in a quotation from Pope John Paul II. An electronic search ofthe document for ‘God the Father’ reveals that the phrase appears only twice and each time as part of the title of Mary Daly’s book, Beyond God the Father![3]

Of course, these are not catechetical programmes in themselves but guidance documents. Surely, you might say, actual sacramental programmes will be imbued with references to the persons of the Trinity? At a recent diocesan day for catechists it was discovered that, in the participants’ examples of catechesis of the Christmas story, not a single catechist present referred to Jesus either as God or as the Son of God. Such catechesis about Christmas will be portrayed as a story of a strangely extraordinary man (or baby) if it is not explicitly taught that Jesus is God become man, Son of God sent by his Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. More and more frequently one finds catechetical texts referring to ‘Jesus’ and to ‘God’ and ‘Jesus praying to God’ as though he were a man like us andnot God, or with a special relationship (never explained) with God.

There are, then, different ways of not teaching the doctrine of the Trinity. One, as we have seen, is by omission; the other is by teaching heresy. For example, the adult formation programme for the Archdiocese of Westminster, At your Word Lord, began with a session on the Trinity as ‘three aspects’ of the one God. These three aspects, it continues, have a loving relationship with each other. The notion of aspects rather than persons having a loving relationship, sadly increases the confusion. Resources for children’s liturgy almost invariably teach children the heresy of modalism on Trinity Sunday, prompting children to draw (or even wear in the offertory procession) three different types of hat.

Does it Matter?

Yes! And the reasons why it matters are summed up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: ‘The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them.’[4] There are four key phrases here that might awaken us.

Firstly, if the Trinity is not portrayed as central, consciously or unconsciously, then something else will be in the central place instead. The General Directory for Catechesis asks for all catechesis to be Christocentric and Trinitarian.[5] Whatever else is placed centrally, then, is, by that very fact, out of its rightful place. This in turn causes disorder in all the other doctrines and in their relationships with each other. The General Directory for Catechesis speaks of the necessary internal structure of catechesis in the following way:

‘ Every mode of presentation must always be christocentric-trinitarian: “Through Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit” (cf Eph2:18). “If catechesis lacks these three elements or neglects their proper relationship, the Christian message can certainly lose its proper character”’.[6]
Secondly, the Catechism reminds us that the mystery of the Trinity is the mystery of God in himself. It is primarily a revelation about God, about the immanent Trinity. A fundamental point of Christianity compared to a typical pagan understanding of God is that God is not a higher part of the created world but utterly other, and is not there simply for our sake. The Christian faith in the Holy Trinity can be too easily reduced to a natural Deism, a non-revelatory religion of a metaphorical father-God, father of creation and of us but not Divine Father of a Divine Son and Spirit; not Trinity in himself. There is a natural tendency in man ‘to make pagan the Christian sense of the divine’.[7] It is ‘the normaltendency of reason to situate itself within the world and its necessities and to define everything within that context’.[8] Von Balthasar, in a similar vein, speaks of an ‘Islamisation’ of the Christian God.[9] Catechetical texts that speak only of God-creator, God-redeemer, God-sanctifier, risk neglecting the mystery of God as he is in himself, as distinct from the relationship of God towards creation.

Thirdly, let us consider the implications of the revelation of the Trinity as being the source of all the other mysteries of faith. Where do all the doctrines of the faith come from? How do they all hold together? How can we speak of a unity of truth and faith without the Source of all being proclaimed? What stunting of reason occurs in the mind and then the heart of the believer who is not given acquaintance with the Source of all life and the whole faith? What happens to one’s understanding of Jesus Christ if one does not recognise him in the Trinity, what happens to an understanding of the Holy Spirit, salvation, the Church?

Rahner asserts in his much quoted book on the Trinity that the doctrine of the Trinity made so little difference to people’s lives that few would miss it if it disappeared. Perhaps it is true that people are largely unconscious of the Trinity as a source of their Christian beliefs and the effect of this in their lives but since the Catholic faith draws all its belief and grace from it, I suspect it deeply imbues Christian life, whether one realises it or not. The General Directory for Catechesis, says that ‘the presentation of the innermost being of God … has vital implications for the lives of human beings’[10] and it goes on to give examples.

So, does the doctrine of the Trinity matter? The Cruelty of Heresy, by C. FitzSimons Allison,[11] argues that heresy, by distorting the truth, distorts our beliefs, our deductions from those beliefs and so our behaviour towards ourselves, towards God, towards our neighbour and towards creation. The distortions hurt mankind cruelly, and through this cause damaging social patterns and structures. When Allison was asked in an interview what it is that makes heresy cruel, he identified the problem very simply: ‘It panders to our worst inclinations.’[12]

Fourthly, and most poignantly, the Catechism says that this mystery gives the light needed to enlighten all the mysteries of faith. Without light people are left in darkness, in error, in ignorance, in confusion, in blind faith. Without the light-source itself people are left in pitch darkness, with no true guidance, no ability to see. It is then not possible to see the truth of the Church’s teaching, or how to worship, or the meaning of life in Christ or how or to whom to pray. Removal of the mystery of the Blessed Trinity from catechesis entails a loss of light from the faith of those being catechised.

The doctrine of the Trinity is the only light that can truly enlighten catechesis. Any catechesis that does not start, continue and conclude with explicit prayer and reference to the Trinity is in grave danger. Sadly, for, example, there is a widely-used book of prayers[13] supposedly ‘in the spirit of Vatican II’ in which every prayer ends ‘In the name of God. Amen’. Not only is ‘God’ not a name but the ‘name’ of God has been revealed to us, firstly to Moses from the burning bush and lastly by the Son of God who taught us to pray, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.’[14]

A repeated tripartite formula for a blessing is provided in the same book:

“ O God, we love you without end. O Spirit, we listen to your voice. O Jesus, we adore you.”
At no point does he use the terms Father and Son, so at no point is it clear that Jesus and the Spirit are also God, persons of the One Triune God. The implicit indication is that there are three beings, God, a spirit and someone named Jesus. The author of the book, Bill Huebsch was the key note speaker in the UK in 2007, in the dioceses of Westminster, Plymouth and Portsmouth, and his books are widely available, and attractive, as is his specially set up UK website.

Reasons for Loss; Solutions for Retrieval

There may be many reasons for the loss of teaching on the Trinity in much current catechesis; I would like to mention fve that are widespread in my experience.[15] The solutions for each are not difficult but sustaining good practice and retrieval of it needs consciously to take place.

Firstly, one can speak simply of ignorance. One cannot teach what one doesn’t know. There are catechists who simply don’t know, for example, that Jesus is really God. Neo-Arianism, (‘Jesus is a very special divine-like person’) Neo-Nestorianism (‘The man Jesus was united with God in some way’) and Neo-Adoptionism (‘Jesus was a man adopted by God because he lived a holy life’) are rife.

The logical solution is to re-instate on-going formation for catechists in love and appreciation of the Trinitarian foundations and formulas. These, in practice unite us to Christ in his filial relationship with his Father and thus sustain in us a living and lively faith.
A second reason is simply that many people find teaching the Trinity difficult. There is generally a confusion here about teaching a mystery.

Parents and catechists need encouragement to understand that a mystery is not a difficult puzzle to be solved, or something so abstractly theological that only theologians should attempt to tackle it.

Every catechist can be helped to transmit the reality of our tri-personal God of self-giving Love as a mystery revealed, to be proclaimed and embraced.

A third reason is the result of ‘betrayed trust’. Eamonn Keane speaks in his book on catechesis of a ‘generation betrayed.’[16] How does this happen? There are faithful Catholics who offer to help in catechesis, who believe in the Trinity and are actively discouraged to do so by certain books or conference speakers; their faith falters which then affects their teaching of the faith to others. Some no longer speak of the Trinity because they are no longer sure what the Church teaches or they think that they have been naïve all along to speak in terms of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, terms that they have now heard called ‘antiquated’ or ‘paternalistic’.

The start of a solution here is for every priest, parent and catechist to be attentive to the books and conference speakers in this regard; to check resources for the occurrence of the terms ‘Blessed Trinity’, ‘God the Father’, ‘Jesus, Son of God’, and to take seriously avoidance of such terms.
Fourthly, the use of gendered names has become a stumbling block. Many accept the validity of the plea for inclusive language to make explicit the inclusion of women in the story of salvation and the life of the Church. They cease to be aware of, or to follow, the age old analogous understanding of ‘man’ as standing for the whole human race as a unity. Two key underlying reasons exist for this, one, the desire to include women in the patriarchal magisterium of the Church, and secondly, the individualism of the Western world at this present time is no longer comfortable with such a sense of the unity of the human race because of the moral obligations that it implies. Male gender terms such as Father and Son, but also words such as, filial, sonship, master, orbridegroom, ‘all come under a hermeneutic of suspicion
and are quietly dropped’.[17]

Catechists and parents need encouragement to trust the language of the Church, language that has fed the people of God for 2,000 years, to trust the hierarchical nature of the Church and fnd the unique dignity of women within the plan of salvation as taught by the Church.[18]
Fifthly, there are catechetical resources infuenced by an antipathy towards the hierarchical nature of the Church. These are recognised primarily by their pedagogy, a pedagogy that deliberately avoids male gendered language in order to reduce the sense and origin of a male priesthood and hierarchy. One example of this is the catechetical approach of Thomas Groome. His approach was partly infuenced by the ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ of Paulo Friere.[19] The General Catechetical Directory, on the other hand, speaks of the importance for catechesis of following the ‘pedagogy of God’.[20] Both pedagogies claim to be pedagogies of liberation; the difference isthat the ‘pedagogy of God’ is the way the Blessed Trinity lovingly, persistently and mercifully offers to man liberation from sin by the death and resurrection of Christ, from one generation to the next. The ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ is an educational process for revolution, designed to stimulate a critical consciousness in its participants so that ‘the old paternalistic teacher-student relationship is overcome’[21] and new beliefs are formulated for the sake of transforming the future.

Loss of Fatherhood

Thomas Groome has developed this pedagogy in the context of the Church as a five-step process known as ‘Shared Christian praxis.’[22] He starts with the raising of consciousness about one’s current way of life (sharing of experience); then follows a period of listening to a passage from Scripture or the Church’s teaching, followed by opportunities for personal and communal decision-making about the future and the beliefs one might choose to hold. The purpose of the process is to overcome what is perceived in the Church as a ‘paternalistic teacher–student relationship’ in passing on the deposit of faith from generation to generation, and to help people form their own religious beliefs equally and mutually.[23]

In the ‘shared Christian praxis’ approach Gospel truths, then, are preceded by, and compared and contrasted with, the shared experience of the participants. When, for example, the experience of fatherhood is shared as a negative one (and no earthly fathers are perfect), catechists using this method fnd it almost impossible to then speak of God as Father, Son and Spirit, a Trinitarian God of love, let alone explain the Church’s teaching on it.

An underlying element in the approach is to eradicate paternalistic language received from earlier generations. Groome asks catechists to ‘help end sexism in the Church by not teaching it, and by teaching for inclusion and mutuality’.[24] Groome, (and thus resources using his pedagogy) is against teaching children the Trinitarian prayers of the Church and particularly of the liturgy. He says, for example, ‘An issue of particular concern for catechists is the strong tradition in primary catechesis of referring to God exclusively as ‘Father’. (This is often occasioned by the teaching of the Lord’s prayer, the sign of the cross, and the ‘Glory Be’).[25] He goes on to say that children needrather to understand that ‘Jesus intends us to approach God as a trustworthy, forgiving and loving parent.’[26] And he proposes to catechists and religious educators different ways of avoiding using ‘Father’ or ‘Son’.

The answer, of course, is not to throw out the greatest mystery and revelation of all time, but the method that is designed explicitly to hinder its transmission. One initial way to check a programme is to look for explicit references to Jesus as God, Son of God, Son of the Father, God made man.
Priests responsible for catechesis and key catechists who assist them, need to grow in an appreciation of the ‘pedagogy of God’, a pedagogy by which catechetical methods can be judged as to whether they are ‘a guarantee of fidelity to content’[27] or not.

A final problem remains for those desiring to eradicate paternal and therefore Trinitarian language from catechesis: that is that the language of the liturgy is irrevocably Trinitarian. No sacramental preparation can completely avoid the words of the liturgical rite of the sacrament. Groome’s conviction that ‘all presiders and ministers at mass or communion services can address and lead the assembly in prayers that are gender-inclusive for God and ourselves’[28] is only possible in Catholic gatherings by avoiding the Church’s liturgy and liturgical language and encouraging para-liturgies in its place.[29]

To conclude, the editor of The Sower neatly sums up the retrieval process,

“ We are to speak simply and naturally about the Father and his love for the Son; of the desire of the Son to fulfil the will of his Father; of the mutual knowledge, love and union between them. ...Only an understanding of God as personal and relational can make sense of the doctrine that God is Love. And of course we understand ourselves and our destiny only within this Divine relationship of infinite delight: we are adopted children of the Father, living in the Son through the power and joy of the Holy Spirit.”[30]

[1]Petroc Willey, The Sower, Editorial July 2007.
[2] The full title is: On the Way to Life: Contemporary Culture and Theological Development as a Framework for Catholic Education, Catechesis and Formation. A Study by The Heythrop Institute for Religion, Ethics and Public Life, Published by The Heythrop Institute for Religion, Ethics and Public Life, for the Catholic Education Service, 2005.
[3]The word ‘Father’ appears in only fve other places.
[4]CCC234. General Directory for Catechesis (GDC)114.
[5]See GDC99, ‘The trinitarian christocentricity of the Gospel message’.
[7]Robert Sokolowsky, The God of Faith and Reason, Catholic University of America Press, 1995, p.36.
[8]Ibid. p.36.
[9]See Thomas Norris, A Fractured Relationship, Faith and the Crisis of Culture, Veritas, 2007, p.215.
[11]C. FitzSimons Allison The Cruelty of Heresy: An affrmation of Christian Orthodoxy, Harrisburg: Moorhouse publishing, 1994.
[13]Billl Huebsch, People of God at Prayer, 18 services in the Spirit of Vatican II, Twenty-Third publications, 2000.
[14]Matthew, 6:9.
[15]Reasons 1-4 have come from direct conversations with catechists – none are theoretical, all are real occurrences.
[16]Eamonn Keane, A Generation Betrayed, Hatherleigh Press, 2002.
[17]Petroc Willey, The Sower, Editorial, July 2007.
[18]See John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatis.
[19]See Eamonne Keane, A Generation Betrayed, Hatherleigh Press, 2002, pp.29-30.
[21]Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Penguin Books, 1972, p.12.
[22] This method is explicitly used by Diana Klein, Catechetical Advisor for the Archdiocese of Westminster, in many of her catechetical resources, in which she explains in varying ways her understanding of Groome’s approach. She also describes her adaptations of it, sometimes to three steps instead of fve.
[23] See Eamonne Keane, A Generation Betrayed, Hatherleigh Press, 2002. p.145. An example of this can be found in Diana Klein’s resource, Prepare to be Confrmed, McCrimmons, 2002. In Session 9 the participants discuss the Creed and after some critical refection are told ‘Write your own creed now – either in a group or on your own; but write a statement of what you believe in.’ p.53.
[24]T Groome, Language for a Catholic Faith, Sheed & Ward, 1995, p.v.
[25]Ibid, p.146-7.
[26]Ibid, p.146-7.
[27] GDC149. Several resources exist that explicitly follow this pedagogy: the Echoes parish-based programme for handing on faith by CTS; Adult formation on the Lord’s prayer
by CTS and ACM materials for RCIA also distributed by CTS.
[28]Ibid, p.146.
[29]Cafod’s paraliturgies are an example of this and are now widespread in schools and at youth events.
[30]Petroc Willey, The Sower, Editorial, July 2007.

Faith Magazine

September - October 2008