Revelation and modern culture:

Comments upon "On The Way To Life"[1]

The Maryvale Institute FAITH Magazine May-June 2008

In this piece Fr Paul Watson and colleagues offer balanced and incisive comments upon the On The Way To Life. * This response argues that the Christian call to conversion is missing. It is a developed extract of a piece which Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, submitted as part of the consultation. Fr Paul is director of that Institute.

“Underlying this analysis is the judgement that the nature of man is essentially one and the ultimate thrust of human nature is essentially the same -the pursuit of truth and of living in accordance with it. Thus both Faith and Culture have the same principle goal.”


Much that is said in On The Way To Life (OTWTL) is of value and represents a significant attempt to analyse the modern situation in which the Catholic Church in England and Wales finds itself. In the light of this analysis, the authors of OTWTL have presented what they describe as an alternative account of Catholic modernity. This account, or this tradition, the authors claim, has its seeds in the Catholic Reformation and flowered in the sacramental vision of Vatican II. By reclaiming and reactivating this account of Catholic modernity, the Catholic voice in late modernity/post-modernity can be found and can thus be a basis for leadership in Catholic education, formation and catechesis.

The crucial question then is to evaluate the contribution that this report makes to the Catholic voice in modern England and Wales and to leadership in education, formation and catechesis.

OTWTL presents a structured and in-depth theoretical analysis. As such, it is not an easy read. Also, it is not easy to grasp the overall theological, philosophical and sociological framework and pre-suppositions with which the authors are working. The danger then is that one begins to respond to particular ideas and /or statements within the report without necessarily understanding the broader framework within which these ideas or statements have their place.

Within each section of the report it appears that the authors have chosen certain thinkers as the basis for their analysis. The Introduction states that the authors have used conceptual tools, presumably the concepts of the chosen thinkers. However, the authors maintain that they have essentially tried to identify certain themes: questions of meaning and identity, the emergence of the ‘new religious subject’ in late/post modernity, the ‘theological subject’ that is described as being ‘implicit’ in the vision of Vatican II. Thus,

In Part I, “Significant elements in Contemporary Culture”, the notion of “webs of significance” (Geertz) is taken as the point of departure for the analysis of culture.

In Part II, “The Theological Context”, the authors have described the adaptive changes within the community of the Church since Vatican II. A key concept here is that of the possibility of a Catholic modernity, and this concept is linked to the notion of “sacramental imagination”. Theologically, the authors describe three forms that these changes have taken: a shift in the understanding of grace and nature; Christological humanism; the repositioning of the Church in relation to modernity.

In Part III, “Resources and Responses”, in reflecting upon the theological rationale for Catholic education, Catechesis and Formation, the authors consider four essential elements in the Church’s educative rationale: transmission; the universal vocation to mission; the good of the person; and the good of society. They then go on to sketch a theology underpinning Catholic Modernity – a theology which is rooted in “the Catholic sacramental imagination”. Finally, there are a number of suggestions for further study.

In the Supplement on “Mapping the Social and Cultural Context of Catholic Education and Catechetical Formation”, the work of Charles Taylor, who identifies two theories of Modernity – described as cultural and a-cultural theories, is taken as the conceptual framework.

Overview of our response

It is important, first of all, to applaud the extensive work that the authors of this report have undertaken. Also, to thank them for the innumerable insights that the report contains. The basic structure they have set out in three parts is a useful one in the task of evaluating the present situation of the Church’s educational mission in England and Wales.

Notwithstanding the initial comments of general applause and gratitude for the work done in this report, there are a number of ways that the report could be seen to be inadequate, or at least incomplete in the light of the task it undertakes. Taking the three parts separately:

Part I Discernment

Bearing in mind that the brief asked for a critical analysis of the significant features of contemporary culture that may have a bearing on the context of Catholic religious education and catechesis, the report has given a wide ranging analysis. However, the question remains as to how critical this analysis has been. Underlying the request for this study is the broader question of the relationship between Faith and Culture. This is not a new question for the Church, but it is one that needs to be posed in every era and with every shift in a cultural scene. One of the things that is lacking in this report is any significant discussion of what might be the appropriate criteria for making a critical analysis of the cultural context. In other words, what would have been helpful, is a much wider historical treatment by way of introduction. In choosing to focus exclusively on the culture of late or post modernity without a more historical perspective on the relationship between Faith and Culture, the report begs the question or makes certain assumptions regarding the ways in which the Catholic Faith can and should engage with contemporary culture. It appears that the basic assumption is that the Church should adapt itself – by way of Catholic Modernity – to the modernity of contemporary times. While it is true that the report also indicates that such a Catholic modernity remains faithful to Catholic tradition, the question remains as to whether Catholic Modernity is in fact the solution.

A more historical approach would indicate certain important facts about the way in which culture develops and the ways in which culture and faith interact in this process of development. Such is the approach found in the encyclical of John Paul II “Fides et Ratio” and in a number of papers produced by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, published under the title “Truth and Tolerance” (Ignatius Press, 2004). The historical surveys in both of these documents indicate that the basis for the positive engagement of faith and culture lies in the nature of man and the fundamental quest for knowledge, truth and the right way to live. The history of the development of thought and of religion has always had this fundamental basis. Progress and development in both faith and culture, either separately or through their interaction has always been understood in terms of greater enlightenment and therefore of greater freedom for human beings and for human society. Whenever a cultural or a religious change takes place which represents a lessening of enlightenment or of freedom, such a change is judged by history to have been a setback, a time of decadence or of darkness. Underlying this analysis is the judgement that the nature of man is essentially one and the ultimate thrust of human nature is essentially the same – the pursuit of truth and of living in accordance with it. Thus both Faith and Culture have the same principle goal. Historically, the developments of Culture have been discerned both in the growth of rationality or enlightenment and also wherever the pursuit of truth also includes as part of its reality the realm of the Divine and man’s relationship with the Divine. This is the basis for the hope that Faith and Culture can interact for mutual benefit. Thus, for example, the interaction with the philosophical world of Greece was a time of great cultural progress. This interaction that flowered in the patristic period of the Church’s history, in fact, had its origins in the Old Testament interaction in the Greek diaspora and the development of the Wisdom literature.

On the other hand, throughout history there have been backward movements where truth has been turned away from in favour of more utilitarian goals, where truth is sacrificed for political, or social or even religious motives. Thus, for example, the Sophist movement, and more recently Marxism. In such times of decadence and backward movement, the only hope lay in those individuals and /or moments when a breakthrough could take place – the moment of enlightenment when the captivation and loss of freedom and truth began to be recognised. Cultural development could then again take place, and indeed, the possibility of interaction with Faith once again provides the opportunity for even greater progress.

It is this sort of analysis that perhaps should inform any critical analysis of the contemporary situation, not least because the present situation is one that could be described in terms of a crisis. The crisis is not simply for the Church, but also for the culture itself. In the light of history, it would be hard to describe the trend of secularism in wholly or even largely positive terms. It may indeed be the case that the real hope for the Church and for Faith in the present situation with regard to engagement with the modern culture is to be found in those places within our culture where the present trend is beginning to be challenged, where it is being recognised that both truth and freedom are being compromised, and where a breakthrough is being sought.

In the light of all of this, it would appear that the OTWTL report is somewhat inadequate in taking Greetz’ definition of culture as “webs of significance” as the starting point. This seems to imply a rather neutral description and also implies that no judgement can be made about it. In fact, it is a definition that belongs within the realm of relativisation – a realm that places one culture alongside another without any criteria of judgement, and simply invites discourse between them. The crucial issue of truth is thereby avoided.

Part I of the report, for all of its study and its insights, should be seen therefore primarily as an invitation to a further and rather more comprehensive (historical) and critical study of the whole issue of culture. For the Catholic community, while the insights of particular theologians are helpful along the way, an essential resource for study must be key magisterial documents, such as Fides et Ratioand documents from the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Part II

(i) Interpreting the Council

In the first place, it would appear that what the report takes to be the meaning of the “contemporary situation of faith” is not only the statistics regarding practice and non-practice among Catholics but also the reception and interpretation of Vatican II. With regard to the latter, taking account of the limitations of space, the presentation of the report of its assessment and interpretation of Vatican II can be regarded only as one attempt to summarise the Council’s orientation and theological foundations. This attempt, it must be said, is, at best, one view. In a number of ways, highlighted later in this piece, the presentation could be said to be controversial. Perhaps this is inevitable so soon after the event. However, one would want to take issue with a number of elements of this section of the report. The whole question of the interpretation and reception of the Council was one with which John Paul II was concerned throughout his Papacy, a concern no less shared by Benedict XVI. Little reference to either of these interpreters of the Council is evident in the report.

One of the issues highlighted by Pope Benedict regarding interpretation of the Council is what he describes as the “hermeneutics of discontinuity”. While the report is obviously aware of this issue and avoids directly falling into this trap, at the same time, it can sometimes appear that the emphasis is on the difference between pre- and post Vatican II perspectives. It is an easy step from here to oppose as either /ors, rather than both /ands, various aspects of Catholic faith such as propositions /faith experience, hierarchy / communion, what is unchanging / the grace of faithfulness through change etc. The danger, and one that has not been absent in the years since the Council, not least in Religious Education and Catechetics, is superficially to caricature one side of an aspect of Catholicism (eg. Faith as an assent to a formula). The report can at times seem, if not to promote, at least tacitly to accept the status quo. Little is done to produce a deeper synthesis. As we shall see the notions of Catholic Modernity and Sacramental Imagination are at best ambiguous, and at worst, are capable of being highjacked into particular interpretations of the Council.

In general, while there are a number of positive and insightful elements regarding the interpretation of the Council, at the same time, perhaps inevitably, in such a short space, one would hardly describe it as comprehensive, or even completely adequate. At least it points towards the need for more discussion, and study of the documents of the Council, especially the four constitutions.

(ii) Magisterium

A deeper issue, especially for the sake of Education and
Catechesis (or Transmission, as the report likes to describe it), is the relationship between doctrine and theology. Is it not the case, that the Church has one common doctrine, but receives also a diversity of theologies? The vital issue here again is the matter of Truth. While it is recognised that the Church has not achieved the fullest possible expression of the Truth, at any one point in history, the expression that it has achieved is reliably the Truth. There is a view which, basing itself on the fact that God is the ultimate truth and is ultimate mystery, proposes that we are simply on a journey towards truth and have not yet reached the goal. This view comes close to the relativist position, so dominant in our culture. It can lead to scepticism about doctrines which the Church proposes (for example, in the Catechism) on the one hand, and on the other, to teaching as truth various theological opinions, held to be truth because they are proposed by theological experts. Surely, this is an example of the way that relativist culture has succeeded in transforming the culture of the Church. The alternative is not simply to oppose the magisterium of theologians with the magisterium of the Church, although one actually is magisterium with a divinely appointed role. The issue is fundamentally an issue of truth and where it can be reliably found.

Part III

In many ways this is the least satisfactory part of the report. Given the centrality of the proposals of Catholic Modernity and Sacramental Imagination, while a number of important things are said regarding the breadth of resources and the retrieval of Catholic memory, the fundamental meaning of both of these terms remains somewhat ambiguous and little reference is made to actual resources such as the documents of Vatican II, the Catechism and the General Directory for Catechesis. With regard to the precise educational and catechetical implications, it would be hard to conclude that the report offers any further contribution to the vision contained, with distinctively greater clarity, in a number of recent documents on education beginning with the Vatican II document on education and a number of others published by the Congregation for Catholic Education. It is an unfortunate omission that there is little or no reference to them in the report. The study and discussion of these documents still remains an important challenge.

Perhaps the ambiguity of ‘Catholic Modernity’ is rooted in the lack of historical background in the analysis of contemporary culture. There seem to be two fundamental issues needing to be articulated even more clearly: one is the issue of engagement with contemporary culture, which first needs an assessment of what is leading to greater truth and what is leading backwards to decadence; where are the points in our culture where there are signs of breaking through to a re-engagement with the basic human pursuit of the fullness of truth as opposed to the reduction of truth to scientific enquiry. Within this debate, the issue of the “turn to the subject”, which is flagged up by OTWTL as an important aspect of modernity, has received significant Catholic articulation by philosophers such as Bernard Lonergan and John Paul II. It is not only in the secular world, where such a turn has been taking place. The second issue is the development of the Catholic community with a view to transmission. A key element here is the way we need to address the extent to which Catholics have actually been formed by the relativist, secular agenda. Without directly addressing this and changing (challenging) it with a contrary vision of truth, culture, revelation, and faith, the concepts of Catholic Modernity and Sacramental Imagination can themselves be simply absorbed by the secular relativist mind that they are seeking to engage with and ultimately overcome.

In the light of these general comments, it is important to say that encouragement by the Bishops Conference of England and Wales to engagement with this report has been extremely valuable. It has provided the opportunity to us to reflect more deeply on a number of important issues. This was surely the intention. However, it must be said that this must be only the beginning of a process. It would be a mistake if there was any attempt to canonise or promulgate this report as the primary means of shaping the future of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, especially in its mission. There are too many unresolved issues. The value of the report is largely in stimulating us to highlight some of these issues and to encourage further study, discussion and not least to focus with greater intensity on key magisterial documents in order then to articulate a clearer programme and strategy for the future.


A hermeneutic of discontinuity

The theological arguments presented in this document are in general continuity with the main liberal theological approaches of the last forty years. In its principles, arguments, and emphases, it well represents certain heterodox theological trends, especially in relation to nature, grace, and authority, which emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s. Though over two generations have passed since the 1960s, there is still a certain fixation on what they call the ‘pre- and post-Conciliar Church’. The former is, once again, spoken of as a negative point of reference whose tendencies and attitudes are still the main stumbling block to be overcome, whilst the latter represents the inauguration of a kind of new age ‘still being worked out’ (p. 45), but now ‘in a new phase of reception’ (p. 49). Absent here are the warnings of Pope Benedict XVI regarding our response to Vatican II, the ‘hermeneutic of rupture’ versus ‘the hermeneutic of continuity’. As if writing 40 years ago, the authors of On the Way to Life present the Second Vatican Council in a manner neither in keeping with the true doctrine of doctrinal development, the purpose of Councils, or the nature of the Tradition.

Lack of key ecclesial sources

Throughout this document, with its many footnotes and citations, there are virtually no references to sacred Scripture, no mention of its importance in the transmission of the Faith, nor to the witness of the great saints and doctors of the Tradition. It is a document founded more upon the conclusions of modern sociologists and contemporary academic theologians.

There is a surprising and unjustifiable neglect of relevant Papal and Magisterial teaching. For example, the Pontifical Council for Culture is not even mentioned, even its seminal document Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture or the more recent and very intelligent report on New Age, Jesus Christ: Bearer of the Water of Life. Pope John Paul II is quoted twice, principally on the ‘spirituality of communion’ in Novo Millennio Inuente, and some relevant documents of his are footnoted, but there is no reference to his writings about the gap between faith and culture, or indeed to his concepts of the ‘new evangelisation’ or to his interpretation of the evangelising of culture. It could be argued that such notions should assume central importance in any pastoral strategy for the Church dealing with contemporary culture.


1) The position taken regarding the interpretation of the teaching of Vatican II is extremely odd (page 36). The idea is put forward that because Vatican II defined no infallible dogmas, therefore we can give no standard interpretation to what the Council taught. This is a strange idea for a number of reasons. Where and when in the theology of the reception of teachings of the magisterium does one come across the idea that non-infallible magisterial teaching is non-interpretable whereas infallible teaching is? Such an idea contradicts the constant practice of the Church in which subsequent teachings of Popes, Councils and the Catechism reiterate, sometimes using different words and expressions, prior non-infallible teachings of Popes (in encyclicals) and other documents to be accepted and authoritatively binding at the appropriate level. If one does not understand and cannot interpret the meaning of a non-infallible teaching of the magisterium, given by Vatican II or in, say, an encyclical, one cannot give the assent asked for in the Church’s own Profession of Faith and Oath of Fidelityrequired of candidates for Holy Orders and of others. Further, there is no suggestion in the official records of the debates of Vatican II or any hint in the documents themselves that those involved could not interpret, understand what they are saying. If one is talking about further understanding of and investigation into a truth taught by the Church in the process of the development of dogma then the hermeneutic criteria given by the Church herself apply in the case of infallible teaching and non-infallible teaching: genuine further understanding must retain the same meaning and judgment regarding the teachings put forward by the Church (cf. Dei Filius, Vatican I).

It is also not quite correct to say that Vatican II taught nothing infallibly. Since, according to the criteria set out in Lumen Gentium24-25, the Second Vatican Council was a clear expression of the universal magisterium of the Church anything proposed for belief or assent by such a gathering is an identifiable case of the exercise of the universal infallible magisterium. A case in point, which one can follow in the official account of the debates, is the wording of Dei Verbum Chapter 2 on the historical reliability of the Gospels. The choice of the word ‘firmitur’ , ‘firmly’ regarding the way the Church’s teaching on the matter is to be held is a case in which the universal magisterium, present in the Council, reiterates that which the Church believes she has always held about the basic historicity of the Gospels.

2) The authors refer to the book by Daniel S. Thompson, The Language of Dissent, (University of Notre Dame Press, 2003) in footnote 55 page 19. The reference in its wording could be taken to suggest that this book expresses a legitimate Catholic viewpoint on the nature of dogma and the degrees of assent required of the faithful regarding magisterial teachings. However, the clear and unambiguous thesis of this work is that theological dissent is a good and a value insofar as through this means the development of dogma occurs. This thesis is flawed epistemologically as a matter of fact with regard to the history of Catholic dogma and is contrary to the magisterium’s constant view of heresy, dissent from infallible teachings of the second order, and dissent from non-infallible magisterial teachings. While the Church makes no judgment about the inner state of the heretic, and while good is brought out of the evil of dissensionand heresy through the formulation and definition of dogmas, the idea that heretics such as Valentinius, Arius and Nestorius were right to reject the decisions of councils and popes against them, and that their dissent was in fact nearer to the truth is unacceptable from a Catholic perspective.
It may be the case that the authors do not know the content of this book, or that they are merely recommending it as an example of a theological viewpoint contrary to Catholic faith. However, their opposition to it as Catholic theologians should be made manifest in the text, otherwise it could appear that they condone the book’s thesis and that any ecclesiastical authority recommending this report for study could appear complicit in this apparent ‘recommendation’.

Inadequate focus on the call to conversion

In continuity with the general endorsement of modernity is the absence of the call to conversion, that man reject sin and turn to the good, which is the first and fundamental invitation of the Gospel. Amos, Hosea, proto-Isaiah, Jeremiah and many other Prophets had to call their own culture to conversion, warning it that it was heading to disaster. We have to do the same. We have to be ‘leaven in the lump’ – but also Martyrs, Witnesses, before the world. The presentation of Martyrdom on page 59 of On the Way to Lifefocuses attractively on self-giving, but neglects the challenge the Martyr throws down. Yet England needs conversion more than ever before!

Inadequate understanding of Grace

On pages 40-41, we are told that ‘all nature has in some way the capacity to disclose grace and be a vehicle of it’ and that people should ‘understand the sacramental nature of their ordinary lives.’ As it stands, this passage does not clearly give a central and indispensable role to the divine Words Incarnation. The Incarnation and the Resurrection of course shed a blessing on the whole material universe and on human nature. But we need a vision of grace, the Holy Spirit, breaking into the world because of Jesus’ Passion, Death and Resurrection, and being channelled thence to people of all times and places – but most richly, most typically, most satisfyingly, through the Sacraments. Everything else is to be understood in the light of what ‘comes to the surface’ in the Sacraments; to suppose that nature is intrinsically sacramental is to play down the need for Revelation.

On the Way to Life, then, plays down the sense of God breaking in with specific Good News. This fits with its theology of grace, which on page 33 is more-or-less attributed to Vatican II, whereas on page 35 we are told it is part of the theological vision underlying what the Council said, and on page 41 we are told this theology of grace was implicit in the Council.

The theology in question is basically that of De Lubac, who revived the Augustinian and Thomist conviction that we have a natural thirst for God, and of Rahner, who put forward the theory of the ‘supernatural existential’. Rahner’s theory implies that ‘our life will always have a ‘dramatic’ form’ (page 38) since any important decision anyone ever makes is always at least implicitly a decision for or against God. This corresponds to Augustine’s vision of the two cities that have lived alongside each other since the time of Cain and Abel. It corresponds to the teaching of John Paul II’s Redemptor Hominis, that the Father has sent the Son and the Spirit to all human beings to awaken a thirst for truth and goodness.
It is important to bear in mind that the great theologians of Grace held a ‘nuanced’ view of Grace. They preserved a sense of ‘drama’. For Augustine, although our hearts are restless till they rest in God, they can only reach that rest by the grace of conversion. The image of the Trinity that we are has been spoiled by pride and can only be healed by the humility of the incarnate and crucified Word. For Thomas, we are capax Dei yet can only be aware of the offer of knowing, loving, possessing and enjoying Father, Son and Spirit through revelation. For De Lubac, the natural thirst for God typically went wrong, until its true nature and source were revealed at Bethlehem. He wrote his Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace against those who had taken his earlier work in a one-sided way and blurred the distinction between nature and grace, whereas he only wanted to overcome the artificial separation between them. Rahner’s theory of the supernatural existential was designed to preserve the absolute gratuity of grace. By nature we do nothave any real ‘pro-active’ thirst for God; the existential thirst which all human beings at least implicitly experience is itself a gift and comes only through Christ. It does not guarantee that all human beings are God’s friends; it ensures that they must decide whether to be friends or enemies (and if enemies, they condemn themselves to inner frustration).
This leads us to analyse one statement in particular:

Grace is constitutive of Human Nature.

According to the authors of On the Way to Life, ‘Grace is constitutive of human nature’ (pp. 33, 35, 40). It is a doctrine claimed by Frs Hanvey and Carroll to be the precise teaching of Vatican II (p. 33, 44). However, they do not refer to any source, nor precisely where in the documents of Vatican II this is taught. They intend not to support their claim that ‘grace is constitutive of human nature’ with any reference to a Magisterial source on the principle that ‘it is not so much what Vatican II had to say that was transformative but the underlying theological vision that it expressed’ (p. 35). On such a fundamental question as the relationship and essence of nature and grace, recourse to ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ is inadequate and irresponsible.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, if something ‘is constitutive of’ something else, ‘it makes a thing what it is’, is ‘essential to it’, or ‘goes to make [it] up’. So the sentence repeated by the authors of On the Way to Life should be understood to mean that ‘Grace makes human nature to be human nature’, that grace is ‘essential to the meaning of the term ‘human nature’’, that ‘grace is part of the definition of human nature’ (along, therefore, with being composed of soul and body).
Accordingly, it would have to be held that without divine grace human nature ceases to be precisely human nature. There is, therefore, no such thing as a man without divine grace. A human being without grace can no longer be said to have a human nature.

This statement, ‘Grace is constitutive of human nature’, made at least three times in the document, is false in every respect. In order to understand how this is so, let us remind ourselves of some of the basic truths of our Christian faith.

The question of authority

Part of Heythrop’s brief was to evaluate Purnell’s Our Faith Story(1985). We read in their report the following statement:

‘the language of Our Faith Storymarks a significant and influential shift. It is written in a highly personal way, thus modelling the approach it proposes. This is more than just an engaging, unthreatening style; it represents the ‘turn to the subject’ ... positively used to engage faith. The source of authority here is not a teacher or a Magisterium but one’s own experience and narration’ (note 79).

We wish to highlight the idea that ‘the source of authority is not a teacher or a Magisterium but one’s own experience and narration’. This is manifestly incompatible with all Catholic teaching on the nature and purpose of the Church, as well as to the truths of man himself as a created and therefore receptive being (i.e. his not being God). It is contrary to the doctrine of a divinely instituted Church, founded by Jesus Christ on the rock of Peter, and endowed with an infallible teaching office through the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

If one reads further one sees that this particular thesis is not only accepted uncritically by the authors of On the Way to Life but is regarded positively by them. It is stated that this ‘person-centred approach ... allows for very considerable sensitivity to circumstances, allowing people to find their own place and pace’. The authors wish to ‘acknowledge these very considerable strengths’ of Fr Purnell’s teaching, affirming that these kind of teachings show Our Faith Storyt o be ‘a rich, significant work of considerable insight and methodological wisdom’. Frs. Hanvey and Carroll, in other words, admire the thesis that ‘the source of authority is not a teacher or a Magisterium but one’s own experience and narration’.
i) In defining divine grace, and its effects, one of the words used by the Church in her Catechism is ‘supernatural’ (CCC 1998). If grace is super-natural (i.e. in itself above the natural order) it cannot, by definition, constitute human nature. It does, of course, elevate, heal and perfect human nature, but it cannot ever be said to constitute it. If it were to constitute human nature, our definition of divine grace would have to be naturalised, or our definition of human nature be supernaturalised.

ii) The Catechism also insists upon the essential specific gratuity of grace (gratuity being part of the etymology of gratia) , CCC 1996; in other words, if it is not understood to be something which comes as a special further favour from outside and aboveour nature, then it can no longer be called grace. Therefore, if we hold that grace is constitutive of human nature, then we cannot at the same time hold that it is gratuitous, that it comes from above and as a favour.

iii) The Catechism also insists on the strictly supernatural character of grace and its effects (CCC 1997). It effects in human nature what human nature is incapable of effecting by its own power and abilities. If grace were constitutive of human nature, then all of the effects of grace would lie in strict and essential continuity with human nature’s intrinsic powers.

Later in their analysis on authority in its relation to personal experience, Frs. Hanvey and Carroll quote a section from Hannah Arendt’s book On Revolution(p. 42). They do this in reference to the angry reaction by some members of the Church to the encyclical Humanae Vitae. Here is the citation they choose to help clarify their argument:

‘... that all authority in the last analysis rests on opinion is never more forcefully demonstrated then when, suddenly and unexpectedly, a universal refusal to obey initiates what then turns into a revolution... Unlike human reason, human power is not only ‘timid and cautious when left alone’, it is simply non-existent unless it can rely on others; and the most powerful king and the least scrupulous of all tyrants are helpless if no one obeys them, that is supports them through obedience; for, in politics, obedience and support are the same’.

This is a most sinister and disturbing application of a perfectly reasonable secular analysis of authority to the divine authority of the Church. Frs Hanvey and Carroll accept that it cannot be applied ‘completely’, but it surely cannot be applied at all, if one accepts the claims of the Church and the teaching authority of Jesus Christ. Because of the unique nature of the Church’s authority, unique by virtue of her divine origin, unique by the guaranteed presence of the Holy Spirit ensuring her infallibility, not a single line in Arendt’s analysis can or should be applied to the Church (and neither did she intend any of them to). Yet according to Frs. Hanvey and Carroll, this citation ‘eloquently makes the point about the relationship between authority and obedience that surfaces with the Encyclical’ . How does it do this? How, and in what sense? Moreover what role does the perennial phenomenon of disobedience to legitimate authority have in the reception of Humanae Vitae? Frs. Hanvey and Carroll choose not to develop this point at all, nor unfold the full implications of this statement. Arendt’s citation is simply presented in the context of Humanae Vitae and left alone. Neither do Frs Hanvey and Carroll reassure the reader as to their own positions. Leaving themselves out of the matter, they only state that the idea that ‘the Church’s teaching [on contraception] was not a matter of opinion but of truth’ was the ‘position of the Encyclical’ (43).

Anthropocentric vision of the Church

The document displays an anthropocentric study. The emphasis throughout lies on man: man in his subjectivity, man and his uniquely modern ways of thinking, man in his response to authority, man and his pilgrimage. Here, the Church, very much not the bride of Christian revelation, seems to gaze obsessively upon herself. This study is so imbued with modern, sociological concepts, that the Church frequently appears as a circular, self-sustaining community, whose good seems to be simply herself: formation ‘comes forth from the Church and returns to it’ (p. 59). At one point, the authors have to go out of their way to stress that the ‘transmission of faith is not just about the survival of the community’ (p. 60). (By ‘community’ here is meant the Church). Was it ever conceived that the Church seeks to transmit the Good News of Jesus Christ in order to ensure her survival? For whom, and by whose power, does the Church exist? And why does she exist? This is such an insufficiently Christocentric and Theocentric understanding of the Church that a reader of this document would not find the answers to these questions. Rather, he is informed how we ‘all must experience the Church as a place of encounter, a home’ (p. 59). It does not point beyond itself. This vision of the Church is, we might say, a fruit of the modern ‘turn to the subject’.


General Comment

A reading of the Report raises some key issues for catechetics. However, this was less the result of deliberate proposals of the Report than of a sense of its omissions. How could it be that such a Report, aimed at providing a ‘framework’ for religious education and catechesis, could ignore Evangelii Nuntiandi, Catechesi Tradendae, the General Directory for Catechesis and the Catechism of the Catholic Church? In exploring the context for catechetical work in the contemporary Church and culture these seminal documents need to be seen as major resources.

Moreover, the document as a whole is characterised by an exaggerated sense of the difficulties in conveying the gospel

to the ‘modern mind’, as though the ‘modern mind’ were something unique in human history, especially impervious to the truth of Christian Revelation in all its simplicity and joy. This fixation with the problems presented by ‘the contemporary situation’ seems to forget the important fact that we who endeavour to transmit the Faith are not first century Christians, or medievals, but contemporary men and women formed within the ambit of modern culture.

The wrong framework

On the Way to Life helps us understand Modernity and how it has led to ‘post-modern’ irrational relativism, but fails to criticise it with due vigour. The brief for the study ‘asks that we place the direction of Catholic religious education, catechesis and formation within the context of contemporary culture’ (page 9). We need to show up the foolishness of Modernity; On the Way to Lifeasks for ‘a Catholic Modernity’ (pages 33, 51, 63...) It does not want this to be simply a Catholic version of Modernity (page 51); it does want us to incorporate many of the central values of Modernity (page 63) – but these include ‘commitment to rational discourse’, which in fact has always been properly Catholic! Despite that commitment, On the Way to Lifeseems in places too sympathetic to a pluralism that would be cool towards objective truth and the power of reason to discover it. Only in the Supplement (on pages 80-82) does a really sharp critique of Modernity appear – a critique which implies we can only rejecti t as a perspective and culture radically different from the Catholic.

The question of truth

There is an apparent embarrassment shown in this document towards the intrinsically definitive nature of Christian revelation. What does it mean to say that we must ‘avoid a fundamentalist assertion of the Catholic truth’? (p. 51). Truth must not be transmitted through violence and force, for this would be to contradict truth itself. Is this violent possibility what the authors mean by a ‘fundamentalist assertion’, or are they implying something more? The implication is that they are implying something more, but they refrain from stating it clearly. The problem we face lies not in the absence of some arcane marketing skills, but in the fact that Christian doctrine, in its purity, simplicity and power, is not being taught. And furthermore, it is not being taught in accordance with its intrinsic Catholicity and in deference to divinely instituted authority. The theses proposed in this document are not solutions to the problem but a clear and unequivocal manifestation of it.

Science, religion and truth

It is increasingly clear that the human mind can understand and to some extent harness the complex structures within the natural world; yet there has been an upsurge in dabbling with the irrational – magic, ‘healing crystals’, even neo-paganism, the worship of forces created to be enjoyed and respectfully mastered. On the Way to Life does not identify this problem with sufficient sharpness. On the Way to Life could have more vigorously urged us to present the Church as the upholder of reason and the friend of science. The Church sees St. Thomas Aquinas as the great exemplar of how to do theology: he followed Aristotle in wanting to see the world as it really is. We need to say that we are on the side of reason and not on the side of superstition. We need to say that we are the friend and supporter of science – admittedly a criticalfriend, since we have a wisdom that can help us judge what technologies are humanising, what dehumanising. If the reason why many people dabble today in irrational superstition is that modern technology does not satisfy our ‘affective’ side, we need to say that the Catholic Church has the only viable answer: a coherent synthesis of careful theology that takes philosophy seriously, with impressive ritual that fulfils art, and personal prayer. On the Way to Life is clear that we validate art, but could have said more strongly that we validate reason. On page 29 it speaks of truth’s beauty and goodness, and on page 38 of Thomas’ integration of reason with faith; but it is cool towards ‘an assent to formulas,’ is wary of ‘a fundamentalist assertion of the Catholic truth,’ and fails to refer to John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio, or to Veritatis Splendor which validate the place of careful, informed thought in making ethical decisions. There are plenty of scientists today who are Christian, quite a few who write in favour of Christianity – but we need to pull the rug from beneath the feet of people like Richard Dawkins who can still argue that the Catholic Church is on the side of irrational prejudice.

Catholic culture

It is odd that a document concerned with the cultural context for religious education and catechesis should neglect the idea that the Church has a Culture to transmit. On the Way to Life is more concerned to dialogue with late-modern and post-modern culture than to say that we have a Culture worth preserving and presenting – yet Vatican II affirms the call to ressourcement hat emerged during the 20th Century. We have to explore afresh the great riches of Scripture, the Liturgy, the Fathers, and make those riches available today.

Page 37, which admits the Council’s emphasis on ressourcement, is chiefly at pains to explain that the essence of Tradition is God’s faithfulness, and to play down any sense of unchanging contents.
The fear of ‘a Catholic parochialism, in which Catholic culture... simply projects its theoretically naïve biographical perspective onto the social and cultural map of the present’ (page 76) seems to weigh more with the authors of On the Way to Life than a confidence in what we have to offer.
On the Way to Life has itself a curiously ‘rootless’ feel. Its interesting account of the poiesiso f Christian life (pages 61-68) does not focus on the challenging but rewarding hard work of reviving authentic Christian Culture as service-and-challenge to the contemporary ‘cultural desert’. Fundamentalism and nostalgia are decried (pages 39 and 46); but a Scripturally-informed, truly Catholic resourcement is not vigorously plugged. The valuable discussion of the sacramental imagination has an ‘abstract’ feel; in place of the recovery of ‘perennial values’ the document breathes a strange timelessness – reinforced by the idea on pages 37 and 62 that in some sense we need to learn from the future as well as from the past!


On the Way to Life has identified some of the features of Modern and post-Modern culture that we need to take account of in revitalising our religious education and catechesis, but the document is insufficiently critical towards Modernity, insufficiently aware of our need to challenge its pretensions. Perhaps because they share some of our contemporary rootlessness and subjectivity, the authors pay little attention to the content of the Tradition we must hand on – and virtually no attention to Scripture. The Incarnation is an important theme, but serves more as a ‘perspective’ than as an historical event; the Passion is hardly mentioned. The Liturgy as a counter-cultural school is neglected, and the ‘sacramental imagination’ – while properly lauded as a privileged Catholic contribution – is more a timeless perspective on nature and human life than an awareness of how we continue to hear, see, feel and taste the Word spoken into our world 2,000 years ago.

All in all, there is little enthusiasm for a ressourcementthat would draw deeply on the actual contents of our Scripture-based, Sacramental-Liturgical Tradition, and would use these resources to challenge our contemporaries and ourselves to a conversion that would be not only a widening and deepening, but also a change of perspective. This reluctance to call for conversion goes with a somewhat slanted reliance on the recent theology of Grace, which emphasises the gentleness and welcoming side of Grace, but neglects the theme of Jesus breaking in with a call to repentance, the theme of the Spirit as refining fire and rushing wind.

By contrast with The Catechism of the Catholic Church, On the Way to Lifewould only really affirm the work of certain Catholic philosophers, theologians, liturgists and sociologists. We need something that can fire contemplatives and other religious, priests, preachers, teachers, catechists, theologians, parents, youth leaders, ‘the men and women in the pew’ and the youth of today’s Church as they all do their bit to learn from God’s Word and announce the Good News revealed by Jesus Christ in His words, miracles, Passion and Resurrection. We therefore need a different framework, rooted in the key sources of the Christian Faith, ecclesial, and transmitting the fullness of Catholic culture and life, as well as in a realist philosophy adequate for proposing the word of God (cf Fides et Ratio81-83).
Fr Pauls delineation of the appropriate character of modern catechesis is in our The Truth Will Set You Free column p. 26.

[1] On The Way To Life: Contemporary Culture and Theological Development as a Framework for Catholic Education, Catechesis and Formation by the Heythrop Institute for Religion, Ethics and Public Life, published by the Catholic Education Service in 2005. This study, which can be seen on the CES website, was commissioned by the Bishops conference of England and Wales which has encouraged response.

Faith Magazine