A Spiritually Deafening Silence

Editorial FAITH Magazine September-October 2008s


"And these words, which I command you this day, shall be in your heart: And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up." (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

It is not often that the silence of The Tablet on a particular issue is felt to be troubling. After all, it is not the silence of the magazine which is normally a source of annoyance to the believing Catholic. It is rare for The Tablet not to offer a word or ten concerning prominent orthodox initiatives from the hierarchy of the Church, especially when they come from Rome, but also when they come from local hierarchies. The lack of comment would normally be welcome since much of what The Tablet has to say tends to favour dissent in the Church, which has little to do with fostering the act of faith. However, on this occasion, the silence seems to be studied. There has been little reference or analysis of the initiative of the Bishop of Lancaster, the RightReverend Patrick O'Donoghue, in trying to evaluate and renew the life of schools in his diocese.

As mentioned by William Oddie in the March-April edition of Faith, Bishop O'Donoghue's proposed scheme, called Fit for Mission? Schools, has provoked a good deal of comment. Firstly, he was summoned to a parliamentary committee to explain the document, amidst press reports of Bishops promoting a "fundamentalist brand" of Catholicism in their schools. Secondly, he has received a good deal of praise and support internationally for this document: Archbishop Mauro Piacenza, secretary of the Congregation for Clergy wrote to congratulate the Bishop for carrying out what the General Directory for Catechesis had called for following the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and expressed his hope that it "will become an example for other Dioceses in the country";dioceses in Australia, America, France, Canada and Malta have asked for copies; the Catholic Truth Society in London has published the document following high demand.

More recently Cardinal Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who has made clear his desire to promote and encourage "good practice" in the Church, has also added his appreciation. He has written a foreword for the CTS edition of the document in which he says, "It is to be hoped that others will follow the example of the Diocese of Lancaster in establishing educational and pastoral programmes that implement the Catechism of the Catholic Church as the fundamental guarantee for keeping Christ's Gospel whole and alive in their schools and colleges."

With all this comment even at an international level, one might expect a well-known weekly such as The Tablet to say something. Instead there is silence. Is this a silence of ignorance? Some would say that it is not, and that perhaps it is a silence of deliberate omission, a silence designed to ignore, to close one's eyes and wish something didn't exist. But it does.

Silence at the CES

The same worrying silence is found elsewhere in the life of the Church in England and Wales. This writer decided to visit the website of the Catholic Education Service (CES), and see what it had to say about this document. At first sight there seemed to be nothing at all. A further glance, including typing in "Fit for Mission?" into the search engine of the website, showed that the first sight was the full sight: nothing. No reference, no appreciation, no welcome, no comment, no link. One would think that such a major overhaul of Catholic schooling in a Diocese in England Wales would excite some interest from the CES. Is the silence a sign of disapproval? Or is it a sign of a lack of interest? Whatever it is, like the silence of The Tablet, such a silence is a cause for worry.For even if it could plead that it covers educational work for the Bishops' Conference nationally (which surely as a body is there not for its own existence but to help the Bishops in the countries of England and Wales), yet ignoring something which is having international impact is surely at the very least puzzling.

One clue comes from an admittedly very slight and seemingly enforced break in this silence when Oona Stannard, head of the CES, told the Daily Telegraph that Fit for Mission?: Schools represented "the aspirations of one bishop for his diocese." In the light of the significant Episcopal interest abroad this comment seems only to be true within our country. Her comment might be seen as wishful thinking in the light of her active promotion of another diocesan document on Catholic schools, namely Birmingham's undoubtedly helpful Christ at the Centre: A Summary of why the Church provides Catholic Schools, published in 2005. On the CES website, which makes it easily available, Ms Stannard encourages all to look at it and "to submit any comments, observations andrequests that you may have for its future development via the CES".

So, in the absence of any explanation, we must ask what, in the eyes of our national Education Service, is the big difference between these two constructive diocesan documents on Catholic schools?

The most obvious distinction is that Christ at the Centre focuses upon general educational values whereas Fit For Mission? goes beyond this and sets specific parameters for Religious Education and Catechesis. Moreover the former does not mention the Catechism in its text apart from one brief quotation, whereas the latter is explicitly and implicitly imbued with it. With regard to the specifics of Religious Education the CES website promotes "The National Project".

The National Project was the process that bequeathed to the Church in this country the programmes Walk With Me, Here I Am and Icons. Interestingly there is no discussion or presentation of Weaving the Web, and only one mention, in a chronological overview. These programmes have been the subject of much sustained criticism for a number of years, criticism that many in the ecclesiastical education establishment have waved away and ignored, but to which they have failed to give a significant and clear response. Here I Am, for example, is seen by many as woefully inadequate in its presentation of the sacraments, of sin and original sin, of the Trinity, of the Redemption, of the spiritual life and of the Church itself. The very fact that it nowhere appearsto give a clearly comprehensible list of the sacraments, for example, but prefers to distribute them in different models, while never synthesising them simply and clearly, is surely not only inadequate doctrinally, but also unhelpful educationally for teacher and for student. It is still vigorously promoted through diocesan led inspections and widely used.

The CES is conducting a review into these programmes to see what has worked and what has not been so successful. Any such review is of course usually to be welcomed. However, it is worth noting what the website says about it: "The review is taking place against the background (sic) On The Way to Life, of the re-examining the (sic) Religious Education Curriculum Directory and of embedding the second edition of the Levels of Attainment."

There is no mention of the General Directory on Catechesis published in 1997 and mentioned by Archbishop Piacenza in his praise of Bishop O'Donoghue's initiative. There is no mention of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1992 and surely, as Bishop O'Donoghue in his document says, "the most important book published by the Holy See in this generation for Catholic education." Instead one of the two notable documents mentioned by the CES is On the Way to Life by the Heythrop Institute. Our May '08 issue contained critiques of this 2005 study of contemporary culture and theological development commissioned by the Bishops' Conference for reflection upon developing a framework for education, catechesis and formation. We argued that its dallying withmodernity's 'turn to the subject' was dangerously too sympathetic, whilst not being without important insight concerning the need to develop our philosophy and theology. The CES believes that the Heythrop study gives "the foundation for a review of strategy at national diocesan and parish level."

The Very Significant Impact of Our Faith Story

What the CES and On the Way to Life have in common is praise and promotion of a very notable book. This is what the CES website has to say: "Our Faith Story: its telling and its sharing which was written in 1985 explored how this 'story' would be passed to the next generation at a time of significant cultural change. Our Faith Story, and other subsequent documents, have been significant in determining the shape and direction of Catholic Religious Education and

Catechesis in England and Wales." This book, by Fr Patrick Purnell SJ has indeed had a very "significant" impact on Catholic educational circles in England and Wales for the past twenty years or so.

A footnote in On the Way to Life also discussed in our May issue (footnote 79 on page 35) gives a helpful and similarly flattering, though not entirely uncritical, overview of Our Faith Story. The book begins with the person's graced nature -indeed "grace is somehow constitutive of human nature" and the way to come to an explicit understanding of this grace is through narration, through "telling the story". Apparently, "the text is the person's life." This should immediately raise alarm bells. After all, is a person's life always graced? What of the need for objective Divine Revelation? How is it that my life is graced without the Mystery of Christ and the Mystery of the Church? Indeed, Christ is within us, but only because He was and is out there, objective, in historyand now in heaven and mediated to us through the Church.

The footnote goes on to point out that "The language of Our Faith Story also marks a significant and influential shift. It is written in a highly personal way, thus modelling the approach it proposes." We argued in May that such a focus upon the personal subject effectively excludes linguistic objectivity -and so the unchanging validity of doctrinal statements. Many priests trained in the past 20 years have attended catechetical courses given by national figures using precisely Fr Purnell's approach where the Church teaching and liturgy are just the explication of what is going on in each person. If that is so, then they become the manifestation of my subjectivity, and it is hard to see why my manifestation of this graced subjectivity should be any better or worse, more true ormore false, than say that of a group of Muslims or Hindus.

If this criticism appears a little harsh, the following observation from the footnote should clear up any concern on that account:

"The source of authority here is not a teacher or a Magisterium but one's own experience and narration. It is the subject that controls and shapes the story. The language is significant in other ways: its way of speaking of 'spirituality' and the Kingdom is presented not in terms of an ecclesial vision but as a Utopian state which is counter-cultural to 'this worldly reality'."

Self-Consciousness as a Competing Authority

This is the very nub of the issue. We should first reaffirm that in this magazine we are certainly not against taking account of the self-conscious subject's affirmation of the environmental relationship in which he constantly, experientially finds himself. But we would see this as an inbuilt acceptance of our being personally invited into an objective universe which is bigger than us, rather than implying the existentialist primacy and authority of subjective experience and control - as is Fr Purnell's so very influential approach.

In the authentically Catholic vision of the Second Vatican Council, the source of authority for the transmission of Revelation is Jesus Christ Himself, the Word of God made flesh for us, handed down to us in Scripture and ecclesial Tradition. To receive this revelation is to be caught up in the deepest personal relationship possible. The authentic, authoritative teacher of this is the Magisterium, and rightly so. The history of the Church itself has shown that "graced subjectivity" and my own "experience and narration" can indeed be flawed: there is a thing called sin and we are all damaged by it. That is why the Church has had to have recourse to Ecumenical Councils and the Magisterium when an Arius, a Nestorius, a Luther or a Tyrrel have come along. Subjectivity alone is not enough: itneeds to be healed and it needs to be enlightened by the grace-filled truth of Christ.

The paradigm of Emmaus is so significant in this matter but often misused by catechists schooled in the approach of Our Faith Story to bolster up a false approach to catechetics and religious education. It was not that Jesus helped the two disciples to discover their own subjectivity, to make explicit the grace that already made them what they were; no, he said to them, "You foolish men!" He proceeded to teach them about the scriptures that were pointing to Him. It is true that he begins when he meets them on the road by asking about their discussion, that he takes them where they are; but this is because they are where they should not be - they need to come to faith, these foolish men so slow to believe what was in the scriptures.

Heythrop's overview goes on, "In so far as the formal structure of doctrinal catechesis is not explicit in Our Faith Story, its ecclesial mediation represents a more explicitly 'person-centred' approach." Here again is a central problem with such an approach. It implies that the formal structure of doctrinal catechesis is less person-centred than the approach of Our Faith Story. Nothing could be further from the truth. Again we would want to note that in Faith movement we do affirm the need to develop the traditional presentation of this point, as we briefly attempted, for instance, in our May editorial. But, living in a world where sin, violence, division and warfare are around us, activities embarked upon by believers and non-believers alike, it is hard tomaintain that Fr Purnell's vision is very reality-centred. How is it that a graced subjectivity, indeed one who's nature is somehow constituted by grace, can engage in such actions? The whole approach of Our Faith Story Here I Am and Weaving the Web lacks a serious catechesis on the reality of sin and, in particular, the damage of original sin with which each person is born. A truly "person-centred" approach would deal with these issues. But perhaps that would be a little too close to "the formal structure of doctrinal catechesis". For although Our Faith Story does deal with some issues of "painful situations and responses in us - sense of guilt, failure, etc.", yet it seeks to see them against the backdrop of cultural pressures and circumstances. Such aconsideration can indeed be useful but only if its foundation is in a more realistic account of the intrinsically wounded though redeemable and indeed redeemed nature of humanity.

The next two sentences of the footnote in On the Way to Life are of interest:

"While acknowledging these very considerable strengths, there is a risk that the doctrinal structure of faith, the grammar of the Church's narrative, can be played down so that the actual incorporation into the 'Church's faith story' is not as effective as it may be. Our Faith Story has proved its worth and is a rich, significant work of considerable insight and methodological wisdom which should not be lost."

At least there is an explicit recognition of this "risk" and in the body of the document, what our May discussion saw as an inadequate attempt to mitigate this. The point is that this is more than a risk: it is the methodological problem with Fr Purnell's approach. It is very hard to see the need for the historical mediation of revelation and grace by the Church in a system which sees each person as graced already. Furthermore, the doctrinal structure of faith is much more than the "grammar of the Church's narrative": it is the reality of communion with the Trinity through the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God made Man and the centre of all human history. The Church's "faith story" is more than just a graced subjectivity: it is the response by the redeemed Brideof Christ, of which we are all members by Baptism (note, by Baptism, not by some a-sacramental graced subjectivity), to the Lord who lived, died and rose again in history and whom she awaits to complete all things in His Second Coming. This response is indeed already the work of grace, but this is the grace achieved and communicated to the Church by the Lord's redemptive work. This is a work accomplished in history and mediated through the historical reality of the church. Ultimately it is indeed hard to see the proper place of doctrinal teaching as captured by the Catechism and emphasised by Fit for Mission?: Schools outside of this Catholic vision.

Has the Alternative Vision Borne Fruit?

The final sentence of the passage quoted above from the footnote makes for depressing reading. Apparently, Our Faith Story has achieved something which few of us actually see in the pastoral field: it has "proved its worth." But it hasn't. Indeed the past thirty years, and the past twenty-three years since the publication of Fr Purnell's work have seen the virtual complete failure of this approach in catechetics and in religious education in our schools. Our schools, through no fault of the many highly dedicated teachers, have become factories of lapsation, where the overall peer pressure to lapse from the Faith is too strong for most young people. The content of religious education is too feeble to sustain faith and lacks the power to convince young people that there are reasonsfor believing and reasons for living their lives for God.

If the review of the CES of these programmes is going to use such documents as its background then we should all be very worried. Instead of using the Church's own teaching and approach, summed up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the CES imagines that it is better to use the ideology which has dominated Catholic education in England and Wales for too long and with woeful results. The level of faith awareness among most children in our schools and among most adults is actually fairly low. The experience of many interested observers is that most young people who go to a secondary Catholic school are not sure what a sacrament actually is or does and would find it hard to name them. In one class this writer was told there were twenty-two, then nine, then three sacraments.Again this is not the fault of our teachers. They have to use the materials pressed upon them by diocesan education departments - and these mostly form part of the National Project. Of course those formed in the theological vision behind the National Project may well not think the above findings of factual ignorance are particularly lamentable. But this is our point. In terms of handing on a revealed, incarnational, religion and its 'saving truths' the National Project as presently constructed is not 'fit for purpose' and thus certainly not 'fit for mission'.

So what is the way forward? Bishop O'Donoghue's document shows the way - which in turn may partly explain the silence and shyness we highlighted at the beginning of this piece. By using the Catechism of the Catholic Church the bishop actually shows how Catholic education, and also ultimately catechesis, can be presented in an organic way. Fit for Mission? Schools says, "The organic structure of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is divided into four parts or movements corresponding to the four fundamental aspects of our life in Christ that we see in The Acts of the Apostles." It goes on to list the four pillars as the Profession of Faith, Sacraments, the Moral Life and Prayer. Then it tells us what Cardinal Schonborn said, that "the Four Pillars of theCatechism without doubt constitute the fundamental sources of the life, the faith, and the teaching of the Church" (page 27). Indeed, the whole basis for catechesis from the earliest times of the Church is summed up in these pillars. This has been a tried and tested pattern of handing on the Faith in the life of the Church. In the light of where British Catholics find themselves at this juncture it is particularly worrying that the CES clearly does not see this as the "foundation" or "background" for their review.

Some in this debate have pointed to a difference between catechesis and religious education. Yet while there is indeed a distinction between them, the distinction should not become a polarised dualism. In this regard Bishop O'Donoghue quotes the words of Pope John Paul II to the Bishops of England Wales: "Religious education is broader than catechesis but it must also include catechesis, since a principal goal of the Catholic faith must be to hand on the faith" (page 22).

The Catholic Vision: Based on the Holy Trinity

The ultimate reason for the unity of what we hand on is found in what God has said about Himself in Divine Revelation. As Bishop O'Donoghue writes, "The organic unity of faith flows from the perfect and infinite unity of the Most Holy Trinity. The Catechism is a synthesis of the faith, conveying the 'melodious symphony of revealed truth' that originates from God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" (page 25).

In the Trinity, there is the most profound unity of Truth and Love, of Knowledge and of Life. At the heart of the celebration of Baptism and of Confirmation is a profession of Faith in the Persons of the Trinity. Indeed the Church's whole mission and life is one of leading humanity to communion with the Trinity, a communion that indeed reaches into our subjectivity, but which at the same time heals us and enlightens us and leads us to receive that which we could never attain by ourselves - a share in God's own life, in the immense glory of eternal life in the resurrected body of Jesus Christ. This is the true vision of the Church of the final meaning of human life, something that could and should be presented to young people as fundamental to their spiritual lives and indeed to everyaspect of their lives. Human life is called as an entirety to be drawn into intimate union with the Trinity here and now, and in this way be transformed.

This is a far more beautiful vision than the limited ideology of Our Faith Story. It is not based upon one man's personal insight - his subjectivity - but on the real Life and Faith of the Church which is the handing on to each person of real transforming and divine life in Christ. This is the very reason why the CES should exist at all. It gives a real solidity to the spiritual life and if articulated well it can give a radical alternative to the secularism and relativism so prevalent in British culture today.

For an alternative is needed, a real answer, a Truth that fulfils the human heart and transforms it, and does not just abandon it to its subjectivity or even a collective subjectivity. Subjectivity needs interpreting, it needs correcting and it needs teaching. God has given the answer: it is called Revelation and it is handed on in fullness by the Catholic Church.

Bishop O'Donoghue's programme should therefore be welcomed loudly and clearly by every Catholic in our country. The Tablet claims to be "the International Catholic Weekly" but shows little in its editorial utterances and its editorial silence to show that it is indeed Catholic. The CES claims that it is "promoting and supporting Catholic education in England and Wales." But there is nothing on its website or public pronouncements to show that it even has an interest in, let alone support of, Lancaster Diocese's attempt.

For how many more decades will the silence of those who should be speaking continue?

Faith Magazine