23 August 2021, The Tablet

Reaching out to lay Catholics with the spiritual riches of the Church

Reaching out to lay Catholics with the spiritual riches of the Church

Contemplating the trinitarian life of God with a clarity of thought and sense of wonder.
Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

I’ve just finished reading Derek Scally’s The Best Catholics in the World. It’s a disturbing account of the history of abuse that would eventually lead to a cultural rupture between significant numbers of Irish people and the Catholic Church. 

Scally resists the temptation to portray the Catholic Church as a pantomime villain but his analysis is weakened by the default depiction of the Church as just one human institution among many. There is no sense of the Church as a “complex reality” (Lumen Gentium, 8) of the human and divine, the visible and the spiritual. As a consequence, the idea of the Church is flattened and reduced to a sociological abstraction. With the spiritual dimension of the Church largely lost, we are left with a degraded picture that skews our attempts at more accurate descriptions of its life and purpose.   

I emailed a priest friend working in the Diocese of Raphoe, County Donegal, for his take on the book. He was appreciative of Scally’s more nuanced approach, but he also highlighted the almost total absence of “any sense of God, grace or the transcendent in his understanding of the Church”. 

Scally, in turn, might blame his fragmentary knowledge on the poor religious education he received at school and the “low intellectual wattage” of theological discourse he encountered. For someone with a keen intellect, he was fed thin religious gruel. He was catechised but not theologically formed; patronised but never intellectually stretched. The richness of Catholic theology and its intellectual tradition were largely hidden from him. He scathingly remarks: “Adults’ understanding of religion remained stunted at secondary school level, if they even got that far…The study of the divine and of religious belief…was locked up behind Ireland’s thick seminary walls, like Rapunzel in her tower.”

Perhaps my Irish priest friend and Scally are expressing similar concerns. Both, in their different ways, are appealing for a theological formation that is no longer the preserve of clergy and religious, but one that is made more widely available to lay men and women. Such formation would not only increase theological literacy among lay people but it would better secure the laity’s indispensable role in the mission of the Church.

If lay people are to “speak the truth in love” within the life of the Church and to discern the stirrings of the Holy Spirit, then they must participate in the taxing business of thinking deeply about God and loving Him. When the laity are excluded from this work or when we prefer the 280-character tweet over hard thinking, then the risk is that we get God wrong. 

Much vital work is being done in this area. In England, one might point to the courses available at St Mary’s, Twickenham and Maryvale, Birmingham. There are also online resources such as those provided by the Dominican Thomistic Institute. These represent the “top end” of such formation and would not suit everyone. While there are adult formation initiatives in some diocese, these are often under resourced and theologically patchy. A more systematic and coherent approach is required if lay men and women are to lay claim to the richness of Catholic thinking and have it become incarnate in their own Christian lives. 

In the nineteenth century, St John Henry Newman famously argued for “…a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity – I wish [them] to enlarge [their] knowledge, to cultivate [their] reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth to truth, to learn to view things as they are, to understand how faith and reason stand to each other, what are the bases and principles of Catholicism.”

Newman’s appeal remains compelling. However, in our secular age, adult formation cannot be just about providing people with more information about God but of giving people a theology that allows God to speak to us and lift us into His divine life. Nor is it about equipping people for front line social media polemics or an overly defensive apologetics. In this regard, a little theology can be a destructive and divisive thing. Instead, a rounded formation aims to deepen theological reflection and, in the process, brings us to our knees before the mystery of God. The “measure” of any increase of knowledge is an increase in humility. 

Not many priests can say that they have a theologian and philosopher of religion as a parishioner. I can. His name is Joshua, a married man with three young children. It is after he has put his children to bed that late into the night he shapes his thoughts into robust essays for academic periodicals. I am as impressed by this domestic fact as by the content of his knowledge.

I knew I was not dealing with the usual RCIA enquirer when he explained to me that he was reading the Code of Canon Law and working his way through Denzinger Schonmetzer, the compendium of the doctrinal teaching of the Magisterium. Think of them as the Everest and K2 of theological texts.

If it is true that the understanding of lay people is often “stunted” at school level and never matures, anecdotal evidence hints that this may also be true of some clergy whose theological development has never advanced or been tested much beyond the seminary gates. Joshua’s searching questions reminded me of this. He wanted to know what grounded the Catholic understanding of God and the fact that I was wearing a slip-in collar was not going to shield me from the force of his theological investigations. 

He was politely unimpressed by my clumsy theological rhetoric and gently challenged my philosophical inconsistencies. I am glad he did because I was made to return to the theological base camps of Everest and K2. I was forced to pitch my tent and not only interrogate this theological terrain, but allow it to interrogate me.

Theological formation promotes adult ways of thinking deeply about the mystery of God, ways that allow us to live our baptismal vocation with greater integrity and purpose. This requires a renewed commitment to the place of theology within adult formation and the on-going formation of priests. 

It’s time for Rapunzel to let down her hair. Lay theologians need to become more visible in every tier and structure of the Church, informing its spiritual life and pastoral work. A commitment to fostering a culture of theological enquiry in every diocese is required if we are to create habitats where reason and grace can flourish. Contemplating the trinitarian life of God with a clarity of thought and sense of wonder, the laity’s faith will be allowed to mature in the crucified and risen Christ. When that happens, we look outwards and we mobilise for mission.


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Comment by: Alan Pavelin
Posted: 27/08/2021 13:50:34
I wholeheartedly agree. Theology is not about “learning the teachings of the Church”, it’s literally the science of God, and comprises different types: biblical, historical, systematic, and practical. As regards studying various theologians, I’ve found it helpful not necessarily to read the writings of the theologians themselves (Karl Rahner for example is notoriously difficult) but to read ABOUT them. Don’t confine your studies to Catholic theologians only, I’ve found Tom Wright (former Bishop of Durham) and David Wilkinson (scientist and Thought For The Day contributor) particularly fascinating.
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