Friday, 20 May 2011

Catechesis vs theological speculation: the Holy Spirit e-conference


I  listened in, yesterday, to the e-conference on the Holy Spirit sponsored by the Australian Bishops Conference and Broken Bay Institute. 

The archived versions of this and previous conferences are available online (though read below before you decide to rush off and listen!).

A great idea...

These conferences are a great idea - because I think there is a great hunger out there for real catechesis, particularly in the more remote parts of the country where access to things like Theology in the Pub is lacking.

To join in, all you have to do is click on the video link on your computer screen, and you can listen in.  Or alternatively, depending on where you live, you could have joined one of the groups of people listening together with a facilitator to pick up the discussion (though I have to admit I thought my local diocese's promotion of the group event as a 'networking opportunity' perhaps missed the point of the event...). 

In sum, the conferences are easy to access, well managed, and a really smart use of the available technologies.   So these e-conferences could be a great way of tackling the widespread lack of understanding of theological basics amongst our clergy, religious, and laity. 

The positives...

And there was a lot of good stuff in yesterday's presentation. 

I really liked the mix between 'content sessions' (given by Fr Denis Edwards of Adelaide and Sr Janette Gray RSM of Melbourne), and very engaging 'testimony sessions' (Fr Chris Ryan MGL and Mrs Jan Heath).

On the whole, the material seemed pitched well, and included interesting and pertinent content (Sr Janette, for example included an interesting presentation on medieval devotion to the Holy Spirit; Fr Edwards gave a nice exposition of the Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testament, and included quotes from a song by one of my favourite saints, Hildegarde von Bingen).

But...the difference between cathechesis and theological speculation

There was a problem with some of the material and presentation style though, and it goes to the difference between catechesis and theological speculation, an issue flagged by the Pope in his address to Indian bishops on their ad limina visit earlier this week, and equally pertinent in the Australian context.  Pope Benedict XVI said:

"Within the Church, believers’ first steps along the way of Christ must always be accompanied by a sound catechesis that will allow them to flourish in faith, love and service. Some of you have told me of the challenges you face in this regard, and I support you in your commitment to provide quality formation in this area. Recognizing that catechesis is distinct from theological speculation, priests, religious and lay catechists need to know how to communicate with clarity and loving devotion the life-transforming beauty of Christian living and teaching, which will enable and enrich the encounter with Christ himself..."

The e-conference was clearly pitched overall at the level of catechesis, not theology.  Unfortunately in subtle and less subtle ways it crossed the line several times into the realm of theological speculation.

I'm not talking here (in the main) about the choice of theologians quoted in support of various points.  While the presenters' favourite theologians (such as Rahner, Congar, Nicholas Lash, etc) were generally amongst my, to put it kindly, least favourites, the actual quotes used seemed mostly unproblematic.

Using traditional terminology

A key principle when engaging in catechesis though (well theology too if you read repeated decisions of Popes and Councils on the subject, but that's another debate) is to stick to standard terminology and categories in order to reinforce the Catechism and other official documents, rather than inventing your own.

Why then did Sr Janette decide in this particular context to ignore the traditional terminology, and refer to 'Holy Spirit' sans a definite article?  She did, in response to questions, give an explanation that saying 'the Holy Spirit' suggests a thing rather than a person.  But the traditional form of address to the Holy Spirit is there for a reason, perhaps to suggest mystery of the second person of the Trinity?

And why did she want to suggest that the Holy Spirit is in a sense the first person of the Trinity (in the sense that we perhaps encounter him first) rather than the second? 

Why talk about baptism as an action of the Holy Spirit (hinting at some of those invalid formulations) when it is explicitly done in the name of all three Persons?

Thirdly, and above all, why (other than by way of making a political statement in defiance of a recent decision of the US bishops and in support of radical feminist theology) did she have to include a 'litany' to the Holy Spirit addressed as female extracted from recently censured  US theologian Sr Elizabeth Johnson? 

Whether or not you accept the rationalizations offered (notably by Fr Edwards rather than Sr Janette herself in relation to the feminization of the Holy Spirit!) in response to questions on these issues, it just comes across as simple defiance, dissent or even subversion.

And of course there was a dose of good old Spirit of Vatican IIism...

The other problem with the conference was that in my view it served to reinforce rather than educate on the general failure of Catholics to distinguish between different levels of certainty in doctrine and doctrinal documents, and on the difference between doctrinal definitions and pastoral practice decisions.

The problem is reasonably straightforward: decisions of the Church on questions of faith and morals that are irreformable (such as the possibility of female ordination) are treated as if they were still open to debate, while at the same things that are actually open (such as the use of the EF Mass) are treated as if they were closed by virtue of a perceived violation of the spirit of Vatican II.

The problem is in part that the liberals regard everything relating to Vatican II as directly inspired by the Holy Spirit (there is a corresponding - and equally dangerous in the opposite direction  - hefty dose of ultramontanism, at least when it comes to anything said by Blessed John Paul II, practiced on the part of conservatives).  This perspective got a good push at yesterday's e-conference from both lead presenters, linked to a paen in favour of 'change' (the liberals seem not to have noticed that they are the ones resisting change at the moment, not traditionalists and conservatives!).

It was noticeable that while Blessed John Paul II was quoted several times, there was not one reference by the two main speakers to the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI.  And there was not one reference to the 'hermaneutic of continuity' or like concepts.

This kind of thing does neither themselves nor the Church any favours. 

The Church does not teach that everything a Council says, does or thinks is directly inspired - it reserves that status for Scripture!  Even when it comes to infallible decisions, the charism is a protection against error, nothing more. So whether or not something outside of Scripture is or isn't inspired is generally a matter of theological speculation.  It isn't Church teaching.  And insisting otherwise just perpetrates the confusion over what Catholics do and don't have to believe that is proving such a dividing point in the Church today around the world.  Even more so when many of the things being insisted on are matters of (changeable) pastoral practice rather than actual dogma.

Moving forward

The bottom line is that the Bishops' Conference decision to sponsor these conferences is a good idea.

But perhaps a little more thought and supervision is required to make sure that they really target the deficits in catechesis that are so evident in Australia at the moment, reflect the leadership being provided by our current Holy Father, and are structured to reinforce rather than subvert official Church teaching...

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