Thursday, May 21, 2009


There is a very good post about the President's visit to Notre Dame at The Friends of Jake. As the controversy was heating up I wondered whether of not Notre Dame had bestowed honorary degrees on anyone who disagreed with the Roman Catholic Church's teaching on other life issues, e.g., capital punishment. Unfortunately the university has not yet posted a list of past recipients, but it has promised to do so on its website.

The Friends of Jake post cites an op-ed piece by Thomas J. Reese, S.J., in which Fr. Reese wrote, 'I think part of the problem is that the bishops stopped listening and teaching and started ordering and condemning. With an educated laity it no longer works to simply say, "it is the teaching of the church." This is the equivalent of a parent shouting, "Because I said so."'

The priest with whom I served in my first parish once said that lay people in the Episcopal Church were woefully ignorant when it came to the Bible. I suspect he would have said the same thing about theology and ethics. Few branches of the Catholic Church place a very high value on having an educated laity. Far too often members of the clergy - including me - act as if theology, ethics and Biblical study are simply too hard for lay people and that we will do their thinking for them, we will tell them what to believe. Lay people, who are often quite a bit smarter than the clergy and are very well educated in other fields, are no longer likely to accept, as Fr. Reese points out, "it is the teaching of the church." They may well want to know and will ask clergy, "Why does the church teach this?"

I have a Roman Catholic friend who often speaks about the importance of an informed conscience in making moral decisions. The problem, as Fr. Reese asserts, is that informed consciences don't emerge by accident, but through teaching, teaching which involves respectful listening. The classic understanding of the work or functions of the church identifies these four: worship (liturgia), proclamation (kerygma), fellowship (koinonia) and service (diakonia), to which I think we must add a fifth: teaching (didache). Without teaching, without an educated laity, all the other functions of the church will be anemic. The church's emphasis in the past half-century on the ministry of the baptized makes attention to didache more important now, perhaps, than in any other age.

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