Bishops Are Leading a Generation With Little Formation

Cardinal Affirms Prelates’ Responsibility to Teach

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WASHINGTON, D.C., APRIL 18, 2011 ( Citing a prevalent lack of catechesis since the 1970s, Cardinal Donald Wuerl says that a bishop’s role as teacher is particularly essential today, as there is a whole generation with «little solid intellectual formation in their faith.»

The cardinal, who is chair of the U.S. episcopal conference’s doctrine committee, made this affirmation in a resource he provided today for the nation’s bishops. The resource, called «Bishops as Teachers,» explains the rationale behind a United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) critique of a book last March.

The book, «Quest for the Living God: Mapping the Frontiers of the Theology of God,» by Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, a Sister of St. Joseph of Brentwood, New York, and professor at Fordham University, is used as a college textbook.

The Doctrine Committee asserted in late March that «Quest for the Living God» as a work of Catholic theology “does not take the faith of the Church as its starting point.»

In response to criticism of the USCCB statement, Cardinal Wuerl’s 13-page resource highlights the complementary role that should be played between bishops and theologians.

«It is the privilege of theologians to delve more profoundly and systematically into the meaning of the faith, according to the ancient adage, ‘fides quaerens intellectum’ (faith seeking understanding),» the cardinal wrote. «Since this faith is handed on by the Church through the ministry of the magisterium, the bishop and the theologian have a special relationship that can and should be reciprocally enriching.”

«Bishops benefit from the work of theologians,» he continued, «while theologians gain a deeper understanding of revelation under the guidance of the magisterium. The ministry of bishops and the service rendered by theologians entail a mutual respect and support.”

Cardinal Wuerl likened the bishop to a referee in a sports match, and emphasized that it is his responsibility to step in, particularly when peer review — «the most effective check on fruitless investigation» — is lacking. «It is the responsibility of the bishop to make the call and to declare, if necessary, certain notions out of bounds, the bounds of Christian revelation.”

Looking out for students

Cardinal Wuerl noted that «Quest for the Living God» is being used at the college undergraduate level.

«The background against which the bishops must exercise their teaching responsibility today is the generally recognized catechetical deficiencies of past decades beginning with the 1970s,» he said. «The result is a generation or more of Catholics, including young adults today, who have little solid intellectual formation in their faith. It is in this context that books used in religious studies/theology courses at Catholic colleges and universities must be seen as de facto catechetical and formational texts. While the content of a book may be highly speculative and of interest for trained theologians, when it is used in a classroom with students often ill-prepared to deal with speculative theology the results can be spiritually harmful.»

The cardinal affirmed that the bishops are «rightly concerned about the spiritual welfare of those students using this book who may be led to assume that its content is authentic Catholic teaching.»

Today’s students, he continued, are often offered a variety of texts in introductory theology courses.

«While many of the texts can be quite helpful in presenting the faith and teaching of the Catholic Church, there are others that cause confusion and raise doubt among students,» the cardinal cautioned.

«This is especially a concern given the current diminished level of catechetical preparation of so many young students,» he continued. «In the light of this changed academic situation special attention must now be given as to how to address theological works that are aimed at students and yet do not meet criteria for authentic Catholic teaching.”

Let the dialogue go on

Carinal Wuerl clarified that the USCCB committee «does not wish to stifle legitimate theological reflection or to preclude further dialogue, but it does want to ensure that the authentic teaching of the Church, concerning doctrine and morals, is clearly stated and affirmed.»

“The Committee on Doctrine recognizes the legitimate vocations of the theologian as well as of the bishop,» he wrote. «The Committee hopes that the discussion generated by its statement will help lead to a renewal and foster a proper and fruitful relationship between the bishops and the whole theological community.»

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