Toward a Wisdom of the Heart

Catholic Moral Theologians Discuss Classroom Pedagogies for Both Head and Heart Knowledge

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By Dr. Justin M. Anderson & Reverend W. Jerome Bracken, C.P.

Ten moral theologians from Catholic seminaries and schools of theology from Boston to Washington D.C. gathered recently at Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology on the campus of Seton Hall University to share and discuss their individual pedagogies. The aim of this day-long colloquium was to make a first step in understanding how Catholic professors of moral theology might legitimately aid a student preparing for ministry in the Church to arrive at both a head-knowledge of the Church’s moral teaching as well as a freely chosen and heartfelt response to that same teaching. Both during the individual presentations contributed by each of the invited participants and the subsequent roundtable discussion that followed, the discussion moved freely between the theoretical concerns that might impact pedagogy and the practical structures individual professors apply to their courses.

On the theoretical level, the morning began with both Rev. Romanus Cessario, O.P. of St. John’s Seminary (Boston) and Dr. William C. Mattison, III of Catholic University of America (Washington, D.C.) highlighting the importance of being attentive to the understanding of the human person employed when approaching questions of pedagogy. Concerning this understanding, attention ought to especially be paid to avoid any reductionistic anthropologies by which one might see the affectivity (including but not limited to the emotions) pitted against the cognition (including by not limited to human reason).

Rev. Msgr. David I. Fulton of St. Mary’s University (Baltimore, Maryland) led the group in a reflection of the danger of the seminarian or lay student preparing for ministry in the Church being insensitive to the role one’s affect can play in those being ministered to, while Dr. Cynthia Toolin of Holy Apostles College & Seminary (Cromwell, Connecticut) followed his presentation by emphasizing the need of situating the Church’s moral teaching in the context of the New Evangelization.

Rev. John Corbett, O.P. of the Dominican House of Studies (Washington, D.C.) underscored the question of the moral truths being imparted as paramount in comparison to any subsequent discussion of pedagogical considerations.

The theological themes of grace and charity were emphasized by Dr. Eric Johnston of Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology (South Orange, New Jersey) as being the proper context in which the student must understand any subsequent moral teachings of the Church.

Rev. Daniel Mindling, OFM Cap., professor at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary (Emmitsburg, Maryland) was able to speak to various salient issues arising from cognitive studies in right and left brained thinking and the importance of knowing the kind of learning through which one’s audience is most easily reached.

Dr. Peter J. Colosi of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) directed the discussion toward accessing topics which will by their very nature strike an affective cord in the student. Rev. W. Jerome Bracken, C.P. and Dr. Justin M. Anderson, both of Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University (South Orange, New Jersey) spoke of the struggle of the student presupposed by the day’s topic.

Keeping in mind these more theoretical concerns, the individual pedagogies employed by these professors in their classrooms was of particular interest. Several of the professors reported regularly utilizing some form of imaginative ministry situation.

For example, one professor reported requiring student’s preparing for ministry to compose an imaginative, though realistic, dialogue between themselves and another. Another professor shared assigning the student the task of writing out a presentation to a very specific group of people in which the student needed to balance the need to present the Church’s moral teaching in a personal, approachable manner and still maintain a theological clarity manifested in the footnotes of the assignment submitted to the professor.

Several other professors reported the use of various forms of literature in connecting spirituality with morality. For example, one professor reported using various Fathers of the Church like Cassian and St. Augustine of Hippo, who, in their meditations and commentaries on Scripture manifest that same connection. In another instance, a professor employed autobiographical lives of the saints to evoke a more heartfelt response to the Church’s moral teachings.

Also utilized in the classroom is the use of visual religious art. One professor shared the experience of teaching about the recovery of the preparation for death with the aid of religious art from previous centuries. The point was readily made of the need for the ministers-to-be to promote a strong Catholic ethos in which faith becomes a daily lived experience especially in such moments as death.

Some professors emphasized assignments like watching and reflecting on the affective dimensions of characters in film or using film to raise affective-laden theological issues and pastoral situations. Other professors encouraged a more experiential learning by sending their students into ministry situations or taking time to reflect prayerfully on a selected experience from one’s past ministry or evangelizing efforts.

Finally, Rev. D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D., Professor-Emeritus of Moral Theology at the Pontifical University of St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, Ireland, and former doctoral student of Joseph Ratzinger, closed out the day-long colloquium by offering a summary reflection. Rev. Twomey’s own thought centered on the centrality of the student’s experiencing the proclamation of the moral truth. However, Rev. Twomey noted that an integral part of the professor’s role in proclaiming that truth is allowing the student to struggle to find it, and not simply give out ready-made answers that the student so often wants. This allowance of the student to struggle takes place when both professor and student share the basic conviction that somehow this truth is expressed, thanks to the revelation of Jesus Christ, in His Body, the Church. This basic conviction sets both professor and student free to struggle and search for the truth. And there is a power that the truth has. It resonates in the heart of the student when proclaimed because God is also at work in their heart. Hence, the professor must “trust the student”, that is, trust the student is capable to come to the truth of Jesus Christ. In this context, Rev. Twomey reiterated what Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI used to say to his own student-professors: we teachers should not give the students something they can discover for themselves. This ultimately means that only God can touch their hearts and open them to the proclamation of truth. Consequently, the professor’s role is not only to encourage the student’s own search for truth as a type of pedagogy, but the professor must also pray daily for his/her students, as many of the colloquium’s participants had made mention throughout the day’s discussion.

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