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Doctrine Aimed at the Gut PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Thursday, 05 June 2008 08:53
Warning long, juicy post ahead!

Thought provoking article over at First Things this morning:

Tim Kelleher is both a seminarian and "an actor, writer, and director, with nearly one hundred film and TV credits. He recently completed his own television pilot and can be seen this fall in films starring Will Smith and Greg Kinnear." (He must be a hoot in the seminary! I'll bet Barb Nicolosi knows him.) Tim begins with the Fr. Pfleger incident but quickly segues into his real topic:

The human maturity of priests and its effect on preaching:

. . . in my experience many Catholic priests seem daunted by the commission to speak in the emotional idiom of their own backgrounds, let alone someone else’s. Let’s be honest—it’s just rare to hear a good homily in a typical Catholic church unless you’ve done some advance scouting. I make this observation with regret and hope.

The situation affects everyone, not least of all the one struggling in the pulpit. But, in an era of widespread illiteracy among Catholics when it comes to the Tradition generally, and the central Mystery of the Eucharist specifically, the homily is a critical key to an infinite treasure.

It used to be thought that better education was the remedy, and a case can be made that in recent decades big strides have been made in this area. For the last few years I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by intellectually gifted young men receiving a world-class education in philosophy and theology as they prepare for Holy Orders. It’s unquestionably important, but it’s not enough. The difficulty in communicating in an emotionally resonant idiom—the language of the heart, if you will—persists. If this is true, we need to ask, Why? At this point, two things come immediately to mind.

First, as Heraclitus pointed out a long while back, “the learning of many things does not teach understanding.” I think this speaks to some strong tendencies in Catholicism toward dogmatic fundamentalism. By this I mean a disposition you could sum up to the tune of “I don’t have to understand all this—the Church has already done it for me.” Von Balthasar once said that “there’s no getting around Being”—in academic terms, metaphysics. How practical Aristotle therefore seems when he opines that no one under the age of fifty is ready to monkey around with matters metaphysical. That’s not a view Thomas Aquinas shared, but I think we can see the Greek philosopher’s point. It’s possible that the unfortunately dubbed trend of “second-career vocations” could exert some positive influence here.

Second, I think it may be useful to recall the 1971 Kennedy-Heckler study of priests in the United States, which concluded that an overwhelming percentage of those exercising sacerdotal office were in some state of emotional underdevelopment. Lest we pogo-stick to conclusions, we should remind ourselves that this study was commissioned by no less a Catholic-baiting group than the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.


I recently had a conversation with a seminarian who has the potential of becoming a very bright light. His intellectual gifts have been apparent to every superior and professor he’s encountered. What’s more, his heterosexuality is as certain as his comportment is awkward. This fellow told me something that seems beyond the grasp of those pushing him to ordination: “I’m not ready to be a priest—I mean, to be responsible for the people of a parish. I hardly know how to be responsible for myself. I’m a kid. I like going to my room and playing Nintendo.”

Now, some might say a good swift kick is in order. But, in such a situation, who’s to administer it? The Monsignor D’Arcys (of Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest) are in short supply, and those pushing him are, statistically at least, likely to rank among the emotionally underdeveloped. For that matter, so am I.

The vocabulary necessary to point compellingly to the rich inner dynamisms of any given doctrine needs to be developed in the years of seminary formation. These doctrines are not dots on a map which once connected lead to the Promised Land. They are the fruits of serious human grappling with the deep mysteries of grace. They may be intellectually elegant but they are also aimed at the gut. (sherry's emphasis)

The Tradition into which many of us were born seems to more than a few outside it an opaque system of rituals intended to conjure rather alchemical results. But rituals are indeed central to the Catholic sacramental view of reality. It’s troubling, then, that the language they form is spoken fluently by so few.

Be sure and read the whole First Things thing.

As I (Sherry) have written before relative to the formation of the laity:

Unfortunately, we have tended in recent years to look upon wrestling with the content of the faith as an optional form of self-enrichment for the few lay people who are so inclined. The intuitive, heartfelt, and experiential have been regarded as sufficient foundation for the majority of lay people while ideas, doctrine, and thought are assumed to be the province of bishops and theologians. We have confused being an intellectual with understanding and discerning the real life implications of fundamental truths.

Few Catholics are gifted intellectuals but all of us need to be familiar with the essential of the Church teaching because through her we have access to revelation. Revelation contains truths that God must reveal to us because we human beings could not discover them on our own. These truths are beyond the grasp of our reason, intuition, and experience and yet they are critical to our happiness and destiny as human beings. Most of us will never read St. Thomas Aquinas for fun, but we can still ponder the significance of St. Thomas’ insistence that the ultimate destiny of human beings is perfect, eternal happiness. You don’t need an Ivy League education to ask “Is this true and if so, what does that mean for me and those I love?”

To make the essentials of the Church’s teaching available to lay men and women at the parish level will require a great effort but it is worth it. We need a remedy that will clear our minds and open our hearts to realities that we could not have guessed. The ability to critically evaluate the truth and implications of a proposed idea or action is particularly important for American Catholics because of the power that each of us has to influence the world around us. We elect our own leaders, form our government, determine our social policy and shape the future of our nation and the world. We are the apostles to this world, and we stand in Christ’s place. We must see our world as he does. As C. S. Lewis observed: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” (The Weight of Glory, “Is Theology Poetry?” 1944, p. 92)

The nagging fear that lay Catholics will be bored to tears by doctrine has never been borne out in our experience. Over the past 11 years, we have taught over 29,000 adult Catholics how to discern the gifts and call of the Holy Spirit in live workshops across North America, Australia, and Indonesia. When we first offered the Called & Gifted workshop, we too were afraid that participants would be bored by the theology of the lay office and mission in the Church. Priests were puzzled as to why we would teach lay people concepts that they had wrestled with in seminary. Parish leaders would tell us that six hours of solid content was asking too much of those who attended. To our constant delight and astonishment, many attendees have told us that the theological portion of the workshop is the best part and a number have even informed us that the weekend is too short!

Our teachers have consistently found that if we present the essential truths of the faith with clarity and conviction, people do not find the Church’s teaching mystifying but compelling. The central doctrines of the faith are not abstractions for would-be scholastics longing for a return to the middle ages. The truths of revelation are alive and they speak profoundly to the hunger of 21st century hearts.

Your thoughts?

By the way:

The reality that Tim describes is one reason that I'm so pumped about the work of the Institute for Priestly Formation located at Creighton in Omaha. Founded by a team (2 priests, 1 deacon, and a lay women) IPF focused on spiritual and human formation for seminarians and priests - the stuff most seminary education doesn't deal with in depth. Living relationship with God. Experiencing God's love. Yes, Intentional discipleship as the heart of priesthood. Emotional, human, and relationship healing and formation. The relationship of the priesthood with the laity. The 30 day Ignatian exercises. All integrated with absolutely rock solid theology but not a head trip.

Fr. Mike and I will be meeting with the IPF team in November between offering Making Disciples for the Archdiocese of Omaha and an ecumenical Orthodox-Catholic Called & Gifted in Ohio. I'm so looking forward to hearing more about their work from the horse's mouth. So it will be an intense week but a privileged and fruitful one.

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