I apologize if you are one of the readers of this blog that has become bored with the ongoing discussion centering on Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, PhD’s book Quest for the Living God (Continuum, 2007) and the USCCB Committee on Doctrine’s report on it, but there continues to be a lively theological and pastoral discussion about this matter. This most recent installment was prompted by the letter sent to the Bishops of the United States by Cardinal Wuerl of Washington, DC. In this letter he attempts to explain the Committee on Doctrine (of which he is the Chair) report and the committee’s feeling that a statement (without notifying Sr. Johnson first) was necessary.

In response to Cardinal Wuerl’s letter, titled “Bishops as Teachers,” Fr. Anthony Ruff, OSB, a professor of theology, offers two points of reflection and concern. The second of which I think is an important one, especially for those of us who teach theology to undergraduates:

2. The purpose of undergraduate theology. “Bishops as Teachers” asserts that catechetics since the 1970s has failed to pass on the basics of the faith, and this demands a change in how theology is taught to uninformed Catholic undergraduates. Students don’t have sufficient background to negotiate the wide variety of opinions in the theological academy.  Undergrad theology must become catechetical – that is, it must stick to teaching the basics of the Faith to the uncatechized.

The Cardinal is raising a new topic here, and his proposal has huge implications for academic theology. Now the question isn’t Sr. Johnson’s orthodoxy, but the purpose of undergraduate theology. Would “remedial catechesis” be seen as a legitimate discipline in the wider academic community? Would the entire faculty approve of “catechetical courses” as general education requirements? What about the non-Catholic students in Catholic schools, sometimes 30% or 50% or more of the student body – would they be exempt from “Catholic catechesis as theology” courses? Would Catholic students who don’t want religious catechesis be able to opt out? Is is pedagogically effective with today’s college students to present only an official viewpoint in the theology classroom, not least when this pedagogic approach is not used in other disciplines in the school or college?

I see a need for serious discussion on what we think the purpose of undergrad theology is.

You can Fr. Ruff’s analysis and reflection in its entirety over at the PrayTell blog.  The article is titled, “Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, Cardinal Wuerl and Fr. Raymond Brown.

Photo: Stock


  1. Thanks Brother Dan: I keep making links via you on my own blog as you seem to be on top of it all and as a non theologian I am finding it all very interesting but difficult to keep abreast of it. You are bang on when you say that we need a serious discussion of what undergraduate theology’s purpose should be and I say that as a scientist because a similar question could be raised in terms of what a student today needs to know about the history and roots of scientific investigation.

  2. I’m also intrigued by Wuerl’s matter-of-fact comment about the decline in quality catechesis since the 1970s. I’m not sure if he’s referring to a particular change that occurred, or just a general shift away from catechism to the less intellectual models that predominate today. In either case, I’m a bit skeptical of that premise.

  3. Two things strike me about the response from Cardinal Wuerl. First, if the concern is over the use of certain texts (and note, it must be multiple texts to elicit an entire document from that level) in undergraduate classrooms, shouldn’t the issue be addressed with Catholic colleges and universities? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a legitimate concern that Catholic institutions remain true to the teachings of our faith, but that is a separate concern from theological reflection & discussion.

    Second, as a Faith Formation coordinator in the parish setting, I understand the frustration of providing catechesis in a way that is both true to teaching and still understandable for children. But I also know that ever other DRE I work along side has the same concern and we work tirelessly to ensure that the children (and later youth) receive the basis they need in the faith. The bishops themselves have just recently come out with a new directive for Adolescent Catechesis that helps ensure teens get that basis before going on to the undergraduate level.

    Like so much of what we are as Church, though, it’s a work in progress. Thanks for the reflection and updates, Bro. Dan!!

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