Saturday, December 18, 2010

On Smarter Catholics II

It's always easy to point out flaws and limitations. I tried not to do only that last post, but if anything I failed because of specificity. So the question has preoccupied me:

In what, then, would good theological education consist? And do not lack anything in specificity.

Without deflecting too much with there are many paths one might take (which is true), I will layout a plan of reading that might have the potential of turning a layman into a theologian.

1. Obviously, begin with the Catechism and the Bible. This is their first appearance - by no means their last.

Are my roots showing - my Protestant roots - in my insistence on the Bible at the beginning? Maybe, but I like to think of myself as a disciple of St. Augustine, who came very close to identifying Christian Doctrine and Scripture. Is not, then, the Catechism but a handbook on biblical interpretation? I am fine with that formulation, and am willing to take on all sayers of nay.

How long with these before introducing something else? Just read both of them through - just one time is fine for now.

2. The next step is crucial since it can single-handedly define what type of theologian you will become. I would suggest one or all of the following: Augustine's Confessions, St. Gregory's Life of St. Benedict, St. Francis' Introduction to the Devout Life, or something of that ilk: something that is a solid Catholic classic that dwells on Catholic spirituality.

3. A systematic study of Church History, from Christ to today. A first pass over it, getting a sense of the whole. For this you need to chose your historians well. There is alot of bad Catholic history out there.

For Antiquity you can't do better than the Anglican Henry Chadwick's, or the great Cardinal Danielou - although his tri-part early history is much more challenging than Chadwick's (btw, Danielou's wikipedia entry needs a lot of work). You can read Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History if you like - hopefully there are notes to guide you in the edition you chose, but Eusebius only takes you to the beginning of the fourth century.

For the Medieval world (as for the Ancient) you cannot go wrong with the multi-volume Cambridge History of Christianity. But it is extremely expensive and way too ambitious for this stage of formation. I have read so many good Medieval Church histories, so no one jumps out. But how about Southern's Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (like Chadwick's in the Penguin Series). The advantage of avoiding histories that are 'too Catholic' at this stage is avoiding the danger of getting too committed to incidental points and interpretations. This initial reading should stir up thoughts and present problems that theology and further historical study will be directed towards resolving. This reading should be like running your hands against un-sanded wood: pick up a few splinters, it's good for you. Now, you will want to study very closely issues like the Papal Schisms and the Crusades. So don't hesitate to add relatively easy intros to these topics. A reviewer at First Things presented a very favourable presentation of Crusades, Christianity, and Islam by Jonathan Riley-Smith. As for the latter, A Companion to the Great Western Schism (1378-1417), ed., Joelle Rollo-Koster, et alia, looks really good, but I haven't read it, so I don't know for sure. Avoid Belloc. He does not do history, but polemic. Please avoid, and read a modern study.

* for any other books on the Medieval Church I defer to my colleague Dr. Ryan Freeburn, who will hopefully add his educated two-cents in the 'comments.'

The next stage in the Reformation / Modern Church. Again, Penguin or Cambridge series are fine for this stage. But do not read any books written before 1960 when studying this era. They are not impartial enough (hardly ever). Next time I teach "Modern Church History" I will be using Michael Burleigh's Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes.

In sum, the crucial thing about one's first systematic pass at Church history is to get a sense of the big picture and to begin to grapple with the actual issues towards which theology needs to be directed. A theology born of excessive simplicity and optimism will be unprofitable; it won't make a difference in anyone's life.

4. Now I would say is the time to start on systematics, or fundamental theology, as it were. This could be called the O'Collins / Sullivan stage, the two who offer the standard introduction to doctrine. A new book in the area (which I've only skimmed) is: Teaching With Authority: A Theology of the Magisterium in the Church by Richard R. Gaillardetz. A good source for this kind of thing is Ratzinger's Introduction to Christianity, and like works. In fact, one could make a very good study of dogmatics through the Ratzingerian corpus as a whole.

5. Next, the key Magisterial documents of the last century, which seems more or less a continuation of phase (4). This would include the key documents from Leo XIII on, but the documents of Trent and Vatican I as well. A few good months would be all that would be required here.

6. Now we've got to go through the entire history again, but this time with a more concentrated examination of key moments. Read a book on the Old Testament, New Testament, Christological Controversies (centering on Nicaea and Chalcedon), Augustine's controversy with the Pelagians, the Medieval Papacy, Scholasticism, Luther, the Enlightenment.

It is really difficult to find a good book on the Old Testament. They are often so deconstructive as to be upsetting to one unfamiliar with the method of historical biblical study. The standard intro to the Old Testament in Catholic circles is Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction by Lawrence Boadt. It's okay, but, again, deconstructive. It's necessary to be exposed to these types of interpretations, but it's all a matter of timing. One that looks good is An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination by Walter Brueggemann. As for the New Testament, I would advise against the 'Catholic' Raymond Brown - but he is the standard Catholic entry point. An Introduction to the New Testament for Catholics by Joseph F. Kelly looks good.

7. This seems as good a time as any to begin the Summa Theologica. Some might put it much earlier than this. You could do that, but this would work just as well or better. At this point Thomas can be judged in light of the modern teaching of the Church, and not the opposite. The Summa would consolidate, once again, the foundamentals of dogma, but more specifically, the doctrines of God, the Trinity, Creation, man, angels, ethics, Christology and sacraments.

8. Probably long overdue is a return to the spiritual tradition of the Church. Now you'd want to read St. Basil's Rules and ascetical works, some treatises of Evagrius Ponticus, the Lives of the Desert Fathers, The Conferences of Cassian, the Rule of Benedict, some treatises of St. Bernard or other Cistercians, and finally, St. Theresa and John of the Cross. Additionally, a good guide text on this tradition would help, like that of 'Christian Spirituality' Series (3 vv), featuring such great authorities as Jean Leclercq.

9. I suppose that we could not have a firm hold on the tradition without returning again to Augustine, this time with attention to specific treatises on sexuality, Donatism (sacraments), and exegesis (his On Christian Doctrine).

10. This would finally be the time to specialize in some sub discipline of theology - ethics, exegesis, whatever. To form a specialization is necessary: for, unless you know one thing very well, you cannot grasp the complexity of thought at all, and will be unaware of the logical dimension of complex ideas, and to grasp what constitutes 'proof'. To become a specialist means devoting several years to one topic - at least five, I'd say.

At this point I have every confidence that one should be able to read any TAN Books without loss of perspective on the whole, should be able to put private revelation in its right place, should be able to transcend pointless campishness and generalized nomenclature...

This is not yet to become a scholar, but yes, in fact, a well-rounded Catholic mind. It's fine to be interested in particular things, like the Church and American politics, but not without a firm hold on the tradition as a whole.


  1. Good advice, Colin. For a general survey on the medieval Church, I might add Joseph Lynch's The Medieval Church: A Brief History. But your other recommendations are excellent. You may have noticed Jonathan Riley-Smith's book on reserve in our library. He also happens to be a member of the Knights of Malta.

  2. Thanks, Ryan. I'll have to read that book, then, come summer.