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  • Writer's pictureBr. Allen

A Thomistic Critique of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd: What is Catechesis? (Part 1 of 6)

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

Often a simple explanation is not enough to attain a full understanding of an idea. The Thomistic school insists that a full definition can only be attained by explaining all the causes of something. Thus, in order to gain a fuller understanding of catechesis, we must understand it through the four causes.

We will start by exploring the final cause or purpose of catechesis; but for those unfamiliar with Thomism let’s take a basic look at the four causes.

We’ll take the example of a table, and explain it through the four causes. The purpose of a table is called its end cause. The purpose of a table is dining, and so the end cause of the table is dining. Once the end cause is determined, an idea is formed to fulfill this end cause. The idea of a table is a flat surface raised on four legs. This idea is the formal cause of the table. Once the formal cause has been determined, an agent takes this formal cause and creates it, using a material such as wood. The carpenter is the agent who uses wood to create the table. The wood used to create the table is the material cause. The process of putting the formal cause into the material cause makes the mere idea of a table into an actual, physical table. A carpenter wanted to dine; he needed a surface from which to dine; he decided he needed a table; the carpenter used wood to make the table. The carpenter used several instrumental causes, such as chisels and saws, to create the table. The carpenter remains the agent cause because he is the one who guided the instruments to achieve the end of creating the table. However, in achieving the end cause, any defective instrument will prevent the table from being properly built – from being properly created – from being a good and useful table.

Before a form can be realized in a material, a purpose must first be determined. Thus, when we now turn to a causal discussion of catechesis, we begin with the very purpose of catechesis – its end cause. By knowing the end cause of catechesis, we can determine the proper material and form of catechesis. The end cause of catechesis is knowledge of the Catholic faith. In other words, the primary purpose of catechesis is to instruct people to know and understand the basics of Catholicism. From antiquity, the Church has used her Creeds (Nicene, Apostles, Athanasian) as the instruments of her catechesis. The catechisms, such as the Roman Catechism, Baltimore Catechism, or Catechism of the Catholic Church, were formed using these Creeds as instruments.

The Church also uses prayer and the sacraments, as well as many sacramentals and devotions, as instruments to promote the spiritual growth of the faithful. Catechesis is concerned with these instruments in so far as catechesis attempts to teach people how to use these instruments for their spiritual growth.

Catechesis passes on the Faith by teaching the sacred revelations of God, and by helping the baptized to develop their relationship with Christ. Believers can more deeply learn divine revelations and more deeply grow in relationship with Christ by actively participating in liturgical functions. Hence, catechesis also teaches about the liturgy and how to participate actively.

Catechesis also provides moral formation so that believers may live their lives following God's desire. Ascetical theology, which is the science of growing in holiness and how to pray, is also taught in catechesis.

For all these reasons, catechesis is an essential activity of the Church, the end of which is to educate and guide her members to become pious and devout in their Catholic Faith. Those taught are primarily the youth and adults preparing for the sacraments, as well as adults participating in missions.

These four ends of catechesis are: knowledge of the Faith, liturgical education, moral formation, and how to pray. These are found in the General Directory for Catechesis.

Now that we have determined that the end cause of catechesis is teaching the totality of the Faith (as outlined in no. 85-86 of the General Directory of Catechesis), we can determine the formal cause. This formal cause includes the speculative teachings about God and our relationship with him, as well as practical truths such as how to pray and how to participate in the liturgy. The most important teachings concern our understanding of God, and our relationship to him in terms of our sanctification. Because Christians have recognized this truth since the beginning, the ancient Creeds were composed as instruments to help hand on the unchanging deposit of the Faith. These truths contained in these Creeds have come from God by divine revelation through scripture and tradition (CCC 84). While the public revelation of Christ is complete, it is not completely explicit, because “it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries.” (CCC 66)

All modern teaching must be contained, at least implicitly, in the original corpus of truths found in the Creeds. These truths have been passed down over the centuries by teaching the Creeds. This leads us to consider now the material cause of catechesis.

The material cause is the medium through which the Faith is taught. Just as the carpenter decides on what kind and how much wood to use in making the table based on who will be dining off it, the material used in catechesis must be determined by the type of person who is being taught. At the Council of Trent, the Roman Catechism was compiled to be used by the clergy having care of souls (ad parockos) – everyone of every age and background under their care. The Roman Catechism enjoys a special authority among the various catechisms for this reason. As an authoritative manual, it was developed to provide systematic knowledge first for poorly educated clerics, who at times, ignorant and negligent of the nuances of Catholic faith and doctrine, failed to provide proper religious instruction for the faithful.

Finally, just as the carpenter builds with wood, we look for the agent cause of instruction in the Faith. It is not the catechist; rather, the agent cause is the Church. The catechist is the instrument that the Church uses to provide instruction in the Faith. Though the catechist may teach the class, the catechist is only acting as an instrument for the Church. The Church administers the sacraments and offers prayers for increasing holiness, urges corporal works of mercy to help the sick and afflicted; but the Church also calls people to go out and teach the Faith. The Church is the true agent cause of catechesis, for she is the one who first identifies the end cause – salvation through the Catholic Faith – and determines the formal cause accordingly. It is the Church’s purpose to pass on the divine message which is given to man by God’s revelation.

Thus, we can now see a clear picture of authentic catechesis, which is far different from what is offered by the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. As we shall show in future blog posts, CGS has problems with all four causes.

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