Why Theology is Not Catechism

People cite the Catholic catechism as if its formulations settle all theological reflection. If the faith is to stay relevant … Continued

People cite the Catholic catechism as if its formulations settle all theological reflection. If the faith is to stay relevant to lived Catholicism, it needs the constant exploration of the sources and the “what-ifs?” that arise from actual experience. The rote answers of the catechism are sufficient only for the day, but not enough for the width and breadth of Catholic faith”

Catholic Theology is not catechism. The point is made by analogy to a meat processing factory making sausage (theology) and the supermarket with cellophane-wrapped links (catechism). Much to the chagrin of those who would like to reduce Catholic theology to a mindless recitation, good theology doesn’t produce bumper sticker slogans.

To illustrate, let’s use the Church’s teaching on abortion.

Catholicism has always taught that life begins at conception and that destroying such life is a sin: (catechism). But what constitutes conception? St. Thomas Aquinas relied on the science of Aristotle when he suggested the fetus was not human until about the third trimester. While he opposed abortion, St. Thomas argued from scientific principles that until much later in its development, the fetus in the womb was not sufficiently formed as a human being to receive its soul (theology). (For those who care to note, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade made a distinction about trimesters that closely adheres to the observations of Aristotle and Aquinas.)

By the 19th century, however, the scientific basis used by Aristotle and Aquinas was questioned within Catholic theology. The Church now taught that the fetus was human being when the woman became pregnant because the human soul was infused (theological term) once and for all when first the fetus is formed. Note that theology and the catechism had always been united in opposing all abortion at any time. What had changed with scientific input was the theological explanation and justification for Catholic practice. This enabled theology to debate non-believers who relied only on reason and science to make moral decisions.

Last century, when Roe v. Wade came before the Supreme Court, a series of conflicting rights about abortion were in play outside the theological realm: privacy, the role of big government, women’s rights, etc. The legal principle frequently advanced was: “A woman should have control over her own body.” This popular formulation may have been derived from the Talmud that considers the fetus “an appendage of its mother,” and until the 40th day “mere water.” I suppose that as a legal premise this reasoning was valid: as theology it is now unacceptable. Science has proven that the chromosomal make-up of a fetus is different from that of the mother – and, therefore, within — but not part of — her body. Catholic theology is equipped to argue that the law of the land should be based on modern science.

Catholic theology also allows majority and minority opinions about specific issues. Just as St. Thomas’s opinion went from majority to minority opinion, theology is constantly evolving. Thus, the catechism holds that all embryos are conceived as human life and not to be destroyed even for well-intended research. However, most fertility science considers conception to take place only after implantation in the womb. While a Catholic theologian is required to teach the position upheld in the catechism to avoid damage to embryos before implantation, as theologian he/she exercises academic freedom in suggesting that certain embryos have not yet been conceived as human beings.

The affirmation of this role for theology comes from the Pope. “I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom,” Benedict XVI said in April. “In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you.” The pontiff closed his remarks by distinguishing this vital freedom in Catholic theology from the catechetical obligation to “ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice.”

I have added the emphasis to Pope Benedict’s speech to indicate how and why Catholic America recognizes that theology is not catechism.

  • Mike

    I’m a bit confused as to the purpose of this piece. Stevens-Arroyo seems unable to decide which article he would like to write–one distinguishing between theology and catechism, or one on the evolving understanding of conception as it pertains to abortion. In the end, he succeeds in neither, which is unfortunate, because both are interesting subjects.His initial thesis, i.e. that Catholic theology is not equivalent to Catholic catechism, is, indeed, an accurate insight. Questionably illuminating sausage analogy notwithstanding, Stevens-Arroyo is pointing to relatively mundane, if oft-overlooked, axiom of any religion, viz. that the dynamic and constantly-evolving faith of a lived community cannot be reduced merely to a rote set of stagnant question-and-answer sets. I won’t purport to articulate that thesis further here, as there are innumerable resources for exploring the topic available in the literature.What I do wish to address is Stevens-Arroyo’s confusing and conflated discussion of conception as it relates to Church teaching on abortion. Fairly conspicuously, he fails to distinguish between conception as ensoulment–a theo/philosophical notion–and conception as the successful fertilization of an ovum resulting in an embryo–a biological one.If the conversation uses the latter notion, i.e. when there exists an autonomous, self-directed organism of the species Homo sapiens, then the appropriate resource is Stedman’s or Dorland’s, and not the Catholic catechism. In fact, the Church cannot pretend to answer that question (a biological one) on her own, any more than can it presume to weigh in on the relative adequacies of string theory and quarks. It is, in Aristotelian terms, a question of efficient cause, i.e. HOW, and not one of final cause, i.e. WHY, which is properly the Church’s domain. If one adopts an Aristotelian approach to the concept of soul (rather than the familiar Cartesian notion of the ghost in the machine), then conception precisely represents ensoulment, according to the Catholic tradition. If, however, one uses this Cartesian notion (by which most, unknowingly, operate), believing that the soul is somehow ‘injected’ into a ‘clump of cells’ at some stage along the lines of embryological development, then one has other issues, viz. when such occurs.Regardless, with respect to Roe v. Wade and matters of secular policy, conception is a biological notion determining when an autonomous human organism has appeared for the first time. This may or may not be the moment that a “person” appears, depending upon one’s understanding of personhood, which is a philosophical/legal category, and not a biological one. Ultimately, Stevens-Arroyo doesn’t do an especially good job of supporting his thesis concerning catechism v. theology, nor does he have a very good grasp of the relevant facets of the Church’s understanding of conception and abortion.

  • Eloist

    Mike:the distinction between the infusion of the soul and biological concepts of conception is clearly in the Arroyo piece. without the example of abortion, the point he’s making lacks impact. Your comments are obtuse. You don’t have a good grasp of communications. Ultimately, you don’t know how to explain yourself. you flunk. No wonder Arroyo writes blogs and you only comments.