Last week I blogged here about a group of former catechists in northern Virginia whom I dubbed the “Arlington Five,” who had been written up in a front-page Washington Post story for their refusal to continue teaching Sunday school if they were to be required by the bishop of Arlington to make a public profession of faith. I also wrote about it at greater length on the Post ‘s own “On Faith” page.
Leave it to Frank Beckwith (writing at The Catholic Thing ) to have absolutely the best commentary yet written on this little contretemps. I won’t attempt to summarize his fine argument, but I will note that Frank has been, in the several years I have known him, consistently, persistently insistent that theology be considered a body of knowledge , not just a collection of just-so stories religious folk tell one another. Do go and read his TCT column.
I will add a postscript to the story from my own experience blogging about it for the Post . About 24 hours after my blog post went online there, an editor contacted me to give me a heads-up that they would be adding an “editor’s note” that reads as follows: “The catechists said in interviews that their issue is not with conveying official church teaching to students, but with being required to sign a fidelity oath.” I made no objection, thanking the editor for the notice and remarking that the insertion of the note did not affect my argument at all (though I expected it to be at the end of my piece, not stuck into the middle of it).
I still think that. On further reflection, though, it occurred to me to wonder about that little note. “The catechists said in interviews . . . ” Well, not in the original story that went online July 11 and was on the print edition’s front page the next morning. No such qualification saying “I can teach what the Church thinks, I just don’t want to have to profess that I believe it myself” was part of the original story. Readers could fairly have concluded that the former catechists were disgruntled at being restricted regarding what they could teach in the name of the Catholic Church. So it seems either that this claim “in interviews” was in the reporter’s original notes for the story, but unused in the original report, and she wanted this fact on the record now that it had received so much attention; or this claim was made afresh by one or more of the former catechists contacting the reporter after publication to “clarify” something they hadn’t said in the original interviews.
Okay, so the caveat is now entered: the catechists say they can “convey official church teaching to students.” Is that good enough, if they will not profess their own belief in those teachings? I think not. (Notice it’s never enough for your local biology department to keep a Darwin-doubter on the faculty if he is once sniffed out, no matter how much he protests that he will teach the received wisdom.) Leave aside any questions of the Church’s teaching authority, or the bishop’s right and duty to insist on wholehearted fidelity to it. Consider just the practical problem in pedagogy. Religious instruction is more than just conveying information, it is bringing young people into a communion of faith, a system of shared belief. One is not likely to do it really well if one does not know oneself to be fully part of that system. And students pick up signals one may not even know one sends. “Mr. Franck, sure, that’s what the Church teaches, but what do you really think? Come on, we want to know!” And then what? The teacher-as-private-dissenter either becomes then an open dissenter, or a dissembler. Neither of these is a good outcome.