Thursday, October 24, 2019

USC Videos: Inculturation and the Missions

It's been awhile since I made a video for the Youtube channel, but the controversy surrounding the Synod on the Amazon and the now infamous Pachamama idol provided excellent occasion for me to make this video exploring the idea of "inculturation"--how is it different from Christianization, how is it being interpreted by contemporary Church leadership, and what it means for the Catholic missions. It's about fourteen and a half minutes long. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 17, 2019

This Female Image is Not the Blessed Virgin Mary

The image above has been showing up all over the Amazon Synod. It has been featured prominently in ceremonies presided over by Pope Francis himself and has been the object of religious veneration in the Vatican Gardens in what looks suspiciously like a pagan ritual.

Defenders of the Amazon Synod and the current pontificate's vision for "Amazonia" are bending over backwards to make this blatant paganism palatable by claiming the image is the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Without getting into the muddy waters of the content of the Synod—which others are already doing with much greater skill—I wanted to simply collect some statements that should be sufficient to disprove this falsehood.

The first statement is from a missionary bishop in the Amazon region, one who, perhaps more than any other cleric, would be in a position to understand what this image is. The latter two statements come from members of the Vatican communications office; Fr. Costa is the Secretary of the Information Commission. Dr Paolo Ruffini is Prefect of the Dicastery for Communications—in other words, both men tasked with delivering official Vatican communications.

Bishop David Martínez de Aguirre Guinea of Peru: "I’d seen this image on various occasions and I did not identify and not even and no one either at the was an image that was shown also on other occasions, and I wouldn’t know how to interpret it. Well, we all have our own interpretations … the Virgin Mary, the Mother Earth, probably those who used this symbol demonstrated, wishes to reflect fertility, to women, to life, the life presence among these Amazonian people … and Amazonia is meant to be full of life. I don’t think we need to create any connections with the Virgin Mary or with a pagan element" (source).

Fr. Giacoma Costa, SJ: "It is an indigenous woman who brings life...nobody said it was the Virgin Mary. I don’t know who might have said so" (source).

Paulo Ruffini: "It is a statue that represents life. That's it" (source).

It's some Amazonian personification of life or the earth or fertility. My own gut is that this is Pachamama, but of course no one at the Vatican would admit that.

At any rate, OnePeterFive has done an excellent job cataloguing the silliness surrounding this image and the contortions of certain persons trying to explain it away as an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary; I highly recommend their article for a much more thorough investigation of this image. However, even if we grant the dubious claim that this image is the Virgin Mary, it would horrifically improper to depict her nude.

No official channel has claimed this image is the Virgin Mary.

If anyone is still saying this image is "just the Blessed Virgin Mary", please share this information with them. Catholics are so dumb right now they will believe any nonsense if it will save them the intellectual effort of recognizing that the Church has sunk into a nadir from which it will take generations to recover, if it ever does before the Second Coming.

UPDATE: On October 25th, Pope Francis issued a statement on the theft of the images in which he referred to them a Pachamamas, thus admitting what many had suspected all along. His words:

"Good afternoon. I want to say a word about the statues of the pachamama that were taken from the church of the Transpontina – which were there without idolatrous intentions – and were thrown into the Tiber."

Source: Vatican News, October 25th, 2019, "Pope Francis announces retrieval of indigenous statues"

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Faith and Life Series vs. Baltimore Catechism

Many years ago I was the Director of Religious Education at my parish. As such, I was responsible for managing the parish's religious education classes. This was undoubtedly my least favorite part of the job—I had always believed religious instruction ought to be done primarily in the context of a lived religious experience in the home, not turned into another academic "class" for kids to sit through for 55 minutes a week taught by a parish employee. I knew whatever effect I would have on these kids for 55 minutes a week would be nil compared to whatever they were being taught and modeled by their parents. Modern parish religious education is often a thankless, fruitless task where many parents who aren't really modeling the faith at home dump the kids off for an hour each week to assuage their conscience about their children's religious formation in hopes that their offspring will "get religion" without having to get too involved themselves. I know this doesn't characterize all families who participate in religious ed by any means but I think it is common enough that anyone who has been a DRE will agree with me.

And the classes always had too few people (the biggest class would have maybe 7 kids and most had 3), and it felt like the pastor and I were always having to nag and guilt parishioners into signing their children up. Our parish had a lot of homeschool families and much of the religious education was done at home and there wasn't a lot of demand for religious ed classes. I was always being pressured to strong-arm families into signing up, and a few homeschool families did so out of some sense of duty to "help the program" rather than because their kids really needed it. As the DRE, I of course was expected to set an example by enrolling my own children as well.

Despite perpetual problems with enrollment numbers, I endeavored to make sure the students were at least given the most solidly orthodox program I could muster—both in terms of the catechists I recruited and the materials we used. At the time, my go-to for catechetical materials was the Ignatius Press Faith and Life series. Ignatius had a reputation for orthodoxy and the Faith and Life books were way meatier than a lot of the fluffy "share your experiences" sort of catechetical materials that were floating around out there. I would always tout the doctrinal fidelity of the Faith and Life when trying to recruit families to the program.

Over the years, however, I noticed that the response to the Faith and Life series on the part of young people was always lackluster. Not that I necessarily expected kids to be excited about a catechetical text, of course. What I mean is not only did they seem very ambivalent about the text, but they seemed to have a hard time comprehending it and retaining information. As if the children struggled to get what Faith and Life was ultimately trying to tell them. Even among students who came from faithful families. This was especially true with the middle grades, like grades 4-7. I noticed it with my own children, as well. Despite doing the reading, attending the CCD classes weekly, completing the quizzes, and participating in an otherwise normal faith life at home and at Mass, they seemed to barely retain anything from the Faith and Life books.

Eventually I got out of parish work and no longer had to deal with Faith and Life. I did what I should had done long before, which was adopt the Baltimore Catechism. I was worried that the Baltimore Catechism's question and answer format would be a little too dry, but I was pleasantly surprised how quickly my children took to it. They were eager for religion class, showed initiative in mastering the material, understood the content clearly, and were proud to show how they had memorized the questions. Not only this, but they also clearly grasped the substance of what was being communicated to them, both because of the systematic way the teachings are presented, as well as the super helpful illustrations, which my kids thoroughly enjoy.

In short, I came to realize that the pedagogy of the Baltimore Catechism was far superior to that of the Faith and Life series. 

The Faith and Life series uses a pedagogical method that can best be described as the "Salvation History" approach. The books attempt to tell the story of creation and redemption following the basic outline of the Bible: creation, the patriarchs, call of Israel, kings, prophets, life of Christ, redemption, the Church, etc. Individual books may vary slightly but overall they follow this pattern. Opportunities are taken within this story arc to present the truths of the faith as needed. For example, the giving of the Ten Commandments gives an opportunity for a discussion of the moral law, the sacrifice of Abraham illustrates Eucharistic typology and the sacrifice of Christ, etc. 

This approach presents a formidable obstacle to really learning the faith for the same reason that a person can't really get a comprehensive grasp Christian faith from scratch simply by reading the Bible cover to cover: the Salvation History approach is not systematic. The Bible is not written as a systematic theology text, and pedagogical approaches based on following the story arc of the Bible will consequently suffer from being unsystematic as well. You get a similar problem with faith formation programs that adopt the liturgical cycle as their backbone—the liturgical cycle is not systematic.

I can foresee some dense comments from people snarkily saying, "Ha! Reading the Bible isn't good enough to learn the Christian faith? What hubris." Look, I'm not saying that reading the Bible isn't good or necessary for learning the faith, only that it is not structured in a systematic way. That is to say, the Bible was not meant to be used as a text for classroom instruction. Nor was the liturgical cycle. Imagine being expected to learn math from reading a history book about the development of mathematics over the centuries. This would certainly give you valuable insights into math and you might even pick up some equations, but it would be a far cry from a systematic approach to learning mathematics.

The Baltimore Catechism, on the other hand, is about as systematic as one can possibly get. It certainly draws on salvation history—every chapter begins with passages from Scripture—but it is ordered in a logical sequence that respects the hierarchy of truth, the ordered structure by which we understand certain truths of the faith to logically flow from others. This is such an essential part of teaching that it's hard to overemphasize.

The Faith and Life books also follow what I have recognized as the very modern tendency to over-explain everything. Long winded. It is no longer sufficient to say what the Church's teaching is; one must make sure the reasons for everything are thoroughly explained. This makes it difficult for a young person to follow the exact train of thought the text wants them to grasp. I realized this is why so many kids I saw go through Faith and Life had a hard time understanding what a particular chapter was trying to teach. Sure there were vocabulary words to memorize, but as far as what the point of each chapter and the essential take-aways, these were more convoluted because the material tries to hard to explain everything and is too wordy.

The Baltimore Catechism doesn't waste time with cumbersome explanations. It's aim is to teach what the faith is, and it does this with an admirable directness and simplicity. Why did God create man? To show forth His goodness so we could be happy with Him in heaven. How do we attain heaven? By knowing, loving, and serving God. Done. A more modern text would have answered the question about God's creation of man with a very drawn out monologue. In fact, it wouldn't have answered the question at all because it wouldn't have been presented in a question and answer format. There is a very sound pedagogical reason why traditional catechetics is question and answer—and why the very word for catechesis is related to the word for questioning. It is so much more conducive to memorization than simply offering drawn out explanations.

Now again I can hear people derisively saying, "What? Don't you want your kids to understand the faith? There's more to religion than rote memorization." Of course I want them to understand, but I don't want to try to impose a level of understanding on them beyond what they are cognitively able to grasp at age 6 or 10 (before an ability for complex abstract thinking has fully developed), nor do I want to confuse the goal of catechesis, which is to instruct one in the chief truths of the faith; in other words, to inform one of what the teaching of the Church is. The why belongs more properly to the realm of apologetics, which is the explanation of why Christians believe what they believe. Catechetics pertains to what, apologetics to why. Of course I want children to understand why we believe what we believe. But I also know that it is an endemic error of modern faith formation materials to confuse catechetics with apologetics, with the result that neither discipline is properly served and students walk away with a few disjointed factoids and no real comprehension of what they were supposed to have learned. Apologetics has its place, but it is not in a catechetical class, at least not primarily.

The point of all this is that pedagogy matters. A lot. And the pedagogy of the Baltimore Catechism is supreme. I recommend using the Baltimore Catechism for elementary or middle school level catechetics and then introduce the student to apologetical studies in high school, letting the latter build on the former. All ensconced within the context of a home life where Catholicism is lived vibrantly.

None of this is to say that Faith and Life is a bad or harmful product. It's just a "Why re-invent the wheel?" sort of issue. It's orthodox, and the art is beautiful, but it's kind of a muddle and I don't think it's structure best serves the audience it is intended at. Stick with the Baltimore Catechism, at least for younger grades.

I also predict a concerned rep from Ignatius Press will contact me.