Mr. Justin McClain, a Theology teacher at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland, shares the importance of using primary source materials—particularly the writings of the popes and bishops—with your students. As he mentions in this article, doing so, encourages a religious literacy that furthers the Church’s efforts at a New Evangelization.
By Justin McClain
I recently had a brief conversation with a colleague, Jan Steeger, at Bishop McNamara High School (Forestville). Jan, an experienced biology teacher and faithful Catholic, is a member of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Caring for Creation Committee. Jan and I discussed how we were looking forward to reading Pope Francis’ forthcoming encyclical on the moral implications of ecology, in terms of respecting the earth as a gift for us to use, although with great caution. After our conversation, as I continued to reflect on a variety of writings from the episcopate on numerous other topics, I came to satisfactorily appreciate the breadth, extent, and availability of the writings of our bishops (including, of course, our popes), throughout the millennia. This is perhaps emblematic of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries in particular, in accordance with our Catholic bishops’ steadfast reiteration of graciously enduring dogmatic and doctrinal elements whose predication has justifiably prevailed through multiple trials and tribulations.
For the Catholic, the Lord’s words in Jeremiah 1:5 should gladden the heart when we ponder the blessing of our bishops: “I will appoint for you shepherds after my own heart, who will shepherd you wisely and prudently” (cf. Ezekiel 34:23; John 21:15). We should likewise be inspired when we meditate on Jesus’ proclamation to Peter in Matthew 16:18: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (cf. John 1:42). The God-fearing duties of our Catholic bishops are multi-faceted, and include such roles as priest, pastor (i.e., “shepherd”) and teacher. Hence, for the last nearly two-thousand years since Christ’s earthly ministry, our bishops’ ordained priestly role, in conjunction with their pastoral role, has underscored their authoritative teaching role. Therefore, it is worthwhile to share Christ’s teachings, as propounded by our bishops, with broader humanity. By extension, we as theology teachers are called to impart Christ’s teachings on all of our theology students with a truly charitable pedagogical trajectory. (This dynamic coincides with the New Evangelization, which I will remark on later.)
A few years ago, when our principal at BMHS, Dr. Robert Van der Waag, was a colleague within our Department of Theology, he gave me some valuable advice that I have prudently implemented within my own theology courses in the years since. Dr. Van der Waag, who happens to hold a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Duquesne University, and has taught courses in the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, encouraged me to ensure that I not merely describe a theological principle outlined in a primary source, but that I actually delve into the material by having my students read the primary source itself, when available (a point that I will imminently address). In the case of magisterial documents, there is hardly a shortage of relevant sources to access. Our BMHS Department of Theology chair, Adam Greer, has since likewise suggested that, when having the students read such scholarly content, I should be sure to peruse the writings with them in the classroom, on at least an introductory basis, whether in the writing’s entirety for shorter documents or in segments for the denser ones. There are various possibilities inherent to using magisterial writings in the theology classroom. As one example of myriad, when exploring the Church’s Gospel-laden teachings on service to the poor and otherwise vulnerable, a teacher could simply mention and describe the Church’s seven themes of Catholic social teaching, but it would enhance the lesson significantly to actually guide the students in reading through Pope Leo XIII’s watershed encyclical Rerum Novarum: On Capital and Labor (1891).
An advantage of using writings from the episcopate is their reliable fidelity to the Magisterium, given that they are imbued with a sanctified equilibrium of moral clarity and pastoral charity. This is perhaps especially true in terms of the bishops’ proclamation of the Church’s teachings on particularly sensitive moral issues that are often at odds with broader society’s canon of equivocation, whether concerning God’s plan for human sexuality in light of the sacredly complementary nature of Holy Matrimony, the innately precious value of all human life from the unborn child to the terminally infirm, the precariously detrimental underpinnings of armed international conflict, and so forth. Admittedly, while many magisterial documents, such as papal encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, or even some pastoral letters, may be perceived as intellectually impermeable by adolescents, as I stressed previously, subjecting them to deeper rhetorical analysis, as guided by the theology teacher in the classroom, can supportively enhance the academic rigor of any high school theology course.
Speaking of academic rigor vis-à-vis its associated concept of literacy, not only do we celebrate higher literacy across the globe than in former epochs of history, but our modern world, in the milieu of the “digital/information age,” further typified by globalization, is more connected, and by extension, more objectively (although not necessarily subjectively) informed, than at any other point in history. Between social media, online news outlets, digitized primary sources, and numerous other means of producing, diffusing and sharing various types of information, we have a vast assortment of ways to both retrieve and process an array of informational content. There are many positive factors implicit in this increased amount of resources, including efficiency, availability and productivity; thus, the utilization of documents from the episcopate is furthered by their broad ease of access. Hence, another advantage to using writings from the episcopate is that they are widely available, with key magisterial documents of various eras readily present on such locations as the websites for the Vatican, the Holy See’s publicly-oriented archived texts, or the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Along with bishops’ documents that are magisterial per se, there are also books on various topics that bishops and popes have written, thereby contributing significantly to Catholic scholarship and theological discourse. Depending on the scope of your theology course, you might even want to have your students read these books, perhaps as a book report, within the context of an adjudicated book group presentation, or via another format of assessment. These recommendations should prove helpful as an aid as we continue the work of the New Evangelization. For example, when looking for a literary framework from which to discuss the Church’s teachings on marriage, you might read and share excerpts from Karol Wojtyła/St. John Paul II’s book Love and Responsibility (1960). When searching for means of explaining the Church’s teachings on how immigrants are our treasured brethren, you could read and share Los Angeles Archbishop José Gómez’s book Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation (2013). You might even find certain series that correspond to the particular liturgical season. For example, you might consider covering Pope Benedict XVI’s installment of Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives during the Advent and Christmas seasons, his installment of Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration during Ordinary Time, and his installment of Jesus of Nazareth: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection during Lent and Easter. Of course, if you are looking to learn more about the New Evangelization itself, you might read and share Archdiocese of Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s book New Evangelization: Passing on the Catholic Faith Today (2013). In addition to books, many dioceses also feature the homilies or personal blog entries of their respective bishops, such as the various homilies of Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, or blog posts of Cardinal Wuerl. Such are the advantageous factors when considering methods of undertaking the New Evangelization during the era of digitization.
Further referencing the New Evangelization, in the midst of considering the use of writings from the bishops in the classroom, along with this dynamic state of technological affairs that has revolutionized the communication industry, we find ourselves, as theology teachers, attempting to live out the tenants of the New Evangelization. After all, the New Evangelization has provided us with a renewed opportunity to reengage the world, and Pope Francis reminded us in Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) that “the New Evangelization is a summons addressed to all” (Evangelii Gaudium 14), which echoes the yearning of Lumen Gentium, yet another great magisterial document (this time, from the Second Vatican Council), for a “universal call to holiness in the Church” (Lumen Gentium 39-44). The message of Jesus Christ is, forevermore, refreshing and renewing: “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5). An appropriate way for us theology teachers to engage with others in this New Evangelization is through ensuring that we are likewise informed ourselves in matters of faith and morals. As alluded to previously, with so much information being transmitted through cyberspace, the airwaves, digital media and other means, it can be a daunting challenge to sift through all of this opaqueness of erudition in order to ultimately encounter reputable sources. Fortunately, with the deposit of faith, comprising sacred scripture and sacred tradition, we have a wellspring of content that can simultaneously be spiritually enriching as we foster our personal relationship with Jesus Christ and effective in providing theological education of a qualitatively advanced academic fiber to assist our students as they strive to dialogue with society regarding the Church’s teachings and contributions to the public square. Assuredly, the most authoritative sources for the faithful will remain the Bible with Church-approved commentaries, along with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. When choosing other sources, due care should be taken to select reading material that is doctrinally sound, and the writings of the bishops are dependably so.
To reiterate my former assertion, regarding our embrace of our role in spreading the Gospel, we theology teachers ought to recall that preparing our students for their hopefully eventual entry into respectful dialogue with society beyond the walls of a Catholic school community involves being responsibly formed ourselves, which we can undertake based on a thorough, consistent and dedicated review of the panoply of theologically sound and easily accessible readings, many of which, e.g., approved versions of the Bible and Catechism, are readily available online. Below is an alphabetical sampling of various writings (from among a multitude), whether in the setting of a papal document, pastoral letter, book, or otherwise, that you could consider having your students read, whether in whole or in part, in your courses. They should all benefit your students, and could likewise contribute to your own spiritual enrichment as a theology teacher as we continue the labor of the New Evangelization, inspired by the commitment of our bishops, who are imitating the Good Shepherd himself (cf. John 10:1-21), Jesus Christ the Lord. This endeavor should draw both our students and us ever closer to Jesus, inspired by his call in Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves: For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
A Brief Sampling of Suggesting Readings
- The Catholic Way: Faith for Living Today by Bishop (now Cardinal) Donald Wuerl (2001)
- The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response (A Pastoral Letter on War and Peace) by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (1983)
- Deus Caritas Est (“God Is Love”) by Pope Benedict XVI (2006)
- Divino Afflante Spiritu: Promotion of Biblical Studies by Pope Pius XII (1943)
- Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) by Pope Francis (2013)
- Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) by St.John Paul II (1995)
- Faith that Transforms Us: Reflections on the Creed by Cardinal Donald Wuerl (2013)
- Familiaris Consortio: On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World by St. John Paul II (1981)
- Fides et Ratio: On the Relationship between Faith and Reason by St. John Paul II (1998)
- The Historicity of the Gospels by the Pontifical Biblical Commission (1964)
- The Holy Eucharist by Cardinal Francis Arinze (2001)
- Humanae Vitae (“Human Life”) by Bl. Paul VI (1968)
- The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church by the Pontifical Biblical Commission (1993)
- Life of Christ by Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen (1977)
- Love and Responsibility by St. John Paul II (1960)
- Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (2009)
- The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood by Pope Benedict XVI (1960)
- Meeting Other Believers: The Risks and Rewards of Interreligious Dialogue by Cardinal Francis Arinze (1997)
- New Evangelization: Passing on the Catholic Faith Today by Cardinal Donald Wuerl (2013)
- Providentissimus Deus: On the Study of Sacred Scripture by Pope Leo XIII (1893)
- Render unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life by Archbishop Charles Chaput (2008)
- Rerum Novarum: On Capital and Labor by Pope Leo XIII (1891)
- Seek First the Kingdom: Challenging the Culture by Living Our Faith by Cardinal Donald Wuerl (2012)