The simple faithful

Over twenty years ago, in a speech delivered at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, Cardinal Ratzinger said,

The church’s main job is the care of the faith of the simple. A truly reverential awe should arise from this which becomes an internal rule of thumb for every theologian.1

I wonder how many theologians actually understand their vocation this way. Anyway, when I read this years ago, it reminded me of a passage from St. Thomas Aquinas:

[I]t is dangerous to dispute in public about the faith, in the presence of simple people, whose faith for this reason is more firm, that they have never heard anything differing from what they believe. Hence it is not expedient for them to hear what unbelievers have to say against the faith.2

Catholicism does, certainly, have a rich intellectual tradition, of which St. Thomas himself – at least, in his better moments – was an important part.

But there is also a parallel anti-intellectual strain that celebrates uncritical faith, which it sees as fragile, precious – both worthy and in need of protection.

I suppose this should not be surprising. The “simple faithful” of the Catholic Church are people who inhabit what James Fowler calls the “Mythic-Literal” and “Synthetic Conventional” stages of faith development (both of which preserve features of premodern consciousness). They are characteristically obedient to external authorities, and obedience is valued by Catholic officialdom more than anything else.

It’s not hard to find elements of the tradition that discourage people from moving past these stages. You have to question your beliefs to grow beyond them, but many Catholics (and Christians in general, actually) equate questioning your religious beliefs with inviting the devil himself to come in and punch your ticket to perdition.

The division in the Church, I think, is largely the result of some people internalising this anti-intellectual message, while others manage (sometimes only with great difficulty) to shrug it off. Unfortunately for people in the latter category, the Church doesn’t officially allow very much room in which to grow.

A Church for Grown-Ups

Michael Bayly wrote about this recently on his blog (“Time for a Church for Grown-Ups,” The Wild Reed). In his work to bring reform to the Church, he says he has often wondered if “an adult faith is even possible in today’s Church,” and he notes that it “certainly doesn’t appear to be encouraged.”

No, it certainly isn’t, at least not by the loudest voices in the hierarchy (or the laity, for that matter). Part of the problem, obviously, is that many believers have very strong emotional attachments to their beliefs, and they will not seriously question them.

A less obvious part of the problem is that the next stage of growth beyond Synthetic-Conventional, which Fowler calls “Individuative-Reflective,” has never developed into a widely appealing form of faith.

Why not? I’ll suggest some possible reasons in the near future.


[1] “The Church and the Theologian.” Origins 15 (1986): 769.

[2] ST, II-II 10.7.



Blogger Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi PrickliestPear, thanks for the mention! I look forward to your further reflections on this issue.



7:04 p.m.  
Blogger colkoch said...

Prickliest Pear, nice blog you have here. Hope you don't mind, but I am going to link it to the side of mine. I too am looking forward to your future posts on this issue, especially on the "individuative reflective" stage.

I think that this is the stage that is fueling the New Age phenomenon, amongst some other trends which enflame the 'synthetic conventional' trads of our time.

7:53 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Michael and Colleen, thank you for the comments. And Colleen, I appreciate the link.

I have a few more posts in the work on this topic.

4:17 a.m.  

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