Viewpoint: A New Model of Catechumenal Formation Needs Promotion

by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is one of the most successful features of post-Vatican II liturgical renewal. It replaced the old inquiry class model, in which the priest (generally a priest) taught the inquirer (or inquirers) on doctrine and morals. The place of formation was the classroom, the symbol was the blackboard, and the leader was a lecturer. This model continues in some parishes today.

With the near demise of the inquiry class model after Vatican II, there emerged a second (and current) model which focuses on personal religious experience in a group setting. The model is akin to the therapy group (like that of Alcoholics Anonymous). The place of formation is the living room, the leader is a therapist, and the symbol is the mirror– in which one sees only oneself.

In this newer approach, it is commonplace to hear an emphasis on personal experience over doctrine. Doctrinal formation is secondary to personal story-telling and group reflection.

Without wishing to return to the old inquiry class format, or keeping the current experience-based model, there is, perhaps, a third way of viewing and practicing RCIA formation which would avoid the problems of the first and second models, yet incorporate the strengths of both.

Just over 30 years ago, the Yale University theologian George Lindbeck wrote a landmark book entitled, The Nature of Doctrine. While Lindbeck was not concerned with the RCIA, his theological insights are helpful in envisaging a more adequate model of RCIA formation.

Lindbeck begins by showing how Christian doctrine can easily be locked into a rigid and excessively abstract mold, and it has great difficulty connecting with people’s experience. This style of theology is what is found in the first model of the RCIA.

Lindbeck points out, however, that the newer style of theology (found in model two of the RCIA) that has emerged in recent decades is no less problematic because it tends to view truth as dwelling in individual hearts and minds, and to regard doctrine at best as a guide to the clarification of inner religious experience. This kind of theology is overly subjective and even anti-intellectual.

Lindbeck proposes a style of theology that is neither strictly doctrinal nor strictly experiential. He calls it “cultural linguistic.” What this means at its simplest is that RCIA formation should focus on the history, symbols, art, language, culture, practices, devotions, spirituality–and most all the liturgy– of the Church.

As a guide to this approach, I would identify Fr. Robert Barron’s outstanding series, Catholicism. RCIA formation in this model would help initiate catechumens into the rich and wonderful world of Catholic life. It would teach them how to learn the culture and speak the language of Catholicism.

In this kind of formation, the locale of formation is the church building, the leader is the holy man or woman, and the symbol is the icon in which one encounters Christ.

If the old inquiry class is out of fashion today and the experience-based model is becoming increasingly so, it is not because doctrine, on the one hand, and experience, on the other, are unimportant, but because they are set in opposition to each other.

In the third mode, doctrine and experience, knowledge and spirituality, the rational and the intuitive are integrated. Doctrine and experience clarify each other.

What we need today is a form of RCIA formation that incorporates the strengths of solid doctrinal formation with the spiritual vitality that is such an important feature of Catholic life.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.

 

18 comments

  1. Only someone who never experienced the model he is talking about could call it a “mirror.” What a sad misunderstanding and caricature. Read the Foundations in Faith series, and tell me seriously that this is a therapy group model based on looking at ourselves. It’s a liturgical-catechetical model that integrates prayer, celebration, community, and apostolic action into the experience of those who come.

    Videos, no matter how beautifully produced, no matter how lovely their content, do not substitute for a living community of faith, the parish, or a relationship with a sponsor who is a friend and companion on the faith journey, or the presence of wise people and pastors along the way.

    The model of the RCIA is described in the ritual text, particularly paragraph 75, and it consists of catechesis, community, liturgical rites and apostolic works. All of these things engage the self. They are not self-referential.

    If anything, the projection of an ideal, glorified Catholicism on a video is self-referential. It may be inspiring. But the rubber meets the road in the actual day to day experience of the community of faith. The genuine way that faith is lived out is what people thirst to know and what helps them face the challenges and celebrate the joys of their own unique journey of faith guided by the Holy Spirit.

  2. Speaking strictly from my own personal perspective: Having been through rehab a couple of times and having benefited from AA-type groups and programs, I wouldn’t be completely dismissive of this as one positive facet of a catechumenal program. I can think of few places where I encountered more honesty, more scrutinizing and uncovering of what needed healing, and more people who had a lived experience of dying to self (even though they may have not necessarily articulated it that way). Not coincidentally, those experiences were heavily ritualized.

    In our time, which often views religion/faith merely as a form of therapy, I understand the hesitancy to incorporate this dimension into a catechetical program. But you could have shown me endless videos of substance-abuse-free persons and I doubt that I would have gotten it.

    Again, this is my own personal experience – I am not attempting to speak for anybody else.

  3. “RCIA formation should focus on the history, symbols, art, language, culture, practices, devotions, spirituality–and most all the liturgy– of the Church.”
    This is exactly what RCIA focuses on. It’s centered on the liturgy (which is why I, as Director of Liturgy, was also the leader of RCIA.) Living the practices, devotions and culture of the Church happens because RCIA is done by participating in the existing practices, devotions, culture and liturgy with a church community. I am sure Msgr Mannion must have seen RCIA symboliized in the “mirror” he describes, but, if so, that’s a failure of implementation and requires more formation of RCIA leaders, not a video.

  4. Fr. Barron has produced some impressive and visually slick videos. We have used them here and got some “wows” for many of the depicted scenes, but not for the take on Catholicism which longs for the good old days of John Paul II. Our RCIA process does, in fact, employ some of the best experience of 12 step programs but is centered around the Sunday Scripture Lessons. Lots of gospel based doctrine along with lessons about Catholic worship, prayer, and devotions. It’s not perfect by any means but we get great feedback and participation.

  5. I ‘ll take the RCIA as described in the text over Fr. Mannion’s updated Inquiry classes. The setting is not in a living room in any church I’ve been associated with. As usual I agree with Rita and Fr. Jack.

  6. For those who are criticizing use of Fr. Barron’s videos, I will point out that Msgr. Mannion nowhere mentions that this be the primary focus of RCIA classes. He is upholding that approach as a model for RCIA – that is, in my interpretation, proclaiming all that is beautiful and positive about the Catholic faith. The video series does not really get into doctrine, intentionally, and yet it is intellectually stimulating. I showed many of them when I was teaching sophomore theology, and frankly, they reached quite a few students, including, and perhaps even especially, the non-Catholic ones. And speaking from personal experience, I found that the videos did indeed help restore my love of the Church. Finally, I thought, here is something that focuses on what is important. Are you dismissing that? It seems to me that this is very much in line with what Pope Francis says.

  7. Rita’s reply is absolutely correct!
    There are many critics of RCIA and sadly, many who express it’s failure. I maintain, the problem is not the RCIA, the problem is the implementation.
    Regarding the original post, I would say that for many, the overarching relationship of catechesis and liturgy is not fully understood. Therefore, paragraph 75, which is the hallmark for catechesis in general, is not, in far too many cases, properly understood or put into practice.
    Adding to the problem is the lack of attention to the time frame for the pre-catechumenate and catechumenate periods.
    Inquires need adequate time to explore and discover the Catholic Church, while catechumens need no less than one full liturgical year to learn and integrate the richness of our Catholic Christian faith. The doctrine, which is important, will flow from the feasts, seasons, and lectionary.
    All pastoral ministers need to spend time with the rite itself, learn the appropriate language associated with it and use it consistently.

  8. As one who has been involved with RCIA since it’s inception in our diocese, I am in complete agreement with Rita!
    The process, as I have experienced it and as it is done in our parish, is a confluence of liturgy, celebration, experience, catechesis and community!!

  9. I agree with Rita. My RCIA class wasn’t at a home but at church, wasn’t at all about spirituality or personal experience (sadly) but about doctrine and liturgy, and the leaders weren’t therapists but just a married couple from the church. Fr. Barron is pretty conservative …. not sure it would be a great idea to have everyone learn about being Catholic from him.

  10. I have experienced RCIA for many years seeing freinds go through the process and as a music director in parishes.
    I have two stories:
    In my younger years (alas) i dated a baptist girl who would go to Mass with me. She was quite serious about her faith and after much study and prayer, decided to become Catholic. By this time she had read quite a number of classics of the faith and books such as the Home to Rome of Hahn.
    RCIA was quite a shock. She had a real thirst to know the faith and learn just what this Catholic faith was, what we believed and why. She had gone against her parents wishes and wanted to know what she was getting into. RCIA was all about ” what do you think God is like” “what are your feelings about the church?” The text for the classes was a sort of Christian pop psychology thing. It was a waste of time and she almost changed her mind. However she did persevere and was recieved. Many inquirers dropped out after a month or so.

    Years later when I met my wife to be, she was already in the process of being recieved. There was no RCIA program in her parish. The inquirers were met personally in a group in the pastors rectory/study. The pastor taught from scripture, the catechism and other classics illustrating the beauty of the faith. There were no especial rituals such as over emotional scrutinies (which can be embarrasing) everyone was expected to attend Mass each week at least. Nobody dropped out.

    I understand that especially in large parishes, the clergy needs help and there is need for cathechists. But there is no substitute for the pastor or deacon teaching inquirers about the faith. That’s what they are there for. I don’t think it matters whether it is part of an RCIA program or an old fashioned inquirers meeting as long as the faith is sincerely taught.It’s the quality of the content.

  11. The other thing about this post that concerns me is that I think it unfortunately misrepresents George Lindbeck’s work in The Nature of Doctrine. Full disclosure: I studied Christology with Professor Lindbeck at Yale, and have the highest respect for him. But you don’t have to have been his student to know that what is said here is off the mark.

    The post makes it appear that Lindbeck faults a sort of theology of warm fuzzies, with a weak grasp of doctrine: “Lindbeck points out, however, that the newer style of theology (found in model two of the RCIA) that has emerged in recent decades is no less problematic because it tends to view truth as dwelling in individual hearts and minds, and to regard doctrine at best as a guide to the clarification of inner religious experience. This kind of theology is overly subjective and even anti-intellectual.”

    In fact, the examples Lindbeck gives of proponents of this “newer style of theology” (termed in the book “Experiential-Expressive”) are no less towering intellectual figures than Bernard Lonergan and Karl Rahner. They accept the Kantian turn to the subject, but are not limited by that; rather they include categorical and propositional revelatory sources–as Lindbeck succinctly and fairly describes them.

    How anyone can claim that Lonergan and Rahner’s way of doing theology is “overly subjective and even anti-intellectual” is unclear to me.

    The reason Lindbeck gives for pursuing a different approach, which he calls “Cultural-Linguistic” (cf Ludwig Wittgenstein) is the rise of the cultural-linguistic approach in non-theological disciplines and the consequent gap between the theological sciences and the non-theological study of religion.

    He does not say the Experiential-Expressive approach has lost ground in theology; rather, the reverse. It’s in non-theological disciplines that the Cognitive-Linguistic approach is gaining (p. 25). What he is proposing is that religion may more profitably be considered a language that shapes thought and action, a “language game” in Wittgenstein’s words. That this change in approach would represent a new vista for ecumenism is obvious: groups can believe different things at the same time without either being “wrong,” they are only more or less cogent.

    To bring this back to RCIA, I think that some of these insights may be really worth thinking about, but not in the way they are presented here. Cultural-Linguistic does not equal “Catholic culture” and “Experiential-Expressive” does not equal warm hearts and fuzzy minds.

    1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #12:
      Actually, he identifies Lonergan and Rahner as somewhat unstable hybrids of the cognitive-propositionalist model and the experiential-expressivist models (pp. 16-17); they are trying to do something that Lindbeck’s proposed alternative claims to do better.

      In my experience, many RCIA programs are more like the Rahner/Lonergan hybrid that either the cognitive or expressivist models. They mix a little personal reflection with some readings from the Catechism and presentations on doctrine and history. And to that degree they are trying to honor both the subjective and objective poles that are present in any religious system. What I understand Msgr. Mannion to be saying is that the cultural-linguistic approach has largely been untried. Again, in my experience, this is also true (and I don’t think showing Bob Barron’s video’s counts–nor do I think Msgr. Mannion thinks that it does).

      It is probably no accident that it was Lindbeck’s colleage, Aidan Kavanagh, who gave the best description of a “cultural-linguistic” approach to RCIA that I know in his book The Shape of Baptism. But I don’t see many RCIA programs that look all that much like what Kavanagh describes. I’d like to think they are out there, of course.

      1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #13:
        I don’t know how you can say the post is merely observing that the cultural linguistic model is untried or that the Barron videos are not a great example of how to do it. He is proposing it is the way to go, and that the videos are a guide to it:

        “Lindbeck proposes a style of theology that is neither strictly doctrinal nor strictly experiential. He calls it “cultural linguistic.” What this means at its simplest is that RCIA formation should focus on the history, symbols, art, language, culture, practices, devotions, spirituality–and most all the liturgy– of the Church.
        As a guide to this approach, I would identify Fr. Robert Barron’s outstanding series, Catholicism. RCIA formation in this model would help initiate catechumens into the rich and wonderful world of Catholic life. It would teach them how to learn the culture and speak the language of Catholicism.”

      2. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #13:
        Actually, Rahner and Lonergan are quite important examples of the trend that I see Msgr. calling “overly subjective and anti-intellectual.”

        “Four, and to some extent five, of the six theses in which Lonergan summarizes his theory of religion are characteristic of experiential-expressivism in general.” Lindbeck writes.

        “To regard doctrine at best as a guide to the clarification of inner religious experience” is the way Msgr. describes the propositional component in the “hybrid” you reference.

        I would disagree that Kavanagh in The Shape of Baptism is describing a cultural-linguistic approach, but that’s fodder for another discussion.

  12. What Rita has said is accurate and articulate to the nth degree. It saddens me to think that we are still having this discussion after 40 years. The liturgical catechesis described in the Rite bears little resemblance to theology classes or therapy groups. I’m sorry that so few people have experienced its full implementation.

  13. If people are to be ready to experience the benefits of the Initiation Rites, they need first and foremost kerygmatic teaching and preaching. People come to inquire for a variety of motivations, not all of which include a desire to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. Our sessions have two components: One which I lead that is centered around the gospel of Sunday coming up; and a second led by the coordinator that is centered around a text. The latter includes a systematic presentation of the creed, the sacraments, prayer, worship, service, and practices. My part elicits from them an act of faith as they come to know Jesus–through the gospel texts–in a personal way. Without that the doctrine is just so many high minded ideas.

  14. As someone who has been in catechumenal ministry for a while, I find that formation in the catechumenate tends to reflect what the parish is doing. Meaning, almost all parishes that I have seen that are doing the RCIA tend to do it in a manner that mirrors what the parish is doing.

    Thus, if the parish is focused on Mass attendance, learning doctrine about Catholicism, and learning ways of Catholic prayer – then the catechumenate tends to mirror this. I find that most parishes produce a syllabus of topics and determine the dates for the Rites before they have even met the inquirers.

    RCIA #75 is instructive here and let us note that these are statutes for initiation. The time spent in the catechumenate is a pastoral training in the Christian life. As 75.1 is quite clear, the catechumens should be given a suitable catechesis that helps them achieve an “appropriate acquaintance” with Catholic doctrines and precepts, yet the greater hope is that the catechumens live into “a profound sense of the mystery in which they desire to participate.” This is the Paschal Mystery.

    Thus, the goal is neither a focus on doctrine or one on personal growth. Rather, the goal is to invite the catechumens into the four formational pillars of RCIA #75 that I would describe as catechesis, discipleship in community, liturgy, and apostolic works. All of these are meant to gradually form catechumens into disciples who are in mission in these four ways.

    If the parish experiences itself in mission in these four ways, then it is not difficult to develop a year-round, ongoing process where we do the precatechumenate and catechumenate when the inquirers and catechumens are ready for these phases. Meaning, we are doing catechumenal ministry based on their needs when God calls them. Sadly, most parishes are exposing inquirers and catechumens to information about the Trinity, Church, sacraments, saints, and spirituality that is not bad – but it simply is not the pastoral training in the Christian life that RCIA #75 asks of us, the Church.

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