We are used to hearing about the official “teaching” of the Church and also about Church members’ “fidelity” to the authority of Church teaching. What we don’t hear so much about is the official “learning” of the Church. The presumption that is revealed in this absence of speech about the Church’s learning is that some datum or data of truth was handed over to Peter, whole and complete, which has subsequently been safeguarded and transmitted to the people of God through the papacy – as though it was the official organ of communication between God and the world.
The problems associated with belief that such a cache of knowledge can be assumed to be “owned” by a particular group of people should be obvious. In Roman Catholicism, too much emphasis has been placed on the Church as teacher, and its self-identification as the authoritative teaching body of all things Christian and Catholic. Too little emphasis has been placed on the Church as learner, and its leaders as part of the human community of pilgrims. Along with the rest of us, the members of the Magisterium, as they always have, share in common the task of questioning, seeking, examining, exploring, discovering and discussing together what we experience in the process of living and learning.
The Holy Spirit is not the corresponding secretary for the Magisterium, although that has sometimes come to be the understanding of many Catholics. As I understand it, the Holy Spirit continues to teach the whole of humanity (not just Catholics!) and that makes us all learners of the good news first, before we can consider ourselves to be teachers in any way. This applies to all within the body of the human family – as the late Fred Crowe put it so eloquently, from pope to peasant.[i]
All of us can appeal to human experience, to the variety of cultures and social realities in which we live and learn, to the traditions of religion and philosophy, and to our wisdom traditions to learn about the deepest dimensions of our human existence. Our experience is a field of learning. It can be mined for treasure. What are the tools we use to do this mining? They are the same tools we use for any learning: mastering the art of questioning, learning how to describe, explain, analyze, synthesize and communicate what we learn and then how to integrate that learning so that it becomes part of our whole lives. If we are teachers, we must be learners first. That applies to religion as much as it does to any other area of our lives.
We have often left our religious learning in a tightly sealed container, separate from the rest of our learning activities. It is as though we believe that we haven’t got the right tools to learn about religion in the same way we learn about, say, science or politics or cooking. Have we been taught to think that if we want to know anything about faith, we have only to look to a group of distant “fathers” who among them hold the reservoir of knowledge about truth? If faith is just intellectual assent to certain propositions about God, then fidelity in faith means just that. But if faith means trusting in the living God, looking to the Holy Spirit for guidance in our learning process, gaining confidence in our relationship with God which develops throughout our lives – then fidelity to faith must mean so much more than simply obedience to the Magisterium. Sometimes, in fact, it must mean challenging old teaching with new learning.
For me, a learning Church presents the image of a much more humble, down-to-earth, practical and helpful community than the image presented by a group of authoritarian men ensconced in an ivory tower. A learning Church is one that admits its own limitations, its need for novel forms of self-expression, its openness to guidance and correction, its willingness to dialogue with the rest of humanity. In other words, a learning Church takes a humble approach to mystery – not an arrogant stance that places it above the rest of humanity.
Ironically, the best “teaching” the church can do is to model learning, which means presenting itself as questioning rather than certain, open rather than closed, interested rather than aloof and concerned rather than judging.
I wonder how we would react to an announcement from the Vatican that began, “The Magisterium would like to announce that it has learned….”
[i] Frederick E. Crowe, SJ. Appropriating the Lonergan Idea. Ed. Michael Vertin. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1989. The phrase is used in Crowe’s paper entitled, “The Church as Learner: Two Crises, One Kairos” which is included in this collection.