What’s Theology Good For?
Greater knowledge of God can lead to holiness of life
By Jeff Morrow
When I talk with Catholics about the importance of learning more about their faith, the response I often get is, “I would expect you to say that – you’re a theologian!”
It’s true that theology is my profession, but achieving the theological formation and learning of theologians, while growing in childlike piety and devotion, is a worthy lifelong goal for any baptized Catholic. It has to do with our baptismal call to holiness.
The fifth chapter of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) taught that all baptized persons are called to holiness, to become saints. That calling involves two related notions: (1) personal growth in holiness, and (2) apostolate or evangelization. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains eloquently that the shared priesthood of the baptized is lived out in the “unfolding of baptismal grace” (# 1547). Moreover, all of the baptized are called to evangelize and teach the faith (# 905). Married couples with children have a particularly important role as the domestic church to raise and teach their children, and to serve as a witness to the world (# 1655-1657).
So how does theology assist us in our own growth in holiness and in our mission of evangelization? I should probably begin by a brief explanation of theology. Theology, as St. Anselm said, is faith seeking understanding. It involves the union of faith and reason exercised in a quest to know God better. When done well, theology leads a person into an experience of awe and wonder before the gracious majesty of God. Theology should lead us to worship. To borrow from the 20th century Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, theology should be exercised on one’s knees — meaning, the rational and intellectual pursuit of theology should not be separated from a life of prayer and charity. After all, the Church’s greatest theologians are her saints.
Understanding our faith better can lead us to pray better, but intellectual knowledge does not automatically lead to holiness. We must not neglect prayer as we study the faith.
This brings us to the second important point about understanding our faith better. We must share our faith with others, both those who have not heard our Lord’s message, as well as to those who need to be re-catechized in the new evangelization. For too long Catholics have been considered ignorant of their own faith and the reasons behind certain doctrinal or moral teachings! Not only are we called to, “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls [us] to account for the hope that is in [us]” (1 Peter 3:15), but we must actively teach the faith by the example of our lives and the words that we speak. We need to learn the faith better so that we can help our family, friends, coworkers, neighbors and children better know the faith and see how attractive and compelling it really is. We give a poor witness when we answer a Protestant’s question about the Catholic faith with “I have no idea.”
Knowing the faith better is especially important for young people. Our youth are the future of the Church and the future of our family, culture, and society. We need to help them grow into men and women of prayer. We need to be able to answer their questions, even if it takes the help of the Catechism or other resources.
I’ve recently been learning the many challenges of teaching the faith to children, as I began instructing my 6-year old daughter. I’ve learned to try to make catechism lessons fun and enjoyable, with drawing sessions, or involving sweet treats, games, etc. For young children, such amusements are often necessary and beneficial to get them excited about learning the faith. And without their enthusiasm (not simply willing submission), such lessons would be a losing battle, perhaps even doing more harm than good, setting up an early rebellion that may blossom in the rebellious teenage years. When teaching the content portions of the lessons, I’ve found it helpful to keep lessons short (content portion perhaps only five minutes in length), to focus on one major point you want them to understand, to have regular sessions (at least once a week), and to invite questions (asking them questions as well to make sure they understand the basics). And of course, the witness of an enthusiastic parent who lives the faith is perhaps the best model.
Learning about our faith does not have take up hours of study a day. The Catechism is a great way to start, and can be read or referred to in brief sessions. Audio recordings on the faith are handy for the car or when doing work around the house. By committing ourselves to becoming knowledgeable Catholics, we can be better prepared to explain the faith to others, and we will come to a deeper appreciation of the faith we hold so dearly.
As we approach this upcoming Year of Faith, beginning on October 11th, let us resolve to spend some time each week getting to know our faith better. You don’t need a doctorate to know the basics of our faith, or to live a good life. But you should seek an adult knowledge for your adult life.
Jeffrey Morrow holds a doctorate from the University of Dayton (Ohio) and is Assistant Professor of Theology at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. He and his wife, Maria, have been welcoming their fourth child, due in October, for the past nine months.