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Marys Central Role in Catechetical Controversy
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
There are in general two kinds of religious programs in use in the Catholic schools and confraternity classes in the United States at the present time. They may conveniently be classed as experiential and doctrinal. In the experiential type, the stress is on each persons own experiences.
Is Devotion Doctrinal?
Running as themes through the standard sources for the experiential method of religious education are a number of underlying principles that touch directly on our subject. I would select two as fundamental to the rest. They are the claim that revelation is not so much communication from God to man as an encounter, going on here and now, between God and mankind; and that in the new approach to the Christian religion the Bible is superior to tradition, so that a great deal of what had passed for Christian doctrine is merely devotion, which in our ecumenical age should be discarded. The role of the Blessed Virgin in the experiential view, then, would at most be that of an ideal or symbol that a Christian might admire and perhaps strive to imitate, much as one might read about Florence Nightingale and be inspired by her selfless generosity. But no more.
In the doctrinal approach to catechetics, we are in a different theology of religious education. The doctrinal method of catechetics assumes that in the message of salvation there is a certain hierarchy of truths, which means that some truths are based on others, and are illumined by them. This method further assumes that these truths may be grouped under four basic heads, as follows: 1) the mystery of the Trinity, Creator of all things; 2) the mystery of Christ the Incarnate Word; 3) the mystery of the Holy Spirit, who is present in the Church, sanctifying and guiding her; and 4) the mystery of the Church, which is Christs Mystical Body, in which the Virgin Mary holds the prominent place.
Catholic Means Mary
It is seen immediately that the Blessed Virgin is part of the doctrinal possession of Catholic Christianity. So then, to teach Catholic doctrine means to teach Mary as belonging to the mystery of the Incarnation and the Mystical Body of Christ.
There is no practical way of telling how deeply the experiential kind of catechesis, that minimizes doctrine where it does not ignore it, has penetrated the teaching of religion in our country. An excellent study published by the United States Catholic Conference on Where Are the 6.6 Million? is revealing to the extreme. It shows that there has been the most phenomenal drop in formal religious instruction in the history of the Catholic Church in America. Over six million Catholic children and youth who should be getting instruction in their faith under Church auspices are not getting it. One of the main causes for this penetration has been a massive secularization of what was once professedly Catholic education. And among the most telling symptoms of this secularization is the downgrading of devotion to the Blessed Virgin.
On Neglecting Mary
It is in this context that I would like to quote from the much-neglected Pastoral Letter on the Blessed Virgin Mary by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The letter says some profound and beautiful things about Our Lady. But it also says some strong things about the neglect of Our Lady in American Catholic life.
In writing this Pastoral Letter, our concern about Our Lady is most keenly felt in the area of devotion. No survey is needed to show that all over the country many forms of Marian devotion have fallen into disuse, and others are taking an uncertain course. In an age avid for symbols (the peace medals and other signs of the young are evidence of this), the use of Catholic Marian symbols, such as the scapular and the Miraculous Medal, has noticeably diminished. Only a few years ago the rosary was a common mark of a Catholic, and it was customarily taught to children, both at home and in courses in religious instruction. Adults in every walk of life found strength in this familiar prayer, which is biblically based and is filled with the thoughts of Jesus and his Mother in the mysteries. The praying of the rosary has declined. Some Catholics feel that there has been a campaign to strip the churches of statues of Our Lady and the saints. Admittedly, many of our churches were in need of artistic reform, but one wonders at the severity of the judgement that would find no place for a fitting image of the Mother of the Lord.
We view with great sympathy the distress our people feel over the loss of devotion to Our Lady and we share their concern that the young be taught a deep and true love for the Mother of God. (Behold Your Mother, United States Catholic Conference, Washington, 1973, nn. 92-93, pp. 34-35).
To anyone familiar with the scene of American Catholic religious instruction, this concern borders on anguish. Those who know what is going on have no illusions. No mask of theological rhetoric can hide the fact that millions of our Catholic young are not being taught a deep and true love for the Mother of God. When a stout volume is published under the guise of scholarship, casting doubts on the historicity of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels; when priest-writers are telling the faithful that doctrines like the Assumption are not required to be followed by a professed Catholic, when authors writing with an imprimatur are claiming that Christ never identified himself with the Father, is it any wonder that the youth are not being taught a deep and true love for the Mother of God?
Without Truth No Love
Love for the Blessed Virgin must be based on sound doctrine about the Blessed Virgin. In the absence of true doctrine there cannot be true love, and without true love there can be no devotion. Only God can read the future, but of this at least we can be certain. The strength of the Catholic faith in the United States in the next generation will be in direct proportion to the youth of today receiving a sound instruction in what they are to believe and how they are to put their belief into practice. Part of this instruction must be in the mysteries of Our Lady, who first gave Christ to the world and who still gives her Son to those who believe in him and tells them, as she told the servants at the wedding feast of Cana, Do whatever he tells you. (Jn. 2:6)
One closing sentence: Unless catechetics pays due respect to Mary it will not give due honor to Christ, and without Christ there is no Christianity.
Reprinted with permission from a presentation given at the National Marian Year Congress, August 13, 1988 sponsored by the Militia Immaculatae (Knights of the Immaculata) of Libertyville, Ill.
Copyright © 1999 Inter Mirifica
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