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Catholic colleges should teach basics of faith, says Cardinal Dulles

By Christine Williams
Posted: 10/21/2005

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BRIGHTON—“To profess that faith with confidence today, one must be critical of the reining ideologies. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have rightly put us on guard against metaphysical agnosticism and relativism. These trends make it difficult and almost impossible to hand on the faith that I care so much about,”said Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ in an address delivered Oct. 12 at Boston College.


Cardinal Dulles, addressed a standing-room-only crowd in BC’s Gasson Hall about the challenges faced by religious institutions working to pass on the Catholic faith in today’s changing world.

The cardinal’s address was part of an ongoing series of talks included in Boston College’s Church in the 21st Century Program.

The duty of the Church remains to pass on the faith through evangelization, catechesis and theology, he said.

“Presupposing that the student has become a believer through evangelization and has learned the principle teachings of the Church through catechesis, theology engages in a systematic search for deeper understanding,”he continued.

However the ideal of passing on a clear knowledge of Catholic doctrine based on Scripture and tradition is difficult in practice even at the university level, Cardinal Dulles said.

Though many Catholic institutions require students study some amount of theology, few students have the formation necessary to grasp theological concepts. Students either do not believe or they have not been properly catechized. This leads only to frustration and confusion, he added.

Cardinal Dulles outlined other difficulties, including the American preoccupation with techniques and methods that focus more on learning “how”than learning “what.”Many students are critical and put the burden of proof on belief and are inclined to doubt. They have a suspicion of authority and cannot accept the doctrines of faith that come from the authority of God.

He said that though the Church teaches that faith is the key to understanding, it is rare for an instructor at any level to state that adherence to faith is the path to understanding.

Religious statements have more increasingly been regarded as symbolic rather than literal truth, Cardinal Dulles added.

“Religious belief in this sense runs no risk of running into conflict with science or history, but it gains this immunity at the cost of being unable to say anything literal about things of God,”he said.

However, the Catholic Church is firmly committed to the view that the dogmas of the Church are true. For example, “Jesus Christ literally rose from the dead,”he added.

Educators also face the challenges of historicism and relativism that claim that truth is historically and culturally created or relative based on a number of factors, he said.

In addition, many instructors find themselves with classrooms full of students of differing faith and often it is not considered “tactful”to present ideas from a Catholic viewpoint. Responding to this, a Catholic university, instead of offering a class on the Trinity, might instead offer a class on death and dying which makes no reference to a particular faith at all.

“For a number of reasons teachers of religion and theology are inclined to avoid focusing on the contents of Catholic faith,”he added.

These difficulties point to the need for required instruction on the basic tenets of the Catholic faith on the university level, Cardinal Dulles said.

“These courses should be taught from a Catholic point of view despite the many objections I’ve mentioned. Special measures should be taken to ensure that Catholic college graduates will be familiarized with the teachings of the Catholic faith and morals. They should also have some idea why the Church teaches what she does. They should be equipped to answer common objections to the faith, perhaps with courses in apologetics,”he said. “In this way our graduates would be somewhat prepared to stand up to the agnosticism and relativism of our day.”

Ray Ward, a graduate student studying moral theology at BC, summed up Cardinal Dulles’message this way: “We believe something. Teach it.”

Ward said he found it helpful to have the difficulties faced by students and faculty outlined.

“Some of his comments applied directly to the theology department here,”he said, adding that he appreciated the cardinal reaffirming the need to pass on the fundamental teachings of the Church.