The Challenges that The Institute Aims to Address
Catholic theological education, at best, has a few basic problems (this is to set aside the glaring fact that much of “Catholic” theology that is taught in Catholic schools is not in accord with the Catholic faith). The (1) first problem is that the theology taught is largely unserious, and the (2) second results from this, namely, that no coherent worldview, let alone the faith, is actually handed on or transmitted in some kind of rationally attractive way. And so, our children are left open to a myriad of attacks on their faith because their faith is not rooted in reason. Lastly, (3) there is little serious training for a life of holiness.
(1) The Unseriousness of Catholic Theological Education
Catholic theological education is unserious insofar as we never get past a middle-school theological education (at best) even though Catholics continue taking “religion” through high school and even college and are highly educated in other areas. As Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P. said:
Deep curiosity leads to engagement. If I have a problem in understanding the faith, or even a real difficulty of belief, it can be the beginning of a better and truer form of believing. In all fairness, it’s not that easy to teach one’s self Catholic theology. Today many people are well trained engineers, nurses or lawyers, but they have the theological education of a middle school child. We can talk about who is to blame for this state of affairs, but the truth is that we are all to blame. Catholics need to study real theology—as best they can—and to talk about theological beliefs among each other. Otherwise, we create at best only a culture of apologetics and politics, which is what tends to predominate in orthodox Catholic circles. That means we never really learn to speak confidently about the mysteries of the faith among ourselves or with others, and in turn this greatly hinders the evangelical dynamic of the Church. There is no way to learn to swim than to get into the water. Studying theology in this case is the metaphorical water, and it is important to immerse oneself gradually and learn how to swim.[i]
Another author has put this well:
Herein lies the problem. Our kids don’t understand Catholicism on any profound level. As far as I can tell, we seem to do an excellent job of teaching our children about Catholicism until a few years after the age of Confirmation, and then it stops because we think we have to focus on college and careers. All too often, our own theology and metaphysics never grew up. How can we expect anything more from them when we fail to understand it ourselves?
A Christian should, at various points growing up and throughout life, be completely baffled. A teenager should cease to be satisfied with the Catholicism of his youth. He should wrestle with his religion. The wanderings of an adolescent mind can be dangerous, but they should be a part of life and an opportunity for deeper faith. We have to harness and guide the restless mind and show our children that there is a why for everything in this Church and even more importantly, a way to live it as they grow up and have the capacity to comprehend the mysteries of our faith on a deeper level.
We begin to help them build a strong Catholic house, brick by brick, on a shaky, precarious, weak foundation. We need, at some point in their lives, to stop teaching them just about what we believe, but why we believe it and how it all fits together into an integrated Catholic worldview which is necessarily centered on God. Our kids are completely unprepared to critique the arguments against their belief system and they abandon Christianity, or any meaningful form of Christianity anyway, because they never comprehended the First Principles to begin with. The house that should shelter them from the wild winds of a sinful life collapses under the all-consuming guise of a carefree, enthralling, exciting secular world. It is hard to fight a battle when you never learned how to wield a sword.
We should be teaching them to argue for and about Christianity, not merely to accept it superficially....
We are sending spiritually malformed young people into a hostile world, and losing your faith is all too easy if you don’t understand why you believe what you believe.[ii]
(2) There is No Coherent Worldview That is Transmitted
The faith is not transmitted as a coherent whole. As a result, there is also no coherent worldview for the individual Catholic since this worldview requires an integration of what we know through evidence available to reason (in its more rigorous state this is philosophy) and what we know/believe through faith (theology). And this lack of transmission of a coherent whole happens for many reasons (many of which are also evidence for why Catholic theological education has been unserious), but the most important reason, as a Dominican priest has said, is that
many catechists/theology teachers have so little training that it is in effect the blind leading the blind, and without adequate training they have little understanding of what they are teaching. The result is the Church's teaching comes across as a matter of fact and fideistic (i.e. “because the Church says so”).
Unfortunately a degree in theology is not necessarily evidence of the needed training. This is a problem on a broad level. Edward Feser helpfully compares the Church’s intellectual life today to Rocky III:
The Church, in her human element and in particular in her intellectual life, has in my view in recent decades too often been like Rocky at the beginning of the movie [Rocky III] — undisciplined, unserious, inattentive to the true nature of the challenge on the horizon and unprepared to deal with it. Just as Rocky coasts on the reputation he acquired from his past victories but has little to show for it when confronted by a vigorous new challenger, contemporary Catholic churchmen and theologians are the heirs of a glorious philosophical and theological patrimony of which they have, in the face of the moral, political, and intellectual challenges posed by secularism, made little use.
And just as the Mr. T character, despite his boorishness and vanity, at least knows what it takes to win, so too do the New Atheists, for all their smug ignorance, know where the fundamental issues really lie in the dispute between religion and secularism. They understand that it is, at the end of the day, useless to appeal to the social advances that Christianity ushered in historically, or to the dignity that Christian morality attributes to human beings, or to the beauty of Christian art and architecture, unless there is good reason to think that the central claims of Christianity are actually true. They know, as St. Thomas Aquinas did, that it is useless to talk about faith unless you have shown that faith is something other than the self-deception its critics take it to be — that is, unless you have first established the rational preambles of faith, the praeambula fidei. They know, at least implicitly, that since man is a rational animal, you will not win him over in the long run if you cannot win over his intellect.[i]
So this is what we need to do – to introduce young people to the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition and habituate them to thinking (about these things) in a serious way. This is what a theological education is meant to do.
(3) Unserious Spiritual Formation
Finally, the perseverance in the faith and the development of holiness however require more than serious theology – they require also a rich and devoted relationship with God. Of course, many places will offer mass, retreats, and various other activities that relate to the faith (and we do too). But the same problems that are present in the teaching of theology are present in the offering of spiritual formation; most of these activities are largely unserious and aimed at something less (often having some kind of fun or community building among young people – which are all good things; they just are not spiritual formation – that is, they do not include the kind of thing that directly aims to develop holiness). Moreover, what is missing is, among other things, the foundation of all these things, namely faith and a life of prayer.