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Vol 40 No 3


Barry Brundell MSC

Gerard Kelly

Thomas Groome

Anthony Gooley

Daniel Ang

John O’Carroll and Chris Fleming



Bringing life to faith and faith to life:
For a Shared Christian Praxis Approach and Against a Detractor


WHETHER DESERVED or not, my work has become one instance of the contemporary practice of religious education and catechesis. What I’ve described technically as a ‘shared Christian praxis approach’ can be portrayed quite simply as ‘bringing life to Faith, and bringing Faith to life.’ Perhaps its simplicity and effectiveness toward Christian discipleship is why it is being used—often with creative adaptation—as the underlying pedagogy in many faith education curricula throughout the English-speaking world. Indeed, translations of my scholarly writings into other European and some Oriental languages have made it a familiar approach throughout the Church.

Beginning with my first visit to Australia in 1980, and continuing through the influence of the many Australian students who have studied with me at Boston College over the years, a shared Christian praxis approach has had widespread influence on the catechetical education of the Australian Catholic community. The diocese of Parramatta has been a leader in its implementation but many others have also used it or have adopted aspects of this approach.

Now an ultra-conservative element in the Australian Catholic community has made a concerted attack on a shared Christian praxis approach, and on me personally. The chief spokesperson is a Mr Eamonn Keane, a high school religion teacher in NSW. In his book, A Generation Betrayed (Heatherleigh Press: NY, 2002), Mr Keane pretends to offer a scholarly critique of my published work. Instead, by misrepresentation and manipulation of my writings, couched in a collage of false accusations, innuendo, and guilt by association, he makes a calumnious attack on my character, falsely accusing me of being ‘a dissenter’ from de fide aspects—constitutive truths—of Catholic faith. His book would be more accurately titled, Truth Betrayed.

Mr Keane has made it a mission to ripple his lies out across the world-wide Catholic community. People who are familiar with me and my work have dismissed his accusations for what they are—slanderous falsehoods. Yet, he has found a sympathetic audience among other ultra conservative Catholics. Now, when further attacks on me personally appear, and oftentimes those on contemporary catechesis, they regularly footnote Mr Keane’s book as their ‘authority.’
In this essay I will lay out a brief summary of my efforts these many years to forge an effective approach to religious education and catechesis. In so far as this approach has been widely employed, my defence is not simply of my own good name and work but also of the renewal of catechetical education that was catalyzed by the Second Vatican Council. After defending a shared praxis approach, I will give some examples of the more egregious misrepresentations and manipulations of it by Mr Keane in A Generation Betrayed (hereafter GB).

For A Shared Christian Praxis Approach
Though I have written lengthy books to describe this approach, I can state its rationale and summarize it quite briefly.

The Second Vatican Council lamented intensely the separation that Catholics make between their Faith and their life. ‘This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age’ (Constitution on Church in Modern World, no. 43, Abbott 243). I vividly remember reading this as a college student and taking it very much to heart; in many ways, my core commitment as a Catholic catechist over the years has been to bridge this gap and to help myself and others to integrate the two—life and Faith—into lived, living, and life-giving Christian faith.

I condense a shared Christian praxis approach into ‘bringing life to Faith, and Faith to life.’ Here I use ‘life’ and reflection on it as synonymous with the term praxis. By ‘Faith’ (often with a capital) I mean the Christian Story and Vision, all that has been handed down to us through Scripture and Tradition and what this demands of and promises to our lives. Then more than ‘correlating’ Faith and life, the ‘shared’ word in the title calls for a real integration, so that the Faith people profess and the lives they lead become, by God’s grace, integrated in their heads, hearts, and hands. The ‘learning outcome’ of this approach is that Catholic Christian faith might become the core commitment of their lives, the identity by which they live.

This foundational conviction—that catechetical education must enable people to integrate life and Faith into lived Faith—is echoed throughout the General Directory for Catechesis (1997, hereafter GDC), the most recent expression of the official ‘mind’ of the Catholic Church on the dynamics of educating in faith. I note parenthetically that the
Directory uses the term ‘experience’ whereas I prefer the stronger term ‘praxis.’ Experience often implies something one ‘undergoes—as if quite passive. Praxis, on the other hand, captures all of life and reflection on it, both what we undergo and what we initiate, our reception and our agency, what comes our way and what we help to create.

Likewise, the GDC uses the word term ‘correlate’ as what is needed between ‘experience’ and ‘faith’; again, I don’t find this term strong enough—given its typical English connotation. We must encourage people to ‘integrate’ the two, so that Christian faith defines who they are as disciples of Jesus within a community of disciples, the Church, permeating every nook and cranny of their lives in the world.

This being said, the GDC repeatedly calls for catechesis that encourages ‘a correlation and interaction between profound human experiences and the revealed message’ (no. 153). For it is by ‘correlating faith and life’ (no. 207) that ‘catechesis…bridges the gap between belief and life, between the Christian message and the cultural context’ (no. 205). Religious educators must not only teach the Faith tradition but also engage people’s lives in the world because ‘experience is a necessary medium for exploring and assimilating the truths which constitute the objective content of Revelation’ (no. 152). Thus, effective catechesis presents every aspect of Christian faith ‘to refer clearly to the fundamental experiences of people’s lives’ (no. 133). To encourage ‘lived’ faith, catechists must engage participants’ own lives as integral to the curriculum; ‘one must start with praxis to be able to arrive at praxis’ (no. 245; one of my favorites).

This commitment of mine and of contemporary catechesis to engage people’s praxis—reflection on life—in the pedagogy of Christian faith education reflects the Catholic principle of sacramentality. This is the deep Catholic conviction that God takes the initiative with divine presence and grace through the ordinary and everyday of our lives.

The Spirit is ever moving in our hearts, communities, and world; we can truly ‘come to see God in all things’ (Ignatius of Loyola) and we must respond through the ordinary and everyday as well. If such a methodology is ‘built into’ the pedagogy of catechesis—constantly encouraging people to bring ‘their lives to Faith and their Faith to life’—then, by God’s grace, ‘lived faith’ would seem a little more likely. My hope for a shared Christian praxis approach is that participants will learn the habitus (Aquinas) of integrating their lives and their Faith, and do so by their own willed commitment rather than depending on an authority figure to ‘tell’ them what to do. In this way, they may become agents of their Faith, taking responsibility for a ‘new evangelization’ (JP II) of joyful and lived faith in every arena and on every level of their lives.

Then, by way of the formal content of catechesis, I emphasize that we must give people ready access to the ‘whole Story’ of Catholic Christian faith and, within the catechetical process, explicitly point to its Vision—the demand and promise that this Faith reveals to our lives. Further, we must do so with real persuasion and ‘according to the mode of the receivers.’ In other words, we must ever ‘tell the Christian Story’ and ‘propose its Vision’ in such a way that people are likely to personally recognize the great truths and wisdom of this Faith and take it to heart with personal conviction.

Further, I describe the Catholic faith for which we educate as ‘total’—as engaging people’s heads, hearts, and hands. Or, as the old Catechisms put it, God made us ‘to know, love, and serve God in this life and to be happy forever in the next.’ This Faith has cognitive, affective, and behavioral aspects; thus, its catechesis demands information, formation, and transformation—life-long Christian conversion. Indeed we must bring people to know well and with conviction the beliefs of their faith, but also help to form them in Christian identity, and beyond this, dispose them to live the values and virtues that constitute Catholic morality and ethics. Our catechesis must convince them that

Jesus is indeed ‘the way, the truth, and the life,’ in other words that discipleship to him within a community of disciples, the Church—functioning effectively as sacrament of God’s reign in the world—is the surest path to true happiness in this life and eternal happiness in the next. This is the best hope I have for a shared Christian praxis approach to religious education and catechesis.

By way of integrating these two—life and Faith—I reiterate that I’ve long proposed a pedagogy that encourages people, within a Christian community of conversation, to come to see for themselves the wisdom and truth of Christian faith, to embrace it with personal conviction, so that they might ‘make the Faith their own’ and choose to live it in their lives. This appropriation and integration is precisely the intent of the fourth and fifth movements of the shared praxis approach (see my Sharing Faith Chapters 9 and 10, hereafter SF).

The dynamic of people appropriating Christian faith to their lives and making it their own is essential if they are to take on Christian discipleship as their identity and with conviction. Among other things, it requires that they think for themselves within a Christian community about their faith and about their lives, that they notice, reflect, remember, imagine, make judgments and decisions that integrate the two. The great Catholic philosopher/theologian Bernard Lonergan, building upon the work of Thomas Aquinas, described ‘authentic human cognition’ as demanding the cumulative activities of paying attention, coming to understand, making judgments about what is true or false, good or bad, and then reaching decisions as an agent of one’s own life and faith.

This is precisely the cognitive dynamic of a shared Christian praxis approach to catechesis and religious education. It is eminently Catholic in both its origins and intentions. It can enable people to move beyond simply ‘knowing about’ their Catholic faith to embracing its spiritual wisdom as their own; to move beyond knowing the ‘formulas’ of faith to living as disciples of Jesus Christ (note: to ‘move beyond’ does not mean to ‘leave behind’). Yet, the fundamentalist attitude of Mr. Keane toward both scripture and tradition would discourage such a cognitive dynamic and integration of life and Faith. Ironically, he thinks that a pedagogy which refuses people the opportunity to think about their lives and their Faith will make better Catholics out of them; in this day and age, he is greatly mistaken.

On this note, and to transition into a rebuttal of some of Mr Keane’s more egregious misrepresentations of my work, I challenge a false myth that he shares with ultra-conservatives in the Church that there was once a golden age when Catholics ‘knew’ their faith well, whereas now they do not. It is true that pre-Vatican II Catholics were typically quite capable of repeating the questions and answers memorized from their national catechism. But that they ‘knew’ the ‘constitutive truths’ of their Faith better than today’s generation is a false myth for at least two reasons.

First, it settles for a too limited understanding of what it means ‘to know.’ Essentially, the old catechism approach was intent that people ‘know about’ their Faith in that they could repeat what was presumed to be its essential truths. But such knowing could be simply memorized—and typically was. Now, I’m convinced that there is a place for memorization in catechesis (see my essay ‘Learning by Heart,’ Church, Vol. 7, No. 3, Fall, 1991, 38-40). However, if people are to take on Catholic faith as their personal identity and modus operandi in this post-modern world, they need much more than knowing about it and accepting it ‘on authority.’ They need to ‘know’ their Faith in the biblical sense of knowing—a total engagement of the whole person. As Lonergan would insist, this requires that they pay great attention to it, come to understand it well, move to deep conviction about it, and choose to live as Christians in their daily lives. This is the ‘knowing’ of Catholic faith to which I am deeply committed; it calls for something akin to a shared Christian praxis approach to catechetical education.

Second, the ‘penny catechism’ version of the Faith that a previous generation of Catholics could readily recite, often missed the mark. To begin with, it made every question/answer seem equally constitutive of Catholic faith; this could be very misleading. Then, it often skewed the faith by what it highlighted or failed to highlight. For example, the original Baltimore Catechism had eleven questions and answers on limbo and purgatory; meanwhile, it had no direct question/answer and only one oblique one on Easter. Note, too, that a 1960’s survey of how well American ‘Catechism’ Catholics knew their faith found that over 80% of them could not name the first book of the Bible and more than 70% could not say who preached the Sermon on the Mount. In other words, Catholics catechized through the question/answer catechisms could have a memorized knowledge of their faith as if everything was equally important, as if subsidiary teachings were central, and be nigh biblically illiterate.

It seems true that this current generation of young Catholics cannot repeat the central formulas of their Faith the way my generation could, like the definitions of the Blessed Trinity as one God and yet three divine persons, distinct and equal, or of the two natures—fully divine and fully human—in the one person of Jesus, or that the outer appearance of the bread and wine remain but their substance is changed into the body and blood of Christ. I wish they could recite such summaries, and likewise the central lists—like the ten commandments, the seven sacraments, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. A shared praxis approach is entirely consonant with such memorization; in fact, all of the K to 8 religion curricula I have authored and that are used widely throughout the US Catholic community have a ‘learn by heart’ exercise at the end of each lesson—after students have been through the dynamics of attention, understanding, appropriating, and deciding.

On the other hand, this generation of Catholic youth and young adults seem to have a ‘performative’ knowledge of faith that my generation did not have. Of last year’s graduating seniors from Boston College, over 80% participated in some work of compassion or justice throughout their four years of university, and did so out of faith conviction. My generation could readily explain the difference between calumny and detraction but we had little awareness that the works of social justice are a mandate of Catholic faith.

Against a Detractor: Rebutting the Calumny of Eamonn Keane
I have published a lengthy rebuttal of Mr Keane’s false claims against me and a shared praxis approach; the full text can be read at www.bc.edu\irepm (hit on ‘Faculty and Staff’ and then my name). Here I give two major examples of how he misrepresents my work; I then add more briefly some additional instances of his false accusations.

Concerning Revelation:
Mr Keane claims that I repudiate ‘the Catholic understanding of Divine Revelation’ (GB13) because I allegedly reject ‘Revelation as doctrine’ (GB 234). In fact, I clearly affirm the assets of a doctrinal notion of revelation but say that this model alone could diminish the richness of Catholic faith. In broadening beyond a doctrinal understanding, my primary mentor is Avery Cardinal Dulles; I embrace Dulles’s theology of revelation throughout Sharing Faith, footnoting him repeatedly. How could Mr Keane have missed this!

Readers of Dulles will recall that he lays out five acceptable models of revelation, reviewing the strengths and limitations of each one (see SF 489-490 for a summary). Following his lead, I try to draw upon what Dulles notes as each one’s strengths while avoiding its weaknesses. Even as I appropriate the merits of each model to catechetical education, I state repeatedly that my defining theology of revelation is Dulles’ own favored model of ‘symbolic mediation.’ (SF 197, 218, etc). How Mr Keane manages to portray my theology of revelation as ‘dissenting’ is a feat of manipulation and misrepresentation.

In Chapter 8 of Sharing Faith I outline Dulles’ description of ‘revelation as doctrine.’ Though this model has assets, Dulles also finds it inadequate in that ‘it overlooks the historicity of God’s self-disclosure, ‘forgets God’s presence in one’s own life and experience,’ excludes a ‘faith that probes and questions,’ and prevents dialogue with people of other faiths’ (SF 219 with a footnote to Dulles, Models of Revelation, 46 ff).

In one of the most flagrant misrepresentations in his book—quite a claim—Mr Keane quotes my quotation of Dulles’ reservations as if they are my own words (though my text has clear quotation marks and footnote), and presents this critique by Dulles as my whole theology of revelation (GB 87 and passim). He makes no mention that I draw repeatedly from Dulles’ other four models, and never acknowledges that I favor Dulles’ overall proposal of revelation as ‘symbolically mediated.’ From his caricature of my position, Mr Keane proceeds to claim that I reject all doctrines of Christian faith and that I encourage others to do the same (see GB 234 and 298). How irresponsible!

Concerning Hermeneutics:
Hermeneutics of scripture and Christian tradition—interpreting, explaining, and appropriating the Faith—is ever a task of the catechetical educator. In Sharing Faith, I recommend three hermeneutical attitudes for religious educators; I call them hermeneutics of retrieval, of suspicion, and of creative commitment. Placing emphasis first and foremost on retrieval, I say that the prime hermeneutical task of the catechetical educator is ‘to recognize and affirm the truths and values’ of Christian faith, helping people to ‘retrieve and reclaim’ them to their lives now. Then, the intended outcome of the whole process is commitment - that people make the Faith their own and embrace ‘creative commitment to more faithful ways of living Christian faith’ (SF 230-235).

By contrast, Mr Keane repeatedly charges me with encouraging only a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ toward Catholic faith. He never even mentions hermeneutics of retrieval and creative commitment, though I announce all three with a bold heading (see SF 230). Further, he totally misrepresents what I mean by a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ and ignores the context in which I wrote about it. He then makes the egregious claim that I recommend that Catholic faith ‘be introduced to the students as something to be critically dismantled (‘hermeneutics of suspicion’) in order to identify its ‘distortions’ and ‘untruth’’ (GB 240).

In fact, I present a hermeneutics of suspicion as a very positive exercise ‘to uncover from the texts of tradition the subjugated or forgotten memories that can give new life’ (SF 232). Establishing such hermeneutics as the antithesis of ‘negative criticism’ (SF 232), I draw upon the notion of ‘dangerous memories’ as developed by Johann Baptist Metz and other Catholic scholars. These are aspects of Christian faith that to recall them deeply can cause people to ‘suspect’ their own taken for granted attitudes and practices and to imagine more faithful ways of living as disciples of Jesus. I cite the Exodus as the most ‘dangerous memory’ from the Hebrew Scriptures, and the paschal mystery—Christ’s death and resurrection—as likewise from the New Testament. Instead of encouraging dissent, such memories call us to greater faithfulness in Christian living.

With the hindsight of twenty years (I began writing SF in 1985), I recognize that a term like ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ plays into the hands of people with an agenda like Mr Keane. It could be heard to imply dissent—as he constantly but falsely charges. Meanwhile, he never identifies the context in which I use it. Sharing Faith was an academic work that drew upon and engaged the scholarship of its time. Within the scholarly conversation on hermeneutics, led by such great thinkers as Hans Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, and David Tracy, ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ was a common phrase that all its authors understood as a positive exercise; it had no implication of dissent or denial of the truths of Faith. I would never insert such language into a catechetical text for children, but it was appropriate in a graduate level text book of that era.

I will now list more briefly four misrepresentations by Mr Keane of my work; my essay on the website www.bc.edu\irepm reviews many more.

* Mr. Keane constantly links my work with that of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. In particular, he claims that I follow her theology of revelation. I have already refuted this false claim above; Avery Cardinal Dulles was my primary mentor on revelation, as well as for my theology of Church. Now, scripture scholars vary greatly in their response to the writings of ESF but none ever disparage her scholarship. The fact that I draw insights from her work—as I do from a vast and diverse array of authors (see the bibliography of SF)—does not mean that I agree with all of her positions, far from it. Otherwise we can take it that Mr. Keane’s own citing of Aristotle means that he still favors slavery.

* Then, by associating me with Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, while lamenting her ‘trenchant support for abortion on demand’ (GB 4), Mr. Keane constantly infers that I support abortion as well. Msgr. Michael Wrenn, writing in the Foreword of GB, even implies that I support partial birth abortion. This implying throughout GB that I favor abortion is as personally painful to me as his false accusation that I deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Abortion is a moral issue on which I have remained most conservative all my life. I have worked for the repeal of Roe V Wade, the US Supreme Court decision of 1971 that gave America the most liberal abortion law in the world. I abhor the very notion of partial-birth abortion; a society that could even consider it has lost its moral compass. Mr. Keane even claims that Schussler Fiorenza opposes adoption as an alternative to abortion (GB 212). I find this hard to believe, and having experienced Mr Keane’s ability to manipulate and misrepresent my own work, he has likely done the same to hers. Be this as it may, I take the opposite position; I actively advocate adoption as an alternative to abortion, and my spouse and I are proud adoptive parents.

* Mr Keane writes that the term ‘praxis…has a long history—stretching from the philosophers of ancient Greece, through Marxism, and into the philosophy of Karol Wojtyla’ (GB 82). First, an aside: Mr Keane is correct that the notion of praxis passes through Marxism into the philosophy of Pope John II (see Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II, Toward a Philosophy of Praxis, New York; Crossroads, 1981); of course, this is entirely acceptable to Mr Keane. But then, he goes on to misrepresent my understanding of praxis as if inevitably Marxist; in Ch. 10 he gives a lengthy critique of Marx (much of which I agree with) as if refuting my position. In my writings I recognize Marx, as did Pope John Paul II, for keeping alive the notion of a praxis way of knowing while the rest of the philosophical world forgot it, favoring purely theoretical knowledge instead. This being said, many times I make clear that I disagree with Marx’s deficient notion of praxis (see SF 72-74).

* A central aspect of a shared praxis approach is my comprehensive description of ‘Christian Story’ to represent the totality of Christian faith and to encourage a narrative style in catechetical education. Further, I rarely write of Christian Story without adding the word ‘Vision’; I do so to encourage faith educators to make explicit what Christian Story demands of and means for people’s lives. So, the Story testifies that God loves us, the Vision demands that we love God and neighbor as ourselves; the Story teaches that God forgives us, the Vision demands that ‘we forgive those who trespass against us,’ and so on. In quoting—with disparagement—from my description of Christian Story, Mr Keane leaves out some crucial aspects that are clearly stated in the text from which he quotes (see GB 85 and compare with SF 113-114). Further, nowhere does he refer to my term Vision—though I use it repeatedly in my writings and the metaphor of ‘Story’ is incomplete without it. Meanwhile, having ignored this central aspect of my work, he claims that my approach is not committed to encouraging people to live their faith—precisely what I intend by pairing Christian Story with Christian Vision.

Regarding Women’s Ordination
The only accurate charge that Mr Keane makes against me is that I have long favoured the ordination of women in the Catholic church. Mr Keane claims that the prohibition against ordaining women is an infallible aspect of Catholic faith, whereas I claim that this has not been taught infallibly. Here I’m in company with many respected Catholic theologians, of left, right, and centre; I’m also confident that it never will be so taught.

It is true that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) stated in its Responsum ad Dubium of Oct 28, 1995, signed by then Cardinal Ratzinger, that ‘the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women’ and that this is ‘to be held definitively’ and ‘as belonging to the deposit of faith.’ But the CDF cannot teach infallibly on its own authority and its claim that Pope John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was merely confirming a teaching already taught infallibly by the bishops of the world has been challenged by many respected and faithful theologians. In this light, Canon 749 §3 makes a very important statement: ‘no doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless it is clearly established as such.’ The Church’s teaching that women should not be ordained does not meet this criterion for infallibility. This heartens me to continue to respectfully call for reconsideration of the Church’s present position.

Note, however, that Mr Keane doesn’t simply disagree with my favoring the ordination of women; he uses my position to extrapolate all kinds of outlandish claims. For example, ‘Groome is thereby implying that the male-only ministerial priesthood is not of divine origin’; from this he concludes that I deny the divinity of Jesus Christ (GB 101), and thus the dogma of the Blessed Trinity. Or again, ‘To call into question the divine origin of…male-only ministerial priesthood is equivalent to calling into question the integrity of the Catholic Church’s claim to have been founded by Christ himself’ (GB 107). From this he extrapolates that I deny the effectiveness of the sacraments, the teaching authority of the Church, and so on. Such claims are ridiculous, to put it mildly.

Let me be clear here as I am in my many books and essays: I now hold and have always held fully orthodox positions on all the central matters of Catholic faith and morals. Further, in twenty-five years of writing children’s curriculum, my publishers have never returned a manuscript for rewrite, nor any part of one, because their theological advisors had found heresy in it. I know that WH Sadlier, my primary curriculum publisher, will verify this upon request. Never, in all the thousands of pages of curriculum I have written, has anyone ever had occasion to accuse me of ‘dissent from defined dogma’ (GB 96), a constant charge by Mr Keane.

I also note that while I favor a respectful and open communal re-consideration of the question of the ordination of women in the Catholic church, I have limited my discussion of this issue to a scholarly level and in academic contexts. I do not raise this question in any of my children’s curricula; there I faithfully represent what is the present position and practice of the Catholic Church. Should the Church ever explicitly state its opposition to women’s ordination as infallible, and the conditions for infallibility are fulfilled, then I will submit to its teaching, precisely because I accept and respect the Church’s teaching magisterium.

In conclusion, I hope and pray that Mr Keane will try to undo the damage he has done, not only to me personally but to the whole movement of contemporary catechesis. I express this sentiment out of Christian charity. I remind him that, ‘They who have lied about their neighbor and seriously injured his character must repair the injury done as far as they are able, otherwise they will not be forgiven’ (Baltimore Catechism, 1885 edition, 66). By this catechism caveat, Mr Keane has placed in hazard his eternal welfare.

Thomas H. Groome is Professor of Theology and Religious Education at Boston College and serves as Director of Boston College’s Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry.