By PHILIP TROWER
Some of the things our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has been saying since he became Pope about the way the faith should be presented and taught as a preamble to the new evangelization have unquestionably ruffled a few feathers. However, I have increasingly come to think that there would be less misunderstanding if more people were aware of a development that has been taking place in the Church’s thinking and teaching on this subject over the last 50 years. This development seems to have begun at the time of Vatican II, and, in a modified form, has been accepted by subsequent Popes and episcopal synods.
But only, I would say, in the last few years has a significant section of the theologically-minded faithful become aware of it.
It involves making a distinction, when considering or talking about the Church’s beliefs, teachings, and practices, between what are now called the kerygma and the didache, both Greek words.
Kerygma, which carries with it the idea of a herald blowing a trumpet to announce or proclaim some important news, is used to describe what are held to be the most characteristic features of the initial apostolic teaching or “proclamation.” The apostles and the first generation of Christians were not propagating a religious philosophy, based purely on human reason and human wisdom like that, say, of Confucius. They were announcing a message of salvation achieved by a Divine-Human Person, whose witnesses and representatives they claimed to be.
The point is made with particular force by St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians. With characteristic irony, the Apostle to the Gentiles there describes what he is preaching or proclaiming as “the foolishness of God” in contrast to the “wisdom” or philosophy admired by the Greeks.
The apostles were heralds of a supernatural mystery having crucial implications for the whole human race, past, present, and to come; a message requiring a response from the heart and will as much as an intellectual assent by the mind. “Repent and believe the Gospel.” “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Rather than proposing a system of religious beliefs and ideas, the apostolic kerygma, one could say, is announcing a series of astonishing natural-supernatural facts of recent origin.
Explaining or justifying the facts is the role of didache, or the detailed religious instruction we now call catechetics. This is given after the proclamation of the message has, with the help of grace, and in some cases miracles, been accepted. Didache has its origin in the fact that the kerygma or initial apostolic proclamation is not all self-explanatory or systematically organized.
Almost as soon as the proclamation has been heard and accepted, the new Christian starts to ask questions: Why, how, or “when you say such and such, what does it mean”? And the attempts to answer these questions, as they have been put to the Church down the ages by succeeding generations, have given rise to those great storehouses of the Church’s dogmatic, doctrinal, and theological teaching — the works of the Church Fathers, the acts of her councils, the Summae of the medieval scholastics and so on, or that most recent addition, the Catechism of the Catholic Church — which are one of the glories of her existence.
The kerygma or initial apostolic proclamation, its range and style, are best seen and appreciated in the Acts of the Apostles, better indeed than in the Gospels which go way beyond it. And important to remember too is that for its first audiences the kerygma was not something totally unheard of. The apostles were addressing Jews and telling them about their long-awaited Messiah. For the Jews the proclamation was mainly about the fulfillment of prophecies. It was only after St. Peter’s visit to Cornelius and the turning to the Gentiles that the kerygma became a complete novelty for the majority of its hearers.
The first people to think of making this distinction between kerygma and didache were the Protestant theologian Rudolph Bultmann and an associate called Dodd for reasons which it is not necessary to go into in this article.
The only point I will make here is that, in the hands of thinkers hostile to Catholic belief and practice, distinguishing between the kerygma and the didache can be and has been used as a way of devaluing or dismissing much or all of the latter. The kerygma alone is important. The rest of what passes for Christian belief and teaching is mostly just man-made stuff.
Included in this category of doctrinal iconoclasts one regretfully has to place Catholic theologians who, since the Second Vatican Council, have been anxious to get the Church to drop, change, or adapt this or that one of her teachings. However, other theologians, those with a genuinely Catholic cast of mind, have seen in the kerygma-didache distinction a means of overcoming what they consider had become a too-rationalistic presentation of the faith.
From the Catholic standpoint, as we shall see in a moment, kerygma and didache are not in opposition. They are to be seen as complementary, fulfilling different roles or needing more or less emphasis in varying circumstances. Put at its simplest one could say that emphasis on the apostolic kerygma is considered best for the evangelization of new peoples who have never heard of Christianity, or the de-Christianized populations of the West, many of whom are now equally ignorant. Didache comes in once they are established in the faith in degrees and forms suited to their level of education and culture.
With too much didache too soon or in too much detail, it is felt, the faith can lose its freshness and come to seem like a philosophy. The challenging nature of what is preached loses its force and the elements of mystery and the supernatural fade. A missionary, for instance, preaching the Gospel to a new people for the first time, does not begin with a string of arguments for proving the existence of God, or a list of quotations from the fathers and doctors of the Church in support of belief in the Real Presence. Were he to do so, the beauty and, dare I say it, “magic” of what he was saying would cease to be felt.
This, judging by some of his off-the-cuff remarks, is, I would suggest, the view of Pope Francis. There is an affinity, it seems to me, between what he has been saying on this subject and the reactions of Thomas à Kempis and the adherents of the 15th-century movement known as the devotio moderna to late medieval scholasticism. (Thomas à Kempis is the author of the Imitation of Christ.)
How much of the didache, or the totality of the Church’s teachings, should the faithful be expected to know? Pius XII, I seem to remember, said it should be on a level with the rest of their education. So if they have been to a college of any kind or are IT experts that would mean they ought certainly to be able to understand the Catechism of the Catholic Church in its longer or shorter forms.
A story, I recall, from the life of St. Francis of Assisi throws a nice light on the question. When a poor old woman said to him that it surely wasn’t necessary for her to know a lot of theology to get to Heaven, his reply was roughly, “Not for you, but it is for the Church.”
The key point in the thinking of those members of the Magisterium who are for promoting the kerygmatic approach seems to be that the faithful should never be allowed to fall into thinking that being a Catholic means, first and foremost, belonging to an institution with a set of rules and regulations to be obeyed, and providing certain goods and services mysteriously necessary if one is to spend eternity in the right place. An outlook of this kind can only be the path to routine, tepidity, loss of the young, and the death of any missionary spirit.
If on the other hand the young can be persuaded or convinced that as Catholics they have been called by an all-loving Creator to be His agents in propagating a message about a supernatural mystery of crucial importance for the whole human race, and to help Him to activate it, the situation is surely more likely to be different. Being a Catholic is, in essence, being caught up into this awe-inspiring supernatural mystery. It is this kind of outlook which the kerygma, as we have it in Scripture and tradition, has kept alive in each generation.
As for guidelines for activating the mystery, we have the fact that we share in our Lord’s threefold office of prophet, priest, and king. The prophetic office calls us to be witnesses to the truth, natural and supernatural, at all times and in all circumstances. Our priestly office is well summarized by St. Peter in his first epistle and in the third eucharistic prayer. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart to sing the praises of God who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
Thus St. Peter. And the third eucharistic prayer? “You never cease to gather a people to yourself so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name.” As for fulfilling our kingly role, I would say it amounts to fulfilling what Holy Mother Church calls the “duties of our state” as fully and faithfully as possible.
Here now are some relevant quotations from the recently canonized John Paul II and from the 2012 Synod on Evangelization.
John Paul II: “The vital core of the new evangelization must be a clear and unequivocal proclamation (kerygma) of the person of Jesus Christ, that is, the preaching of his name, his teaching, his life, his promises and the Kingdom which he has gained for us by his Paschal Mystery.”
“In the complex reality of mission, initial proclamation has a central and irreplaceable role, since it introduces man ‘into the mystery of the love of God, who invites him to enter into a personal relationship with himself in Christ’ and opens the way to conversion. Faith is born of preaching, and every ecclesial community draws its origin and life from the personal response of each believer to that preaching. Just as the whole economy of salvation has its center in Christ, so too all missionary activity is directed to the proclamation of his mystery” (Redemptoris Missio).
“The subject of proclamation is Christ who was crucified, died, and is risen: through him is accomplished our full and authentic liberation from evil, sin, and death; through him God bestows ‘new life’ that is divine and eternal. This is the ‘Good News’ which changes man and his history, and which all peoples have a right to hear” (Redemptoris Missio).
“Thus through catechesis the Gospel kerygma (the initial, ardent proclamation by which a person is one day overwhelmed and brought to the decision to trust himself to Christ) is gradually deepened, developed in its implicit consequences, explained in language that includes an appeal to reason, and channeled toward Christian practice in the Church and in the world” (Catechesi Tradendae, n. 25).
The many texts by Pope Benedict emphasizing that the faith is first and foremost entering into a personal relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ are of the same order. And here is the 2012 Synod on Evangelization.
“The ‘first proclamation’ is where the kerygma, the message of salvation of the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ is proclaimed with great spiritual power to the point of bringing about repentance of sin, conversion of hearts, and a decision of faith. At the same time there has to be continuity between first proclamation and catechesis which instructs us in the deposit of faith.”
The synod fathers then recommend “a pastoral plan of initial proclamation, teaching a living encounter with Jesus Christ.” This pastoral plan would include “systematic teaching on the kerygma in Scripture and Tradition…teachings and quotations from the missionary saints and martyrs in our Catholic history that would assist us in our pastoral challenges today,” and “guidelines for the formation of Catholic evangelization today.”
What is most noteworthy, I think, about all these quotations is that, while recognizing a distinction between an apostolic kerygma and its subsequent development into a systematically organized didache, the authors do not see in this any grounds for decrying the importance of the latter or excluding the role of reason.
This is in marked contrast with a distinguished Catholic author I read recently who seems to have been swept off his feet by his discovery of the kerygmatic approach. To my astonishment he claims that we should no longer say, “The Church teaches.” We should only say, “The Gospel says. . . .”
This would be understandable in a good Christian evangelical brought up to believe in Luther’s sola Scriptura as the sole source of divine Revelation. But it can hardly be the starting point for a Catholic “new evangelization.” For Catholics the Church is Christ living and teaching through it in the here and now. The person comes before the message.
However, I don’t want to end on a negative note.
Like so much in the Church and the faith, getting the right relationship between kerygma and didache is a matter of keeping what at first sight appear to be complementary opposites in balance. God’s justice and mercy are not conflicting realities. Nor are kerygma and didache, or the roles of faith and reason.
Also worth comment, I think, is that with its belief in the Real Presence, its practice of reserving the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, and its encouraging of eucharistic adoration, the Church provides its children with a means of developing a personal relationship with Christ incomparably superior to any other.
To sum up, what the Magisterium would appear to have been saying on the subject of this article amounts to this. The didache or fully developed teaching of the Church must never be presented in such a way that its luxuriance or symphonic grandeur overshadows or makes inaudible the apostolic proclamation which is its heart and soul.
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(Philip Trower, a longtime contributor to The Wanderer, is the author of Turmoil & Truth: The Historical Roots of the Modern Crisis in the Catholic Church and Danger to the State: A Historical Novel. He lives in England.)