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Note on the Subject Matter Chosen for the Course, The Old Testament in the Heart of the Catholic Church

John Kelleher

A striking feature of many current texts that aim to introduce American Catholic students to the Old Testament is how often they seem to choose their matter based on what is interesting to the writer, or at least, to the exegetes from whom the writer gleaned what he could.

So, first of all, hidden behind the choices of most introductory texts is the implicit, even the smug, assumption that the Old Testament is the property of the experts who study it or teach it for a living. They know what needs to be known about the Old Testament. Although this handily removes the guidance of the magisterium to those sinister nether regions where fundamentalism and all the other anti-scientific demons lurk, there is both irony and great danger in the New Class's unwavering commitment to be blind to any alternative to the "essential" autonomy of rationality. Over and over we forget that the golden calf was, after all, real gold. The New Class project is both genuinely powerful and inherently doomed. It must hide from itself both the despair and the inanity in this; so it gifts us all with its most cherished and important possession, its very own brand of what Sartre called bad faith.

The fact that bad faith always masks and justifies an essentially political project, a project of power, is scarcely grasped, but right on schedule, many tenth-rate thinkers without a scientific bone in their bodies, the "leading catechists" of our day, such as Thomas Groome (a laicized priest, winner of many awards for "catechetical leadership" from national Catholic organizations), explicitly define religious education as successful when the innocent gradually hear the mantras and agendas of The Right Sort of People as having been their own ideas all along. Great salesmen will understand this process far better than Groome, and in less self-congratulatory terms, but perhaps only Don Juan calls it by its real name.

Although in 1931Gödel taught the world, and not just fundamentalists, that nobody's scriptures are self-proving, few listened, not even Gödel himself, who believed that his work demonstrated the existence of Platonic ideas. Nonetheless, fully in line with Gödel's work, by the late 1970s it had been "discovered" that the historical-critical quest for "the" meaning of the Bible was played out, leading to the introduction of many new "sciences" by which the Bible could be studied, several of which, including psychoanalysis and semiotics, could by 1993 scarcely be recognized as having any scientific content by working scientists, even as the Pontifical Biblical Commission accepted their possible utility in The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.

In itself this is unremarkable and no sin. Science at its best continually devours itself, the better to seek in perfect humility the reality that is its object; and if the magisterium now judges prudential optimism to be better than prudential caution, so be it, even when that has the effect of being optimistic about (and thus privileging) "sciences" of biblical exegesis with a "subjective dimension" over against the findings of the dreaded "natural sciences." The question remains: what to teach the children, the innocent, besides already out-of-date good science, academic disquietude, scientific and religious syncretisms, and the whims, lusts, and designs of that New Class of knowledge-producers and knowledge-users that runs and sustains technologically-advanced economies throughout the world?

Behind this text is the idea of cultural literacy, defined in 1986 in a brilliant book of that name by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. At its publication Cultural Literacy was taken and is still taken by many on both the American left and the right as a polemic, mere fodder for preconceived ideas; but as Hirsch himself points out, in all the years since its publication not a single working scientist in the relevant area has rejected its fundamental scientific argument. To the contrary, further research has only supported Hirsch's reasoning, reasoning which not by chance has great relevance to the question of what to teach innocent Catholics about the Old Testament.

By the time Hirsch wrote, it was well-known by the relevant scientific community that shared but assumed background knowledge is the fundament of communication. In other words, the natural sciences, supposedly unable to deal with the "essential human dimension," have established empirically the existence of something like the "preconceptions" proposed by certain philosophers. In Cultural Literacy Hirsch drew on what was then solidly known, and correctly concluded that "literacy," the ability to communicate with strangers, with those not from one's own family, class, or group, existed insofar as one possessed the same implicit background knowledge as those strangers.

Hirsch proposed the existence of a limited and stable, but not entirely fixed, shared corpus of mid-level concepts that form the implicit basis of communication among the literate members of a society. Further, both the relative stability and the limited extent of this shared but assumed mid-level literate knowledge is guaranteed by the fact that it does after all have to be shared.

Hirsch further reasoned that this relatively limited, relatively stable corpus of shared mid-level knowledge could not be ineffable or otherwise impossible to define. American cultural literacy was, very simply, the concepts that literate people in the United States regularly used in their communication without defining, as if they assumed that other literate Americans would already know what was meant: ideas like "Supreme Court," "Jefferson," "DNA," "Brown v. Board of Education," and the like.

Finally, Hirsch proposed that, since this shared literate knowledge, the very basis of literacy, was of necessity relatively definable, relatively limited, and relatively stable over time, it could be taught in school, which would not only give schools something objective and highly useful to teach, but also lead to greater social equality, as children from all neighborhoods learned the shared cultural knowledge that would make all of them literate. Other researchers soon performed research directly substantiating the existence of this limited, shared, remarkably stable corpus of knowledge; for instance, by performing computer analyses of the assumed background knowledge in an average day's New York Times.

This is the first Catholic textbook, and it is devoutly to be wished, not the last, to observe explicitly that the Catholic Church not only has its own cultural literacy, but also its "magisterial literacy," the empirical, relatively limited, relatively stable corpus of mid-level background knowledge that is not normally explicitly defined but whose meaning is rather assumed and used by the magisterium as it hands on the faith of the apostles, and to state explicitly that it is this knowledge that the innocent Catholic in an advanced technological economy should learn explicitly in his religious schooling.

This shared knowledge can not be ineffable, or it could not serve as the fundament for communication by the magisterium. It can not be unlimited, nor ephemeral, for the same reasons. It exists, it can be defined more or less accurately, and it can be taught.

As the Holy Father and the bishops handed on the faith of the apostles in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, they could only have dimly understood that they were also inevitably creating the premiere repository of the magisterial literacy of the Catholic Church for our day. "The mid-level background knowledge assumed in the Catechism" is, inevitably, a relatively precise empirical definition of the magisterial literacy of the Catholic Church in our day.

The Catholic Church's magisterial literacy - the knowledge that needs to be taught to innocent Catholics through schooling - is not the faith of the Church, nor is it the Catechism itself. It is the implicit background knowledge that is part of the Catechism's very language, the possession of which makes the Catechism understandable.

There are three keys to the Catholic pedagogical revolution urged by this text. First, no ineffable "skill" of "being able to understand the Catechism" exists or can be taught. Those who possess the background knowledge assumed by the Catechism will understand it; others will not. Indeed, in the absence of the relevant background knowledge, no understanding occurs. Possession of the Catholic Church's magisterial literacy is essential to giving the Catholic faithful the ability to understand the Catechism. This is simple scientific fact.

Second, for understanding to occur, the relevant background knowledge must be immediately available, at one's fingertips. Any contention that the relevant background knowledge need not be available to consciousness at the exact moment the listener or reader encounters a text, is flatly false. It is literally true that if the background knowledge is not there exactly when it is needed, then no understanding occurs. Anything in a text that has to be "looked up later" contributes precisely nothing to the comprehension of that text. In other words, only during the ephemeral moment when the listener's or reader's knowledge mixes with the hearing or reading of the text does understanding actually occur. This astonishing reality is one of the most well-verified facts in all of cognitive science.

Third, it is a great error to assume that a Catholic student will possess the required background knowledge without being taught it explicitly. Mere casual exposure, even in vast quantities, is not necessarily sufficient. For example, on the American penny, does Lincoln's head face to the right or to the left? It is simply false that we will automatically notice something if we are exposed to it enough. In general, our attention has to be explicit. Schooling is better than, and more than, mere exposure.

To give an example of what Catholic innocents should be taught about the Old Testament, here is a quote from CCC 2575: "From the midst of the burning bush he calls Moses. This event will remain one of the primordial images of prayer in the spiritual tradition of Jews and Christians alike." Thus one example of Catholic magisterial literacy is "the burning bush." The Catechism in effect here even says out loud that the burning bush is part of Catholic magisterial literacy.

Thus, whatever else an introductory Catholic text on the Old Testament might teach, it had better at least attempt to ensure that "the burning bush" is not merely something a student vaguely remembers hearing once, but is an image "at his fingertips," readily accessible at the precise moment that the Holy Father and the bishops want to teach him something.

Et cetera. Possession of Catholic magisterial literacy is key to understanding the Catechism better. It almost goes without saying that its possession also guarantees that each Catholic student has background knowledge in common with literate Catholics of all nations, and even of all ages.
Autonomous rationality must in the end reject the very concept of language, seeing it as a subsumption. Traditional Catholic theology's subordination of freedom to necessity only fuels this mistrust. Here it must suffice to say that Catholic magisterial literacy is built not on anyone's theory or power but on the actual body of the crucified and risen Lord. The Holy Father and the bishops in communion with him must use a living yet empirical, shared, and remarkably stable Catholic corpus of implicit background knowledge in order to hand on the faith of the apostles. This shared background knowledge originally came from, and is, the living Word himself. Catholic magisterial literacy is a definite part of the sacramental economy by which the faith of the Catholic Church is handed on. Even the magisterium is not the "author" of Catholic magisterial literacy, any more than it could be the author of a dictionary, or of the faith. In short, this text announces that Catholic magisterial literacy exists, that it is no mere pedagogical or political or even theological construct, and that by and large it can be defined and taught to the faithful of a given age, even if that is done only poorly in these pages.

As will be evident, this text also undertakes to gently dismantle misunderstandings regarding the Catholic Church and the Bible, and to present in some limited form the fruit of scholarly inquiry regarding the Old Testament - inherently quicksilver and controversial tasks it also urges upon the much better introductory Catholic texts on the Old Testament that it hopes are coming soon.

When reformers want bishops to change the faith, they deserve to be ignored. When reformers want bishops to teach the faith, they are still normally ignored. This result is in a way predicted by the science that underpins this text. What is already known shapes the kinds of new thoughts that can be assimilated readily. This is so even when what is already "known" (and sustained by an entire culture of "professionals" in the "field" of "religious education") happens to be greatly mistaken.

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