Handing on A Faith: Challenges Opportunities of our Time

Thomas Groome 
Director of the Institute for Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry, Boston College

Date: September 29, 2004

Event Recap

On September 29th Professor Thomas Groome, Director of the Institute for Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at Boston College spoke on the topic of “Handing On A Faith: The Challenges and Opportunities of our Time”. Groome’s comments reflected, although did not try to summarize, the Church in the 21st Century Conference on “Handing on the Faith” held earlier in September (see www.bc.edu/church21). He outlined three challenges Catholics face in handing on the faith in contemporary American society: context, content and communication.

Groome began by describing the assumption that the postmodern context offers many challenges to an American Catholicism that is no longer isolated in Catholic ghettoes and can no longer rely extensively on the socializing influence of parish institutions such as schools, CYO’s, altar societies etc. to convey the nuances of Catholic identity. Individualism, materialism, moral relativism and a general rejection of universal truths, are all seen as working against the traditional sense of what it means to be Catholic. This pessimistic view was well represented at the Church 21 conference in early September but it is a view that Groome disagrees with. Groome argues that seeing contemporary culture as an enemy is not necessarily useful or true. He feels that one of the geniuses of Catholicism has been its ability to integrate itself into a particular time and place, resulting in the rich diversity you see in French Catholicism, Irish Catholicism, American Catholicism, etc. Groome sees the union of faith and culture as a happy result, quoting Pope John Paul II’s statement that a faith that does not become culture is not yet a living faith.

Nevertheless, Groome does not underestimate the problems associated with transmitting a living faith. He went on to address the related issues of content and communication beginning with the Vatican II’s insight about the “hierarchy of truths”, and distinguishing between the “core constitutive truths” and “local truths or practices”. He agrees that one must be faithful to the constitutive truths but that to be communicated effectively presenters must take into account the culture of the audience receiving it. Today these truths must be presented in ways that are “life giving” for the society and the common good, not just for one person; they must be presented in ways that encourage interfaith understanding; and they must be presented as part of a process of lifelong formation.

The talk elicited much discussion with many people taking up or questioning the speaker’s cause for optimism, and also elaborating on the theme of interfaith understanding and how other religious traditions struggle to hand on the faith.