For my first post, I thought I might talk a little bit about my job as a high school teacher and how it relates to my graduate theological education. I have never thought of myself as a teacher. I didn’t grow up thinking I would teach, and I couldn’t have guessed even a few years ago that my first job would be as a high school teacher. But now that I am a teacher and have taught for a year now, it feels like a really good use of my talents and passion. But I still struggle a lot with what exactly I am trying to accomplish.
If you are familiar with Catholic high schools, you might notice that some identify the faith related departments as “Theology,” some as “Religion,” or “Religious Studies.” Given the amount of time I spent in graduate school studying theological method and terminology, the distinctions being made here are immensely important. The school where I teach identifies our department as “Religion,” and my job title is technically, “Religion Teacher.” The argument that corresponds to this selection is that the purpose of such a department is to make a student more religious. A Catholic school takes responsibility for its students’ spiritual and religious development, and it assumes a Catholic faith tradition as its starting point. Quite simply, a department that labels itself as “Religion” aims to make its students better Catholics.
A smaller number of Catholic schools have a “Theology Department.” (I find a larger number of Jesuit schools make this identification; the coincidience is not lost on me). In my job search last year, I found descriptions on the websites of “Theology Departments” usually possess the phrase “theological study” or some equivalent. These descriptions put their departments solidly in the Christian history of “faith seeking understanding,” the Anselmian description that marries faith and reason. These departments identify spiritual and religious development as an explicit goal of their teaching, but what they add is the idea that faith is a topic to be studied, to be analyzed and parsed with the fullest range of one’s intellect, rather than something to be transmitted from the teacher to the student, like a math equation or an historical fact.
At the crux of these terms is the important difference between theology and catechetics. Catechetics is the teaching of faith; it explains what exactly the doctrine states and attempts to demonstrate the truth of that doctrine. A Catholic catechesis program entails teaching the content of Scripture and Tradition. Theology, however, presumes a starting point of faith commitment (and a deep knowledge of its contents) but seeks a deeper level of understanding. Theology applies one’s intellect to the contents of faith, pushing its boundaries and perhaps critiquing its conclusions in the committed search for truth. While it seems obvious to me that part of my job is catechesis (even my Catholic students are largely ignorant on the contents of the Catholic faith), it is even more obvious that the outcome of my teaching is more closely aligned with the intellectual goals of a Theology Deparment rather than the religious ones a Religion Department.
One of the reasons for this difference is that at least half of my students are not Catholic. Most are non-Catholic Christians: Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, etc. How, then, can I teach students who are not Catholic how to be more religious in a religion they do not profess? And to be honest, I find the term “Religion Teacher” very flat. It lacks the richness and depth of the term “theology,” a word that evokes the wisdom of the Church fathers, the diligence of medieval monastic scholarship, and the faithful criticism of modern academics.
What I feel is a more accurate description of what I do is teach the contents of Catholic faith so that students can intellectually grapple with their conclusions and evaluate their own faith life in light of those conclusions. For Catholic students, the results often compel students to grow in religiosity. For non-Catholic students, those evaluations infrequently result in any formal conversion to Catholicism, but they might grow in the faith life of their particular tradition (organized or not). It feels like a misnomer to call this process catechesis or even religious education, but rather a combination of theology, religious education, and religious studies (studying a religion from outside that particular tradition).
Most of my contention with the term “religious education” and the goal of “making better Catholics” comes from an experience I had during at the end of my second semester teaching. In a formal setting, a diocesan official asked me if I thought of myself as an evangelizer, and my classroom as a locus for evangelization. Given that he knew the demographics of my school, he was referring specifically to the fact that most of my students are Christian but not Catholic. Evangelization is a complicated issue I will pick up in another post, but the overwhelming conclusion I gained from this interaction is that I could not answer “yes, I do understand myself as a Catholic evangelizer, seeking to defend the faith and convert non-Catholics.” But I could not answer “no, not at all” as that could not have been the appropriate answer for a “religion teacher.” And that is the duality I am trying to grapple with here, the interplay between theology, religion, and catechesis, bearing in mind the audience I teach and the stated goals of my department. I’m not sure how that should translate into a job title, but “Religion Teacher” does not seem accurate.