This Lent, fasting from fear of questions and feasting on learning


By Corinne Winter

As we continue our journey through Lent, many parishes are celebrating with RCIA groups the intense last weeks of a faith journey that is leading them to baptism or to full communion with the Catholic Church.

That journey has been one of discernment, prayer, fasting and learning. And it is to be hoped that in all of those aspects it reflects the faith journey to which all of us are committed by our baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ.

My vocation as a theology professor provides me with many glimpses into the learning part of that journey and urges me to reflect on the importance of ongoing intellectual involvement as part of a lived faith. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that “it is intrinsic to faith that a believer desires to know better the One in whom he has put his faith and to understand better what He has revealed; a more penetrating knowledge will in turn call forth a greater faith (CCC 158).” In other words, faith requires and is supported by intellectual inquiry.


Having had opportunities to share the intellectual inquiry into faith with widely varied groups over the past 30 plus years, I have seen many different responses to that practice of faith. Many are excited about the opportunity to learn. Just recently, I was speaking with a group involved in the diocesan Ministry Formation Program. Without threat of grades or exams, several were taking notes as fast as they could so that they could review material again after the class ended.

Other people are frightened by the information that theologians offer, or by the questions we ask. Students of different ages and of different denominations as well express fear when we suggest that biblical accounts are not literal histories, that the language we use both in liturgy and in the explanation of doctrine has evolved over the course of centuries and not only can but must continue to evolve, or that we can’t offer a final, utterly satisfactory answer as to why bad things happen.

When I was teaching high school religion, a parent even suggested to me that I ought not allow students to ask questions in class because hearing that we don’t have clear, pat answers to all questions might threaten the students’ faith!

That parent was not alone in carrying an image of faith as clinging to certain statements as true rather than as a commitment to the One who reveals and whose self-revelation is our salvation. Now, we can certainly never say that statements of the Catholic Church’s faith are unimportant; they are absolutely vital, for they are our primary means of expressing the shared conviction that makes us a faith community. 

But, as our creeds demonstrate, our faith rests in God and not on the statements. Therefore, we can afford to explore the statements of our faith, their history, the diverse ways in which they can be articulated, and the questions that arise about their meaning as language and life experience change. Indeed, we need to engage in theological exploration. As the Catechism quotes Augustine: “I believe in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe (Sermon 43, CCC158).” 

In the early centuries of Christianity, the time of instruction for catechumens did not end with their baptism. After Easter, those newly baptized would undergo mystagogia, a deepening of their introduction to Christian faith and life. This phase remains within the renewed RCIA program where special emphasis is given to the readings found in the Masses for the Easter season and on the participation of the whole community in the catechesis.

There is no rite to signify the ending of the time of mystagogia, and I suggest that all of us might consider ourselves to be still engaged in the process of learning, in theological reflection on the meaning of our baptism, of the Eucharist in which we participate, of the Scriptures, and of the faith we profess.

As I understand it, The Catholic Messenger has a commitment to providing opportunities for our continuing reflection on our faith by including theological materials as well as diocesan news. I, for one, appreciate the challenges that are presented, even when I don’t always agree with everything I read. Disagreement is a vital part of learning, and indeed has provided stimuli that have led to such central statements of faith as the creed we recite at Mass.

Thus, I do feel disappointed when disagreement turns to personal attack as I have seen in some literature. This Lent, perhaps we could fast from fears of questions, controversies and disagreements and feast on the mysteries of our faith as questions and challenges can help us appreciate them.

(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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