Being a religious educator comes with a responsibility to consider how much to engage students in critical thinking. Is critical thinking the antithesis of faith? A study in the journal Science recently asked that question (April 27, 2012).  Their conclusion was that a person’s fundamental, often more intuitive than rational, beliefs are not necessarily set in stone but can be influenced by engaging in analytical thinking. This is a good thing because it means there is hope for our Church.

Catholic religious education has moved away from the critical thinking that was encouraged in the ‘70’s and 80’s. There is now, once again, a fundamental fear of creating “thinking-Catholics,” a fear that originates in Rome and is communicated through our bishops’ control of textbook selections and curricula, and on the college level through mandates.

But in order to remove critical thinking from religious education one has to avoid the study of the Gospels, for starters. The Gospels present four authors/communities of faith who were applying the intuitive as well as analytical parts of their brains to the basic questions: Who was Jesus? What was his message? What did his death mean? Study of the various and sometimes contradictory views of the Gospels introduces students to critical thinking. It has to.

So the emphasis in religious education has moved from the Gospels and Jesus to doctrine and catechism, but without historical context and honesty concerning the messy process of doctrinal development. The first five hundred years of the church were characterized by an intense, often rancorous, sometimes even violent process of debate and disagreement about those fundamental questions raised by the Evangelists.

An introduction to early church history can be a great foil to doctrinal fundamentalism. Sadly, students are often taught ecclesiology in the place of Church history. When I last taught, in 2006, one high school textbook recommended for Church History was based on Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church and made no reference to the Reformation. None!  Yet an honest look at the Reformation would provide an extraordinary insight into the fallibility of the church.

But then, that’s the crux of the matter isn’t it. The Church can be seen to have done no wrong, to have taught no errors, to have been led only by saints. The underlying motivation of our hierarchy, in education as in all other matters, is fear of the Truth, not pursuit of the Truth.