ViewpointA new model of catechumenal formation needs promotion

Unsplash 6 Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Firenze, Italy / / IIya Orehov on Unsplash

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is one of the most successful features of post-Vatican II liturgical renewal. It replaced the old inquiry class model, in which the priest (generally a priest) taught the inquirer (or inquirers) about doctrine and morals. The place of formation was the classroom, the symbol was the blackboard, and the leader was like a lecturer. This model continues in some parishes today.

With the near demise of the inquiry class model after Vatican II, there emerged a second (and current) model which focuses on personal religious experience in a group setting. The model is akin to the therapy group (like that of Alcoholics Anonymous). The place of formation is like a living room, the leader is a therapist, and the symbol is the mirror – in which one sees only oneself. 

In this newer approach, it is commonplace to hear an emphasis on personal experience over doctrine. Doctrinal formation is secondary to personal story-telling and group reflection.

Without wishing to return to the old inquiry class format, or keeping the current experience-based model, there is, perhaps, a third way of viewing and practicing RCIA formation which would avoid the problems of the first and second models, yet incorporate the strengths of both.  

In 1984, the Yale University Lutheran theologian George Lindbeck wrote a landmark book entitled, The Nature of Doctrine. While Lindbeck was not concerned with the RCIA, his theological insights are helpful in envisaging a more adequate model of RCIA formation.

Lindbeck begins by showing how Christian doctrine can easily be locked into a rigid and excessively abstract mold, and it has great difficulty connecting with people's experience. This style of theology is what is found in the first model of the RCIA.

Lindbeck points out, however, that the newer style of theology (found in model two of the RCIA) that has emerged in recent decades is no less problematic because it tends to view truth as dwelling in individual hearts and minds, and to regard doctrine at best as a guide to the clarification of inner religious experience. This kind of theology is overly subjective and generally anti-intellectual.

Lindbeck proposes a style of theology that is neither strictly doctrinal nor strictly experiential. He calls it "cultural linguistic." What this implies at its simplest is that RCIA formation should focus on the history, symbols, art, language, culture, practices, devotions, spirituality – and most all the liturgy – of the Church. 

As an example of this approach, I would identify Bishop Robert Barron's landmark series, Catholicism. RCIA formation in this model would help initiate catechumens into the rich and wonderful world of Catholic life. It would teach them how to learn the culture and speak the language of Catholicism. 

In this kind of formation, the locale of formation might be the church building, the leader would be the holy man or woman, and the symbol would be the icon in which one encounters Christ.

If the old inquiry class is out of fashion today and the experience-based model is becoming increasingly so, it is not because doctrine, on the one hand, and experience, on the other, are unimportant, but because they are set in opposition to each other. 

In the third mode, doctrine and experience, knowledge and spirituality, the rational and the intuitive are integrated.  Doctrine and experience clarify each other.

What we need today is a form of RCIA formation that incorporates the strengths of solid doctrinal formation with the spiritual vitality that is such an important feature of Catholic life.

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