Oracles, Dissent, and Conversation. Reflections on Catholic Teaching

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3 and executed in the different traditions – of weaning us from our idolatry and purifying our desire”. 5 This suggestion would, I think, reconnect our sense of what is meant by Christian “teaching” with the account given in the single most influential study of the subject ever written: namely, Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana. For Augustine, Christian doctrine is far more fundamentally a matter of the process through which, by God’s grace, we learn, and learn to share what we have learnt with others, than it is about the contents of that process. As he puts it at the beginning of Book One: “There are two things on which all interpretation of Scripture depends: the process of discovering what we need to learn, and the process of presenting what we have learnt”. 6 According, his first three Books deal with “discovery” and the fourth with “presentation”. It follows that the most fundamental truth about the structure of Christian teaching cannot lie in distinctions between teachers and pupils – although such distinctions may be drawn and are not unimportant – but in the recognition that all of us are called to lifelong learning in the Spirit, and all of us are called to embody, to communicate, and to protect what we have learned. As Vatican II ended, several of the bishops who took part told me that the most important lesson they had learned, through the conciliar process, had been a renewed recognition that the Church exists to be, for all its members, a lifelong school of holiness and wisdom, a lifelong school of friendship (a better rendering of “caritas” than “charity” would be.) 7 3. Aspects of Instruction The concept of “instruction” is ambiguous. If I am “instructing” someone, I may be teaching them, or I may be issuing a command. Someone who is “under instruction” is being educated, but “I instructed him to stop” reports a command. “Instructions for use”, however, provide information, and hence would seem to be educational. There may be cases in which it is not easy to decide the sense. It is, however, important not to confuse the two senses, and even more important not to subordinate instruction as education to instruction as command. As Ring Lardner memorably put it: “Shut up! He explained”. 8 I have long maintained that the heart of the crisis of contemporary Catholicism lies in just such subordination of education to governance, the effect of which has too often been to substitute, for teaching, proclamation construed as command. 9 It is, said Yves Congar, impossible to make the function of teaching an integral element of


Nicholas Lash, The Beginning and the End of ‘Religion’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 21. 6 Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R. P. H. Green (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 8. 7 See Nicholas Lash, “Road-signs: Reflections on the Christian Doctrine of God”, Faith, Word and Culture, edited Liam Bergin, (Dublin: The Columba Press, 2004), pp. 98-115. 8

Ring Lardner, The Young Immigrants (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1920). See Nicholas Lash, “Authors, Authority and Authorization”, Authority in the Roman Catholic Church. Theory and Practice, edited Bernard Hoose (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 59-71.