Documentation: The Pontifical Center Movement

In 1971 the Sacred Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, John Cardinal Wright, former Bishop of Pittsburgh founded the first Pontifical Center for Catechetical Studies in Middleburg, Virginia at the House of Studies conducted by the Notre Dame Sisters of Chardon, Ohio. His mediating presence in America was in the person of Msgr. Eugene Kevane, formerly Head of the Education Department of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Since the Middleburg Institute was limited chiefly to religious women, Gannon College (now University) in Erie, Pennsylvania, in June 1972, initiated a Pontifical Center on the graduate level, which at first piggy-backed on the Middleburg Institute chartered to grant M.A. degrees through the Angelicum University in Rome.

To the best of my knowledge the following represents a complete list of the Pontifical Centers and their Directors currently available. All were set up with the approval of their local ordinaries and approved by the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, that particular office of the Holy See responsible for world-wide catechesis.

Rev. Franklyn McAfee, Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Studies in Religious Education, Middleburg, Virginia 22117.

Rev. Robert J. Levis, Ph.D., Director, Center for Catechetical Studies, Gannon University, University Square, Erie, Pennsylvania 16541.

Rev. Paul Sciarrotta, Director, The Catechetical Center, Notre Dame College of Ohio, 4545 College Road, South Euclid, Ohio 44121.

Rev. Msgr. John Byrne, Institute of Catechetical and Pastoral Studies, 5200 Kain Drive, St. Louis, Missouri 63119. 

Rev. Carl F. Mengeling, Director, Institute of Religion, St. Joseph Calumet College, 4721 Indianapolis Blvd., East Chicago, Indiana 46312.

Rev. Arthur E. Rogers, Center for Religous Education, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Overbrook, Pennsylvania 19150.

Robert Bradley, S.J., Our Lady of Peace Institute in Catholic Teaching, 3600 S.W. 170th Avenue, Beaverton, Oregon 97005.

Emory Webre, Archdiocese of New Orleans, Institute of Catechetics and Spirituality, 7887 Walmsley Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana 70125.

Rev. Ronald Lawler, O.F.M., Cap. Institute for Advanced Studies in Catholic Doctrine, St. John’s University, Grand Central and Utopia Parkways, Jamaica, New York 11439.

Mr. Gregory Lendvay, John Paul Catechetical and Pastoral Institute, 3915 Lemmon Ave., P.O. Box 19507, Dallas, Texas 75219.

Msgr. David Bohr, Dept. of Religion, 400 Wyoming, Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Msgr. Michael Wrenn, St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, Yonkers, New York 10704.

Most Rev. Thomas J. Welsh, D.D., J.C.D., President, The Catholic Home Study Institute, 9 Loudoun Street S.E., Leesburg, Virginia 220753012.

Rev. Llanes Tovan, L.C., Escuela da La Fe, S. Vertientes 605, Lomas 1100, Mexico 10, D.F. 

In 1973, almost immediately upon the appearance of the first Pontifical Centers, opposition appeared. Cardinal Wright had been making a distinction in public utterances around the world that the faith was one thing and theology another, that the catechist should confine himself to the faith and pretty much forget about theological speculations. That same year in New Orleans, at the annual convention of the National Catholic Educational Association, no less an academic personage than the famous American biblicist Raymond E. Brown seized the middle ground as his vantage point in the theological foray. He would not side with either the ultra-liberals or with the ultra-conservatives. Rather, his stance would be with the reasonable middle position, between two forms of extremism. He would be neither right nor left, neither conservative nor liberal, but would be sweetly between. He averred that it was much too simple to say, teach the faith and forget about theology.

About the same time several American bishops journeyed to Rome to interview Cardinal Wright on his plans for the creation and furtherance of these Pontifical Centers in America. Obviously, they were concerned and perhaps alarmed at the possible “interference” of the Holy See in American catechetical affairs. Richard P. McBrien, now head of the Theology Department at Notre Dame University, wrote at that time: “When all is said and done, religious educators, bishops, preachers, and the Church at large do not transmit the faith. They transmit particular interpretations or understandings of faith. In direct words they transmit theologies…. the faith exists always and only in some theological form.” In brief, McBrien agreed with Brown that you can’t have a faith without a theology.

Here we are at the bottom of the bottom; this is precisely where the tire hits the road. Does the catechist teach an unchangeable faith that was given to the Apostles 2000 years ago through Jesus Christ? Or does he/she transmit to anxious hearers an interpretation of that faith which is best suited to the hearers at a particular time and in a particular culture?

I can’t be too emphatic on this very point. I can’t repeat it often enough nor exaggerate its importance. The Deposit of Faith, the articles of Faith — these are the first and most basic statements of divine Revelation. They contain its very essence and their preservation and spread throughout the world in all ages in the primary work of the entire Church. This deposit the Church has gathered conveniently for catechetical and liturgical purposes into what we call today “the Apostles’ Creed” — actually a summary of the three baptismal questions asked every Christian since the beginning.

This is the unchangeable stance of the Church and therefore the most salient feature of the Pontifical Centers, upon which Msgr. Kevane has so patiently and persistently insisted. They are all structured on a most important four-fold distinction found in the 1971 General Catechetical Directory between the Word of God as evangelization, as liturgy, as catechesis, and as theology — four different expressions or modes of the same revealed Word of God. Notice that in the Directory the catechist is described differently from the theologian. The catechist aims to make faith conscious and active through systematic instruction while the theologian scientifically investigates the truths of the faith with the hope of deducing further moving insights.

As the Directory, as well as Catechesi Tradendae, insist, catechetics is the handing on of the Word of God in itself through the teaching of the articles of Faith. Catechetics should always be independent of theology since it has an altogether different objective. While both catechetics and theology should be taking their origins from the same articles of the Faith, they travel in different directions. Actually, if one insists on a certain primacy of one over the other, catechetics is actually prior to theology, as Cardinal Ratzinger emphasized recently in an article in Communio.

So here is the most distinguishing mark of the Pontifical Center Movement — the independence of catechesis over theology most officially and recently enunciated in the General Catechetical Directory. Enemies of the movement (and it must be admitted they are many and diffuse in America) hold for the absolute primacy and dominance of theology over catechetics. The catechists’ work, they say, is to teach the latest and truest conclusions of the theological community, naturally not the most outlandish, radical and bizarre, but what they all generally hold. If one would express their objective in terms of following the Magisterium, then the catechists should follow the theological Magisterium as opposed to the episcopal and papal.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, speaking to the Bishops of France in January 1983 was very explicit on the proper work of the catechist. He speaks of the internal unity of the four main components which make up the structure of catechesis. This structure goes back to the very apostolic beginnings of the Church. Even Luther availed himself of this structure. There are four elements within it: the Apostles’ Creed, the sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and the Our Father. These four classic components of catechesis have served over the years as both device and resume for catechetical teaching. They give access not only to the Bible but also to the life of the Church. They contain what the Christian is to believe (Creed), hope for (Our Father), and do (Ten Commandments), as well as in what sector of life all this is to be accomplished (sacraments and Church).

Ratzinger also makes an interesting distinction in the matter of catechesis between the “text” of the Faith and its “commentary.” He finds, in a word, that the text of the Faith is being more and more diluted into a commentary about it, but the commentary eventually no longer has anything to comment about. It becomes its own standard, and in the process loses any importance it might have had. This distinction between the text of the Faith, the content of the Church’s faith, and the texts of its transmission belongs to the very essence of catechesis. This is why the Cardinal calls for the return of the catechism. He says it is most important today to dare to present the catechism as a catechism so that the commentary on it can remain a commentary and that the connections between text and commentary may be re-established.

May I disabuse any who think that Pope Saint Pius X definitively interred Modernism. Rather, in every sense of the word his battle continues today and precisely over the same issue: is there such a thing as an orthodox faith? Loisy denied its possibility, calling it a myth, an illusion. In 1905 he wrote, “Nobody is orthodox, orthodoxy is the illusion of people who never have done any thinking.” The famous Irish Jesuit, George Tyrrell, said that Modernism criticizes the very idea of dogma and of revelation, and the way you keep Catholicism current and up-to-date is by constantly reinterpreting its very meaning. In his latest book, The Jesuits, Malachi Martin insists that this is precisely what the Jesuit leadership has done since 1965.

Whenever the Pontifical Centers are situated in a university setting (not all are), they are careful to present their students with undergirding courses in classical metaphysics. For example, the Pontifical Center at Gannon University (of which I have the honor of being Director) subscribes wholeheartedly to the avoidance of all forms of modern philosophy which depend upon the thinking of Descartes. His immanentism has developed through Spinoza, Kant, and Comte and culminates in Hegel’s dialectic. Here truth never abides but rather is “the daughter of its own time,” Filia temporis. This is the root of modern historical and cultural relativism. Apply Hegelianism to the Articles of Faith and you have a new faith in every age. This is precisely what happens so often in America. Just as you cannot carry water in a colander, so also a catechist cannot express the eternal verities revealed by a transcendent God in the flimsy dialectic of Hegel. He needs a solid metaphysic. The best available is Thomistic and, until a better one is written, it becomes the philosophical base of catechetical education in the Pontifical Center movement.

Since World War II, philosophers such as A. J. Ayer, R. B. Braithwaite, R. M. Hare, and, in Canada and America, Gregory Baum have proposed that statements about God, the soul, or life after death are not really statements about such things at all. For example, when you say “Jesus rose from the dead,” you don’t really mean it historically, actually; rather, you mean something about our own human life. This relatively new philosophy of religion has been exerting profound influence in the type of catechetics practiced in America since the Council, and it is easy to observe a family resemblance between what it says and what the proponents of non-propositional revelation often say. And of course, it is directly opposed to even the notion of articles of Faith and metaphysics.

One of the knottiest problems in administering a Pontifical Center spins around biblical studies. What do you teach students about biblical Higher Criticism, which so often concludes in systematic reductionism? For example, Original Sin is scarcely taught in major American catechetical texts today since biblicists almost unanimously agree on the unhistorical nature of the story of Adam and Eve. Since there was no Fall, there was no Original Sin. If there is no Original Sin, then Jesus comes to save us from something else.

A Pontifical Center strives to obtain the services of a biblicist well-trained in all the latest expressions of Higher Criticism, totally aware of all the major conclusions of contemporary biblical consensus, one who knows its philosophical and methodological presuppositions, but yet who judges all these findings in the light of the Faith. This is not always easy, but remember the overarching finality of the Pontifical Center movement: the organic and systematic presentation of the Faith. If a biblicist at a Pontifical Center reads a higher critic who concludes against infallible Catholic truth, he knows someone has erred; it isn’t the Church. Extreme tact, balance, prudence, scholarship, but most importantly delicate Faith, is the chief characteristic of one chosen to present biblical studies to students in Pontifical Centers.

Msgr. Michael Wrenn, Director of the New York Archdiocesan Pontifical Center, has done yeoman work in making available to English-speaking students of the Pontifical Centers the works of solid French biblicists such as Rene Laurentin, Andre Feuillet, Claude Tresmontant, and Jean Carmignic. I cite these authors as men who are thoroughly sympathetic with the methods of Higher Criticism, but who are also circumscribed in their work by the clear parameters of the Faith.

I shan’t play the fool and predict that the Pontifical Center movement will prove to be the Holy See’s solution to what Cardinal Ratzinger calls “the misery of modern catechetics.” But the movement is healthy, growing, formidable to its adversaries and certainly a clear alternative to the kind of catechesis so commonly available today.


Fr. Robert J. Levis, Ph.D., a priest of the Diocese of Erie, PA since 1948, received his Ph.D. in Religious Education from the Catholic University of America. He served at Gannon University in Erie, PA as Professor and Chair of the Department of Theology, Chair of the Liberal Studies Curriculum, Founder and Chair of the Pontifical Center for Catechetical Studies, where for 19 years, he supervised and instructed candidates for the Master’s Degree in Catechetics. He has also taught catechetical courses at the undergraduate and graduate level at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH.

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