Thinking in Church and with the Church

Agood friend was bemoaning the other day that, after a wonderful presentation by the assistant pastor of her parish on the Theology of the Body, she heard a fellow parishioners say: “I didn’t know I’d have to put my thinking cap on in church.” A beautiful talk, on a substantive issue, and all this guy can say is: “Too much thinking.”

I fear this is a disposition all too common among American Catholics: church isn’t a place for thinking.  This attitude is only exacerbated by Catholic universities that claim to be “the place the Church does her thinking.”  If the Second Vatican Council’s focus on the laity was meant to teach us anything, it was that the Church does her “thinking” in and through all the members of the Body of Christ.  We don’t leave holiness to priests and nuns, nor do we leave thinking about the faith to theologians. 

I teach theology at a Catholic university, and the young Catholics in my class will often ask me:  “Why should I take a class in Catholicism and read a lot of books? I believe in God.  I pray. I go to church.” I tell them this: Theology is about growing in your understanding of the faith.  And growing in your understanding of the faith is an important part of what it means to have a living faith.  First of all, you need to know what you believe in order to say you believe at all. 

Consider how odd would it be if, hearing a person repeat over and over: “I believe; I really, really believe,” you asked: “That’s interesting; what do you believe?” – and the only response the person could give was: “I don’t know, but I know I really believe.” 

Living in the South, I hear a lot of Pentecostal preaching about the name of Jesus.  “Do you believe in Jee-zus?”  “Yes!,” the crowd shouts.  It would be more than a little embarrassing if a member of the congregation were asked: “Who is this Jesus?” and the reply was: “I have no idea. I just love the name Jee-zus.”  You need something to believe in or, as in Christianity, some one.  And you need to know at least a little bit about what that something or someone is.  A faith that isn’t growing is a faith in the process of dying.

The great theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas (Sandro Botticelli, c. 1500)

Moreover, what do you suppose will happen in a society such as ours, where we are blessed to have very high levels of secular learning, if Catholics don’t have a firm understanding of their faith?  If you have a Ph.D. in law, economics, or science, but have nothing more than a third-grader’s understanding of your faith, which do you suppose is going to dominate your life?

In a pinch, people go with what they know, and if everything they know comes from their secular studies, then they will tend to be dominated by secular perspectives alone.  And eventually for such people, the faith may come to seem childish – all about waterfalls, guitar music, holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.”  It’s all well and good for “feeling better” about myself, but not much help when it comes to serious questions such as whether we should raise taxes or not; forgive Third World debt or not; or allow stem-cell research or not.  

The Scriptures say our faith should be “child-like” – that is to say, simple, honest, and trusting.  This is very different from saying that our faith should be childish. When adults have a “childish” faith, it becomes something they force on their children, even when they aren’t especially interested in it for themselves.  But the faith ceases any longer to have much to do with the realities of daily life – especially with the really big and really difficult moral questions.  It’s no wonder many Catholics don’t heed their Church’s teachings on moral matters, since they have no more than a third-grader’s understanding of what the Church teaches. 

If you want your faith to remain a living faith, and not merely become a “Sunday thing,” then you’re going to have to seek a greater and greater understanding of your faith.  You’re going to have to reconcile yourself to the fact that the Christian faith isn’t meant to be “therapeutic.” It’s not there simply to make you feel better about yourself.  It’s meant to re-orient your understanding of the world, and by doing so, change the way you live.  We are creatures of both intellect and will, thus God comes to us not only by appealing to our emotions, but also by instructing our intellect.

Pope Benedict made this point forcefully in his wonderful “Regensburg Address.” Faith untethered to reason can be dangerous, as is the case with modern Islamic terrorists.  Therefore the pope calls upon us to have the “courage to engage the whole breadth of reason,” and not to deny its “grandeur.” “This is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time,” declared the Pope.  “Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.” And it is also the great task, I would suggest, of every Christian believer who enjoys the blessings of modern secular learning.

If we lived in a simple time in a simple culture, perhaps we could have a simple faith.  But we don’t.  We live in a complex world and a postmodern, post-Christian culture.  It’s time to stop being childish and to “get our thinking caps on.”  We need to be thinking with the Church.


Randall Smith is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.

© 2011 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: [email protected]    

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.