The anthropological and phenomenological approach in the new Catechism
Recently, when traveling in an English-speaking country, I encountered some graffiti on a department store wall: it was a rather accurate re-rendering of Edward Munch's "The Scream" with the words "insignificant existence" scratched beside it. Later, at a lovely group dinner in an Italian restaurant, a president of an American Catholic college was describing a television commercial which he found incredibly arrogant. In the commercial, there was a sea of people. Emerging from the vast crowd, one man held up a sign that read, "I AM". Another man did the same. Then another. The president remarked, "What audacity — to claim the name of God for themselves."
But, all the while, Gaudium et Spes had already characterized the situation of modern man so well: "But what is man? He has put forward, and continues to put forward, many views about himself, views that are divergent and even contradictory. Often, he either sets himself up as the absolute measure of all things, or debases himself to the point of despair. Hence, his doubt and his anguish. The Church is keenly sensitive to these difficulties. Enlightened by divine revelation she can offer a solution to them by which the true state of man may be outlined, his weakness explained, in such a way that at the same time his dignity and his vocation may be perceived in their true light" (Gaudium et Spes, n. 12). The spirit of this passage of the Conciliar document can be perceived in both the Catechism of the Catholic Church as well as in its Compendium. It addresses the human person by appealing to that part of his experience that speaks of his transcendence and his utter mystery. It articulates for him his very thoughts, desires, and even emotions — and then provides the most convincing and coherent explanation for their existence. Hence, we can see that this approach is anthropological; it begins with the human person, the one for whom all catechesis exists. This approach is also phenomenological; it draws upon the human person's experiences — experiences through which, as Augustine would say to the God who fashioned and planned those experiences, "You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness" (Confessions, Book X, xxvii, 38, trans. by Henry Chadwick). This catechesis invites every human person to see how God speaks and, indeed, has already been speaking through their experience.
As a catechist bringing the message of the God of Jesus Christ to others, perhaps it would occur to me to start with the Creed. The first words are "I believe in God". "Therefore," I would say to myself, "let me begin my teaching with God". But the Church's wisdom far surpasses my limited vision. She has known, seen, and experienced the struggles of modern man — man who has been told that he must prove the significance of his existence by power and money; man who has been trampled upon by the state or by an ideology; man who has been told the lie that in a selfish self-indulgence and self-assertion is found true freedom and liberation; man who has been told to doubt his very ability to know, to choose, to be free, to be loved and to love. Since she knows this man, the Church begins her catechesis also with the Creed — but she begins with the I who believes. For she must answer for man this question which is at the heart of all his questions: "What is man? (Who am I?)"
What is man? Who am I?
With the infrastructure of philosophy largely in ruin or completely absent in the minds of modern men, given the modern educational system, what other starting point in catechesis can find so universal, so true, and so deep an echoing in the hearts of men except that starting point which speaks to them the truth already written in their hearts? This anthropological and phenomenological approach proposes: "You desire happiness, yet you are not sure where to find it. Your desires lead you in a thousand directions, and when you fill some of those desires, either the pleasure is short-lived, or the pleasure causes you to feel an evermore painful emptiness. You long for an eternally enduring happiness. You 'long for a person to whom you might entrust yourself' (cf. Fides et Ratio). You long to love and to be loved. Your being exists for love. Genuine love brings genuine happiness. God is genuine love. Only God can bring you genuine happiness. You are made to love and to be loved by God. You are made for communion with God and communion with others". The first chapter of the Catechism says just this and still more, opening the human person to consider the truth, the beauty, and the fulfillment of desire that is found in God alone.
I Believe — We Believe: The Call to Communion in Love and Friendship
Loneliness is perhaps one of the most difficult human experiences to endure, for we have lived the reality of the words, "it is not good for man to be alone" (Gen 2:18). Even those who claim to reject God find a solace and a special joy in human friendship and companionship; they also have found the comfort and the courage that come from human solidarity. Thus, when they are told that all their experiences of love — since that is what these are — are experiences of the God who is a communion of Persons in an eternal exchange of love, the truth begins to find a home in their hearts. Together we discover the exhilarating joys and intimacies involved in friendship; together we accept the self-sacrifice and responsibility for the other that characterizes friendship; in effect, then, it is not difficult to see that together we believe.
Moreover, the object of belief is not some foreign body of esoteric doctrine. The object of belief is, in reality, a subject — a Person — who has already been loving us and seeking us even before we knew Him or understood His language. God Himself, through the revelation of all that is in the created world and all the wonders that are within the human person, is already calling us to this communion in love. But, since love is extravagant, God empties Himself in order to become a man — to become one of us in order that He might speak of His love in human language, show His love in a human nature, and give His life for love of us through a human body. Those men who witnessed to and walked in His gloriously ineffable presence then say to us: "That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us... that our joy may be complete" (1 Jn 1ff; cf. also Dei Verbum, n. 1). Christianity's very beginnings are founded upon this human experience and the faith this experience brings to birth. The common experience and the common faith bind Christians together in a communion and friendship that even death cannot destroy (cf. The Rite of Christian Burial). The human heart blushes upon discovering that it is uniquely loved as God writes the story of its life and experiences. Will not this same human heart also rise up to embrace this love that is stronger than death?
A Love that Suffers
Betrayal, malice, cold indifference, misunderstanding, violence, manipulation, and hatred have plagued human relationships for centuries. What human person has not experienced these torments in anguish and lament? And, yet, he himself is the source of these evils. "[W]hen man looks into his own heart, he finds that he is drawn towards what is wrong and sunk in many evils... at the same time he has broken the right order that should reign within himself as well as between himself and other creatures. Man therefore is divided in himself.... Man finds that he is unable of himself to overcome the assaults of evil successfully, so that everyone feels as though bound by chains. But the Lord himself came to free and strengthen man"(Gaudium et Spes, n. 13). Human experience provides sufficient proof of man's fallen state; yet, the splendor of self-sacrificing heroic love provides sufficient proof of man's redemption in Christ. Only in the mystery of Christ does the mystery of human suffering begin to come to light; only love makes suffering intelligible. Christ's suffering is undertaken in love — as the sign and expression of "a love unto the end". All at once it contains God's forgiveness, mercy, and self-gift to us. All human suffering, then, is transformed by a participation in Christ's work of Redemption. As the beloved John Paul II put it, "Suffering is in this world to release love". Under the grace of the Redemption, suffering becomes a means of loving, and suffering draws love out of others. Love desires to suffer for the beloved; and, the beloved seeing the lover's suffering, loves still more and desires to suffer something for the lover. Suffering is the proof of love, and suffering causes the love between persons to grow immensely.
A Love that is Ever-Present on Earth — The Sacraments, The Moral Life and The Life of Prayer
Love incarnate, Jesus Christ, does not will to leave us. No friend wills to leave his friend. Therefore, Christ remains with us through the Liturgy and the Sacraments. As Ambrose said, "You have shown yourself to me, Christ, face-to-face — I meet you in the Sacraments". Through the Sacraments we experience the presence of the same Christ who walked the seashore, who made the blind see, and who died upon the Cross. Through the Sacraments we receive His forgiveness and mercy, His grace and strength, His Body and Blood. Through the Sacraments we are bound ever more closely to Him. Thus, this relationship we have with Christ and His friends, the members of the Church's communion, because of its depth and its end, demands an absolute commitment on our part — a commitment that is fully and genuinely human —a commitment that plays itself out in our every action and thought, because Christ does not want us by halves — He wants all of us. Living the virtuous moral life, then, is the living in relationship with Jesus Christ; we become other Christs both in the world and to one another. And, so, what was said of the first Christians is said of us, "See how they love one another!" For, in Christ and in His Church, the human person finds his true home — the Father's house in which he discovers and deepens his prayer until that day when he hears the voice of the Father saying to him, "You are my son. This day I have begotten you" (Ps 2). That day he becomes a son in the Son, fulfilling his vocation within the deepest vocation of the Church, namely, to be "one Christ, praising the Father in the Holy Spirit" (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 51). For this communion — which will be perfected in Heaven — the human person was created, and in it he finds the fulfillment of all his desires and experiences, the answers to all his questions. Best of all, he can begin to live this communion even now. The anthropological and phenomenological catechesis tells the human person that he is invited to share in this glory.
*Sister of the St Cecilia Congregation of Dominican Sisters in Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Theology Professor at Aquinas College in Nashville