Reimagining Religious Education Today

Sep 20, 2021 | 0 comments

Dr Eugene McElhinney

by Eugene McElhinney

The Second Vatican Council indicated that the mission of the Church in the contemporary world consists in helping every human being to discover in God the ultimate meaning of his/her existence. The Council called for a receptive reading of the ‘signs of the times’ in the light of the Gospel, thereby imbuing the everyday activities of men and women with deeper meaning1. Reading the signs of the times can be challenging.

Religious education teachers/catechists, unlike their colleagues in the natural sciences, in trying to do so, adapt their teaching strategies from time to time to take account of social and cultural changes. Over the past fifty years of this writer’s involvement with the subject we have endeavoured to teach within what we thought was a secure and settled catechetical model. We saw our role as complementing the faith formation in the domestic church of the family home.  From the late 1960’s, early 1970’s, we had just moved from negative and sterile apologetics to various experience-based models of religious education, all predicated on the strategy of nurturing the faith. There were several different approaches tried in this catechetical shift (McElhinney 2007). Over time we discovered that as faith formation diminished in the home our attempts at faith nurturing were not reflected in sustained sacramental and liturgical practice among our past pupils. (McElhinney 2011). A lacuna in the liturgical practice of the faith by teenagers is not atypical anymore but it is symptomatic of a failure of catechesis to provide the potential at least for commitment to the public, communal expression of the faith.

Today, against the background of 21st Century secularity, humanism, agnosticism, atheism, and the indifference occasioned by the cultural influences of post modernity, where does the religious education teacher look for help and guidance in developing and strengthening the religious sensibilities and commitment of his/her pupils? The General Directory for Catechesis (1997) suggests: The human agents of catechesis, through whom the Holy Spirit works, must be thoroughly prepared in theology, pedagogy, and their own spiritual formation.

Don’t be Afraid of Theology

Assuming that catechists today are well grounded in pedagogy and committed themselves, could they be helped by a more focused theological preparation? While theology has always been implicit to religious education, the relationship between them has varied according to context. In the past, theology was a subject for the formation of priests in seminary settings or of pastors in theological college (Cullen 2019)2. Today it can be studied in many universities as a subject in its own right. For the teacher of religious education, however, it is not just a subject in its own right, but a corpus of knowledge that invites a personal response to its claims. As Cullen (2019, 81) puts it,

…it is the inherently formative dimension of a theological education that contributes to a religious education that is appropriate for religious educators.

The theological approach being proposed here, while accepting the importance of emphasizing the sacramental and liturgical practices of the faith, now accepts that there is a pressing need for linking such practices to the core theological concepts underpinning the faith. We have tended in the past to assume that the faith articulated in the Nicene Creed took care of that relationship.  Now we need to re-imagine the central points of the creed. To do this we need the help of theology to challenge the apparent hegemony of secular discourse (the materialist values of today) by presenting the transcendent view of the life of the Christian.

The Religious Impulse

Perhaps the place to start this theological journey is with the religious impulse. In fact, most models of religious education operate with this assumption that every human being has a religious impulse. The religious impulse of which we speak was well summed up in the oft-repeated words of St. Augustine, “You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our souls are restless until they rest in you”.3 This dimension is in essence a theological one, a disclosure that our human story and the story of God are intertwined. This big theological concept deserves a deeper exploration in the light of contemporary crises of faith. (Even in Catholic schools we can no longer assume that the pupils are committed believers.)

The Need to Listen Hard to the Young

With the late influential French theologian, Henri de Lubac, S.J. we need to listen, to auscultate, as he put it, to the questions and concerns of each generation to present to them the truths of our faith anew. Almost one hundred years ago (1929 Inaugural Lecture) he said:

But as much as it would be culpable – and futile- to want to ‘adapt’ dogma, to accommodate it to the whims of intellectual fashion, so much so is it necessary, not only to study human nature in general to discern in it the call of grace, but, moreover, constantly to auscultate successive generations to listen to their aspirations and to respond to them, to hear their thoughts in order to assimilate them.4

If he were alive today no doubt de Lubac would tell us to listen to the voices of the young who are growing up in a world of confusion about their place in the universe, given the many conflicting narratives presented to them about the meaning (or meaningless) of life within a largely scientific/materialist paradigm.

In Christ We Find Our Identity

In de Lubac’s seminal work, Catholicism, Christ, and the common destiny of man, he presents us with a comprehensive and inspiring vision of life based on religious belief. At the centre of this work there is an implicit Christology. In the words of O’Sullivan (2009),

Christology is concerned at once with the identity of Jesus as the Christ and with our identity as Christians. Its concern is with the fact that the Absolute, the Eternal God comes to meet man in the contingent and the historical.5

And a Vision of the Future

There is nothing new in this statement of Catholic belief, but it is the implications of it that de Lubac develops, that informs the thinking in this article. His Christology has a cosmic dimension that begins with Creation and follows an arc of history towards an ultimate fulfilment, a recapitulation in Christ. Viewing Creation from this theological perspective de Lubac affirms that it has to do with the future of the world, not just the beginning. Separating creation from its eschatological fulfilment is reductive. Similarly, creation cannot be separated from Redemption.

From the creation narratives and drawing on the writings of the Fathers of the Church, de Lubac points to the centrality of the revelation of our human relationship to God and of our destiny. He sums it up in this magnificent vision of that destiny,

For the Fathers of the Church, man, created in the image of God, that is with those divine prerogatives of reason, freedom, immortality, and the right of dominion over nature, is made with a view to the likeness of God, which is the perfection of this image. This means that he is destined to live eternally in God, to enter into the internal movement of the Trinitarian Life and to take all creation with him.6

Given that the human person is created in God’s image and likeness, the implication is that the likeness has a potential that requires the human person to strive for the perfection that ‘entering into’ the Trinitarian life requires. This is the Gospel call to perfection that underpins Christian life and the religious impulse. One other important point that de Lubac stresses is that an understanding of the human person points to mystery. He says,

The Fathers tell us that man is ‘in the image of God’ not only because of his intelligence, his freedom, his immortality, or even because of the power he has received to dominate nature: he is so moreover and above all, in the final analysis, because there is in his depths an incomprehensibility.7

The Challenge of Postmodernism

In the current age traditional epistemologies have been challenged. Meanings of texts have been questioned as part of a critique by postmodernist thinkers.  One of the main claims of postmodernism is that the very foundations of our knowing are compromised by traditional faulty epistemology. The old Cartesian certainty about the self and its validating function for access to reality is severely challenged by new theories about a diminished and uncertain concept of the self, drawn from the disciplines of psychology, linguistics, and literary analysis. In postmodernist thinking the self is no longer at the centre of our epistemological encounters. This, of course, creates a paradox – claims that there is no longer a secure foundation to our engagement with reality questions the very claim on which it is built. These are problems for philosophy, but strangely enough, theology is more accommodating to the idea of incomprehensibility. Indeed, de Lubac, as already noted, embraces the concept of the incomprehensibility of God and a different incomprehensibility of man. In the words of O’Sullivan (2006),

“The depths of the human subject are fathomless and, so, any centring of reality on the human person is inadequate. The centre is elsewhere. …In postmodernist language we are happy to see the human subject decentred because then there is an openness to the transforming Centre who is Christ.”8

A modern fault line in the religious/secular view of reality is the distinction between transcendence and immanence as a binary view of one’s experience. De Lubac makes a finer distinction by referring to extrinsic transcendence and intrinsic transcendence. By extrinsic transcendence he means a trajectory that looks back beyond Christianity to its roots in history, particularly among its Jewish forebears. Seen in this way, transcendence relies exclusively on continuity with a religious past. While accepting that such a link exists, he does not think that such a link explains his view of the transcendence of Christianity. One could look at this extrinsic transcendence as a version of Hegel’s dialectical movement of history. For de Lubac intrinsic transcendence is of a different order that cannot be explained by evolutionary processes. While not opposed to the continuity of what preceded it, it is not just a synthesis of previous developments. The intrinsic transcendence is something completely new brought about by the spirit of God.

Christ is New in All Ages

In challenging an evolutionary view of history de Lubac explains the newness of Christianity as follows: speaking of the Spirit he writes: ‘He has crept in with gentleness and he has burst in with power. He has penetrated human history, and everything has been transformed.’ Expanding on this he writes,

The Spirit of Christ has founded something completely new, the religion of Christ. And this religion of Christ, for which all human history had prepared, for which all human thought had slowly woven the fabric, suddenly rises up, in the midst of humanity; ‘without father, without mother, without a genealogy’. Pure creation, pure miracle.9

O’Sullivan (2009) adds,

This irruption into human history, although prepared for in the First Testament, was not the inevitable consequence of anything in creation or history. It reached its apogee in the ultimate expression of love on the cross. Furthermore, it continues in the Church and anticipates the consummation of all things in the Risen Christ at the end.10

An important point in de Lubac’s thinking is his understanding of the relationship between Christ and humanity. He writes,

Everyone, whether Christian or not, and whether he is “in a state of grace” or not, whether or not he is oriented to God, and whatever his knowledge or ignorance, has an inadmissible link to Christ.11

So, in Henri de Lubac S.J., we find someone whose Christology directly challenges the humanist, materialist view of life. For him, faith is ‘a source of universal light’. Moreover, faith, which is not the preserve of believers, means that faith enlightens human reason.12Reason is deepened by Christian revelation. ‘The depth of man will never be understood if it is not enlightened by a ray from the unfathomable brightness of the Trinitarian life.’13

The Classroom of Today

One might question the relevance of the foregoing theological reflections to the religious education teacher. That might have been a legitimate question a generation ago but in the classrooms of today pupils need a deeper understanding of the Christian view of life to which they are being called. It is for the religious education teacher/catechist to have this deeper theological understanding if s/he is to imbue his/her catechesis with a coherent and justifiable vision of the Christian life. The need for this vision is greater today due to the pervasiveness of both hard and soft versions of secularity. The late Michael Paul Gallagher, S.J. reminded us of how the modern generation has to deal with three wounds of lived postmodernity. He refers to these as ‘a wounded imagination, a wounded memory, and a wounded sense of belonging’.14 He goes on to suggest that in today’s world the imagination can become

‘… colonized by junk food and shrink into superficiality.’  The memory, which is the receiver of the word through a living tradition, simply loses its powers and ‘alienated immediacy’ takes over. Belonging with others in some kind of cohesive community is undermined when complexity reigns, when anchors are lost and when an imposed loneliness goes hand in hand with a frenetic lifestyle.15

The argument being presented here is that the catechist needs a deeper theological grounding, such as that outlined by Henri de Lubac, to lead pupils to a better understanding of how to imagine their lives within the context of Gospel values; of maintaining shared memories of the story of salvation, of experiencing the sense of community expressed through liturgy and public prayer to counter a growing ‘cultural desolation’. Embedding such memories is important in religious education classes. We know that young people do not immediately appreciate the richness of their faith, but the hope is that following maturity they will ‘find the treasure hidden in the field’ of their youth.

In terms of pedagogy religious education is well served by modern theories and strategies of learning. One of the current strategies uses pupils’ lived experiences to explore religious dimensions to life. This involves a move away from just learning the propositions of faith. The influential German theologian, Karl Rahner S.J, (1904-1984) like de Lubac, wrote during a time of ‘growing unbelief and indifference towards religion and for an audience that was among the most affluent in Europe’.16He advocated a move from a conceptual approach akin to apologetics to a mystagogical initiation into Christianity. By mystagogy he meant an initiation into the sacred, to the experience of mystery.

Why do we Imitate without being Aware?

While accepting Rahner’s notion of mystagogy, both O’Conaill and McElhinney (2018) have called for a closer examination of pupils’ experiences through the lens of Rene Girard’s mimetic theory. This theory shares some of the misgivings of postmodern theorists (as opposed to ‘postmodernity of the street’) in its acceptance of problems of the autonomy of the self. At the core of mimetic theory is that our desires are mediated through the desires of others thus giving the lie to the notion of an autonomous self.

From his identification of human desire as mimetic, Girard (1977) went on to outline an elaborate account of how it was instrumental in the emergence of religious ritual at the dawn of human history. He also showed how mimetic tensions led to conflict involving the scapegoating of innocent victims whose innocence was covered up in cultural myths. However, by shifting from a purely anthropological analysis to a theological one, Girard (1987) showed how biblical narratives of mimetic rivalry, (texts of persecution) did not cover up the fate of innocent victims and in the Gospel narratives Jesus’ desire is not mediated through any of his associates but rather through his Trinitarian relationship.

This brief outline of Girard’s mimetic theory does not do justice to its rich and complex analysis of the nature and consequences of human desire, but it is included here to make the case for introducing catechists to it to equip them to challenge the ever-increasing manipulation of human desire by the world of commerce and to alert pupils to how mimetic desire can affect their moral choices. How else does one explain intense competition, rivalry, envy, jealousy that is amplified for young people today via social media platforms?


The challenges facing the religious education teachers/catechists today call for a reimagining of how they are equipped to deal with the decline in parental practice of the faith with its consequent impoverishment in the religious sensibilities of their children and with the overall confusion about what is meant by a virtuous life through the preponderance of secular humanist ideologies that promote beliefs and lifestyles based paradoxically on self fulfilment. Theologians like Henri de Lubac S.J, Karl Rahner, S.J. and Michael Paul Gallagher S.J. have mapped out for us how religious education teachers/catechists can draw on the richness of the story of salvation to introduce pupils to the treasures of the faith. For us Christians, Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.  Today we need to look at the wisdom of the ages enshrined in God’s revealed word in the Old and New Testaments. St. Paul provides an aspect of such wisdom in his letter to the Colossians, (Col.2:8)

Make sure that no one traps you and deprives you of your freedom by some second-hand, empty, rational philosophy based on the principles of this world instead of on Christ.



Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions, English translation by Philip Burton, London everyman, 2001.

Cullen, S. (2019), The Religious Education of the Religion Teacher in Catholic schools, (pp.75-86) in Global Perspective on Catholic Religious Education in Schools Vol 11: Learning and leading in a Pluralist World (Editors: Buchanan & Mario Gellel) Springer, Singapore 2019.

Christian Identity in a Postmodern Age 2005, Edited by Declan Marmion Veritas Dublin.

Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church., Veritas Publications

De Lubac, H, Théologies d’occasion, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer,

De Lubac, H, Le Mystere du surnaturel (coll.’Theologie’, 64), Paris, Aubier-Montaigne, 1965 (1), republished in (Euvres completes X11. Paris, Cerf 2000.

De Lubac, H..La Lumiére du Christ (coll. ‘Le témoignage chrétien’), Le Puy, Mappus, 1941, republished in Affrontements mystiques, Paris, Témoignage chrétien, 1950, pp. 185-213 and in Théologie dans l’Histoire 1 Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1990, pp.203-22.

De Lubac, H. ‘Causes internes de l’atténuation et de la disparition du sens du Sacré’ in Bulletin des aumôniers catholiques. Chantiers de la jeunesse 31, aout 1942, pp. 27-39, republished in Théologie dans l’Histoire 11, Paris,

Desclée de Brouwer, 1990, 11 pp.13-30 and in Paradoxes, Paris, Cerf, 1999, pp.315-41.

General Directory of Catechesis, USCCB: Washington, DC 1998

McElhinney, E.P. (2007). ‘Pedagogical Drift and Catechetical Shift – A Retrospective’, in Panorama, Intercultural Journal of Interdisciplinary Ethical and Religious Studies for Responsible Research, Vol.19 Summer Winter 2007.

McElhinney, E.P. (2011) ‘Students’ Perceptions on the Catholic Church: Implications for Religious Education’, Religious Education Journal of Australia Volume 27, No. 02.

O’Conaill, S & McElhinney, E. Catholic Education and the Future, The Furrow, Vol 69, No.11 November 2018, St. Patrick’s College Maynooth.

O’Sullivan, N. (2009), Christ and Creation: Christology as the key to interpreting the theology of creation in the works of Henri de Lubac, Peter Lang Bern.

Théologiae d’occasion, Paris Desclée de Brouwer, 1984.



  1. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the church, 567
  2. Cullen, S. (2019), The Religious Education of the Religion Teacher in Catholic schools, (pp.75-86) in Global Perspective on Catholic Religious Education in Schools Vol 11: Learning and leading in a Pluralist World (Editors: Buchanan & Mario Gellel) Springer, Singapore 2019.
  3. This is the famous passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions (Lib 1,1-2,2.5,5: CSEL 33, 1-5)
  4. De Lubac, H, Théologies d’occasion, p.103, quoted in O’Sullivan, N. (2009), Christ and Creation: Christology as the key to interpreting the theology of creation in the works of Henri de Lubac, Peter Lang Bern, p.114
  5. O’Sullivan, N. (2009), Christ and Creation: Christology as the key to interpreting the theology of creation in the works of Henri de Lubac, Peter Lang Bern, p.39
  6. De Lubac, Henri, S.J. (1942) Bulletin des aumôniers catholiques. Chantiers de la jeunesse, N0 31
  7. De Lubac, Henri, S.J. (1965), Le mystére du surnaturel
  8. O’Sullivan, Christ, and Creation:  215-216
  9. ‘La Lumiére du Christ’, Afm p.194-5
  10. O’Sullivan, N. (2009), Christ and Creation: Christology as the key to interpreting the theology of creation in the works of Henri de Lubac, Peter Lang Bern. p.453
  11. O’Sullivan, N. (2009), Christ and Creation: Christology as the key to interpreting the theology of creation in the works of Henri de Lubac, Peter Lang Bern. p.438
  12. ‘Un foyer de lumiére universelle’, Apologétique et théologiae,’ TO p. 106
  13. ‘Un foyer de lumiére universelle’, Apologétique et théologiae,’ TO p. 107
  14. Gallagher, M.P.(2005) Christian Identity in a Postmodern Age: a perspective from Lonergan, p.150-151 in Christian Identity in a Postmodern Age, edited by Declan Marmion 2005, Veritas Dublin
  15. Gallagher, M.P.(2005) Christian Identity in a Postmodern Age: a perspective from Lonergan, p.150-151 in Christian Identity in a Postmodern Age, edited by Declan Marmion 2005, Veritas Dublin
  16. Cited by Declan Marmon in Christian Identity in a Postmodern Age, p.168, edited by Declan Marmion 2005, Veritas Dublin


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