“Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers, so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort.” (Dei Verbum, 10)
Bishop Robert Vasa of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, California is in the news for daring to foster unity in the faith. At issue is his requirement that teachers in his diocese sign an addendum to their annual contract, one that rightly acknowledges that “modern errors” such as contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia are “matters that gravely offend human dignity.” The addendum, aptly entitled “Bearing Witness,” asks a teacher, as a “model(s) of Catholic living” to acknowledge that he or she is called to a “life of holiness” and that “this call is the more compelling for me since I have been entrusted, in my vocation as a teacher/administrator in a Catholic school, with the formation of souls.”
Of course, Bishop Vasa’s pastoral concern is being treated by the media as a denial of teachers’ freedom, and those teachers who have the courage to (anonymously) speak out are being treated as martyrs.
We have to realize that Bishop Vasa is not only justified in asking his teachers to support the faith of the institution that pays them, but he is exercising his prerogative and his duty as a shepherd, and as a spiritual father. Most Catholics are unfamiliar with the basic doctrines of the Church; public practice of faith and religion has practically disappeared in the majority of formerly Christian societies; and instead of being light and leaven for the transformation of the culture, many Catholics cause scandal by their secular lifestyles and indifference. With his entirely reasonable request, Bishop Vasa affirms the crucial role of Catholic education and Catholic educators. Forming a young person in the Catholic faith entails more than simply requiring that students memorize certain aspects of religion; it requires the full integration of devotion, doctrine and daily living. By their evident love of Christ and their witness of sound devotion and doctrine, teachers play an essential role. When there is a disconnect between word and deed students pick up on it and start to see the faith as inauthentic, giving them cause for doubt. Students need to be encouraged to live a harmonious life in Christ, and this begins with those who are charged with their formation.
To further clarify the rationale behind his decision, Bishop Vasa references his role as the “chief teacher” in the diocese and reminds all Catholic schoolteachers within his diocese that they are agents of the bishop. This statement is very important in the debate over who is responsible for overseeing the authentic proclamation of the Catholic faith within a diocese.
It is the obligation and inherent right of the Church, independent of any human authority, to preach the Gospel to all peoples, using for this purpose even its own means of social communication, for it is to the Church that Christ the Lord entrusted the deposit of faith, so that by the assistance of the Holy Spirit, it might conscientiously guard revealed truth, more intimately penetrate it, and faithfully proclaim and expound it. (Can. 747 §1)
Bishop Vasa in his requirement of Catholic schoolteachers is simply exercising his episcopal role and responsibility. Further, he acknowledges that the privilege of handing on the faith is not limited singularly to the bishop; it is found in the efforts of every disciple who is called by Christ to fully participate in the proclamation of the Gospel and the life of the Church — to evangelize and sanctify the temporal sphere.
The problems confronting Catholic youth are numerous, and they are further complicated by a lack of moral and spiritual formation. Too often young people are told or given the impression that faith is a private matter. They are told never to speak of God in public, or when any controversy might ensue, lest someone feel marginalized. To discuss faith is to impose it upon another. To counteract the corrosive influence of secular culture, however, we must help our youth to discover their true identity in Jesus Christ — the Way, the Truth and the Life. Properly understood, Catholic faith is not one of many aspects of life; rather, it gives form and meaning to our lives in a more complete sense.
One of the main themes of Benedict XVI’s pontificate was to call Catholics to recover their Catholic heritage, tradition and identity. We heard this oft-repeated call from the Holy Father again at the onset of the Year of Faith: “To rediscover the content of the faith that is professed, celebrated, lived and prayed, and to reflect on the act of faith, it is a task that every believer must make his own” (Porta Fidei, 9). He acknowledges that there is a crisis in how faith is known, lived and witnessed. Benedict realized better than most how a radical and militant secularism can only be countered with an authentic witness of the Gospel, holiness, and personal transformation through an encounter with Jesus Christ. “The Church must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance” (Inaugural Homily, April 24, 2005).
Like Benedict XVI, Bishop Vasa recognizes that the threats against human dignity have at their root a lack of faith, a lack of relationship with Jesus Christ. There are trends that negatively influence young people, directing them to adopt a more individualistic and narcissistic worldview, one in which faith is a private matter, if it is held at all. If we are going to effectively change these trends, then we must ensure the authentic formation of our youth and provide them with the essential tools they need to live their Catholic faith. We have a right to expect that teachers will be good examples of Christian virtue and that they will only teach sound doctrine, especially within our Catholic schools — and I would add our parish catechetical formation programs as well. For a genuine renewal and transformation to occur, the Church must once again understand her identity and mission. Once she understands her true identity and mission she can then become an effective instrument and witness within the modern world.
I applaud Bishop Vasa for his courage and willingness to lead his flock with pastoral care.