The church: a school of wisdom?


The distinguished Catholic theologian Nicholas Lash, who died in July, believed that the church should recover a sense of Catholic Christianity as a lifelong educational project.

In an essay published in 2008, Nicholas Lash argued that the church should become a school of wisdom in which we ‘endlessly learn to know God better’1.  Such a move would require a complete transformation of the church’s self-understanding, imagination and resources, he believed, and would have a significant impact on its almost exclusive emphasis on Catholic schools.

Professor Lash drew on the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, who described wisdom as the virtue of sound judgement, which is exercised in two different ways.  The first is the instinctive, almost intuitive understanding of the wise person, which we all recognise.  This is the wisdom of the virtuous, the gift of God’s Spirit, which has nothing to do with erudition or learning.  The second is the kind of sound judgement which is the fruit of reasoning, reflection and study.  Wisdom in this second sense is dependent on the first, as ‘all our labours serve to catch a glimmer of that eternal wisdom whose self-gift, in Word and Spirit gives us the possibility of wise or faithful thinking in the first place’.

In calling the church to become a school of wisdom, Lash is recalling the way in which ancient traditions like Judaism and Christianity integrated devotion and reflection, worship and enquiry, and understood themselves as schools. Their teaching aimed to wean their followers from idolatry (setting their hearts on something less than God) and purify their desire.  

Newman described wisdom as ‘the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of the whole… work of God’.  Faith, in contrast, feels its way ‘as if guessing and reaching forward to the truth’.  If Christianity is a school of wisdom, Lash argues, in which we are all pupils (‘disciples’), wisdom is its promised end.  Hence the necessary note of pilgrimage and enquiry, of faith seeking understanding.  

To help the church recover and sustain this understanding of itself, he suggests there are four questions it needs to consider: 

How well, and in what manner are adult Catholics taught to pray?  

How well, and in what manner are they taught to read the Scriptures?  

How well and in what way are they equipped with a grasp of church history and doctrine commensurate with their general knowledge and grasp of public affairs? 

To what extent, and in what manner, do we succeed in communicating the conviction that Catholic faith, for every Catholic, and in every context, is faith seeking understanding?


He identifies obstacles which stand in the way of such an approach. The first, he suggests, is the endemic individualism of today’s world which makes it difficult to recover the primacy of relationship – between one another, and between creatures and the mystery of God.  

The second obstacle he calls ‘the forgetfulness of memory’.  In our globalised world, in which we understand how violence and environmental destruction in one part of the world impact on us all, we have come to believe that potential solutions are to be sought in the future rather than the past.  He contrasts this with the Second Vatican Council’s insight that it is only through renewed remembrance of the richness of its history (‘ressourcement’), that the church can be brought into fresh relationship with the forces shaping the world in which it lives (‘aggiornamento’).  Without remembrance, he says, ‘we know not who we are, can make no plans, and have no hope.  The retrieval of memory may be our urgent Catholic duty, but it is a duty we perform on behalf of everyone’.  

The third obstacle he calls ‘the strangeness of virtue’.  In today’s culture, decisions about the actions we take are decided on the basis of their likely consequences – hence the bombing of Baghdad, the erosion of human rights, the widespread killing of the unborn.  If, as in the Judeo-Christian tradition, certain things are forbidden, whatever the consequences, how do we discover what they are?  We turn to rules – the law of the land, the ‘law of God’ or ‘the church’s teaching’.  But while rules have their place, they cannot educate people to become mature and responsible moral agents, ‘equipped with the practical wisdom enabling them, often in appallingly difficult circumstances, to act appropriately, justly, kindly’.   We need a school of lifelong adult education in the virtues – those habits which help us make good choices.

How does the church teach?

Where Christianity is concerned, all of us, throughout our lives, are first and foremost pupils of one teacher, who is Christ.  If Catholic Christianity is a kind of school, Professor Lash suggests, the phrase ‘the church’s teaching’ should refer to the lifelong pedagogy in the knowledge and love of God which is the church’s raison d’être.

He argues that the gravest internal obstacle which prevents us from rediscovering the educational character of Christianity is the extent to which we have come to misconceive teaching as a form of governance.  While every educational process involves instruction, he says, a good teacher does not look primarily for obedience, but for ‘something understood’.  Yet within the church a language has grown up which reduces teaching to instructions and commands from Rome.  Only two reactions are deemed possible: fidelity (ie obedience) or dissent, disobedience.  

We are a people charged with seeking some understanding of how the Gospel is to be expressed and realised in the changing cultural, scientific, economic and political context of our time.  What we need is not less debate, he suggests, but more well informed and serious argument, conducted with respect and courtesy.

A school of prayer

The school of wisdom that is Christianity, is, at its heart a school of prayer.  Its engine room is the celebration of the liturgy in its ‘silence, speech and song’.  

Without some stillness, Lash says, we are rendered deaf to ourselves, to each other, and to the mystery of God.  He suggests that we need to find imaginative ways to make space in the liturgy for silence.

He observes that in listening to the readings at Mass, there is seldom a sense that the reader believes Jesus is as truly present in the proclamation of the word as he is in the consecrated bread and wine.  Yet Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy tell us that ‘He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the Church’ (n.7).

On the topic of the homily, he points out that the Council’s Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, declares that the preaching of the Gospel occupies the chief place among the duties of a bishop.  It surely follows, Professor Lash argues, that the quality of preaching should occupy a very high place in bishops’ concerns.  He finds little evidence that this is the case.

Music plays an important part in sustaining our prayer and reflection.  Despite the good work that is being done, he believes that ‘too many hymns are doctrinally illiterate, poor poetry and set to third rate tunes’.

Will the church have the imagination, courage and dedication necessary to enable the lifelong adult education of every Catholic to be at least as high a priority as the provision of primary and secondary schools?  It is only by taking questions about lifelong teaching in prayer, scripture, church history and doctrine seriously, he suggests, and communicating a faith which seeks understanding, that we can hope to become a church capable of bearing effective witness to the Gospel in our day.

Nicholas Lash died on 11th July aged 86.  He was Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge for many years, and the author of numerous books and contributions to theological journals.

Dr Mary Cullen is editor of Open House.

[1] Nicholas Lash, ‘The Church – A School of Wisdom?’ Receptive Ecumenism and a Call to Catholic Learning, edited by Paul Murray, Oxford University Press, 2008



Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.