For 2000 years the Faith has been passed down the generations within the family, through the parish church, and sometimes by the ethos of society. The deeper aspects of doctrine and theology were available to few. It was the emergence of universal education during the first half of the 20th century that provided the opportunity to teach doctrine widely.

The method used was centred on the ‘Penny Catechism’ of question and answer and it was very effective. But during this period the parish lost its central role in local life and the ethos of family life and society became secular. This resulted in many children receiving a religious education where their proficiency in doctrine was not matched by a living relationship with Christ.

Voices called for a fresh religious framework and, by the 1960s, teachers and clergy had developed the principles required for a: ‘New Catechetics’.

These ideas were developed in England before the 2nd Vatican Council. In 1963, while the Council was meeting, Fr. Francis Ripley gave a series of lectures in Liverpool. These, were published in his1965 book as; A Basic Guide to Religious Instruction.

It proposed to replace the traditional method with the kerygmatic approach aiming to move the Will. Teachers should not give a doctrinal statement and then explain it, but use scripture and stories to lead up to the doctrine. Old Testament stories should not be taught in isolation but shown to be a prefiguring of the New. The teacher had to bridge the gap between understanding Christianity and living it. Teaching should be Scriptural with the Church seen as Christ, not an organisation.

Fear and an attitude of detachment from life should be avoided. The object of each lesson must be to get the pupils to respond in some practical way. A good teacher begins from where the pupil is at, not from where he wants him to be, or where he ought to be, or where he thinks he is. Memory work would be less but not ruled-out ((FJR 12-23)). Knowledge was to be presented in a systematic way and there was no suggestion that doctrine should be omitted. The renewal was to help students absorb the Faith better.

So in 1965 the aims of the English Catechetical Movement were sound and clear. There was also a nucleus of dedicated teachers to put them into practice. The bishops, fresh from the Council, saw how the new suggested approach harmonised with the thinking of the Council. So they supported immediate implementation.

So why was there dissatisfaction, controversy and confusion? For the answer we need to recall how: ‘New Catechetics’ was introduced into England.


In early 1966 the bishops of England and Wales established a National Catechetical Centre at Corpus Christi College in London. Cardinal Heenan saw that a deeper knowledge of Scripture was central to the new approach so, instead of appointing the experienced priests and teachers who had pioneered the new ideas, he chose two academics in the field of Scripture to run the courses. They were without teaching experience in an ordinary school ((AH 372)).

These two academics, Hubert Richards and Peter De Rosa, had been lecturing at the Westminster Diocesan seminary. With their friend Charles Davies they had been at the centre of some disquiet ((AH 372)). But the bishops were trying to give greater freedom to young and adventurous thinkers while taking their basic doctrinal reliability for granted. The college was established in March 1966 with plans to open in September.

Richards and De Rosa gave nine lectures at a National Catechetical Study week held in Manchester during July ((HRPD)). These were in full accord with the Catechetical tradition in England and the teachings of Vatican II. No hint was given that the speakers, by accepting Markan priority, were planning a revolution in September. Cardinal Heenan, responsible for the college was not alerted to any danger in placing the renewal of Catechetics in their hands.

The Principal and his deputy considered Markan priority and its corollaries as the foundation for ‘renewal.’ For them, the Gospels were merely the thoughts of ‘creative’ theologians at the end of the first century, rather than being historical eyewitness accounts of the life and teaching of Christ.

“When the study syllabus was published, it provided ample evidence that the new college was not going to confine its activities to catechetical formation”. It had “an aura of an institute of speculative theology”. ((AH 372)). Doctrines disappeared or were demoted to subjects for discussion and doubt. The courses attracted priests and nuns rather than teachers.

Within months De Rosa and another member of staff had abandoned their vocations, and in the following years an alarming proportion of students were found to have left the priesthood or convent.

Faced with protests from all over the country, Cardinal Heenan, thought this was due to conservative minded people being resistant to change.

So he was slow to intervene and continued to run the college without the support of other bishops. But eventually he realised the true situation and intervened in 1971. Richards responded by leaving the priesthood.

Richards, in his letter of resignation, wrote that he intended to remain a Catholic, but regarded his vocation to be: “to make the results of theological scholarship available to teachers and students …” It should be noticed how different this was from the reason he had been appointed to run the college.

In 1965 the Cardinal had hoped the college ‘would train Catholic teachers to deliver the message of Vatican II to the schools’ ((AH 372)). But Dei Verbum was ignored and replaced with Markan priority. Not only this, but this destructive theory became entwined in the public mind with the renewal called for by the Council.

Richards found a post as a New Testament lecturer in a non-Catholic college ((CR 52-53)) and, following laicisation, married a former nun who had been a student at Corpus Christi. His wife later wrote a school textbook based on the teachings of her husband. It purported to teach Roman Catholicism, but Rome ordered the removal of its Imprimatur.

In 1974 De Rosa published a book of seventy-one short chapters based on ‘the latest scriptural research’. This book rejected the historical truth of the Gospels. He wrote: “They tell us not simply what Jesus said and did but what the Christian Community believed him to be”. In the last chapter, entitled, ‘The meal at Emmaus’, we read:

“This book will have been to some extent successful if the reader sees that this beautiful story is not a piece of history, but part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is an early Eucharistic story” ((PDR 260)).

It may be noticed how this differs from the words of Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu:

‘…let [professors of Sacred Scripture] set forth this literal, and especially theological, sense so soundly …that their students may in some sort share the experience of the disciples of Jesus Christ on the way to Emmaus who… exclaimed, “Was not our heart burning within us while he …opened to us the Scriptures?”’ (Luke 24: 32) ((DAS 56)).

It was an accurate modern example of weeds being sowed amongst wheat (Matt 13: 24-30).

Cardinal Wright, when Prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy, wrote: ‘…the wheat, the harvest of the Council, is rich and abundant, but some enemies, not all outside the Church, have sown cockle in the midst of the wheat’. ((JW 50)).

He quoted Cardinal Heenan’s public statement of May 1971 recognising the ‘many and grave errors’ in the new Catechetics while trusting that they would be corrected in time ((JW 50)). In the year he intervened at Corpus Christi, Heenan lamented in a letter to Cardinal Wright:

‘Some of our Catechists are teaching a theology of their own’, and ‘the great danger is that the faithful will be led to believe that there is no dogmatic theology left and that everything is a matter of free speculation’. ((AH 73)).

The book published by Ripley had not contained the slightest hint of Markan priority. It accepted the historicity of the Gospels and the traditional doctrines of the Church. The book received its Nihil Obstat from Leonard Johnson, whose scornful response to Markan priority is printed in [G 310].

The principles put forward were later encouraged by Pope Paul in Evangelii Nuntiandi of 1975 and by Pope John Paul II in Catechesi Tradendae of 1979 ((MJW 90 and 205)).

Markan priority, with its vague doctrinal ethos is not a true part of modern catechetics.

The traditional belief in the historicity of the Gospels is compatible with a Christ centred teaching. The realistic assessment of the capability of each child is common sense. An historical biblical foundation provides a firm basis for the doctrines being taught.


In 1968 Anthony Wilhelm wrote: ‘Christ Among Us’, which purported to explain the Catholic Faith. But Wilhelm had adopted Markan priority regarding the authors of the New Testament, so on page 66 we read:

‘They are not greatly concerned about when or where a thing happened, the details of what happened, the exact words Christ used, etc’.

Markans often explain how legends were used to convey religious ideas in pre-historic times, such as we find in the first books of the Bible.

This is not a problem, but they then proceed to treat the time of the New Testament as if it was pre-history. All historians accept that the life and events of the Middle- East and the Roman Empire, at the time of Christ, took place in well recorded historical times, not in pre-history.

Monsignor Wrenn, a Catechetical specialist, commented on Wilhelm’s statement:

‘This of course, is the viewpoint of those scholars who think the Gospels were all written late and composed using “legends” accumulated in the early Church’ ((MJW 128)).

Wrenn also pointed out how Wilhelm builds his ideas on:

‘a favourite notion of a certain type of modern Scripture scholar, even while it is quite plainly at variance with the entire Catholic tradition’ ((MJW 128)).

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith examined the book and ordered the removal of its Imprimatur ((MJW 124-125)). The author abandoned the priesthood.

It was Monsignor Wrenn who suggested to the Pope that a new Catechism was needed. The suggestion was accepted and he assisted Cardinals Schoenborn and Ratzinger to write: The Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Yet statements like the following are still being put forward as expressing Catholic teaching:

‘The important truth is that all the gospels issue from the apostolic community as the foundation documents of the Church, expressing the belief of the first generation of Christians, so normative for us all’.

Such statements do not appear in official Catholic documents. They are evasive and ambiguous substitutes for the unambiguous words of Dei Verbum ((DV)). Dei Verbum does not teach that the Gospels merely express, ‘the beliefs of the first generation’.

A group of Americans, led by Fr. Raymond E. Brown, set out to reconcile Catholic belief with the positions based on Markan priority. Brown’s ideas were based on the acceptance of Markan priority as ‘scientific fact’ so he spread Markan priority to even wider circles.

Brown was haunted by a fear of Catholic youth being captured by Fundamentalist sects. He believed a rich liturgy; a firm Catechesis and marvellous personal devotions would be of little avail if the study of the Bible was ignored. ((RB 44-47)). We can agree with him and agree that he was correct in stating that this should be based on modern methods (Not forgetting the guidance of the Church).

His difficulty was that he did his work at a time when scientific logic pointed to Markan Priority as the best theory available. This led him to adopt it as a basis for his research and writings.

Brown’s thinking was not in line with tradition, Rome and the Council, but he was respected for trying to do what he thought best for the church.

Brown became a member of the re-constituted, advisory Pontifical Biblical Commission, established in 1971. He acknowledged that his membership did not mean papal approval for his ideas ((RB 27)). The efforts of people like Brown were not wasted. Some of their insights have made, and will make, useful contributions to deepen biblical understanding.

To continue Johnson’s simile, provided in our article [G 310],

We need to make use of some of the embellishments made by Markans to the roof, while we build stronger walls.

For references see our article: [G 213].

[G 311] This version: 7th June 2015