Who Can Teach RCIA?

Recently, a reader posed this question to me regarding who is qualified to teach RCIA classes, specifically regarding whether those who teach RCIA must themselves be in communion with the Church. The reader says, "I have a question about who can teach RCIA. Is it assumed that a teacher in the program is a practicing Catholic in communion with the Church? When would a divorced person who is not in communion with the Church, and is not receiving Communion themselves be qualified to teach? In my opinion this is extremely counterproductive."

I agree that this is certainly counterproductive and not at all an ideal situation! A person who themselves is not in communion with the Church is certainly not a fitting role model of faithful Catholicism! But let's try and break this down a bit and look at some of the particulars.

There are really two questions here that have to be examined

(1) Who is qualified to teach RCIA?
(2) What sorts of people are appropriate (or inappropriate) RCIA catechists?

Looking first as the question of qualifications, these are objectively laid down by the Church in the document Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (1987) by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, which is available online here from the Catholic Liturgical Library. The RCIA document divides the process of reception into the Church into four periods: Evangelization-Precatechumenate, Catechumenate, Purification-Enlightenment, and Mystagogy. As the latter two periods primarily concern themselves with spiritual preparation, prayer and reflection, it is primarily the first two of these periods in which teaching is emphasized. Several times in the RCIA document, the CDWDS mentions who the Church envisions to acting in the capacity of RCIA catechists.

For example, in the context of the Precatechumenate, the document says:

"During this period, catechists, deacons, and priests, as well as laypersons, are to give a suitable explanation of the Gospel to the candidates" (I.11).

That is pretty broad; it basically says anyone is an acceptable catechist, so long as they can "give a suitable explanation of the Gospel to the candidates."

Most catechetical formation during RCIA takes place during the second of the four periods, that of the Catechumenate proper. The purpose of the Catechumenate is to bring the dispositions of the candidates to maturity and round out their education in the fundamentals of Catholic dogma. Again, catechesis by basically anyone is permitted so long as it is "complete in its coverage" and leads the catechuments to a personal encounter with Jesus Christ

"A suitable catechesis provided by priests, deacons, or catechists and other laypersons, planned to be gradual and complete in its coverage, accommodated to the liturgical year, and enriched by celebrations of the word, leads the catechumens not only to an appropriate acquaintance with dogmas and precepts but also to personal knowledge of the mystery of salvation in which they desire to participate" (I.19.1)

Though the RCIA document places no restrictions on the sort of people who can teach, the pastor remains in control and has the final responsibility for the initiation of new Catholics and says they themselves are to be involved in the instruction. The document states:

"Priests, besides their usual ministry exercised in any celebration of baptism, confirmation, and the eucharist,  have the responsibility of attending to the pastoral and personal care of the catechumens, especially those who seem hesitant and weak. With the help of deacons and catechists, they are to provide instruction for the catechumens" (II.45)

Basically, this means that your catechetical instruction is only going to be as solid as the parish priest who oversees it. If your parish priest gives bad homilies and doesn't have a solid grasp on the Church's doctrines, it is not likely that he will place much value on that aspect of catechesis, and you are likely to get wishy-washy catechists. If, on the other hand, he places a high value on the formation of the intellect along with the spirit and appreciates orthodoxy, then the parish priest will scrutinize potential catechists, ensure their fidelity to the Church, and screen out potential catechists who don't fit this mold.

Thus, though anyone in theory can catechize, that doesn't mean everybody has a right to do so, and everything must be subject to the discretion of the pastor. When I taught RCIA, a certain parishioner approached me about helping out as a catechist. This parishioner was himself in the diocesan diaconate program, and he wanted to teach a class on the Sacrament of Anointing. I initially said it was alright, but when I ran it by my pastor, he strongly disapproved. This individual, he told me, had not had a good formation, was of a liberal bent, questioned certain fundamental Catholic doctrines, and was a little bit unstable. Being new to the parish, I would not have been able to know this, but the pastor did, and he consequently compelled me to retract my offer to let this person serve as a catechist - and with good reason! What he did not do was say, "he wants to teach? Isn't that nice! Obviously the fact that he is a Catholic in a diocesan program makes him a good teacher, and besides, every member of the faithful has a right to be a catechist!" No. He calmly and reasonably assessed the man's intellectual and moral capacity in light of Catholic teaching and declared him unfit to be a catechist. Every pastor has this responsibility.

Though you will not find it written anywhere in the RCIA instruction, it is simply taken for granted that the RCIA instructors and catechists are faithful, practicing Catholics in communion with the Church. Part of this is just common sense; similar to the question, "Do you have to believe in God to be a priest?" Duh. It is presumed, and even though it is not specifically stated in writing, we can infer this from several passages in the RCIA instruction:

"Catechists have an important office for the progress of the catechumens and for the growth of the community. As often as possible, they should have an active part in the rites. When they are teaching, they should see that their instruction is filled with the spirit of the Gospel..." (II.48)

It is presumed that if their instruction is "filled with the Spirit of the Gospel" that the catechist is at least trying to live his life in conformity with the Gospel; otherwise, how could the instruction be filled with the Spirit of the Gospel? Or:

"The initiation of catechumens is a gradual process that takes place within the community of the faithful." (I.4)

If it is within the community of the faithful, it is presumed that those who are directing this process of initiation are in fact faithful themselves. Again, we could infer from above references to a "suitable explanation of the Gospel" that people who are not suitably living the Gospel themselves ought not to be attempting to give suitable explanations of it to others. When it comes down to it, the pastor has to make these judgment calls. A pastor who allows persons who dissent from the Church or who are not in communion with the Church to teach RCIA is simply irresponsible.

Which brings us to the question of the appropriateness of certain sorts of people for catechists. We may say that a person is not qualified to teach RCIA if they are a dissenter, heretic, excommunicate or more simply just ignorant of Catholic teaching or unbalanced in their own formation. Yet a person might be none of these things but still not be an appropriate catechist.

The question specifically references one who is divorced. Since no other information is provided, I presume the questioner means divorced and remarried and currently living in sin. A person who is divorced and living in sin, even if they profess to be a faithful Catholic, is absolutely not an appropriate choice for a catechist, as they necessarily scandalize the initiates by proclaiming one thing with their mouth and doing another - they must teach the Church's position that divorce and remarriage is sinful while doing it themselves. It is a Pharasaical scandal that ought to be avoided at all costs. Catechists who are living in unrepentant sin have no business being catechists whatsoever. None. Such a person cannot be in communion with the Church and as such has no business trying to assume a formal position of authority in bringing others into the communion that he himself lacks.

But we don't want to sound too Donatist, here. The inappropriateness of a divorced person teaching RCIA has to do with whether they are living in a state of sin, not whether or not they are divorced in the simple sense. It is not a sin to have been separated from your spouse. One of my RCIA teachers when I came into the Church was a man who had been divorced. He was much older, probably 63, and had been divorced thirty years earlier when he was still living a life of sin. Since then he had become a model Catholic, lived in continence, and by old age was the very model of sanctity. I had no qualms about him teaching RCIA. But there is a little bit of prudence required here; a 63 year old divorced man who had dedicated the last twenty years of his life to prayer and penance is one thing; a 30 year old man currently going through a divorce while simultaneously teaching RCIA would probably be a bit much.

In short, a person who does not have their personal life in order is not an appropriate RCIA catechist, even if they are sincere and faithful. Let them set their own house in order before they presume to teach others, always remembering the words of St. James, "Let not many become teachers, knowing they will incur a stricter judgment" (Jas. 3:1).


Click here for high quality, FREE RCIA Notes and Outlines!

Click here to contact us with questions or feedback!