The Catechism of the Catholic Church is the boldest challenge yet offered to the cultural relativism that currently threatens to erode the contents of Catholic faith. According to a widely prevalent view, religious truth consists in an ineffable encounter with the transcendent. This encounter may be expressed in symbols and metaphors, but it cannot be communicated by propositional language, since it utterly surpasses the reach of human concepts. All statements about revelation, moreover, are said to be so culturally conditioned that they cannot be transferred from one age or one cultural region to another. Every theological affirmation that comes to us from the past must be examined with suspicion because it was formulated in a situation differing markedly from our own. Each constituency must re-experience the revelation of God and find language and other symbolic forms appropriate to itself.
Mystical empiricism of this type inevitably devalues specific beliefs. It makes light of the efforts of previous generations to formulate the faith in creedal and dogmatic assertions. In this perspective the traditional view that a dogma is a divinely revealed truth is no longer taken seriously. The struggle to maintain doctrinal consensus in the universal Church is viewed as a threat to the creativity of local churches.
This sophisticated relativism, widespread though it may be among intellectuals, has had only limited impact on the mass of the Catholic faithful and is firmly rejected by the hierarchical leadership of the Church. Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who are the intellectual equals of any other religious thinkers of our day, have consistently opposed this trend. In their view divine revelation can be formulated, at least in part, in irrevocably and universally true creedal and dogmatic propositions. Recognizing the need to defend the doctrinal patrimony of the Church from present-day skepticism and relativism, many leaders of the Church became convinced that the time had come for a new universal catechism.
The last officially authorized catechism for the universal Church had been the Roman Catechism produced in 1566, just after the Council of Trent. The intention of Vatican I (1869–1870) to commission a brief catechism was never brought to a definitive vote, because the Council was interrupted by war and indefinitely prorogued. At Vatican II (1962–1965) some of the fathers, including Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, argued in favor of a compendium of all Catholic doctrine, but the Council contented itself with prescribing a “general catechetical directory,” which was duly issued in 1971.
The publication of De Nieuwe Katechismus by the Dutch bishops in 1966 raised serious questions. Some maintained that the best response to the ambiguities and omissions detected in that volume would be a new catechism for the universal Church, but many believed that the time was not ripe for such a project. The Holy See in 1968 therefore issued only a set of amendments to be incorporated into the Dutch catechism.
At the Synod of Bishops in 1974, dedicated to the theme of evangelization, the Polish language group, including Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, spoke in favor of a universal catechism, but the proposal was not accepted at that time. At the Synod of 1977, on “catechesis in our time,” a number of bishops proposed a catechism that would be normative for the universal Church, but there was no unanimity regarding the nature or desirability of such a work. The Synod therefore made no recommendation on the subject.
The call for a universal catechism received much greater support at the Extraordinary Synod of 1985. Celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the close of Vatican II, bishops from all over the world were summoned to consider the interpretation and impact of the Council. In their preparatory reports for this Synod, several of the episcopal conferences had already called for a universal catechism. At the Synod itself, the bishops noted a regrettable tendency to play off the pastoral against the doctrinal import of the Council and to overlook the continuity between the teaching of the Council and previous authoritative statements. In recommending a universal catechism, Cardinal Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston, directly challenged the thesis that the current need was for greater decentralization. He asserted:
I propose a Commission of Cardinals to prepare a draft of a Conciliar Catechism to be promulgated by the Holy Father after consulting the bishops of the world. In a shrinking world—a global village—national catechisms will not fill the current need for a clear articulation of the Church’s faith.
This proposal was then taken up by several other Synod fathers, including an archbishop from Burundi, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, the Archbishop of Dakar, and the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy, Silvio Oddi. After favorable reception in many of the language groups ( circuli minores ), the proposal found its way into the Final Report of the Synod, which declared:
There is a strong general desire that a catechism or compendium of all Catholic doctrine be drawn up, as regards both faith and morals, in order to serve as a point of reference for catechisms and compendiums prepared in different regions. The presentation of doctrine must be biblical and liturgical, offering sound doctrine while being at the same time adapted to the life of Christians today.
In his closing address of December 7, 1985, the pope indicated his satisfaction with this suggestion.
Not surprisingly, reformist theologians considered the project ill-advised. In an article published in the international review Concilium in 1989, Herbert Vorgrimler, a distinguished disciple of Karl Rahner, pointed out the tensions involved in the mandate. He particularly attacked the assumption
that there can be something like a fixed, unchangeable “deposit” of teaching of faith and morals which “in itself” has never been affected by history and may not be affected by transmission in the processes of inculturation. It is easy to see why this idea is very seductive, since it guarantees firm ground under the feet, in the heads, and in the mouths of preachers and teachers in any conceivable situation in which the Church may find itself. However, it is more problematic than is realized or admitted, because it conceives of this “deposit” on the model of Platonic ideas, and does not allow for essential features of Christianity such as the history of dogma and its understanding.
After raising a number of further questions about the desirability and possibility of the new catechism, Vorgrimler concluded: “If the work is started with a serious programme, . . . it is clear that it will not be completed either in this pontificate or in the next.”
Two years later Concilium followed up Vorgrimler’s article on the catechism with a whole volume, which echoed and even enlarged upon the previous criticisms. In their introduction to the volume the editors, Johann-Baptist Metz and Edward Schillebeeckx, expressed agreement with those who reject “the notion of a deposit of faith transcending history and culture and notionally precedent to all inculturation.” David Tracy, in his essay for this volume, wrote: “The hope for an adequate ‘world catechism’ seems, at best, illusory.” He predicted that the catechism would be an example of “unwelcome and unacknowledged Eurocentrism in a polycentric world church.” In another contribution Metz himself, echoing Vorgrimler’s complaints, warned against “official centralism as a defensive protection for unity” and against the illusion of a “fixed and unchangeable ‘deposit’ of doctrinal teaching” subsisting in some Platonic world of ideas.
Other contributors to the same volume objected that the catechism was unnecessary. According to Hermann Haring, the Decalogue, the Lord’s Prayer, the sacraments, and the creed are sufficient as binding elements safeguarding the common faith. “If these elements are interpreted on the basis of the experience of Jesus and applied to present-day experience, and if they are constantly being understood afresh, they are more than enough for unity and peace.” Still later in the volume another contributor, Emilio Alberich, warned that the universal catechism could be an obstacle to the successful inculturation of the faith. With some understatement he remarked that “experts and researchers in catechetics have not received the proposal of a universal catechism with much enthusiasm.”
Notwithstanding the opposition, preparations went ahead. On June 10, 1986, the Pope assigned the task to an international commission of twelve cardinals and archbishops, with Joseph Ratzinger as president. This committee was assisted by an editorial committee of seven bishops, one each from Spain, Italy, France, England, the United States, Chile, and Argentina, and by a Maronite priest working in Lebanon who was an expert on Eastern theology. Christoph Schonborn, O.P. (now Auxiliary Bishop of Vienna), was appointed editorial secretary.
the editorial committee, acting on instructions from the papal commission, drew up an outline that was reviewed by the commission in May 1987. With the collaboration of many theologians, an “advance draft” of the entire work was completed in December 1987 and was considered by the commission in May 1988. A second draft was prepared for discussion by the commission in February 1989. In November 1989 a “revised draft” or “provisional text” was sent out to all the bishops’ conferences in the world for comments and criticisms by the bishops. About 1,000 replies were sent in, containing some 24,000 suggested changes. While requesting many improvements, the great majority of the bishops were satisfied with the revised draft as the basis for a definitive text.
A number of theologians gained access to the provisional text of 1989 and voiced their criticisms, predictably negative. Nicholas Lash, writing for the London Tablet, recommended that the draft be rejected, even as a basis for discussion. He added that the Synod of Bishops, at a future meeting, should reconsider the advisability of the whole project. Richard McBrien, with great assurance, told the Philadelphia Inquirer: “The project should be abandoned.” Thomas J. Reese spoke for many progressive theologians when he wrote, in his introduction to a volume of essays on the provisional text:
In my opinion the document needs to be totally rewritten. It cannot be saved by amendments that only tinker with the text. If this were a draft submitted to an ecumenical council, it would deserve an overwhelming “non placet” from the bishops. It is questionable whether a universal catechism is needed at all and whether the papal commission can write one that fulfills the criteria of being faithful to Vatican II or useful for the Church.
Following the desires of the large majority of the bishops, the commission decided to rework the existing text, taking the criticisms into account. In the revision much greater attention was paid to the hierarchy of truths, so that the reader would never lose sight of the central mystery of faith—the triune God who calls us to communion with himself. The biblical citations were carefully reviewed by Scripture scholars to make sure that they were appropriate. It was decided to abandon any effort to describe specific non-Christians religions, such as Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Greater emphasis was placed on the positive relations between Christianity and Judaism and on ecumenical relations with other Christian churches and communities. A new section was introduced on states of life within the Church: hierarchy, laity, and consecrated life. Greater emphasis was placed on the vocation of all the baptized to holiness. In the revision of the treatise on Christian conduct, the commandments were more clearly presented as developments of the twofold precept of love of God and neighbor. The links between observance of the law and the practice of evangelical perfection were clarified. Greater attention was paid to the social doctrine of the Church. The epilogue on the Lord’s Prayer was expanded into a full-scale treatment of Christian prayer. Vast improvements were made in the style and presentation, so that the choppy first version was turned into a polished text that, for the most part, is pleasing to read.
The final text was approved by the commission and submitted to the Pope on February 14, 1992. The Pope gave his approval on June 25, 1992, and in an apostolic constitution of October 11, 1992, significantly entitled Fidei depositum, declared the Catechism to be “a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion and a sure norm for the teaching of the faith.”
Reflecting on the process by which the Catechism was produced, Cardinal Ratzinger has written:
It is still a sort of wonder to me that a readable, for the most part intrinsically unified, and, in my opinion, beautiful book arose out of such a complex editorial process. The constant growth of unanimity among such different minds as were represented in the editorial committee and in the commission was for me, and for all those who took part in the project, a magnificent experience in which we often believed that we felt a higher hand guiding us.
The published text, in many languages, has been a remarkable commercial success. A document initially directed to bishops (paragraph 12), and only through them to religious educators and others, the Catechism has proved to be exceedingly popular with lay readers. More than a million copies were sold in France; more than two million have been sold within the first few months in the United States. Some people are speaking of the “phenomenon” of the Catechism: it evidently responds to a deep hunger in the people of God for the bread of solid doctrine.
In spite of some opinions to the contrary, then, the Catechism does respond to a felt need. Although Paul VI could in some sense rightly say that Vatican II was the great catechism of our time, the Council did not organize its teaching in a systematic way. Besides, it left many important doctrines untreated. After the Council, therefore, questions were raised as to whether the teaching of previous popes and councils on these untouched issues were still in force. Had they been quietly abrogated by the Council’s silence?
The Catechism sets forth the whole body of Catholic teaching in an organic manner. It is a serene, comprehensive presentation of the authoritative teaching of Scripture and Catholic tradition, systematically distributed in four parts dealing respectively with the creed, the sacraments, Christian conduct, and prayer. These parts are broken down into familiar divisions: the twelve articles of the creed, the seven sacraments, the ten commandments, and the seven petitions of the Our Father. The Catechism as a whole is a magnificent panorama, breathtaking in its scope. Where else could one find between two covers a digest of the full teaching of the Church, down through the ages, about almost any conceivable point from the dogma of the Trinity to the morality of gambling? As a catechism should, the book concentrates on doctrine, set forth in a clear and orderly manner. Yet the presentation is free from the subtle and technical distinctions characteristic of scholasticism. Closely packed with information, it is unencumbered by professional jargon and therefore accessible to a wide public.
While preeminently concerned with truth, the book is no mere head trip. It speaks to the heart, eliciting prayer and devotion. Although the creed skips from the birth of Jesus to his passion and death, the Catechism inserts at this point a section on the mysteries of the life of Jesus, in which the inner mystery of his incarnate existence radiates with captivating power. Devotion to Mary, which permeates the entire Catechism, is treated most explicitly in the article on the communion of saints. Many other doctrinal sections, such as the presentation of the symbols of the Holy Spirit, invite the reader to meditation. The authors have drawn liberally onliturgical texts and have incorporated moving passages from the ancient fathers and medieval and modern saints and mystics. In these selections, care has been taken to draw from Eastern as well as Western sources, and the voices of women as well as men are heard.
An unexpected bonus is the aesthetic quality of the book, which as a whole is admirably proportioned, so it rises like a vast basilica over the ground it covers. It maintains a clear focus: the mystery of the eternal Father who blesses the world by sending the Son and the Holy Spirit. Each of the four major parts is introduced by a color-plated reproduction of an ancient fresco, sculpture, or miniature. The text dwells on the capacity of beauty to evoke the sense of the divine. Following the Book of Wisdom, it remarks on the beauty of the world as evidence that the Creator is supremely beautiful:
Even before revealing himself to man in words of truth, God reveals himself to him through the universal language of creation, the work of his Word, of his wisdom: the order and harmony of the cosmos—which both the child and the scientist discover—“from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator,” “for the author of beauty created them.” (2500)
The Catechism quotes St. Augustine:
Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky . . . question all these realities. All respond: “See, we are beautiful.” Their beauty is a profession [ confessio ]. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One [ Pulcher ] who is not subject to change? (32)
In keeping with this approach, the Catechism calls attention to the beauty and love visible in Christ, who “reflects the glory of God” (2501, quoting Hebrews 1:3). Great importance is attached to the symbolism in the mysteries of the life of Jesus and to the symbolic forms under which the Holy Spirit has been made known to us. In expounding the ingredients of sacramental worship, the Catechism brings out the communicative power of signs and symbols taken from nature, from human culture, and from sacred history, including especially the actions and career of Jesus. The symbolism of baptism, for instance, is powerfully conveyed by the following passage from St. Gregory of Nazianzus:
Baptism is God’s most beautiful and magnificent gift. . . . It is called gift because it is conferred on those who bring nothing of their own; grace since it is given even to the guilty; Baptism because sin is buried in the water; anointing for it is priestly and royal as are those who are anointed; enlightenment because it radiates light; clothing since it veils our shame; bath because it washes; and seal as it is our guard and the sign of God’s Lordship. (1216)
In the treatment of liturgical song, the Catechism quotes an eloquent passage from Augustine on the tears of devotion with which as a neophyte he heard the hymnody in the Catholic Church (1157). St. John Damascene is invoked as a witness to the way in which the beauty of holy images can assist Christian prayer and contemplation (1162). The treatment of the eighth commandment (“You shall not bear false witness”), after dealing at some length with truth in communications, ends rather surprisingly but gratifyingly with a plea for the promotion of sacred art in the Church (2502–3).
Readers of the Catechism are introduced to God not only as the source of all beauty but as the absolute and immutable reality from whom all truth and goodness flow forth. Truth, we are reminded, is beautiful in itself; it carries with it the joy and splendor of spiritual beauty (2500). As sovereign truth, God alone fully satisfies the mind’s quest for explanation and meaning. Being truth itself, God cannot deceive. In giving us intelligence and a capacity for truth, he orders us to himself. The added light of revelation, far from impeding the human quest for understanding, assists the mind to escape from its own darkness.
Goodness, which ranks with beauty and truth as the third transcendental, is the attractiveness and beneficence of being. As the fullness of being, God is supremely lovable and supremely loving. Creation is attributed to the generosity of divine love, which wills to share its own goodness. Human beings are primary recipients of God’s blessings. Fashioned in the image and likeness of God, they are called to participate forever in the divine life. On this point the Catechism recalls the words of St. Catherine of Siena:
What made you establish man in so great a dignity? With unimaginable love you have looked upon your creatures within yourself! You have fallen in love with them; for by love you created them, and by love you have given them a being capable of tasting your eternal Goodness. (356)
From this vision of reality it follows that the supreme calling of every human being is to love God in return and to live according to the law of love. All the commandments of God and of the Church are traced back to the twofold precept of love, which Jesus himself quoted from the Jewish Torah. The core of Christian morality is the new law of the gospel, infused into human hearts by the Holy Spirit. Christ is in his own person the way of perfection (1952). The beatitudes, which stand at the beginning of this section of the Catechism, are said to “depict the countenance of Jesus Christ and portray his charity” (1717). They point forward to the blessedness so aptly described by Augustine: “There we shall rest and see, we shall see and love, we shall love and praise. Behold what will be at the end without end. For what other end do we have, if not to reach the kingdom which has no end?” (1720)
A remarkable feature of the Catechism is the extent to which the treatment of the Church, the sacraments, morality, and prayer are permeated by references to Christ and the Holy Spirit. The entire Christian life is presented as a response to the gift and call of God—a response made possible by faith and the sacraments. The commandments do not appear as external impositions but as consequences that flow connaturally from membership in the people of the New Covenant (2062). In the New Covenant, “prayer is Christian insofar as it is communion with Christ and extends throughout the Church, which is his Body” (2565). The Lord’s Prayer is characterized, in Tertullian’s admirable phrase, as “the summary of the whole gospel” (2761).
In giving these brief glimpses into the new Catechism I hope to have shown that it is not at all the kind of work that would be expected to spring from the heads of arid bureaucrats, anxious to defend their own authority. The authors have faithfully carried out their mandate to produce a work that would be biblical and liturgical in tone rather than legalistic or scholastic. As Ratzinger rightly claims, the Catechism is not ecclesiocentric; it is centered on God, who freely and lovingly turns to us by sending us his Son to be our brother and his Holy Spirit to dwell in our hearts. Having this focus, it manifests and evokes heartfelt praise, which at times rises almost to the pitch of ecstasy. It is a book to be read in small sections and savored in a leisurely way.
In referring to the “challenge” of the Catechism, as I do in my title, I do not mean to suggest that it is a contentious piece of work. On the contrary, it is calm and irenic. In gathering up the doctrinal patrimony of Catholic Christianity the Catechism does not add to the burden of belief; it leaves the individual doctrines with the same authority they had before the Catechism was written. The Catechism refrains from polemics; it does not refute or condemn adversaries, nor is it defensive in tone. It contains only a few apologetical sections, and these, printed in small type, are evidently intended to help the reader understand the Church’s positions rather than to convince the unbeliever.
For all that, the Catechism does issue some real challenges. By confidently setting forth what the Church has taught down through the centuries, the Catechism by implication takes on modern scholars who have criticized the inherited patrimony on the basis of new methodologies in exegesis, historical research, and epistemology. The challenges may be seen as directed against four very popular tendencies: positivist exegesis, historicist dogmatics, revisionist speculation, and experience-based catechetics. The challenges, of course, are mutual, since the Catechism is challenged by those it challenges.
With regard to exegesis, there are those who would have liked the Catechism to analyze the biblical texts in their own context, without reference to the doctrinal tradition. But the Catechism takes a different path. Following Vatican II, it affirms that Scripture should be read as an inspired document, in the framework of the Church’s faith. The effort to read Scripture by a positivistic use of historical-critical tools, while it may be useful up to a point, can lead to impasses, such as the dichotomy between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.
This doctrinal approach is not rejected by all biblical experts. A distinguished Old Testament scholar, Joseph Jensen, O.S.B., concedes that the Catechism’s approach might strike some readers, accustomed to the historical-critical method, as uncritical. But he rejects the charge on several grounds. The Catechism is entitled to speak from the perspective of Christian faith, which it intends to affirm. Its emphasis on the typological meanings of the Old Testament, moreover, accords well with the use of the Old Testament in the new. Furthermore, modern developments in hermeneutics suggest that the Catechism is on target. A classic text, even one that is not divinely inspired, contains depths of meaning that escape the original author and appear only in the light of later reflection.
A New Testament scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson, is equally affirming. After remarking that the Catechism almost totally bypasses critical biblical scholarship, he registers no regrets, “for truth to tell, the contributions of critical biblical scholarship either to real history or to authentic theology have not up to now been particularly impressive and have certainly not had the character of transmitting faith to succeeding generations.”
The Catechism does not deny, but on the contrary affirms, the value of textual and historical criticism. Its authors were quite aware that the literal meaning of many key texts from Scripture is debated among exegetes of different schools. Since the Church generally refrains from taking official positions on matters of technical exegesis, such as dating, authorship, and literary dependence, the Catechism leaves scholars free to take their own positions. Biblical experts were nevertheless consulted to make sure that the assertions are not based on faulty readings or indefensible interpretations.
The Catechism makes no claim that the biblical texts it cites are proofs of the Church’s doctrine. Rather, they are seen as indications pointing toward what the Church, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, has come to see in the course of centuries. Often enough the biblical grounding consists in the convergence of many texts, no one of which is decisive in itself.
Professional historians of dogma have a concern similar to that of technical exegetes. Some of them are unhappy that the Catechism, while quoting from ancient documents, has failed to indicate the context in which these pronouncements were made. But a catechism, by its very nature, must expound Church teaching in a systematic, rather than a historical, order. In so doing, it brings together statements that have been made in different situations and different periods of history. Occasionally, where the stages of development are especially important, the Catechism supplies concise historical expositions in small type. But this historical information echism, which is to set forth the resultant doctrines rather than to trace the process of their formation. The Catechism does not purport to do the work of a course in historical theology.
By gathering up statements from different ages, the Catechism implicitly teaches that the truths of Christian faith are not time-bound. The questions addressed by past popes and councils are still with us: Does God involve himself in human history? Is Jesus the eternal Son of the eternal Father? Did he rise in body from the dead? Generally speaking, the answers given to these and other questions in the creeds and dogmas of the Church are still intelligible to us—more so, frequently, than the speculations of contemporary theologians, who insist on the necessity of novel formulations.
While its teaching can be differently expressed in different ages, the Church cannot disavow its apostolic foundations and its own doctrinal commitments. The revelation, permanently given in Christ, has been authoritatively mediated by Scripture and tradition. The concept of a “deposit of faith,” so irksome to the progressivist mentality, is authentically biblical and Christian. Christianity would dissolve itself if it allowed its revealed content, handed down in tradition, to be replaced by contemporary theories.
Some systematic theologians, reviewing the Catechism, have expressed their disappointment that it does not endorse speculative positions that they personally espouse. Here again, the question to be asked is whether these positions belong in a catechism. Do they represent the received doctrine of the Church? As Schonborn remarks with reference to the descent of Christ into hell, “New interpretations, such as that of a Hans Urs von Balthasar (the contemplation of Holy Saturday), however profound and helpful they may be, have not yet experienced that reception which would justify their inclusion in the Catechism.”
The doctrine of original sin caused particular difficulty, and was studied at length by a special commission. In the past fifty years numerous theologians have proposed ways of updating the traditional teaching, which relied heavily on contestable interpretations of the creation narratives in Genesis and of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Like many modern theologians the Catechism interprets original sin in a Christological framework as the “reverse side” of redemption (389), but, unlike some, it adheres for the most part to the Augustinian positions that have long been dominant in the West and that were reaffirmed by Paul VI in a speech of 1966. As Schonborn says in this connection, “It cannot be the task of the Catechism to represent novel theories which do not belong to the assured patrimony of the faith.” A close reading of the Catechism shows that the authors were aware of the figurative language of the biblical accounts and do not impose a literalist understanding of the Genesis stories about Adam and Eve. It remains the task of religious educators and theologians to show how certain traditional formulations, repeated in the Catechism, may be subject to reinterpretation in the light of modern science and exegesis.
Religious educators, in assessing the Catechism, articulate two major concerns. First, some of them feel that a universal catechism by its very nature inhibits the freedom of local churches to adapt the presentation of the faith to the needs of their own region. Conscious of this objection, the authors of the Catechism explicitly declare that the methods and presentation of doctrine must be adjusted according to the “culture, age, spiritual maturity, and social and ecclesial condition” of different audiences. This adaptation is to be made by particular catechisms and teachers of religion, using the present catechism only as a point of reference (24). In promulgating the Catechism, John Paul II cautioned that it was not intended to replace approved local catechisms, “which take into account various situations and cultures, while carefully preserving the unity of faith and fidelity to Catholic doctrine.” Cardinal Ratzinger was even more specific:
Making the content of catechesis more intelligible, while respecting the organic and hierarchical character of Christian truths; deepening and broadening the themes only sketched; expressing them in a language more fitted to the times and more close to the integral richness of the faith; proclaiming the assertions of faith in a way that is more faithful and more attentive to the exigencies, the expectations, and the problematics of those being addressed: these are only some of the tasks that await those who undertake the work of catechetical proclamation, in their indispensable work of inculturating the faith in general and the Catechism of the Catholic Church in particular.
Faithful adherence to Catholic doctrine has always been a high priority, but is especially urgent in our day, when ideas that originate in any locality travel with the speed of light across the face of the globe. The bishops at the synod of 1985, though they came from all parts of the world, did not clamor for greater regional autonomy. On the contrary, they regarded a unified compendium of Catholic doctrine as a necessary help for maintaining the unity of the Church’s faith in the “global village,” which the world is now becoming.
The second point raised by many religious educators is that experience, rather than established doctrine, should provide the starting point. The commission responsible for the Catechism carefully considered the possibility of beginning with a description of contemporary human experience, but it eventually decided that this point of departure would be too arbitrary, depending on the angle of vision selected. Contemporary experience, they concluded, is too various and ephemeral to offer a solid platform that would apply today and tomorrow, in New York and Madagascar, Bangladesh and Moscow. The decision was accordingly made to keep the focus on the Church’s patrimony of faith. Nevertheless the Catechism does begin inductively with a description of how the search for God arises out of common human experience. The method is not a pure deductive intellectualism.
Nothing in the Catechism prevents the religious educator from seeking points of insertion for Christian doctrine in the actual experience of men and women today. But the Catechism constitutes a challenge to any method that would reduce faith to personal experience. No analysis of contemporary experience can by itself disclose the contents of Christian faith, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection, which are known only from revelation. Cardinal Ratzinger rightly finds fault with a kind of “theological empiricism” in which present-day experience is allowed to block the dynamism of the original sources. Speaking of certain European catechetical programs, he remarks that they emphasize experience and method to the detriment of faith and content. Such instruction, he observes, has proved itself incapable of arousing interest. The word of God must be allowed to shine forth again as a power of salvation. The truths of revelation must be presented in their organic unity, apart from which they can seem meaningless.
A prominent American religious educator, Francis D. Kelly, speaks in similar terms. He characterizes the new Catechism as “a clarion call for catechesis to refocus clearly on the objective mystery of faith, on its doctrinal, moral, and ascetical content, as the most solid and fruitful foundation for building the faith community.” Catechists, he goes on to say, “need to recapture this sense of mission and confidence if they are going to be effective in our culture.”
The Christian faith does not need to be made interesting by sophisticated pedagogical techniques. If allowed to present itself in all its splendor and depth, it seizes the hearts of all who have ears to listen. Although the Catechism of the Catholic Church is not a perfect book, the symphony of faith does echo through its pages. To be carried away by that symphony we have only to drop our resistances, allow the book to deliver its message, and let it change our points of view.
The Catechism should not be seen as a burden or a fetter. It does not purport to give the final, definitive word on all the questions it treats. Indeed, it explicitly encourages exegetes, theologians, and religious educators to go beyond it in exercising the skills of their respective disciplines. But it reminds them to take cognizance of the great heritage that the Church transmits to us. As a reliable compendium of Catholic doctrine, the Catechism brings together the wisdom of the centuries in an appealing synthesis. By virtue of its consistency, beauty, and spiritual power, it offers a veritable feast of faith.
Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair at Fordham University and is author, most recently, of The Assurance of Things Hoped For: A Theology of Christian Faith (Oxford University Press).