Whoever teaches must become “all things to all men” (1 Cor 9:22), to win everyone to Christ.... Above all, teachers must not imagine that a single kind of soul has been entrusted to them, and that consequently it is lawful to teach and form equally all the faithful in true piety with one and the same method! Let them realize that some are in Christ as newborn babes, others as adolescents, and still others as adults in full command of their powers.... Those who are called to the ministry of preaching must suit their words to the maturity and understanding of their hearers, as they hand on the teaching of the mysteries of faith and the rules of moral conduct.18
This is an intriguing juxta positioning of two different instructions separated by about five centuries. The first paragraph is a new composition for the modern day catechism, and it does give evidence of historical reflection on the Church’s more recent experiences with catechetics, notably in mission territories and in probably even what we would call modern states. Para. 24a acknowledges the varieties of influences that come into play in the presentation of the Church’s Tradition. Those cited here include culture, age, spiritual maturity, and social and ecclesial conditions of the learners.
I have to think that the hand of Vatican II is evident here. In the first instance, there is a rather intriguing mention of “ecclesial conditions.” Unfortunately para. 24a has no footnote; it would be interesting to see if “ecclesial conditions” has a direct antecedent to one or more particular Council documents in the minds of the editors. I am assuming that this wording can trace a pedigree to the Council’s thinking on the very word “ecclesial.” If you recall the debate on Religious Liberty in 1964, a vocal opposition led an energetic effort against the use of the word “church” in any context except the Roman Catholic Church. The post-Council Church has recognized a brotherhood of faith, baptism, and grace in all churches who worship a Trinitarian God, and a respect of religious expression for all those who worship in goodwill.
I have my own history of catechetics in sensitive ecclesial settings. In 1970 and 1971 I was assigned to the Franciscan parish in Anderson, South Carolina, a city with two white parishes and our own African-American community. My assignment was coordination of bible study weeks for our kids. Our friary was in the heart of the black community, and the kids always knocked at the back door looking for the young friars to join them in school yard basketball. At other times they would bring their non-Catholic friends around just to look in our windows. This was never really a problem except when the neighboring friars would join us in the late afternoon for “pastoral meetings” and supper. At my first “pastoral meeting” one of the old veterans reminded me to keep the bottles of “holy water” out of sight of the kids. Of course in Baptist country we could never put the bottles out in the trash…and there were always a few. My job was to drive them surreptitiously to a dump over the Georgia line.
It was an intriguing setting because despite our Catholic identity, the culture was evangelical Baptist for black and white. Even in the benign setting of Bible school, we had at least a dim understanding that black Catholic youngsters lived and went to school with their peers from other churches. Just a cursory reading of the Civil Rights Movement in the South gives a good picture of the power of the Black Baptist Churches; I think we instinctively tried to conduct a teaching ministry that would not isolate Catholic children from the support of their larger ecclesial/cultural setting. My pastor/supervisor there in those years treaded a very fine line between proselytizing and cooperating; the fruits of this strategy bore fruit when the KKK became locally active in my second summer due to the integration of the schools in Anderson, and the white Franciscan pastor joined the coalition of black ministers working with the FBI. In the midst of this tension, there was an explosion in the middle of the night in our friary. We had our neighbor friars staying overnight, and we rushed to the bedroom where the catastrophe had taken place. My pastor stopped at the door, and yelled, “Marty, are you alive?” To which a muffled voice replied, “I think I need to think about this for a minute.” We went in, and discovered that the screws to his cot had never been bolted; when Marty hit the mattress the bed folded up and tipped over with him flailing away inside. It was James Thurber’s The Night The Bed Fell in spades and certainly scared off any Klansmen on the property.
Whether our Anderson adventures were precisely what the editors of the Catechism had in mind is hard to say, though the final line of para. 24a seems to bless the efforts of those on the front lines who are urged to make the “indispensable adaptations” to the catechetical ministry.
Para. 24b is a direct quote from the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, published in 1566. This earlier catechism has significant influence upon today’s text, starting with the outline and organization. The 1556 text was written specifically for parish priests, who were the main catechists of the time. What struck me here is an enlightened view of what we would refer to as “human development.” Para. 24b contains rather strong language against those whose catechetical style assumes “one size fits all.” Moreover, the tenor of 24b is highly personal in its nature: the text calls for the priest or catechist to assess the spiritual and intellectual development of each student in the manner of instruction. Thus, the references to newborn babes, adolescents, and adults capable of full decision making.
This wisdom of five centuries ago has much to commend itself today. For a variety of reasons (which would make an intriguing doctoral dissertation) religious education and formation has regressed from Trent’s day to the Henry Ford assembly line model of standardized texts and (worse) sacramental initiation timetables that owe their underlying concept to publishing houses and the convenience of parish management. The personalism of paragraph 24 in its entirety should raise philosophical questions about catechetics. Indeed, this text calls out for greater reading and discussion. I only regret that the editors had not been more specific in bridging para. 24 to the broader corpus of Church theology and practice.